How Egypt did it.

It's difficult to write about a moving target. People are going to be studying this revolution for years, and I know anything I say now risks becoming obsolete within hours as new information comes to light. I want to write this down, though, because these are my immediate impressions. As time goes on, frames will change, facts that seem big now will be forgotten, and things that seem trivial will loom larger in light of future events. (I'm looking at you, Algeria, Yemen, Syria.)

Beyond that, I'm writing through a haze of exhilaration so strong there have been times I couldn't type. I know so many people who have wanted this so long, and so bad, that seeing their euphoria makes me a hater when I read calmer voices deliberating about what's next. I plan to join them later, no really, but for the time being I'm still bouncing around the house like I'm nine and it's my birthday.

Anyway. Mubarak resigned about 48 hours ago. This is how I see it now.

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"Leave already, my arm is hurting"

The revolution was a popular uprising, but it was not a spontaneous one. For the first two decades of Mubarak's rule, the only real opposition came from the Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood. In the past decade that started to change, when pro-democracy organizations, mostly but not entirely youth, began coordinating with labor. These groups aren't Islamist, but what's interesting to me is that they've avoided slamming the Muslim Brotherhood and have even worked with some of the younger members in tactical matters. I assume that's because the Islamists have more support in the baladi neighborhoods, where people aren't on Facebook. ("Pro-democracy activists" here means activists opposed to both Mubarak and the Brotherhood, although the Brotherhood also supports democracy.)

The last time I was in Egypt, just after the April 6 demonstrations, I posted this story and this op-ed from Al-Ahram. Someone else posted this article in a comment; all three are from 2008 and in retrospect they predicted current events (although Al-Ahram also emphasized Facebook's silliness which some believe was part of the government's strategy, to make protesters seem young and dumb — Al-Ahram is state-controlled).

At the time I was skeptical. I thought the "Facebook activists" were too middle-class to get popular support in working-class Cairo, much less Upper Egypt and among the fellahin. They were strategic about it, though, emphasizing economic concerns in neighborhoods like Bulaq and democracy and human rights with educated youth online. Lots of people are comparing this to Iran (both v.1979 and v.2009) but April 6 organizers were trained by the student movement that overthrew Slobodan Milošević.

I think the youth movement in Iran did have some influence. Then there were larger demonstrations last summer after Khaled Said's murder. (Mona Eltahawy wrote about them in June.) And then, just before a planned demonstration on Police Day (January 25), Tunisia happened. This wasn't the impetus, but it was the tipping point. The organizers' strategy depended on getting spontaneous participation from the neighborhoods, because if they'd gone out alone they wouldn't be able to get past police barricades. This also became important later when they occupied Tahrir. Judging only from the pictures, the square was filled with every demographic during the days, including lots of middle-class youth, but at nights it was older, middle- and working-class men who actually set up tents and slept in front of tanks. Tunisia provided that spark.

On nonviolence:

Egyptians aren't unfamiliar with violent attempts at overthrow. Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya, the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, launched a terrorist campaign that went on through most of the 1990s. I was living there then and it was frightening. The difference between then and now is more qualitative than quantitative. Al-Gamaa killed hundreds of people, and hundreds of people were killed in this situation, too. What was different was the mood on the streets. In the 1990s, you learned to distrust the people around you, and to wonder if they were distrusting you. Although statistically speaking there was a low chance of getting hurt, every shop, hotel, school, cafe, and apartment building initiated security measures that had you constantly on guard. I developed an irrational fear of parked cars and unattended rubbish bins that is still with me today.

This time around, one of the main driving forces of revolutionary sentiment was the feeling that people could count on strangers. The mood was overwhelmingly one of love and acceptance and the goosebumps you get from realizing you're on the exact same emotional page with thousands of people around you. That is the polar opposite of the feeling Al-Gamaa produced. Nonviolent strategy was crucial to that.

Image and video hosting by TinyPicAt the same time, though, this definition of nonviolence wasn't passive. It meant nonviolence against people, not property. Activists understood that one of the goals was to shut down the economy and make Egypt a non-functioning state. To that end you saw graffiti, broken windows, burning cars, blocked roads, thousands of people breaking through police barricades, and (my favorite) the KFC in Tahrir "liberated" and turned into a makeshift health clinic. These are actions that are typically called "violent," at least in the U.S., because they create temporary chaos. Civil rights leaders were accused of it, too, when they boycotted segregated institutions and by virtue of their numbers, not their actions, filled jail cells and sent the police into the streets. The final straw in Egypt was the nation-wide labor strike the day before Mubarak resigned. He'd survived the closing of the stock market and the banks, but when work shut down there was no way he could convince foreign investors and Egypt's ruling elite that he was saving the country from chaos. Earlier, he had literally told activists in Tahrir to "have fun," i.e. that they were nothing to him. He could survive peaceful protests but he could not survive the collapse of the economy.

