Stone the crow! Just when the punditocracy decided Muburak was not going anywhere, he went.
But why? Obviously he did not have a feather to fly with given the military made it clear he was on his own a week ago and the generals started praising the protestors by mid-week.[i] Still, by Friday, it seemed to many in the media that he had bought some time.[ii]
It was not as if there was an insurgent army at his gates or an opposition leader of a Khomeini kind was flying in on a sealed plane to take unexpected advantage of the end of the old order. As Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Kamal El-Helbawy told Tony Jones on Thursday night:
Egypt is no re-run of the removal of the Shah of Iran in 1979: The revolution in Iran was led by the mullahs, the scholars, but the revolution in Egypt is led by the people from different sectors of life.[iii]
That the Brothers had to put up a bloke in London as a spokesman either indicates the leadership either hates publicity or is as surprised as Mubarak by what has occurred.
It is much more likely the dictator departed because the people wished it. This seems strange to anybody used to modern politics, where there are always armies or exiles on the outer anxious to replace the side enjoying the spoils of power. Last week commentators accordingly assumed the Brotherhood was orchestrating everything.[iv]
But what occurred is familiar to anybody interested in European politics before democracy. What we saw in Cairo was a flash mob, the direct descendant of the urban mob that terrified ruling classes well into the nineteenth century, because street actions were impossible to always anticipate.
As Victor Hugo put it:
Nothing is more extraordinary than the first breaking out of a riot. Everything bursts forth everywhere at once. Was it foreseen? Yes. Was it prepared? No. Whence comes it? From the pavements. Whence falls it? From the clouds.[v]
And when rioters really got going they could ruin regimes. The Bourbon and Orleanist monarchies were broken on the Paris barricades of 1830 and 1848. Even in the US a democratically elected government lost control of Manhattan for three days to draft resisting mobs.[vi]
Today the power of the crowd is magnified to an extent unimaginable a generation ago. The crowd can announce their grievances and set out their objectives online. And when push comes to shove they can text and tweet tactics to each other.
While it appears that Cairo’s is a largely pre-industrial crowd, motivated by word of mouth, insurrections are improved by access to the Internet.[vii] And even though the 2009 protests in Tehran did not bring the government down the Ahmadinejad Government was sufficiently spooked by a resurgence of opposition activity online to start arresting people last week.[viii]
The problem is that a crowd does not necessarily a democratic revolution make. The last Bourbon monarch of France fled the people’s wrath but he was replaced by a cousin as king. After that monarch lost his job a Bonaparte took over in relatively short order.
Crowds need cadres to turn protests into revolutions and thanks to Mabarak’s oppression Egypt lacks the intellectual infrastructure for an alternative government to be waiting in the wings.
Yesterday’s announcement of a “council of trustees” to negotiate with the military, sounds like an assembly of worthies than a transition government in the making.[ix] The Muslim Brotherhood like the Bolsheviks may get their chance to wield power out of proportion to their limited support simply because they are the only serious party in place.
But then again, Indonesians got the hang of democracy fast, after a generation of authoritarian rule which had not encouraged independent ideas. And the Egyptians now have social media for consultation and communication which did not exist when the Suharto Government fell in 1998.
But whatever happens, what we saw last week is the power of the people when aggrieved, an anger magnified by social media.
It must terrify the party leadership in Beijing.
[i] Charles Levinson and Julian E Barnes, “Military’s role is crucial for Egypt’s path ahead,” Wall Street Journal, February 12
[ii] SBS News, “Fury as Mubarak stays on”, February 11 @ www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1482382/Fury-as-Mubarak-stays-on recovered on February 12
[iv] Brett Stephens, “Being Hosni Mubarak,” Wall Street Journal, February 1
[v] Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, vol iv, book 10, chap 4
[vi] The official history of the Civil War includes the reports and telegraphed despatches on the street fighting in New York, providing an extraordinary insight into the way urban mobs were contained in the 19th century. They would make fascinating reading for security police chiefs across the Middle East, United States War Department, (Washington 1889), series 1 @ dlxs2.library.cornell.edu/m/moawar/text/waro0044.txt recovered on February 12
[vii] Charles Levinson and Margaret Coker, “How a trick by activists started a revolt,” Weekend Australian, February 12
[viii] “Iran confines opposition leader” Sydney Morning Herald, February 12
[ix] “Protestors form council in Egypt,” ABC News February 13 @ www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2011/02/13/3137353.htm recovered on February 13