Egypt’s revolution began long before 2011

Egyptian protesters participating in a silent stand on June 6, 2011, at Kasr Al Nil bridge. By Zeinab Mohamed, via Flickr.

The starting point for a movement of mass action usually cannot be pinpointed to a single moment or person. This is true of the 2011 Arab Awakening, despite the temptation to credit Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia or Wael Ghonim’s prowess on Facebook in Egypt; such struggles defy simplistic explanations of origin.

“I don’t want to take much credit; the revolution was leaderless,” Wael told 2.8 million listeners on BBC’s Radio 4 recently. Encircled in a tight studio in London’s Portman Place BBC headquarters, along with Paul Mason, economics editor for the BBC program Newsnight, newscaster Andrew Marr had convened the three of us to discuss the topic of “Revolution.” Egypt’s revolution, our conversation made clear, was far from spontaneous. For years, Egyptian activists were sharing knowledge, organizing and learning to think strategically.

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Wael is a 31-year-old Google executive in charge of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa who helped to catalyze the movement centered in Tahrir Square last year. On June 8, 2010, he saw a photograph of a young Egyptian who had been, in his words, “horribly tortured.” The visual proof of Khaled Mohamed Said’s atrocious June 6 fatal beating by secret police in Alexandria struck a chord throughout the  country, in part because the 28-year-old was middle class. Weeping over “the state of our nation and the widespread tyranny,” Wael saw the image as representing “a terrible symbol of Egypt’s condition.” He decided to create a page on Facebook called “Kullena Khaled Said,” or “We Are All Khaled Said.” Some 36,000 joined the page on the first day, many writing comments, and thus a conversation began to occur that could not otherwise have taken place under Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

Explaining that he had never been an activist before, Wael wrote in the first person and in colloquial Egyptian dialect, rather than classical Arabic, with “a lack of conspiracy.” He avoided using political phraseology and wrote personally as “an ordinary Egyptian devastated by the brutality inflicted on Kahled Said and motivated to seek justice.”

Wael credits Mohamed Eisa with sending to the page’s email account the idea for the “Silent Stands,” a critically important tactic used in the build-up to what would eventually become a national movement. The concept was that individuals would stand in a human chain for one hour, wearing black and carrying a Qur’an or a Bible for quiet reading. “We wanted to send out a clear message that although we were both sad and angry, we were nevertheless nonviolent,” Wael writes in his new book, Revolution 2.0. Reckoning that they could not be arrested for wearing black, they started their first single-file stand at 5 p.m. on June 18, 2010, calling it “A Silent Stand of Prayer for the Martyr Khaled Said along the Alexandria Corniche.” Purposely designed to circumvent physical confrontation with the security apparatus, Wael writes, “The goal was for members to summon the courage to take positive action to the street.”

The next stand was in Cairo. They carried out this type of vigil five times, with participants turning their backs to the street, sometimes with three or four kilometers of silently praying Egyptians. A thousand people took part in Khaled Said’s public funeral. The April 6 Youth Movement also organized an event to denounce Said’s murder in Cairo, and Wael’s hopes rose.

The April 6 movement had been launched in 2008. Among its Internet-savvy organizers was Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old civil engineer, who, in March of that year, urged young Egyptians to support the 26,000 textile workers planning to strike on April 6 in the town of Mahalla al-Kobra. For more than a year, workers had been striking across Egypt, protesting high inflation and unemployment, but their actions were not coordinated. When the Mahalla strikes were violently repressed in March, with police killings of strikers, Maher and his allies called a nationwide general strike for April 6. Maher was brutally tortured by the police a few weeks after the strike. “Security forces were in disbelief,” Wael says. “How had opposition youth groups emerged without any political affiliations, Islamist or other?”

