02/07/2011 04:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Who Are Egypt's Protesters?

As mass protests in Egypt enter their third week, demonstrators remain camped out in Tahrir Square in a bid to force incumbent President Hosni Mubarak to step down. The dramatic images coming out of Egypt, however, can only tell us so much about the demographic profile of a typical protester and the nature of his grievances against the Mubarak regime.

Much has been said about the oppressive Mubarak police state, as well as the grinding struggles associated with overwhelming levels of poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness. But those leading the charge for a better system of government are not the poor, nor are they the especially religiously observant. Rather, the driving force appears to be frustration over corruption -- with upwardly-mobile, educated middle-class (and, indeed, Internet savvy) young people out front: the very ones who have the most to lose by the maintenance of the status quo.

To gain a more complete picture of the background and motivations of the Egyptian demonstrators, we examine public opinion data collected in Egypt in 2008 by the World Values Survey. The survey asked a nationally representative sample of over 3,000 Egyptians if they had ever attended, or would consider "attending lawful/peaceful demonstrations" -- and eight percent answered yes. If this number seems small, consider that the current population of Cairo is about seven million. Eight percent of that is approximately 500,000 individuals; which is, if anything, somewhat larger than the best current estimates of the number of protesters filling up the streets.

Of those who responded that they would protest, 45 percent were women. Yet one thing that has clearly emerged from the demonstrations is that the vast majority of people on the street are men. This should not come as much surprise, given reports of thugs and police groping and threatening rape against female protesters -- particularly as regime-perpetrated violence began to escalate. For this reason, though, we focus our attention on only the male portion of the survey sample.

Starting with Egyptian men as a whole, 12% said they would be willing to protest. Now let us narrow in on particular demographic subgroups. Each time, the percentage saying they would attend a demonstration increases significantly:

  • Men under age 35: 17%
  • ...and with formal education: 18%
  • ...and in upper-middle class: 31%
  • ...and regular Internet user: 36%
  • ...and interested in politics: 50%

In other words, those not only aggrieved -- but also aware and socially connected -- are the most likely to show up to protest.

Of the men who said they would demonstrate, 91% had a formal education, compared to 79% among those who said they would not demonstrate. 43% of those who said they would protest are younger than 35. And 27% are in the upper or upper-middle class. Fully 50% reported using a computer at least occasionally, compared to just 23% among those not willing to protest.

Over time, Egyptians -- particularly those with an educational and informational background to contextualize their grievances -- have become enraged by the failure of the state to provide even basic protections from the by-products of corruption. Consider a few of the most prominent news stories appearing in the Egyptian press around the time of the WVS study: (1) corrupt businessmen inflating their profits by incorporating bleach, chalk and other non-food additives into powdered milk products given to children; (2) the use of contaminated water in kidney dialysis machines in public hospitals; (3) ambulance crews being subject to criminal action if they impeded the ability of senior government officials to travel busy streets; and (4) reports that the government was selling land to foreigners and regime cronies in a series of corrupt scams and deals.

These sorts of stories run in the Egyptian press every day, day-after-day, year-after-year. And the Mubarak regime has always been fully aware of them. Despite its system of controls, smaller-scale, public demonstrations have taken place in Egypt for many years, but each time in the past the Mubarak regime has clamped down, called the protesters criminals and sometimes labeled them terrorists.

Corrupt regimes can often persist for years even when only a small percentage of citizens offer their support. This one did for much longer than most, but ultimately it too appears to have succumbed to the powerful forces of social unrest.

Lisa Blaydes is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and the author of Elections and Distributive Politics in Mubarak's Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 2011). Drew Linzer is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Emory University and the co-author of Electoral Systems and the Balance of Consumer-Producer Power (Cambridge University Press, 2010).