As I watched and listened to events unfolding in Egypt the last three weeks , I had a nagging feeling that there was something new here, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Then it occurred to me. Like a twist in a detective story, I realized that – for a million people in close quarter for extended periods of time – it was too quiet. Like the dog that didn’t bark when it would be expected to – the crowds of Tehrir Square reached a certain level of noise and activity – and then just hung there. Once a plateau was reached about one week in, the volume never erupted out of control, the level of violence never reached anything like a war, and actually decreased after it peaked with the couple of days of thuggery. There should have blood and guts everywhere, and there wasn’t.
This is a new phenomenon. In our experience societies change either gradually (sometime painfully gradually), or disjointedly, and up till now that has almost always meant violence, casualties, tragic loss requiring re-building and slow conciliation. In Egypt, in the end, it was like a staring contest. We kept waiting for the punch, the explosion, the massacre of Tiananmen Square, but it never came. Instead, the Egyptian establishment blinked, lost its desire to fight and crumbled.
Compounding the oddness of all this: it was not the first experience of this type in recent months. Tunisia accomplished a similar achievement just before the Egpytian events began. In Jordan, the King fired the parliament, and began to constitute a new government. No violent public reaction. And in Lebanon, late last year, the parliament broke up after a walkout of the leading coalition headed by Hamas. And there was no violent reaction. How many times have we seen radical political change in Lebanon without violence? It is rare.
What is happening? Violent action by large groups seems always to be set on a hair-trigger. And yet here we have unprecedented political change being effected in a very different way.
Are we on the threshold of a new era? Have the people in this region finally grown frustrated with the lack of progress violence has brought in the past? And what is it about these new tactics and techniques that seem to be working, and displacing previous tendencies toward violence?
– This is apparently not a movement supported by high tech, the Internet, or new technology. In Egypt particularly, much was made of Mubarek shutting down Internet access – but it turns out that Egypt is only about 20% online anyway. Granted, the people with the access will no doubt be affluent and therefore influential – but the fact is, the word got out, and people figured out what to do, without benefit of large volumes of instant communications.
– The masses of people demanding change were relatively leaderless. Certainly Western media played its part in trying to find “leaders” to talk to, to get a sense of what’s next – but they seemed to be singularly unsuccessful. There were a lot of interviews with people the reporters happened to be standing next to, people who were willing to talk. But as near as I could see there was no single leader or even group who emerged to make plans, to direct the activity, or even to accept or reject Mubarek’s several attempts to appease the crowds. It just happened. (And when groups did come forward at the starts – remember all the concern about the Muslim Brotherhood – they were generally ignored. The momentum was independent.)
– The violence issue – came up only a few times, and when the reputed Mubarek thugs went galloping through the crowds it was not with guns blazing – but rather with fists and whips. People were hurt certainly, and there were some deaths around the country. Where the highest concentration of tension and foment existed, however, there was remarkable restraint.
In the events of Tunisia, which preceded the Egyptian event, many of these same observations apply. The Army is maintaining peace, took control of day-to-day government, promised to maintain foreign treaties, and to establish the first footholds of democracy through early elections in as little as six months. Not all is sunshine and roses: there are the inevitable recriminations (inevitable? Is anything inevitable these days?), calls for punishing Mubarek, certainly for finding out where a supposed cache of many billions of dollars is hidden. But there are no mobs roaming the streets – people are headed back to work.
But is this a new paradigm for revolutions to come? Are we at a new level of civilized behavior – where we can make the most radical of notions or change a reality simply by sheer force of will?
Chris Anderson (of Wired and TED) retweeted this from Wael Ghonim, the Google employee who nudged the protest along at the beginning then spent two weeks in jail during the action:
“@Ghonim This is Revolution 2.0: No one was a hero because everyone was a hero.”
You could see Ghonim, at the end, standing up to be available to take the torch as he tried to inspire the crowd.
But his insight was correct – the crowd wasn’t having it. They were all heroes – they collectively made the stand that changed their lives forever, effected a change that bullets had not.
Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt. Over the weekend there were incidents in Algeria obviously intended to follow Egypt’s lead, but the police – who were themselves protesting for more pay – tamped down any big crowds. As I write this, reports from Iran that crowds gathering as they did 18 months ago are once again being subjected to violent tactics to repress their actions. There were reports that the people of Bahrain were also planning demonstrations.
Meanwhile no one is resting on their laurels in Egypt – as the clean up continues, actions have already been taken to pave the way for a new constitution and free elections. Some of these things are also happening in Tunisia and Jordan as well .
Can it last? In a world that wants to see change and progress daily – if not hourly – this whole democracy thing is going to take a frustratingly long time. Under constant observation – to paraphrase – the watched democracy never gels – or it seems like it takes forever. Can all the vested interests bide their time and contribute their energies to setting up the orderly processes of election and legislation?
Time will tell. Regardless of the next step, though, we have seen the start of a new pattern. Recall the teenager who breaks from his usual and gets a great grade in school? He has proved he can do it – and thus at least one excuse is gone forever. So it may be in Egypt certainly, and hopefully in other societies in the region as well. It has now been shown that change can occur in peace. So what’s the excuse if that fails?
— Rich Bowers