Naming themselves after the April 6 action, members of the movement participated in online tutorials with organizers of Otpor! (Resistance!), the Serbian student movement that unified 18 competing political parties and the general population to bring down Slobodan Milošević in 2000. The April 6 movement even sent one of their group, Mohamed Adel, to Belgrade in 2009. Learning from Otpor trainers about how they had organized, and why it was critically important to avoid violence, Mohamed came back talking about “unity, discipline, and planning,” carrying films and teaching aids. The April 6 movement modeled its logo after Otpor’s and adopted Otpor’s organizational approach, in which all were equal, making it harder for authorities to pick off so-called leaders. By 2009, some 76,000 were involved and posting on its Facebook page.

Practical and tangible lessons came into Egypt over a period of years through a variety of channels. The Otpor leaders had formed a network of activists that included experienced veterans from nonviolent struggles in South Africa, the Philippines, Lebanon, Georgia and Ukraine. The Egyptians tapping into Otpor were therefore learning from a global interchange. Scholars Maria Stephan and Stephen Zunes visited Cairo in 2009 to work with liberal academicians and reform-minded civil-society actors. For five years, some Egyptian activists and bloggers had been meeting with people central to nonviolent movements across the world, comparing notes. This is how they met the Serbian veterans.

Seeing Tunisia’s success, the April 6 movement sought to capitalize on Egypt’s annual Police Day—a January 25, 2011, holiday that would commemorate a police revolt suppressed by British colonial authorities. Wael Ghonim used Facebook to marshal support. If 50,000 people were willing to commit to march on the day he posted, the demonstration would be held. More than twice that number signed up. On January 25, the numbers turning out in Alexandria, Cairo, and Suez took police by surprise. April 6 made common cause with Mohamed ElBaradei’s supporters, some liberal and leftist parties, and the youth wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Wael Ghonim tweeted:

Pray for #Egypt. Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die #Jan25.

On January 28, the Day of Rage, Mubarak’s regime blocked the Internet for five days. Egyptians outwitted this measure by relaying through other outlets. A print shop reproduced a 26-page pamphlet for instant circulation. As police used tear gas and water cannon against demonstrators, the pamphlet, “How to Protest Intelligently,” warned people not to disseminate the plan through Facebook or Twitter, because both were monitored by the Interior Ministry. Listing the democracy movement’s demands and calling for tactical unity, it asked for “strategic civil disobedience” in winning over of the police and army “to the side of the people.” It called for disciplined, positive slogans and language. As demonstrations spread across the country, some of the biggest rallies occurred when the Internet was down.

Social media alone are not causative. Nonviolent movements have always appropriated the most advanced technologies available in order to spread their messages. When fighting with the force of ideas, rejecting violence or militarized methods, the reframing of old grievances as wrongs that might now be  corrected requires argumentation and teaching. People must be helped to see that deep-rooted predicaments can be amenable to direct action. Wael agreed when I made this point on the BBC: “We’re trying to give too much credit to social media, because it’s a new thing,” he said.

Indeed, far more important than media, pre-existing conditions or the political culture in the Arab rebellions were two other factors that helped give rise to revolt: 1) The existence of a civic capacity for sustained action and protracted long-term resistance—mosques, churches, labor unions, networks of professional and other organizations, and groups that have gone underground. 2) The sharing of lessons and knowledge from other movements, and the dissemination of historical insights among guiding activist intellectuals. Political thinking affects strategic planning. Both of these forces involve human agency—individual and collective.

On the 17th day of protest in Tahrir Square, the waves of strikes that had been ongoing since 2006 widened. They spread throughout all of Egypt.  After 18 days—January 25 to February 11—Mubarak resigned from the presidency, his legitimacy destroyed.

Egyptians had been organizing themselves long before they would fill Tahrir Square. Enough of them in sufficiently dispersed centers of society had obtained the knowledge and a level of preparedness to build a national mobilization of noncooperation. This included the country’s dispirited civil-society groups. It included young activists, some of  whom had been learning from experience abroad and organizing through online social networks. It included working-class people who had been trying to improve their lot by striking. Ultimately, the refusal of laborers to show up for work in the days just before the Mubarak resignation was the last prop to be pulled away from Mubarak’s regime. Working in diffuse groups, Egyptians knew how to organize, how to withdraw cooperation and how to handle the unexpected. As they confront Mubarak’s successors, they will need this knowledge for their continuing struggle.

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