Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

A number of academics, commentators and activists have noted the presence of what one might call “horizontalism” in the Egyptian revolutionary process that started on January 25, 2011: the decentralized or networked form of organizing; the leaderless protest movements; the eschewal of top-down command; the deliberative, rather than representative, democracy; the emphasis on participation, creativity and consensus; the opposition to dogma and sectarianism, often associated with older generations; and new links, respectful of diversity and often youth-inspired, between formerly sharply opposed political currents.

The astonishing coordination amid spontaneity that characterized the occupation of Tahrir Square in the weeks before February 11, 2011 seemed not only to exhibit the qualities and ideals of horizontalism, but also to confirm its capacity to effect change — in this case, to topple a deeply entrenched and well-fortified dictator of three decades. Coming as they did in the wake of the post-2008 financial crisis, the tactics of Tahrir’s occupation spread to Lisbon to Wisconsin to Madrid to New York, London and beyond, underlining the far-flung significance of the Egyptian groundswell and, in some measure, its horizontalism.

While the battle on the streets of Egypt continues, does this horizontalism represent a new horizon of politics, a “revolution on the form of revolution itself,” as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt and their intellectual counterparts in Egypt declare? Or is horizontalism a will-o’-the-wisp, a fad of wealthy, youthful Facebook liberals, a distraction from power politics and social problems, doomed to be dashed on the rocks of realpolitik? Does modern politics still need its prince? Or is the true message of Tahrir that politics be remade in a new frame, without leaders and followers?

The Rhizome

The idea of “horizontalism” came to prominence amid the social movements that burst forth in late 2001 following Argentina’s economic collapse at the hands of neoliberalism. A certain Neka, who participated in an unemployed workers’ movement near Buenos Aires, described horizontalidad as follows:

We began learning together. It was a sort of waking up to a collective knowledge, and this had to do with a self-awareness of what was taking place in each of us. First we began asking questions of ourselves and of each other, and from there we began to resolve things together. Every day we keep discovering and constructing while we walk. It’s like each day there’s a horizon that opens before us, and this horizon doesn’t have any recipe or program. We begin here, without what’s in the past. What we had was our life each day — our difficulties, problems and crises — and what we had in our hands at the time was what we used to go looking for solutions. The beginning of the practice of horizontalidad can be seen as a part of this process…. [S]trength is different when we are side by side, when there is no one telling you what you have to do, and when we’re the ones who…decide who we are. [1]

In this rendering, horizontalism involves a distinctive break with the basic idea of having a blueprint for social action — whether a program, a revolutionary theory or an “answer.” Given that there is no doctrinal blueprint, whether for revolution or reform, there is no need for an individual leader or social class to implement or impose the plan, and no need for the older modes of propaganda and persuasion used to win over the public. In place of a blueprint comes another way of doing politics, based not just on non-hierarchical relationships, but on “the striving for consensus, processes in which everyone is heard and new relationships are created.” [2] Here a set of everyday practices and orientations — cooperation, communicative exchange, questioning, self-awareness and problem solving — lead to the discovery of common ground and the construction of enjoyable and potent forms of collective action. The idea of horizontalism has much in common with the idea of “direct democracy,” where democracy is defined less by standard liberal mechanisms of representation, like parliaments, and more by collective self-rule, and where “direct” implies an absence of mediation.

Horizontalism hardly appears ex nihilo. It overlaps with, and draws on, many radical traditions. Although “orthodox Marxism” has many detractors among the ranks of horizontalists, it is worth noting that Marx himself lauded the directly democratic features of the Paris Commune, opposed liberal bourgeois forms of representation and proposed the withering away of the state. Foucault’s notion of “biopower” implies the dispersed and capillary nature of power under modern conditions. And then there is the idea of the rhizome, as developed in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, which seems to have appealed to several younger Egyptian intellectuals involved in the uprising.

