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Psychology of Egyptian uprising

It is widely recognized that politicized youth & specifically youth of the educated middle classes, were at the heart of the 2011 Arab uprisings. The mass protests united diverse parts of the population in their calls for political change. Yet, in most cases, the protests were initiated by youth movements that had been contesting the political developments of their “upgraded” authoritarian regimes for quite some time. Many observers have stressed the importance of political legitimacy – or rather the absence thereof – for the emergence of these protest movements. Indeed, the term legitimacy (shar’iyya) has become a central political slogan since the uprisings.

Political protests constitute a major concern to authoritarian regimes. Existing research has argued that they indicate a lack of regime legitimacy. However, empirical evidence on the relationship between legitimacy & protest participation remains rare. Based on new survey data from Morocco & Egypt, this study has investigated whether legitimacy played a significant role in student mobilization during the 2011 uprisings. In doing so, we first develop a context-sensitive concept of legitimacy. This allows us to differentiate the ruler’s legitimacy claims & the citizens’ legitimacy beliefs. Furthermore, we distinguish between two different objects of legitimacy: the broader political community & specific regime institutions. Our empirical analysis suggests that legitimacy had an independent & significant impact on students’ protest participation, yet in more nuanced ways than generally assumed. While protest participation was driven by nationalist sentiments in Egypt, it was motivated by dissatisfaction with the political performance of specific regime institutions in Morocco.

The empirical analysis demonstrates that legitimacy did – ceteris paribus – play a significant role. Yet, the relationship is more complex than often assumed. The results show that we need to be more case-sensitive when studying the legitimacy of political regimes. What matters is not only that the rulers’ legitimacy claims are congruent with citizens’ beliefs in these claims; but also that citizens judge these claims as being fulfilled. Therefore, any study of regime legitimacy must detail the respective claims against which citizens measure their regime. It needs to specify the basis on which incumbents claim their entitlement to rule, that is, the source of their legitimacy claim. Furthermore, it has proven useful in the analysis to distinguish between claims made with regards to the different objects of legitimacy: the more diffuse “we-feeling” of the political community on the one hand & the more concrete political authorities & institutions on the other hand. Doing so, we could show that the respective “crises” of regime legitimacy can occur on distinct dimensions, thus requiring quite different political answers.

Besides the methodological implications of this study, the empirical findings shed new light on what made students participate in the 2011 uprisings in Egypt. One of the key motivators was lacking regime legitimacy. The perceived illegitimacy arose from the mismatch between the officially proclaimed nationalist goals, which mirror the foundations of the political community & their fulfilment in practice.

Kressen Thyen & Johannes Gerschewski (2018) Legitimacy and protest under authoritarianism: explaining student mobilization in Egypt and Morocco during the Arab uprisings. Democratization, 25:1, 38-57

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