THINGS TO LOOK FOR IN A BIG DEMONSTRATION



BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

(as published in the Bangkok Post, February 12, 2011)


Every uprising is different. But given the shared human capacity for hope, fear, courage and transformative change, certain patterns emerge. Whenever unarmed citizens take to the streets to challenge an entrenched regime, the courage and danger of the quixotic, asymmetrical quest strikes a common chord.

Already the 2011 uprising in Egypt has been compared to Iran in 1979, China in 1989, while it also bears some resemblance to people power revolts in Thailand and the Philippines. Tunisia’s recent upheaval was perhaps the most direct inspiration, but similarities with all of the above can be seen even though each upheaval unfolds in its own way.

In Cairo, crowd dynamics, crowd control, random chaos and organized resistance are playing out in ways that are not entirely unfamiliar.

Here are some things to look for:

-Truth as a casualty. In social conflict, the media comes under pressure from day one. Competing narratives battle it out, pitting the storytelling skills of the authorities against those of the protestors. What starts with banners and slogans against the state-controlled press begins to even out as the story becomes too big to ignore. Thereafter smoke and fire follow, with heartfelt cries for justice and moments of startling clarity amidst outright deceptions and cover-ups.

-TV stations as key links. Television is so effective a transmitter of information (including mis-information, mis-direction, enforced taboos and telling zones of silence) that it can, even under the boot of state control, inadvertently fan the flames of nationwide protest. Satellite and Internet TV offer alternate views. Al Jazeera, despite being banned and burned down in Cairo, has done a superlative job covering recent events.

-Orwellian censorship. The odd scent of censored news doesn’t pass the sniff test. That which was intended to pacify instead has an incendiary effect. When Egypt state TV blamed the unrest on foreigners, the conspicuous failure to mention the crowd’s singular demand for Mubarak to step down resounded louder than all the empty talk.

-Reporters and citizen journalists at risk. Be it reflexive fear of exposure or simply a vengeful way of blaming the messenger, dedicated truth-tellers often get roughed up as public disturbances unfold.

-Journalists, local and foreign, have different roles to play and different audiences to speak to, thus offering divergent views on the significance of what is happening.

-Information redundancy. If one technology fails, or is blocked, multiple ways of transmitting the news remain. The information ecosystem includes everything from cellphones to landlines, from email to hand-painted banners, chants, slogans and word of mouth.

-Social networking is not a revolt. It may be the case that messages sent out by a handful of cyber activists were critical in getting young people out on the streets of Cairo on January 25, 2011, but there is a also a great deal of wishful thinking, a kind of wide-eyed digital evangelism on the part of young netizens who would like to believe that the technologies that happened to come of age when they were teens are innately good and going to rock the world. One influential activist, a Google employee, naively compared Facebook tycoon Mark Zuckerberg to Mahatma Gandhi.

-Technology is neutral. As with the advent of moveable type, the telephone or television, new technology makes new patterns of interaction possible, but it’s not necessarily on the side of the angels. The hype about the “Twitter revolution” in Iran in 2009 propagated by the US State Department and sensational media mavens has since been debunked, just as Google’s clumsy maneuvers in China reveal a conflation of ad agency business with utopian idealism.

-Surveillance. Digitized information transmission and storage creates an information trail that permits surveillance and processing of self-incriminating detail at a level that the KGB and Stasi could only dream about. Everyone’s recording everyone else.

-Politics and media have always gone hand in hand, but today the tango is being speeded up, shaped and shifted by an abundance of actionable information in real time. The fact that the Internet was “turned off” by the Egyptian authorities speaks to the fear of politicized networking and unobstructed information flow. Ditto for the US reaction to Wikileaks.

- A world in which Internet access is universal is not a level playing field. The US may be skittish about security leaks but is otherwise bullish on the Internet. In contrast, less powerful governments react to the Internet in more tyrannical ways, fearing that which they have yet to master. Americans have long since mastered the art of co-existing with free speech. Washington has long been adept at producing PR, spinning away its troubles, maintaining a monopoly on violence and otherwise retaining political control, all of which gives it an edge in the brave new world of cyberspace.

-When a large crowd manages to gather against all odds, success breeds success. The mathematics of it can be exponential. If ten, a hundred, a thousand brave individuals get away with the impossible, a million might follow.