Aly El-Raggal, who helped to organize street protests in Alexandria, explains the rhizome concept thusly: “A rhizome refers to roots like ginger, potatoes and bamboo. They link together underground through strong roots that intertwine and spread horizontally, not vertically…. These new movements [in Egypt and beyond] are rhizomic in nature and their roots keep spreading and forming strong horizontal links…. The Arab revolutions are rhizomic struggles because they don’t have a clear chain of command or a single point of reference.” The rhizomic structure is said to be the key to the Egyptian movement’s success in unseating President Husni Mubarak. As El-Raggal continues: “The former regime was defeated because it only knew how to break down the tree structure, which is vertical. It just cut down the tree, or cut off the head of the leader. But a rhizomatic structure cannot be broken down. If you rupture one area, it just picks up in another area.” [3]

In other words, the rhizome is a robust structure because it cannot be decapitated; its chain of command cannot be disrupted, because it does not have one. Its communication cannot be easily censored or interrupted as it travels along too many interwoven lines. The conventional idea is that discipline and doctrinal rectitude create a powerful and unified collective actor; the idea of the rhizome or network implies that participatory and creative energies are unleashed by the struggle itself to underpin a new kind of potent social force.

Social Media

The affinity of social media with rhizomic organization is clear, as certain kinds of censorship are harder to impose on the Internet. Anyone with a cell phone can be a camerawoman and a broadcaster; personal identities and points of origin can be concealed (an important point in the refusal of leadership, as Wael Ghonim’s book makes clear [4]); communication is faster and can diffuse to all tendrils of the rhizome because there are so many points of intersection, each having the potential to multiply the previous one. These aspects of social media mattered in very practical ways during demonstrations and pitched battles with security forces, though in Tunisia they played little role in the early rounds, only, in a later phase, echoing and amplifying “a protest that was already raging on the streets.” [5] At other moments, social media were shut down; at still others, demonstrations or protests planned using social media failed to materialize.

There is an affinity as well between the youth elements in the uprisings and these new forms of technology. This relationship is partly a matter of know-how — the youth have it and the older generation do not — and partly a matter of political imperative: As some youth saw it, their ownership of social media gave them a special tool with which to seize the initiative, in their own way, from the flat-footed plodders of the traditional political order (including in opposition parties).

But, as Hardt and Negri are careful to specify, the new social media do not create the networked form of organizing: “The prevalence in the revolts of social network tools, such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, are symptoms, not causes, of this organizational structure. These are the modes of expression of an intelligent population capable of using the instruments at hand to organize autonomously.” [6] Indeed, it is not Facebook and YouTube that made the revolutions — after all, social media are largely used for consumption, leisure and social ends very far indeed from life-threatening contentious politics. Internet service providers and cell phone companies were ready to suspend their services at the behest of dictators even in the midst of the uprisings. But those who dismiss social media by pointing to the undoubted importance of non-social media forms in the uprisings — in particular, satellite television — are partly missing the point. Social media are not mere tools, but what Hardt and Negri call the “instruments at hand” for autonomous organization. Autonomous and creative organization is the key — not simple technological savvy. The existence of creative organization is not a matter of totting up the numbers of those who use social media and those who do not. And it is certainly not a matter of arrogating the revolution to an affluent, educated class imbibing “Western” values.

The argument for the instrumentality of social media chimes quite well with what is known about the youth who met in Cairo’s ‘Agouza district and planned to ignite a popular uprising after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia on January 14, 2011. [7] Amid the estimated millions of social media users in Egypt, only around 20 determined individuals decided to try to emulate Tunisians. It was not “the Facebook effect,” but the daring appropriation of Facebook. To plan their action, these activists met face to face. Moreover, the authorities got wind of most of the demonstration sites mentioned in social media, whereas the one site that the “operations room” did not announce online — a pastry shop in the Bulaq al-Dakrour slum — was the one site that was not hemmed in by security forces. The demonstrators from Bulaq al-Dakrour were the ones who made it to Tahrir Square on January 25, “launching the revolutionary process.” [8]

