The revolution has to be organized

It is deeply appealing, and perhaps romantic, to view revolts and uprisings as full-blooded expressions of ‘people power’, in the sense that a mass of people on street protest can topple a government. As someone relatively unattuned to the internal politics of Arab countries, the tumultous recent fortnight of protest in Egypt has come as a surprise – and in the standard media narrative, apparently spontaneous, the ‘lid’ of coercive state power failing, and the kettle finally bubbling over.

Anger and dissent alone, however, are rarely enough. As a vivid Wall Street Journal piece shows, the spark for mass protest in Egypt was meticulously planned by a group of activists. An excerpt:

“They sent small teams to do reconnaissance on the secret 21st site. It was the Bulaq al-Dakrour neighborhood’s Hayiss Sweet Shop, whose storefront and tiled sidewalk plaza—meant to accommodate outdoor tables in warmer months—would make an easy-to-find rallying point in an otherwise tangled neighborhood no different from countless others around the city.

“The plotters say they knew that the demonstrations’ success would depend on the participation of ordinary Egyptians in working-class districts like this one, where the Internet and Facebook aren’t as widely used. They distributed fliers around the city in the days leading up to the demonstration, concentrating efforts on Bulaq al-Dakrour.

“It gave people the idea that a revolution would start on Jan. 25,” Mr. Kamel said.

“In the days leading up to the demonstration, organizers sent small teams of plotters to walk the protest routes at various speeds, to synchronize how separate protests would link up.

“On Jan. 25, security forces predictably deployed by the thousands at each of the announced demonstration sites. Meanwhile, four field commanders chosen from the organizers’ committee began dispatching activists in cells of 10. To boost secrecy, only one person per cell knew their destination.”

The ingredients to success that emerge from this story – a core group of organizers who knew and trusted each other, detailed reconnaissance and a highly specific plan to be executed – make for highly unspontaneous protest. Here, I’m reminded of accounts of the US civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, where the apparent catalysts – Rosa Parks and bus segregation, sit-ins in segregated diners, and so forth – were also being, far from spontaneous events, highly organized ones.

Their mobilization, and eventual success, depended on being able to draw on existing social ties (personal relationships), and institutional affiliations and resources (especially churches). One remnant of an undergraduate class on social movement theory that has remained lodged in my memory is Doug McAdam’s account of the ‘Freedom Summer’ movement in 1964, a summer effort to get out-of-state white college students to participate in a black voter-registration drive in Mississippi, and in doing so, draw wider political attention. The sustained involvement of the student volunteers in the project, despite violent responses from segregationists, has been attributed to their strong personal ties and friendships with other volunteers – pointing to how particular biographical factors influence the likelihood of activism, and ultimately the shape of protest.

This may be little more than a snapshot, but beyond the longer-term structural push and pull factors, or even the immediate events often viewed as triggers, protest (and revolution) depend on a good deal of prior planning by fairly closed organizing groups – taking the rest of us, but not the organizers, by surprise.

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