Cunningham: Every Uprising is Different

Philip J Cunningham writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

Every uprising is different. But given shared human strengths and weaknesses, the dynamics of crowd behavior, crowd control, and crowd chaos play out in ways that strike a common chord. Having written about popular protest, cultural clashes and street marches in East Asia for two decades now, there are certain commonalities that come to fore as the events in Cairo, as reported by Al Jazeera and other Internet sources, unfold in real time on my computer screen.

-Truth is an early casualty of any conflict, and the media comes under pressure almost immediately. Competing media narratives diverge wildly, usually the storytelling of the government pitted against the storytelling of the protesters. Distortions to the truth range from outright lies and censorship, to mudslinging, misdirection and deliberate prevarications. There is obfuscation and startling clarity. There are also moments of heartfelt expression, courageous calls for change and sometimes shocking clandestine reports from the frontlines of the conflict.

-Television stations are a coveted resource for those seeking political control. State television, even when it is reduced to producing propaganda, is such an effective transmitter of information, (including mis-information, mid-direction and gaping silences) in regards to an escalating crisis that it can inadvertently help fan the flames of nationwide protest. Even when the details of a mass incident in progress are garbled or distorted by heavy-handed censorship, the fingerprints of the heavy-handedness are visible for all to see. The odd, Orwellian quality of manipulated news, what with its revved up nationalistic fervor, glaring contradictions, threatening reassurances and a rather too loud pleading of innocence, is politically charged enough to betray meta-truths about the abject nature of the regime.

-Journalists are at risk. Be it for their truth-telling capacity or simply a vengeful way of blaming the messenger, journalists often get roughed up as public disturbances unfold. Journalists are detained and denied access to key locations, often in the name of safety. Western journalists are especially easy to find as they tend to hole up in luxury hotels where they are subject to surveillance, harassment, and confiscation of film, memory chips, cameras, etc.

-Al Jazeera TV. The upstart TV station based in Qatar has come of age, although it observes, like every news service on the earth, certain ground rules and avoids certain sensitive topics. Although largely ignored by US cable TV providers, Al Jazeera Internet streaming can reach a truly global audience, providing a service to viewers whose television and cable service is tilted in favor of the national agendas of the traditional media giants such as CNN, BBC and ABC. In what might be understood as a backhanded compliment, Al Jazeera has been accused of meddling by the Egyptian government.

-The Internet. Online news services, specialist blogs, Twitter and social networking tools have helped get the story out as well. Advanced information technologies, and the costly, complex devices required to view the news on, are convenient when they work well, and they work especially well across borders at global distances, but remain largely out of the reach of the poor and can be rendered momentarily worthless when the plug gets pulled, as was the case in Egypt when the Internet was turned off. The technology itself is neutral, and there are various ingenious ways to get around blocking, but despite the freedom of expression hype, modern tools are no different from the printing press or radio in the sense that they can be used to further things good and bad and can be used to promote the cause of either side through skillful public relations and information control.

-Word of mouth. Fortunately, the information ecosystem is full of diverse platforms and incidental redundancies; if one technology fails, or is blocked, other ways of transmitting information remain. This includes everything from hardy, traditional technologies such as landline telephones and fax machines to hand-painted banners, chants, slogans and word of mouth.

-Rumors. Rightly or wrongly, rumors take the place of reliable information when reliable information is hard to come by. Rumors serve to excite people to action. The more severe information control at home, the more likely agitated citizens are to turn to the latest gossip on the street.

-Crowd dynamics. When a large crowd manages to gather and assemble, especially in an environment where political gatherings are generally banned and ruthlessly suppressed, success breeds success. If ten, a hundred, a thousand brave individuals get away with the impossible, it inspires others to follow.

-Something in the air. When a large crowd asserts itself in public space and coalesces on symbolic ground, a window is opened to possible political change, an opportunity not normally evident. An indefinable “something in the air,” combined with concrete opportunities for assembly, adequate channels for expression and a broad consensus that change is desirable if not necessary, helps kick-start a major public uprising. When this takes the form of staking out contested ground in the heart of the capital its significance is magnified in a way that enables a crowd to grow exponentially. Under the natural evolution of such circumstances, the crowd is likely to be diverse and composed of people from all walks of life.