Creativity and Participation

Hardt and Negri write that the Arab uprisings were born partly of “a generalized sense of frustrated productive and expressive capacities, especially among young people.” They link such frustration to the extensive presence of immaterial labor in late capitalism. Immaterial labor stems from the collapse in the classic division between mental and manual labor. It is the kind of labor that produces the informational and cultural content of commodities; laboring subjects internalize the forms of rule and norms that used to be directed at them from the outside. This kind of labor invests laboring subjects with power as well, creating the conditions for new creative appropriations and the enunciation of new kinds of political sovereignty. Hence, according to Hardt and Negri, the uprisings are “the expressions of an intelligent young generation for a different life in which they can put their capacities to use.” [9]

But the themes of creativity and participation are derived from many sources, not just radical analysis of late capitalism. A language that echoes liberal nostrums about “empowerment” and “civic engagement” is also present. Witness, for example, Aly El-Raggal:

From 2005 I co-founded different youth initiatives, the most magnificent one being Adwar Youth Initiative. It helped to make youth aware of the role they could play in society. It was founded by young people, led by young people, and tried to be democratic. It was like a small state. Its slogan was “awareness, participation, creativity.” The aim was to encourage young people to participation in development, cultural life and political life, to learn how to be an active member in society, how to be an initiator. We embarked on a lot of self-reflection. Any member of Adwar could establish their own political, economic or social program.

Perhaps this background explains why educated Egyptian activists like Alia Mossallam prefer to speak of “leaderful” rather than “leaderless” movements. Everyone participates — each of his or her own accord and in any way that counts at the time. Pharmacists bring medicines, cooks prepare food, doctors treat wounds, skilled workers wire the square for electricity, surgeons operate, bakers distribute bread, rich kids from Zamalek buy armor for the lads from the popular quarters, [10] football fans fight, worker-poets invent songs and chants, students set up tents, manual laborers break pavement slabs for use against thugs, shopkeepers fetch cell phone chargers and so on. The extraordinary feature of all this “leaderfulness” is indeed that it was not centrally planned by a vanguard party, nor hierarchically organized, but happened spontaneously and functioned remarkably well. It is no mean logistical feat that the million-strong mini-city that Tahrir became between January 25 and February 11, 2011 was thoroughly supplied and stocked on this basis.

More significant, this coordinated spontaneity is palpably nested not just within the fields of politics and ideology, but also within relations of production, exchange and consumption. Workers did not seize the means of production; nor is there any confirmation of the teleological idea that political struggles are all very well but that they must become social struggles if they are to have any meaning. For the mechanisms on display in Tahrir (and beyond) were based  neither on the market nor on Stalinist command nor even on “social democracy,” whereby welfare is distributed from on high by a central authority. Instead, goods and services were circulated in a creative, many-headed and participatory way, a process that points to new models of economic practice. Of course, skeptics will say that Tahrir was a fleeting moment of communitas when real-world rules were suspended. The skeptics have a point: These glimpses of a radical alternative are just that by definition. But surely the global interest in the Egyptian and other Arab uprisings has something to do with the slowly progressing crisis of authority in diverse national sites, a crisis that is financial, political and social. The Arab uprisings, the Occupy sit-ins and other struggles of 2011 suggest a transcendence of what Gramsci called “morbid symptoms” — the absence of both dominant and alternative hegemony — and movement toward the enunciation of original alternatives.

“A Ferment of Self-Organization”

Horizontalism in Egypt takes broad aim at corrupted political and economic elites, their hollow parties, their hierarchical state-run unions and their hidebound thinking. It signals a profound rejection of existing forms of authority, whether dominant or oppositional, as both are associated with an older generation of men, their compromises with power and their nostalgia for distant achievements. No “great leader” led the crowds onto the streets — neither an Ayatollah Khomeini nor a Hugo Chavez. As El-Raggal has it:

