Place and tactical innovation in social movements: the emergence of Egypt’s anti-harassment groups

Magda Boutros

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Boutros, M. (1). Place and tactical innovation in social movements: the emergence of Egypt’s anti-harassment groups. Theory and Society, 46(6), 543–575.

Material form , place , sexual violence , space , tactical innovation , tactical preference

This study examines the first two years of a tactical innovation that emerged in 2012 in Egypt, which involved activist groups organizing patrol-type "intervention teams" to combat sexual violence against women in public spaces. Findings reveal that the new tactic took different forms in the two places in which it was deployed, even though the same actors employed it. I argue that the place in which a new tactic emerges shapes the form it takes. When coming up with a new collective action tactic, activists elaborate visions about how to carry out their actions based on their collective identities and taste in tactics. But as they start experimenting with the new tactic on the ground, they learn about the places' material affordances, symbolic valence, and power relations, as well as the constraints and opportunities that they represent. The material properties of places shape activists' possibilities of movement, patterns of communication, field of vision, and capacity to escape repression or reach safe spaces. The configuration of actors in a place shapes the nature of their interactions with others on the ground, possible alliances, and sources of conflict. The symbolic meanings of places shape the resonance of a group’s actions and the degree of resistance that actors face. Place in part determines the ability of activists to develop a tactic in the form that best fits their preferences.

Main finding
Volunteer anti-harassment groups that emerged in 2012 in Cairo, varied in their tactics depending on the locations of the public spaces where they operated: Tahrir Square or Downtown. The affordances of each public space shaped the tactics forming in the two spaces. Tahrir Square's size, steel barriers, and dark impasses created obstacles to the volunteer groups while downtown streets' width presented opportunities. The symbolic meaning of the spaces as spaces of political resistance informed the activists' presence as well as occurrences of sexual harassment in the spaces. The density of crowds and the power dynamics present within the spaces created by the control of downtown streets by the police and shop owners and the control of Tahrir square by political organizations and informal security influenced the strategies, presence, and safety tactics adopted by the activists. When forming new tactics for collective action, traditional analysis factors such as tactical tastes and collective identity are thus mediated by place.

Description of method used in the article
Five Cairo anti-harassment groups that emerged in 2012 were analyzed: Tahrir Bodyguards, Imprint, I Saw Harassment, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Assault (Opantish), and Harassing the Harassers. The author observed the emergence of these groups from 2012–2013 while working at a local human rights organization that provided support to new anti-harassment groups. Thirty-four semi-structured interviews were conducted in the summer of 2014. Twenty-nine respondents were activists involved with the five groups, and seven respondents were representatives of NGOs that support the groups. Respondents helped recruit other respondents to sample within the hidden network. Content analysis was performed on media released by the activist groups on social media platforms and NGO and government statements on sexual harassment from July 2012 to August 2014. This allowed the author to match the retrospective interviews with past data.

Of practical use

Organising categories

Content analysis Interviews Participant Observation
Physical types
Squares Streets
Geographic locations