-Something in the air. When a large crowd asserts itself in a public space, it creates political space and with it new political breezes. An indefinable “something in the air” can kick-start a major uprising. Under the natural evolution of such circumstances, the crowd is likely to be diverse and composed of people from all walks of life.

-When the numbers soar, one is tempted to think one is on the right side of history, however illusory that aura might be. Suddenly, there’s a seductive chance to hit society’s reset button.

-The art of the unexpected. Protests, partly of necessity, burst forth without much advance warning, turning the table on status quo power arrangements at home and abroad. Power brokers scramble to catch up with footsteps on the street, often awkwardly, suddenly face to face with fearless discontents who can no longer be haughtily dismissed or ignored.

-Play-acting is part of the game. An arrogant regime may show an unexpected willingness to talk and make concessions to buy time and seek an escape route, not unlike a rich man accosted in an alley by an angry gang of paupers.

-Order in chaos. A diverse, unscripted crowd, though difficult to control, is not in a state of chaos but subtly governed by unspoken laws based on shared idealism, cultural assumptions and common habits of mind.

-In the tentative early stages of a demonstration, mass demands are likely to focus on a single goal, but as violent reprisals further energize and infuriate, crowd demands are likely to escalate and multiply.

-Absolute dedication to non-violence gives a mass demonstration both integrity and coherence. Crowds that harbor snipers and armed militants are corrupted, corroded and betrayed from within. While a moral crowd must police itself, and protect itself, it needs be on guard against violence from within and without.

-Crowd leadership. Who shall lead? Shall violence be met with passive resistance, withdrawal or action? Will extremists allow moderates to win the day? When a core leadership at last emerges, the crowd is apt to lose its innocence; rebels become politicians, for better or worse.

-Not all demonstrations are good, not all entrenched bureaucracies are bad. As street fighting-weary denizens of Bangkok know all too well, crowds can be uplifting and crowds can be menacing, sometimes both at the same time. When activists adopt colors and compete with rival activists, the pretence of unity and ability to speak on behalf of the people is gone.

-Big demonstrations in a nation’s capital assume a symbolic importance that reverberates into the hinterland, as was seen with the student-led protests in Beijing in 1989 that inspired sympathetic protests in many cities across China. On a more negative note, the torching of buildings in Bangkok in May 2010 stimulated copycat actions in several distant provinces on the part of aligned agitators.

-Hijacking the crowd. Non-violent social action directed at social injustice may be entirely well-intended, but there are unexpected consequences. Peaceful demonstrators can be out-muscled or hijacked by more ruthless elements with a narrow clarity of vision and superior organization skills.

-Cultural identity is up for grabs. When willfully distorted and narrowly defined by fundamentalists and xenophobes, cultural definitions reduce freedom. In Egypt, Mubarak has fostered a cult of Pharaonic overtones, eliding his identity with the history of a proud nation.

-Family ties. As Egypt’s new Vice-President Omar Suleiman says, “We all respect Mubarak as father.” When a politician under fire is compared to a parent, the implication is that any resistance would be unfilial, if not futile.

-Foreign meddling. To blame problems on foreigners is a common enough diversionary tactic, 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 backed and bolstered by Washington with billions of US taxpayer dollars.

-Army neutrality. In times of civic distress, 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 instrument to be used in a citizen crackdown.

-Lack of an exit strategy. Shared risks taken in pursuit of common dreams create intoxicating bonds of comradeship. Thus it is difficult to convince those who have been energized by the whiff of danger and hypnotic pull of the crowd to yield to authorities or cede the “holy” occupied ground.

-The drug-like high of a being caught up in a human whirlwind that is part carnival, part killing field, set out in the open under the sun and the moon, makes the idea of packing up and going home seem like a betrayal, if not surrender. This was evident in Bangkok last May when rank and file members of the red shirt demonstration refused to budge even as approaching gunfire resounded down the road. There were vocal wails of disappointment when the red shirt leaders threw in the towel on May 19, 2010 and surrendered to police.

-Follow the money. Rent-a-mobs paid for by powerful patrons complicate the mix. Taking money and marching orders from billionaires, or their proxies, may allow for a good canteen and satellite uplinks, but it is a short-sighted strategy that erodes the democratic credentials of a movement in the long run.

-Class cleavages. Even if one knew nothing about the years of torture and brutal police controls in Egypt, the obscene corruption of Hosni Mubarak, -personal worth estimated worth between 40 and 70 billion dollars tells you all you need to know about why so many people, and not just the poor, want him out of power.

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