Before 2005 they [the older generation] operated along lines of rigid ideological frames. After 2005 things started to dissolve. We [the youth] started to dissolve these boundaries. This generation is more into ethics than morals. We broke down all these binaries and dichotomies. Remember something: During the revolution, the youth who went to the streets on January 25 and 28 didn’t call for an Islamic state or a secular state. During the 18 days you wouldn’t find demands [for a specific political platform]. Our demand was, “I don’t want this kind of power to be practiced on me. I want my body and soul to be respected. I want to be who I am. I want my dignity.” That’s why I tend to disagree with people who say this revolution doesn’t have a direction or a compass. It has one, but it’s a new one; it’s a revolution on the form of the revolution itself. [11]

The rejection of doctrine goes along with the insistence that the old political forces are being transformed by the winds of horizontalism, whether they like it or not. This  feeling was behind the revolutionaries’ fury with Muslim Brothers, socialists and liberals for squabbling among themselves over “national identity” for most of 2011. Horizontalism is a matter of developing a new mindset that circumvents such dissension to concentrate on the main task at hand. Finally, it is noteworthy that “revolutionary” activities are not just clustered around the state and political parties, but also in schools, universities, families, neighborhoods, football fan clubs and workplaces.

Beginning in 2004, a wide variety of employees had already engaged in the most significant round of protests and strikes since the days of the monarchy. Protests over pay and working conditions, sparked by accelerated privatization, falling real wages and the loss of job protections, had involved more than a million Egyptians — from tax collectors to textile workers — in hundreds of actions per year. Since the last days of Mubarak, protests and strikes have been joined, and independent unions organized, in workplaces the length and breadth of Egypt. The independent trade union movement now claims 1.4 million members.

Anne Alexander has aptly characterized the movement since the fall of Mubarak as one of tathir (purification). Those fed up with the regime-linked unions, and aggrieved by mismanagement, corruption and secret police intrusions in workplaces, and those who seek to improve their hospitals or schools, are organizing at the grassroots in the spirit of the 2011 uprising and its call for “bread, freedom and human dignity.” As Alexander puts it: “Tathir is literally a repeat of the…uprising in miniature, impelled by both the scale of the popular mobilization and the ferocity of the battle with the state.” This wave of protest has been denigrated by the military junta and others as unpatriotic, self-interested and “sectional” (fi’awi). They maintain that it is damaging to the economy, will spread chaos and allows the infiltration of the nation by dark forces. Nonetheless, such movements have had some success in purging corrupt officials and winning improvements in wages.

What, however, is the significance of this “ferment of self-organization from below”? [12] Should we believe that the main enemy of these movements is capitalism, the main agent of change is the working class and the main outcomes benchmarks of socialism?

Surely not. It is by no means clear that a singular capitalism is the main or only target of these protests. Further, the main actors in the drama can hardly be described as falling predominantly into the key categories of the orthodox Marxian imagination: Strikes and protests have been joined not only by waged workers, but also by doctors, tax collectors, nurses, minor public officials, young men and women from popular quarters, the unemployed and educated youth. The social being and social consciousness of industrial workers themselves is as complex as that of other social groups. [13] Without joining a debate about what causes social class to “happen” (as E. P. Thompson might have put it), the empirical evidence that protesters see themselves, or want to see themselves, as members of something called the “working class” is extremely thin. [14] Arguably, only a small minority of those who have thrown themselves with such energy into this activism are inspired by notions of the workers’ state or the proletarian revolution. Even the Democratic Workers’ Party — one of the most left-leaning to appear in post-Mubarak Egypt — elaborates a program more akin to “petty bourgeois” Nasserism (nationalization, national development, cross-class appeal, anti-Zionism) than revolutionary socialism.

It seems likely that grassroots energy is less about the awakening of the working class than horizontal practice: deliberation not representation, leaderfulness not doctrine, organizing beyond the state, and new forms of creativity and participation. As Alia Mossallam puts it with regard to the popular committees that have emerged to conduct tathir of neighborhoods: “Most importantly, they proved to people that the end of ‘government’ did not mean the end of the world.” [15]

New Political Horizons

Horizontalism is revolutionary in theory, practical in its ability to distribute goods and services, and associated with significant political potency. But what sort of political alternative does it propose, once the army has returned to the barracks, as it were? Can the question of program be avoided? Or is it enough to say, with Mossallam, that as for “the alternative, we make [it] up as we go along”? [16] Is such a position vacuous in the face of pressing questions about wages, housing, pensions, unemployment benefits, Camp David, women’s rights, or the place of Copts and other minorities?