-Safety in numbers. When the numbers soar to the hundred of thousands, not only do individual members of the crowd begin to feel uncannily safe –however illusory that protective aura might be – but it gives rise to a sense that a historic turning point is at hand. Suddenly, due to a confluence of rising frustration, mutual reinforcement, strength in numbers and chance developments, there’s a perception that an unprecedented and largely unexpected overhaul to the status quo just might be possible. It’s a bid to hit society’s reset button.

-The art of the unexpected. If a protest takes root without much advance warning in a challenging environment, it has succeeded so swiftly and against such odds as to not be taken seriously at first. Rather it is treated like a fluke, something to be haughtily dismissed by men accustomed to the privileges of extreme wealth and supreme power.

-Play-acting is part of the game. Regimes under siege will resort to all sorts of cagey strategies; everything from arrogant claims of noblesse oblige, to lying about their true aims and intentions in order to buy time with which to restore power and sweep up the opposition. “Your demands have been answered,” newly named Vice President Omar Suleiman pre-emptively announced as a clearly unplacated crowd began to gather in earnest on Tahrir Square in Cairo on February 3, 2011.

-Offers of superficial change. Powerful figures will feign ignorance, sympathy, offer up partial apologies and assume a quasi-humble posture in hopes of buying time to regain power. Hosni Mubarak could make a fiction of stepping down by appointing a loyal flunky to act in his stead. Even political theatre that went so far as to appoint an unknown to power, or even a moderate opposition figure would not necessarily be evidence of serious systemic change so long as the levers of control and the powers behind the curtain remained the same.

-Insincere concessions. All sorts of promises might be made with the aim of diffusing popular rage rather than truly negotiating or acceding to popular demands. Then, once the crowd was dispersed and the security forces regained the upper hand, a purge of the opposition would follow. Then the powers that be could quietly re-impose something close to the old, unjust status quo, with the rich as rich as ever, and the police-security elite as powerful as before.

-Blatant intimidation. “Police brutality is… a daily occurrence,” but hidden, according to a US State Department cable made available by Wikileaks. The sort of abuse that was once hidden in police stations, Interior Ministry facilities, and black sites used for extraordinary renditions at the behest of the US during “peaceful” times is now out in the open. Increasingly, callous tactics and shocking abuses of power are taking place in the streets for all to see. Speeding security vans knocking people off their feet have been caught on camera, Molotov cocktails have been thrown at protesters by regime-supporting thugs, while agents-provocateur infiltrate the crowd posters of Mubarak, knives, clubs, even have resorted to using horses and camels to intimidate.

-Crowd solidarity. Crowds look unitary but are in fact a diverse mix. Some are strident believers in a cause, others vaguely sympathetic, some are opportunistic, others just curious, some full of rage, others full of joy, while others still are just hapless commuters and bystanders who get in the way.

-Crowd leadership. When the names and faces of leaders of an uprising are not evident, the confusion makes the movement vulnerable to manipulation or dissolution, even as it lends strength to the impression that the gathering is truly a spontaneous mass movement. When not a scripted disciplined, partisan effort, or a expertly directed demonstration, a crowd is near impossible to control. But a large diverse crowd, even if innocent by its very lack of organization, is vulnerable to being hijacked by better organized, and perhaps more ruthless elements within.

-Popular demands. In the tentative, early stages, crowd demands are likely to focus on a simple, simplistic plea, such as calling for dialogue or removal of a single leader. As tensions rise and the impasse grows, and as violent reprisals further energize the mob, crowd demands are likely to escalate and bifurcate, with incipient divisions within the crowd coming to the fore. Who shall lead? Shall violence be met with passive resistance or violent action? Shall the extremists or moderates be allowed to win the day? Who are the real patriots? Factions will be portrayed as insufficiently moderate or insufficiently radical.

-Every crowd is different. As demonstration-weary denizens of Bangkok know all too well, crowds can be uplifting and crowds can be menacing, sometimes both at the same time. When popular protests split into competing groups, and take on “colors” as happened in Thailand in recent years with competing red shirts and yellow shirts and blue shirts and black shirts, the pretence of unity is gone and something akin to gang warfare takes its place.

-Provinces take cues from the metropole. Big demonstrations in a nation’s capital take on a symbolic importance that reverberates to the hinterland. The student-led protests in Beijing in 1989 inspired sympathetic protests in many cities across China, most prominently in Shanghai and Chengdu.