On emotion:

This entire experience has made me less critical of people who are reluctant to participate. Once a revolution becomes historical fact, it's easy to go back and see those who were on the fence as being in league with The Man or something. But following it as it happened was different. Egyptians were talking about real, human worries: from small things like the lack of proper toilets in Tahrir to big things like the fear of being gunned down in the streets. There was a shortage of food in the shops. Transportation was impossible. One of the looters was captured by protesters and sobbed in fear as he talked about the money he'd taken from the regime to say he loved Mubarak; he said his mother was dead and he had no other way to support his brothers. People understood this — it's the Egypt they know. There was very little of the I'm-smarter-than-you posturing that seems endemic to political movements here. People were patient with each other.

Some Egyptians actually worried about this. They said the emotional level was so high in Egypt that if Mubarak showed up and looked contrite, people would be eager to forgive him, not only to get back to their regular lives but because they felt real sympathy at seeing him so degraded. When Nasser lost the 1967 war with Israel, he cried on television and resigned, apologizing for failing his people. The people rose up and demanded he return, which he did. Some were expecting a moment like that. This is why I think the timing of the Wael Ghonim interview was so crucial. People were waiting for tears and apologies from Mubarak, and instead they got them from one of the prominent activists. Meanwhile Mubarak and Suleiman went on being the gruff patronizing angry dads they always have been.

On imagination:

Three other groups that provided unplanned but crucial support were the Arab expats, the Christians and Muslims who supported each other in prayer, and what I'll call the civic activists who swept Tahrir and formed neighborhood watch groups.

The expats held solidarity marches around the world and put pressure on foreign governments to stand with the Egyptian people, not Mubarak. During the internet blackout they transcribed phone messages from Egypt and uploaded them to Twitter. They gave interviews to the international media. They blogged. They translated the chants on YouTube videos. They set up Tor networks to let Egyptians in Egypt communicate anonymously. The night of February 2 will haunt me forever, the night of the government's worst attack on the protesters. I stayed up all night just listening to Al-Jazeera and watching Facebook refresh, as Arab friends in Canada, Malaysia, New York, Indonesia, Italy, Dubai, and of course Egypt itself kept up a steady stream of re-tweets and status updates, coordinating in English, French, and Arabic to monitor which escape routes out of Tahrir were clear and which ones were blocked, where to get medical help, which streets were burning, and which hospitals needed blood. As the sun came up in Cairo one Palestinian friend posted, "I can't do this shit anymore." His exhaustion was palpable. It was a long night.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, Christians were forming human chains around Muslims in prayer and Muslims formed human chains around Christians during Sunday mass. For years Mubarak had exploited tensions between these two groups, and I realize they won't magically disappear. But this act provided a vision for what a new Egypt could look like.

The same goes for the people who cleared trash from the streets. Aside from the demonstrations themselves, I think people talked about this more than anything else. Culturally, Egyptians have always had a sense of duty towards each other, but civic responsibility has been zero. And why not? They've had no voice in the bureaucracy or institutions of their country, so there's been no incentive to participate. Seeing people clean the streets "because this is our country now" was a powerful sight. So, too, were the neighborhood watch groups that formed after the regime opened the prisons and paid off the thugs and looters. In Alexandria, I heard groups of teenage boys walked through the streets at night chanting, "Sleep, Alexandria, we are your sons, and we will protect you."

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Good links:

How Cyber-Pragmatism Brought Down Mubarak:

"The fact that everything was very organized from the beginning made people feel safe and more willing to participate. For example there were maps to the protest locations and how groups should move and who should be in the front row," says Dalia. "This gave some sense of safety for the participants. In other words, it was not a random or spontaneous upheaval. No, it was well planned and organized." This web-based planning was critical, given that the vast majority of people on the "We Are All Khaled Said" page—and those who entered the streets on the 25th—were not veteran human rights activists and bloggers.

The Secret Rally That Sparked an Uprising:

Those present included representatives from six youth movements connected to opposition political parties, groups advocating labor rights, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

They chose 20 protest sites, usually connected to mosques, in densely populated working-class neighborhoods around Cairo. They hoped that such a large number of scattered rallies would strain security forces, draw larger numbers and increase the likelihood that some protesters would be able to break out and link up in Tahrir Square.