The distinction between process and program, movement and message, form and substance, is hard to wish away. Even if the Muslim Brother youth, for instance, adopts forms of horizontalism to challenge the old leadership, they may still look to Tunisia’s Ennahda or Turkey’s AKP for democratic Islamist inspiration on programmatic substance. Likewise, just as the Egyptian left develops with horizontalist roots in revitalized popular committees and independent trade unions, it may still usefully look across borders, to Latin America, for instance, for democratic socialist inspiration.

In more theoretical terms, there is a conceptual distinction between horizontalism and the idea of a program. The two cannot be completely conflated. On this point, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe argue that the logic of democracy is subversive of the existing hegemony, but that a “positive moment of the institution of the social” is required to enable this logic to establish itself as the new hegemony, in other words, to be genuinely liberatory. “If the demands of a subordinated group are presented purely as negative demands subversive of a certain order, without being linked to any viable project for the reconstruction of specific areas of society, their capacity to act hegemonically will be excluded from the outset.” [17]

If Laclau and Mouffe are correct, then horizontalism cannot simply assert that the message is the movement. It must assert that the alternative will emerge over time. In this vein, the idea that the alternative is “made up as we go along” must be read not as a throwaway line that avoids the question, but as an important statement of principle. It implies that the alternative must be invented and put together via forms of horizontal practice. As Sara Motta puts it, in her study of urban land committees in Venezuela, everyday practices form the basis for “collective knowledge forming processes through which to forge the movement’s strategy, identity and analysis.” Strategy, analysis and identity emerge over time; to refuse such a possibility would be to “reinscribe a vanguardist and disempowering division of labor.” [18] In other words, it is important that theoretical knowledge not be ceded to detached movement intellectuals, far from the lives and problems of subaltern social groups. A doctrine or program, therefore, may not serve as an originating blueprint, but it may ultimately be a substantive outcome. Horizontalist youth, from the Muslim Brothers to the left, may agree on wanting to see the old official parties overthrown, the military returned to the barracks and the ideological conflicts of yesteryear put aside, but they may well increasingly disagree on policy and program.

The horizontalist dilemma is redolent of that of Michel Foucault in his famous debate with Noam Chomsky in 1971. Foucault, in the face of Chomsky’s committed libertarian and anarchist position, confident in its assertion of what constitutes human freedom, suggests in self-deprecating fashion that Chomsky is “far more advanced” than he. Foucault admits that he does not yet have a plan for the comprehensive transformation and liberation of society, because he is afraid of reconstituting the very categories of bourgeois civilization that he is seeking to get beyond. But what Foucault does not do is explicitly rule out the possibility that transformative ideas may be developed at a later stage. His self-deprecation may, in other words, have been at least half-genuine. Likewise, it would seem logical that there is no way for a horizontalist, by definition, to know a priori whether deliberative procedures would not give rise to new kinds of political principles and institutions. It would seem far too dogmatic to rule out this possibility. What matters for the horizontalist is that principles and institutions are based on direct democracy, the active seeking of consensus and the discovery of all points of view.

Overall, it would seem that horizontalism is constrained by its own principles; one cannot specify, on principle, the substantive and programmatic ways in which horizontalism goes beyond capitalism, state socialism, theocracy or liberal democracy. Horizontalism only proposes a way to get out of the present, through means that are urgently desirable in themselves.

How significant, then, is horizontalism in the Egyptian and other Arab uprisings of 2011? In some respects, it is too early to say. The violence and cynicism of the geopolitical forces at work in the region can never be underestimated; and “leaderfulness” outside the bounds of machine politics, party discipline and rigid doctrine may simply register another entry in the long list of history’s lost causes. But there are precious points of originality and historic initiative in the uprisings from which historians and others can learn — and from which movements have already taken inspiration. There are elements in this revolution-in-process that cannot be assimilated in world-weary fashion to older forms: the rise of political Islam, a transition to a liberal, market-based “democracy” or a coming socialist revolution. 2011 is not just a recapitulation.