-Who speaks for the crowd? A crowd divided amongst its own, cannot articulate demands, respond to dialogue and react to concessions in a coherent way. The very definition of what the crowd wants shifts and fractures. If dialogue is taking place, it is unlikely to be fruitful in the face of rising expectations for success on the side with the upper hand.

-Lack of an exit strategy. Given the emotional momentum of shared risk, shared dreams and the bonds of instant comradeship in the midst a sea of strangers, it becomes increasingly difficult to break up the party and leave, especially in a spontaneous gathering that depends on each individual to play a role. Inside a demonstration, freedom of movement is proscribed, food and drink depends on kindness of strangers, sanitation is a mess and living in the open under the sun and moon takes its toll.

-Crowd momentum. It can be to surprisingly difficult to convince those who have put their lives on the line, or those who have been energized by the hypnotic pull of crowd dynamics, to cede the “holy” ground, even though they suffer physical discomfort and may be at personal risk. After giving their all to a cause, a human whirlwind that is part carnival, part killing fields, it seems a betrayal, especially if partisan blood has already been spilled, to yield to the other side. Even under less tragic conditions, it is hard to break from the pull of a genial, dedicated crowd and acknowledge defeat by going home.

-Crowd compliance. Even when the crowd leaders call on their supporters to leave, compliance is reluctant at best. Crowds are notoriously fickle and difficult to rope in. This was especially evident in Bangkok, Thailand last year when rank and file members of the red shirt demonstration refused to budge even with gunfire resounding down the road. There was visible shock and vocal wails of disappointment on the part of hard-core red shirt followers -mostly older folk visiting Bangkok from the provinces who had faithfully sat in the street for weeks by the red-shirt sound stage- when their leaders threw in the towel on May 19, 2010 and surrendered to police.

-Follow the money. Crowds crowing for a particular leader, especially if that leader is a billionaire and wily political operator, undermine their own legitimacy as they can be seen to be serving vested interests, and perhaps even pecuniary self-interest.

-Hijacking the crowd. The positive energy directed at social injustice can be appropriated and even hijacked to support one particular faction or ambitious political leader or a cultural or religious agenda to the detriment of the stated ideals. For example, while the pro-Thaksin activists in Bangkok might style their activities as being “pro-democracy”, and their rhetoric made ample use of the “D” word, but in terms of hierarchical loyalties, they nonetheless share something in common with the pro-Mubarak crowds in Cairo. Taking money and marching orders from powerful political figures, or their proxies, erodes the democratic credentials of a movement.

-Cultural arguments. Culture is distorted and re-defined, providing a refuge for scoundrels. Whether it be Japan’s “unique” culture arguments justifying the interring at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo the “souls” of pro-imperial Japan warriors, or phony arguments about Japan being a whale-meat eating society, cultural values are invoked to inhibit debate and hide ulterior motives. In Egypt, Mubarak has apparently created a cult of Pharonic overtones, making his identity and that of a proud nation seem like one.

-Family ties. As Egypt intelligence supremo Omar Suleiman says, “We all respect Mubarak as father.” He goes on to suggest it is not in the culture of good Egyptians to revolt. When a politician under fire is compared to one’s mother or father, the implication is that the dear leader is in an inviolable position, and that any resistance would be unfilial, if not futile. This presumptuous argument is deliberately fostered and foisted upon the people in order to inculcate the notion that the people owe their nurturance and very existence to the exalted leader.

-Foreign meddling. During an uprising, it’s almost certain there will be allegations of foreign involvement and hidden plots, and in this interconnected world it is easy enough to find traces of foreign involvement, especially on the part of powerful intelligence services. To make such accusations is a common enough diversionary tactic for an unpopular regime under siege, though in the case of Egypt it’s a nakedly hypocritical complaint. The Mubarak regime itself is the product of 30 years of foreign meddling as it has been supported, bolstered and groomed by Washington to the tune of one or two billion dollars a year, partly with the aim of “buying” peace with Israel, courtesy of the US taxpayer.

-Army neutrality. At such a juncture, the army’s strength is paradoxically best shown by utter restraint, strict neutrality and the ability to restrain violent outbreaks without resorting to violence. If and when the army draws blood, it becomes tainted by perceptions of partisanship and weakens its legitimacy as protector of all citizens. The army is too blunt an i
nstrument to be used in a crackdown.