The Road to Tahrir:

This new relation between bloggers and other media forms has now become standard: not only do many of the opposition newspapers rely on bloggers for their stories; news stories that journalists can’t print themselves without facing state persecution—for example, on issues relating to the question of Mubarak’s successor—such stories are first fed to bloggers by investigative reporters; once they are reported online, journalists then proceed to publish the stories in newsprint, citing the blogs as sources, in this way avoiding the accusation that they themselves invented the story.

Into Egypt's Uncharted Territory:

Throughout the wave of protests, the youth coordinating the efforts, notably the April 6 movement, have offered opposition leaders no blank checks… Besides protecting their movement from outside opportunism, the protesters have steered it away from the ideological differences that have fragmented organized opposition political activity in the past. Avoiding and sometimes suppressing religious slogans, the demonstrations have maintained an image as a national uprising of patriotic Egyptians — nothing more and nothing less.

Al-Ahram English has a special revolution edition with lots of articles.

"People & Power," an Al-Jazeera feature of the April 6 movement, which I think was put together during the internet blackout (sorry about the eyeball – blame YouTube):

And this — which isn't about activism but is too awesome not to post — demonstrators in Alexandria meet below Khaled Said's mother's apartment after hearing that Mubarak stepped down. They recite the first surah of the Qur'an, a gesture of respect when there's been a death, and then sing the national anthem and chant his name:

5 Responses to “How Egypt did it.”

  1. Dave Says:

    At some point when this has all worked out a bit more clearly, I'd really like to hear your take on the US role in this not getting crushed. I think you know my default take on the US and popular movements abroad. In that last day or two before Mubarak fell, I saw center and center-left US types (from say Jamie Rubin to Rachel Maddow) saying that the Obama administration should get credit for having not stated its desired outcome, but using its influence with the Egyptian military to keep it from ending this. Coming from someone like Rubin, it's easy for me to dismiss this as cheerleading from an establishment figure, but hearing basically the same thing from Maddow and a few others makes me wonder if there's actually something to it. She, in particular, has not been at all shy about criticizing Obama policies since he's been in office.

  2. KufiGirl Says:

    There's actually something to it, although I don't know how intentional it was.

    It's too early to know what the U.S. role was behind the scenes. Publicly, they were weak and inept and about two days behind in every press conference, which is so perfect I wonder if it wasn't planned. Had they come out too strongly in favor of the protesters, Mubarak would have been able to portray the entire thing as an American plot. April 6 was vulnerable to that charge in a way the Brotherhood was not, so it could have easily led to support for the regime or, more likely, factionalism between the pro-democracy groups and the Islamists, which would have destroyed the momentum.

    On the other hand, if the U.S. had come out too strongly in favor of Mubarak, Mubarak would have been emboldened and Egyptians who were on the fence might have gotten discouraged, not because they need American approval but because you just can't live there and not know how strong American power is. If the U.S. had really dug in its heels in favor of Mubarak (as it has in the past), they might have said screw it, there's no point.

    Instead we got this bumbling "uh, democracy and the internet, yeah…" response, with Hillary looking tired and using her English for Foreigners voice, which was exactly the right tone from the perspective of fueling the revolution. It said, "We're America, and you can safely ignore us. We really don't know what we're doing." If Mubarak had hung on longer, though, that would have gotten old fast.

    Privately, I'm guessing they negotiated with the military, and I won't be surprised if it comes out that Mubarak's reversal from Thursday to Friday was the result of direct pressure from Obama. I said in an earlier post that's not because Obama loves democracy. It's because the U.S. would support Egypt being led by a canister of table salt if it meant stability in the region. Once the Suez Canal workers went on strike, that was it.

    I could be wrong. We don't know yet. But that's my guess.

  3. Dave Says:

    Thanks. That makes sense to me. I can't wait to get a fuller picture of all of this. Hopefully we don't have to wait too many years to start getting that.

  4. KufiGirl Says:

    Now that they've responded so quickly to Iran, I think it's safe to say they really didn't know what they were doing wrt Egypt. If they actually wanted to help the Iranian protesters, they would have been more hesitant, making it harder for the Iranian regime to point and say, "See? Imperialist conspiracy." But they were all out in front of that with the FREEDOM FOR IRAN bit.

  5. Sawzall Says:

    * Do you know whether the Christmas actions where Muslims protected the Coptic churches were organized by the same youth movements that organized the revolution?

    * re communications infrastructure: I am incredibly proud of my friends who pretty much dropped everything to help with this.

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