The revolutionary process in Egypt points, in its most original edge, toward directly democratic forms in all fields of political life, from the writing of the constitution and the rule of law to the extension of the water supply and the demands for a minimum wage. Democratic equivalence, consensual and deliberative mechanisms, popular assemblies, neighborhood committees, independent trade unions and the like are the forms through which mobilization has taken place and via which incipient social interests are aggregated and coordinated.

These are important elements of historic initiative. Marx was surprised and impressed by the Paris Commune and admitted as much. Trotsky was shocked by the events of 1905, which led him to shelve pre-formulated solutions and develop a new theory of combined and uneven development. Occupy movements from Nashville to Reykjavik have been inspired by the courage and horizontalism on display in the Arab world. Most surprising, above all, is the way leaderful, creative and participatory movements have been able to deliver in terms of logistics and the provision of goods and services. Orthodox Marxists may be waiting for “political” demands to become “social,” but they might be missing the social and economic dimensions of new practice that already exist on the ground. It would seem that horizontalism does indeed have something to say to older political currents, even if history suggests that the results will probably not be a brave new world, but a messy compromise. But in regard to the balance of that compromise, and how far it will be shaped by horizontalism and direct democracy, there is everything to fight for.


[1] Cited in Marina Sitrin ed., Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2006), p. 58.
[2] Ibid., p. vi.
[3] Linda Herrera, “Generation Rev and the Struggle for Democracy: An Interview with Aly El-Raggal,” Jadaliyya, October 15, 2011.
[4] Wael Ghonim, Revolution 2.0 (London: Harper Collins, 2012).
[5] Jean-Pierre Filiu, The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons from the Democratic Uprising (London: Hurst, 2011), p. 51.>br /> [6] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “Arabs Are Democracy’s New Pioneers,” Guardian, February 24, 2011.
[7] See “Kayfa tathur bi-hada’a: ma‘lumat wa taktikat hamma” (document circulated before January 25, 2011).
[8] Filiu, p. 60. If Egypt’s uprising was a movement of millions risking life and livelihood for “bread, freedom and human dignity,” then it was certainly revolutionary; but insofar as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces holds power, and various economic and political structures remain in place, then it must surely be seen as a work in progress—an ongoing process—and not as a completed event.
[9] Hardt and Negri, “Pioneers.” Their analysis of immaterial labor is found in Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (London: Penguin, 2004).
[10] Thanks to Dina Makram-Ebeid for this point.
[11] Herrera, op cit.
[12] Anne Alexander, “The Growing Social Soul of Egypt’s Democratic Revolution,” International Socialist Journal 131 (June 2011).
[13] Dina Makram-Ebeid, “‘We Are Like Father and Son’: Neoliberalism and Everyday Production Relations at the Egyptian Iron and Steel Plant in Helwan,” paper delivered at the conference of the Middle East Studies Association, San Diego, November 2010.
[14] Dina Bishara, “Working-Class Power in Egypt’s 2011 Uprising?” paper delivered at the conference of the Middle East Studies Association, Washington, DC, December 2011, p. 7.
[15] Alia Mossallam, “Popular Committees Continue the Revolution,” al-Misri al-Yawm, June 18, 2011.
[16] Alia Mossallam, “Revolution in Egypt: Beyond the ‘Alternative,’” Naked Punch, October 29, 2011.
[17] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Toward a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985), pp. 185-189.
[18] Sara Motta, “Notes Toward Prefigurative Epistemologies” in Sara Motta and Alf Gunvald Nilsen, eds., Social Movements in the Global South: Dispossession, Development and Resistance (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan 2011), pp. 178-180.

How to cite this article:

John Chalcraft "Horizontalism in the Egyptian Revolutionary Process," Middle East Report 262 (Spring 2012).