-Class cleavages. Even if one knew nothing about the years of torture, mysterious disappearances and brutal police controls in Egypt, the obscene corruption of Mubarak, -personal worth estimated worth 40 billion- tells you all you need to know why so many people, and not just the poor, hate him. The gross inequities of the status quo and corruption of the ruling class indeed need to be challenged as they are rightfully being challenged right now.

Philip J Cunningham

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8 Responses

  1. I would disagree a bit about the internet’s role vs other media. With traditional newspapers or TV there are a limited number of sources which need to be controlled. With the internet everyone with a digital camera and a computer can put their story out for all to see. It makes it harder to conceal things without shutting down the internet. It really makes a qualitative difference.

  2. .
    “The army is too blunt an instrument to be used in a crackdown.”

    Looking more broadly than just this circumstance, a foreign army is even less utilitarian. It is too blunt to win hearts and minds during an occupation, too blunt to implement reconstruction and nation-building, too blunt for most anything but war-fighting.

  3. Defining the uprising and comparing it to events of the past is an interesting exercise in analyzing the specific type of uprising taking place in Egypt. But in fact it is different. The ability to communicate has changed the game and the people have a slight advantage. They have access to almost the entire world. The leaders have the same technology but it does not afford them the same advantage. They behave the same way threatened leaders have always behaved. The protestors benefit more from the ability to communicate. My hope is that it keeps the people unified and able to maintain their original purpose. Highjacking the revolution to serve other purposes is possible. The longer it goes on the worse it will get. Concessions are made and there are attempts to reconcile. Deals are cut but not meant to be kept. Before we define what’s happening, let us hope that it works.

  4. Maybe we should also add to this list, our own biases and expectations.

    That there might not be a significant population of Tories, in either the Egyptian or Iranian case. The twittering class doesn’t necessarily represent the overall people, much as it may be we can identify with them. The masses don’t speak even bad English, but its those who speak it reasonable well that get interviewed on TV.

    One open-minded reporter/source in Cairo did a number of broader interviews on feelings toward Mubarak and found a recurrent mention of the word “Father.”

    No, we have to be careful not project here. The notion of The People wanting to govern themselves isn’t something I’d take for granted. Having some strong, benevolent, father figure is historically more the norm. In fact, the motif of the good sheperd/caudillo/pharoh/Big Daddy, taking care of his unwashed children/sheep is downright Christian.

    In the US, there are plenty of elites, or for obvious self-serving needs, gravitate to this model as well. Isn’t a nation far better equipped and able to take care of itself if it can just make a (good, right, and sensitive) decision and DO IT, without having to develop a consensus amongst the whole, breathtaking stupid herd?

    What we have to remember, is that many, if not most people, buy into this sort of thing at some level. Certainly, with less educated people in places that’ve known nothing else.

  5. This mass uprising is an embryonic civil war, one with a government and related institutions on one side but without substantial existing parties facing it that can carry the crisis into a full scale civil war and a battle for state power. That is, unless the reports coming out are hiding somethings big. But if the organized opposition were really there, or to the extent that they are, one would expect them to counter the rumors and false reports that naturally and willfully arise in these kinds of circumstances, and thus offer the masses some kind of clear political direction.

    Mubarak is no dummy. He is smart and prideful enough to recognize the nature of the opposition, and hence to try to wait for this disparate movement’s upward momentum to break. At that point, he believes it likely that the army, bureacracy and politicians that have distanced themselves will swing back into the fold, preferring wounded order to anarchy. Whether events will play out to his favor is to be seen.

    While there are an array of social class and political forces in the opposition, this appears to be a classical example of what happens in the absence of experienced political and organizational leadership having developed reputations and some following in advance. But then, perhaps, this crisis will turn out to be Egypt’s 1905, a launching pad for the next round.

  6. Insightful: either an embryonic civil war or one that is stillborn. All things considered, Mubarak will be able to ride out out this wave of enthusiasm, aided by a kinder and gentler (more subtle) repression, and business will resume as usual. M has little time remaining on his clock and his son is not sellable, so the status quo will simply need to regurgitate a successor who’ll make all the appropriate promises/gestures, swinging smoothly back to business as usual. Stability will triumph.

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