Spontaneous? No Way! Organizers Speak in Egypt

Tahrir Square
Tahrir Square

Houston You know the old saying, “If I had a hundred dollars for every time,” blah, blah, blah.  We’ll if I had a $100 for every time Anderson Cooper or someone on CNN or Fox or any of the other pundits, reporters, or talking heads told the story of the demonstrations in Cairo being the product of a “spontaneous” uprising of the Egyptian people, then ACORN International would have the money to open a half-dozen new cities around the world this year.

Finally, since President Mubarak and Vice-President Suleiman were trying to spin a story from their recent negotiations that there were an emerging consensus shared by representatives of the young organizers behind the rising of the masses, some of the local organizers finally came out from around the screen of silence to more explicitly detail how they had set the stage and sequencing for this historic drama.  And, despite the attempt of the New York Times reporter, David Kirkpatrick, to try and shoehorn Facebook and all of the new tech tools into the factual accounts to fit into the modernist, American-touched narrative he would like to tell, these are simply down and dirty stories of exceptionally good, shoe leather, street sense, and solid strategic community and political organizing.

Here are the elements they have now revealed:

  • The core cadre was about 15 organizers all less than 30 years old forged from a variety of oppositional parties and experiences.
  • The coalition was held together on a non-ideological and non-partisan framework of uncompromising opposition to the current regime based on a sense of what one organizer in the video called the “spirit of Tunisia:”  the sense of movement that something was possible now that might not have been possible before.
  • Old school organizers with proven skills whether from the Muslim Brotherhood or the Communist Party in Egypt were critical because they knew how to organize from their years as persecuted minorities despite the fact that they lacked a mass base and in the words of one young, feminist organizer, would be unlikely to pull “10%” support if allowed on the ballot.  This was a pragmatic coalition.
  • Communications, it seems, were rudimentary.  The messages in the tree hole or posters plastered after midnight in communications from past rebellions were replaced by some connections via Facebook or Google Talk, but these were only ways to secure safe conversation and contact, not to actually move and organize people.  I know this seems obvious to organizers, but it’s important not to be confused.
  • The organizers were aspiring middle class professionals it seems, but the masses that moved were unique compared to past efforts because in the words of one of the organizers, this time they went to the poor neighborhoods rather than the middle class areas as they had in the past.  [Starting in a poor neighborhood was itself an experiment. “We always start from the elite, with the same faces,” Mr. Lotfi said. “So this time we thought, let’s try.”] And, the poor and working class areas in these “field tests” followed them out of their houses, cafes, and businesses into the streets and didn’t stop until they were done and the organizers outlasted and out lapped by the people.
  • The organizers worked in teams.  Smart!
  • The organizers recognized that surveillance was a part of their lives and political work so they continually masked their plans and feinted with false locations, targets, and so forth to confuse the police state.  Shrewd!
  • The organizers finally used real, bread and butter issues not democracy and pie in the sky, and to no organizers’ surprise, people responded by putting boots on the bricks:  “Instead of talking about democracy, Mr. Lotfi said, they focused on more immediate issues like the minimum wage. “They are eating pigeon and chicken and we are eating beans all the time,” they chanted. “Oh my, 10 pounds can only buy us cucumbers now, what a shame what a shame.”  Yes, Virginia, self-interest still has to be mixed with aspirations to create the chemistry of social change.
  • The organizers moved within the intensity of crowd and it’s energy understanding that you cannot simply repeat the same drill day after day and scheduled the big events on Tuesdays and Fridays to allow the crowd to reenergize.  This is brilliant and shows these folks were real police…amateurs never get this, but professionals know!

Enough said.

These folks are organizers not keyboard punchers, and they are writing the case study on how to organize within the moment of a movement the changes that matter.  Nothing can take away the spirit and courage of the masses of people moving to the call, but people are being served by some great organizers and this is where the future of Egypt and many other countries will be determined.

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Egypt

egypt_protest_350Toronto If there was ever a more dramatic case study of the political impact of protest on or off the grid of internet, telecommunications, and social networking, the world saw it on the streets of Egypt yesterday. It was as if there were a perfect laboratory experiment on what would happen if the only avenues for protest were “old school” removing the variable of communications.

The Times’ Matt Richel had a fascinating quote in the paper on the country’s success in shutting down the grid:

The shutdown may actually be creating more unrest, said Prof. Mohammed el-Nawawy of the communications department at Queens University of Charlotte. Professor el-Nawawy, a native of Egypt who has been studying its blogging culture, said he had been talking by land line to activists in the country who told him that people who might have otherwise expressed their frustration on blogs or Facebook were heading outside instead.

“The government has made a big mistake taking away the option at people’s fingertips,” he said. “They’re taking their frustration to the streets.” “

In a flip over of the old Yellow Pages / Bell ad, when your fingers can’t do the walking, then your feet has best be stepping. Clearly there were hundreds of thousands in the streets of Cairo turning the megacity into an urban war zone for streets and bridges.

The other amazing observation in the Richel article is the paradox that Egypt’s relatively liberal and open policy concerning telecommunications and the internet ironically made it more possible to achieve this kind of shutdown of the grid, precisely because the countries did not expect it. They were unprepared and did not build in back doors and workarounds in the event of suppression of service. Many less trusting systems in other countries where the worst is more often expected have created patchwork systems.

In a final note for those who rightly should be keeping score at home, props to the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which once again is at the forefront of monitoring these intersections of politics and technology and was invaluable in monitoring traffic here in Egypt like they were earlier in looking at Google’s experience in China and Russian bot attacks. These folks are good and worth following, and I mean that literally since I track them on Twitter.

But in the meantime keep your running shoes handy and in good repair. The streets are on fire and we need to keep our feet in shape so the dogs can keep barking.

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