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By the People, For the People

The scenes of protest in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011, which then began to spread throughout the Middle East, were as unprecedented as they were unexpected. But as the regimes they sought to oust scrambled to cling onto power, for weeks on end the people demonstrated individual and collective leadership to maintain order, shun violence, provide food and medical assistance and protect their streets.

It was, without question, the Middle East’s Berlin Wall moment. At a little after 6pm local time, as hundreds of thousands filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square on an 18th day of protest against the regime that had ruled Egypt for 31 years, Omar Suleiman leant into the microphone to announce that the president was relinquishing control to the army.

“Listen to the crowd,” said the Al-Jazeera reporter, almost lost for words as the people erupted in celebration. “This is what this means to them. Hosni Mubarak has gone.”

Although the eventual outcome of the Egypt revolution remains in the balance, the events that caused the fall of the Mubarak regime were little short of remarkable. And what made them remarkable was not simply the mobilisation of over two million citizens, who took to streets across the country in protest at escalating poverty and dwindling freedoms, but in the manner they conducted their 18-day rebellion.

Rarely did the protestors resort to violence, and through grassroots organisation they were able to protect their neighbourhoods, distribute much needed food and water, and finally clean up the prodigious amounts of litter from Tahrir Square once the protests had achieved their ends. In many senses, this outpouring of collective energy seemed to be entirely leaderless. In both Egypt and Tunisia, the removal of the regime was the goal, even if there was precious little consensus on what, or who, should follow. This was no Polish-style elevation of Lech Walesa after the fall of communism, or the immediate post-apartheid coronation of Nelson Mandela.

Indeed, a YouGov poll conducted in Egypt in mid-February showed that no single constituency was fighting this battle: when asked to say who should be the next president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Essam al-Erian received the same support as prominent blogger and Google executive Wael Ghonim – at just one per cent.

So, who were the leaders? Spontaneity can take you only so far in an 18-day mass uprising. Hisham Abdel Maguid, the CEO of Epic Systems, a Cairo-based IT company, placed the emphasis on the collective, saying that six to seven groups that began organising on Facebook and “operated like the engineers of the movement, paving the way for others to join.” Abdel Maguid noted that he and many others, who doubted the effectiveness of Facebook-organized protests on January 25th, found themselves stirred to take to the streets and join the vocal, swelling masses on the morning of January 26th. Public faces did emerge as the protests gathered pace. The West were keen to knight Wael Ghonim, a bilingual, new media professional whose influential “We Are All Khaled Sa’ed” Facebook page, in honour of an 18-year-old student killed in police custody, galvanised the community. While it earned him a 12-day detention and a flurry of publicity, Ghonim was a reluctant figurehead.

“Please do not make a hero out of me,” he stated. “I am not a hero. I am someone who has been sleeping for 12 days. The heroes are the ones who went out into the streets.” Others included Ahmed Maher, one of the co-founders of April 6th Youth, who had tried similar protests from 2008 and became prominent organisers after the landmark January 25th demonstrations.
But Ahmad Naguib, who assumed the role of informal press liaison for the protestors, told the New York Times, that “some of the older political figures are trying to impose themselves on the situation. [Yet] there is no leader.”

Those “older figures” included Mohammed el-Baradei, former head of the International Atomic Agency and Amr Mousa, head of the Arab League, but both were late arrivals to the party, playing little more than focal points for a press seeking a clear narrative for the events. Moreover, they weren’t the ones sleeping in front of Parliament or resiliently remaining in Tahrir Square up until Mubarak’s resignation. The success of the protests, rather, depended upon a sense of leaderlessness that granted authority to its people.

Unity on the street

It was this same community action – and by extension collective responsibility – that enabled the protests to maintain its momentum for nearly three weeks and not descend into anarchy. The public ensured law and order by banding together to protect their property. In Cairo, volunteers wore homemade tags reading “Security of the People” while guarding the streets and, according to blogger Wael Abbas, they were able to face down armed looters. Even more incredibly, similar groups were formed to protect museums, including the famed Egyptian Museum, home to Tutenkhamen’s sarcophagus, adjacent to Tahrir Square. Although there was some damage as a handful of thieves managed to break in, Zahi Hawass, chairman of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, praised efforts of the citizens who prevented greater losses. “Many young Egyptians are in the streets trying to stop the criminals,” he wrote on his blog on January 28th.
“Inspectors, young archaeologists, and administrators are calling me from sites and museums all over Egypt to tell me that they will give their life to protect our antiquities.” The same public spirit was behind medical professionals offering ad-hoc clinics for protestors suffering a range of ailments, including injuries during clashes with counter-protestors. Adjacent supermarkets and restaurants gave out free food and water to those who decided to remain in Tahrir Square and maintain their protests. Once Mubarak had gone, and once the protests had evolved into nationwide celebration, new-found civic pride resulted in a spontaneous clear-up operation. “We’re taking care of the square, and then we’ll clean up the whole country,” said Mohammed al- Tayeb.

“This is a beautiful country. Now it’s ours and we’re going to take care of it.” Rheem Desouky added, “We are happy that Mubarak is gone. But the revolution doesn’t stop there. He was just one part of the problem, and we have to clean out the whole system. What better way to start than with our streets?”

The revolutions sweeping the Middle East, which has shaken more than a few assumptions about the region and its people, have demonstrated the power of community action more than individual inspiration. The leadership on display on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Tunis, and other Arab states is in sharp contrast to the authoritarian dictates from their political elites, which has only ever paid lip-service to democracy or collective decision making. Ultimately, perhaps, that’s the greatest lesson of all for the next generation of politicians in the new Middle East; leadership is articulating the power of people, not the practice of limiting it.

  Copyright 2011, Aramex International