A View from John Pollock
Rebelbook: A Mix of Technologies Let Dedicated Citizens Change Egypt
Protesters rallied behind a printed petition—but modern technology also played a role.
It started not with a Facebook group or Twitter hashtag but a paper form. The day before what may have been the largest protest in history (and undoubtedly the biggest in Egypt) Mahmoud Badr, spokesman for Tamarod—“Rebel” in Arabic—announced that they had collected 22,134,465 documented signatures on petition sheets calling for President Morsi’s removal and new presidential elections. Although impossible to verify, the numbers Tamarod mobilized on the streets—one military source estimated 14 million Egyptians protested on June 30—told their own story.
It was, joked the famous Egyptian political cartoonist Adeel, “a defeat of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg and a thunderous triumph for Xerox!” In fact, it was much closer to the mix of people simultaneously acting through the street and via modern technology, as I identified in my feature on the Arab Spring (see “Streetbook”).
Tamarod’s playbook will be studied for decades (and is already being emulated, with Tunisians launching a mirror version). The “rebelbook” involved a blend of offline and online activity, using methods ancient and modern, and a sophisticated but focused approach that would have made Italo Calvino proud. Calvino issued Six Memos for the Next Millennium—Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity, and Consistency. The group delivered against each.
Lightness. Tamarod’s small group of founding members, although politically experienced and media savvy, were largely unknown to the Egyptian public, and so they carried no damaging party political baggage. They were also young—and thus implicitly representative of “the youth” so vaunted across the uprisings by elderly politicians but still glaringly absent from positions of real power.
Quickness. The two-month-long campaign moved with lightning speed, taking inspiration not only from historical petitions dating from Egypt’s 1919 revolution and Mohammed ElBaradei’s campaign but also from Askar Kazeboon (“The Military Are Liars”). When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) replaced Mubarak, a combination of state media, a legal ban on criticism of the military, and intransigent denials helped insulate them from public criticism even as ghastly episodes piled up. The litany includes forced virginity testing, the Maspero massacre, the Port Said football stadium incident, and thousands of civilians given military trials, to name a few.
Kazeboon took their message to the street by crowdsourcing both videos and projectors, with flash mobs arriving to project clips onto buildings in heavily trafficked areas. Running as a distributed network, they delivered dozens of shows every day across Egypt. After Morsi came to power, Ikhwan Kazeboon (“The [Muslim] Brotherhood Are Liars”) took up the cudgels.
Exactitude. Tamarod collected so many signatures—and, remarkably in a state with a history of vindictively pursuing its opponents, national ID numbers—by outlining a singular, widely appealing demand: that Morsi should go and new presidential elections be held. Their context—dignity, freedom, social justice, national independence, and the economy—was as appealing as motherhood and apple pie. Even as they gained the kind of traction that would have let them set out a wider policy platform (and potentially alienate some supporters), they rigorously kept their focus, not unlike a single-issue pressure group.
Visibility. Tamarod hit the streets on foot but launched themselves over the airwaves. Their charismatic young founders did the rounds of almost every private television network talk show, racking up dozens if not hundreds of hours of broadcast time on satellite channels—giving the campaign early credibility, and a sense of existing scale and excitement.
Multiplicity. The petition and street protest were the bedrock of the campaign, but a diverse and typically exuberant range of media were soon co-opted, from Tamarod rap to Android app, graffiti to memes and, yes, from Twitter (50,000 followers) to Facebook (half a million “Likes”). By appealing to the widest possible numbers across multiple platforms, they drew in support from across the political spectrum.
Consistency. As their success grew, Tamarod avoided being drawn into wider policy discussions and prevented others from inserting their own agenda. They were, in effect, a platform. They also consistently emphasized that the protest should reflect the “peaceful” spirit of the original uprisings.
Much has been made locally and elsewhere of the new Black Bloc Egypt, inspired by some Western anarchist tactics, and of the Ultras, the fanatical soccer fan groups who have played a major role in opposing regimes throughout the region. On the day, although isolated incidents of violence did occur, both groups kept a much lower profile than many expected. The Ultras deliberately avoided taking a position, and Black Bloc’s presence was marginal, perhaps in response to the sheer volume of peaceful demonstrators. There were, however, distressing cases of sexual harassment, combatted by superb work from groups like Harassmap and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment.
In a week when many of the other world headlines concerned Edward Snowden, I asked one of the most thoughtful commentators on Arab media, Georgetown University scholar and author Adel Iskander, about Egyptian digital surveillance during recent weeks. He pointed out that there is now so much anti-state material across the political spectrum that the security apparatus—inefficient at the best of times—has all but given up on targeting dissidents for such content. (A point that should, perhaps, give a small crumb of comfort elsewhere).
There’s a line, widely attributed to Margaret Mead and popularized by Aaron Sorkin in The West Wing: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Quite how much change Tamarod have wrought on Egypt (and its supposed military Deep State) remains to be seen. But it’s an impressive start, and the recipe they came up may well become a template for protests in the region and farther afield.