“Egyptians are the greatest citizens on earth,” Ahmed El Masry, a leader of Egypt’s Tamrood movement, boasted to me in a stuffy, smoky basement café in downtown Cairo early July. Just days before, the Egyptian military removed President Mohamed Morsi from power, seating themselves, once again, firmly at the helm of the nation.
“How so?” I prodded, curious, yet not surprised, by his patriotic assurance. It’s an Egyptian forte.
“Look at January 25 . Look at June 30 ,” his colleague, Amr Nabil, jumped in from across the table, smiling and taking a deep, contemplative drag from his Cleopatra cigarette.
“What happens here is unique,” Nabil continued. “We are the country that uses the crowd.”
He had a point. In Egypt—at least recently—masses in the streets have guided the country’s politics. And if the recent crisis (call it a protest, a coup, revolution, or ‘couvolution’) proved one thing, it is that contemporary Egyptian democracy is hardly a democracy. It is the world’s first experiment in crowdocracy—an unruly, impulsive, and fluid political system, where city streets substitute for ballot boxes, human bodies for votes cast. It is instead a bold experiment.
Masry believes President Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, and his Muslim Brotherhood cronies failed Egypt and its people for one central reason. “He divided people into categories, cancelled the power of resistance—of the court. He did everything to consolidate power.”
In short, he tried to divide the people. And so they rose up against him—even those who voted him in just one year ago.
In the months leading up to June 30, Tamrood had circulated a petition, eventually signed by a staggering 22 million Egyptians, trying to build a collective voice of resistance. The petition demanded Morsi’s resignation and called for every citizen to take to the streets if he failed to obey.
In the end, Morsi failed to deliver on his end. Egypt’s citizens did not.
On the afternoon of June 30, I found myself deep in the underbelly of this new, unconventional, and unruly political system. At first, the throngs felt manageable, navigable even. Yet as the hours rolled on, as day turned to night, the crowd began to spread, expand, and consume. A constant stream of marches—from 50 to 50,000 people—poured into Tahrir Square and Ittihadiya Palace from every direction. The numbers swelled, coalescing into a single pulsing, chanting organism, feeding off collective anger, frustrations, hope, and aspirations.
By midnight, I was no longer walking. I was swimming. Sweat seeped through every inch of fabric on my body as the rushing current of noise, heat, energy, waving flags, and bodies carried me along the makeshift conga-lines—spontaneous networks of super-highways established to push people through the crowd. It took an hour to escape and another to find an overcharging taxi that had miraculously done the same. And that was just the first night.Two more nights came and went just the same, until the largest protests in Egyptian history started to push against the fragile dominoes of Egypt’s newborn democracy.
On July 3, one by one, ministers, secretaries, and high-ranking officials began tendering their resignations. The protesters, a vibrant cross-section of Egyptian society, reacted. Fireworks decorated the sky, green laser pointers highlighted helicopters swooping overhead, flags waved high. The collective cheer of millions roared throughout the city.
Finally, at 9:15 p.m., the authoritative voice of General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, Commander-in-Chief of Egypt’s formidable armed forces, reverberated across the nation.
After President Morsi’s failure “to meet the demands of the Egyptian people”, billowed Sisi, he was to be removed from power (explosion of cheers). The constitution would be suspended (even greater, if not somewhat ironic, uproar). The military would assume power, not to rule the nation but to “render public service and the necessary protection of the revolutionary demands”.
As Sisi delivered his final words, “May God save Egypt and its venerable and brave people,” the country exploded. From every café, bar, building, and apartment, people poured into the streets, coagulating once more into a dense and dark mass of bodies, heat, and noise, charging toward Tahrir Square.
I looked at the abandoned shisha pipes resting next to overturned tables outside my apartment and wondered who would pay the tabs. But the café owners didn’t seem to mind. They had gone, too; the crowd needed them.
On any day, Cairo is congested. Twenty some-odd million citizens clog the main arteries and twist through the veins of the sprawling metropolis of fading stone edifices. Residents bob and weave just to keep step to the rhythm of the chaos.
Yet when the masses decide to unite and push “democracy” forward—as happened on January 25, 2011, June 30, 2013, and a handful of times in-between—the bustle magnifies.
The flow and patterns of the city diverge, shift, and converge again, guided by a network of informal communications. Impulsively, the crowdocracy establishes its legitimacy by amassing numbers.
Cairo’s “crowd” as a unified yet diverse political force is, relatively speaking, a new phenomenon. Under the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak, it was often brutally beaten, violated, arrested, and demoralized. But since the 2011 revolution, Cairo’s crowd has become a hardened entity with significant social and political prowess, as immutable and a part of the city’s landscape as the Nile.
When it swells, vendors quickly mobilize their stalls to serve the masses. Thousands of unemployed youth become spontaneous entrepreneurs, hawking laser pointers, flags, posters, water, and cards at every junction to please, appease, and bind the crowd. Fifty-foot banners marking the day’s slogans or targets (first President Morsi, then US Ambassador Anne Patterson, then foreign media like Al Jazeera and CNN) and twenty-story Egyptian flags are literally printed and rolled out overnight.It retains a uniquely self-governing force. As police and military temporarily move to the city’s fringes (as happened on June 30) the crowd instills its own version of security. Citizen-enforced checkpoints, security screenings, and roadblocks mark entrances of major protest sites, demanding IDs and establishing a temporary breed of order.
Overwhelming and overpowering at the time, it was only later, when Amr Nabil declared to me that “the crowd controls itself” that the anarchy playing out on the streets began to feel functional.
How can millions of people actually self-govern, especially during the kindling of a revolution? The answer, according to Muhammed Radwan, is something he calls “spontaneous authority”.
“In the context of a march against oppression, when you’re loudly chanting something you couldn’t have even said a few months ago,” explains Radwan, an Egyptian-American activist who was part of the 2011 revolution, later jailed and beaten in Syria for observing a protest during the early days of the Arab Spring there, “you feel a sense of unity and trust.”
This contagious trust spreads throughout the crowd, establishing a new rule of law.
Egyptians, Radwan says, “are open to spontaneous authority. Everyone takes upon themselves a certain role, and there is a sense of responsibility for the area we were in—defending it, cleaning it.”
In the 18 days of the January 25 revolution, this collective cleaning of trash started almost immediately. So, too, did the security. Regular citizens felt empowered to check IDs and give pat-downs to ensure protesters weren’t undercover police or armed. Over a month after Morsi’s removal, men with hardhats and orange construction vests still stood along the line of barbed wire surrounding Tahrir Square, exercising an authority and control that no one in particular bestowed upon them.
No one seems to feel that this spontaneous authority ever becomes something greater or more organized. It remains sporadic, fluid, impulsive, built on an implicit trust in people simply standing up for the right reasons. Which also makes it extremely confusing.
On June 30, dozens of split-off marches kept proliferating. Someone would get bored or want to start a different chant, and the crowd would divide, adding to the chaos. At one point, Radwan laughs, “there were marches crossing each other, going in completely different directions. It was a bit ridiculous.”
Spontaneous authority also brings dangers. And in Cairo’s case, women bore the brunt.
“I was fucking scared to go out into Tahrir,” Rajaa, a strong and outspoken women’s rights activist originally from Sudan, told me repeatedly after the protests. “I didn’t know what could happen.”
In five days, close to 100 cases of sexual assault and, in several instances, rape were reported in Tahrir Square, a physical area of 490,000 square feet that can tightly pack over half a million people.“
There’s this missing link between a celebratory mood and attacking women,” explains Engy Ghozlan, co-founder of Harassmap, a crowdmapping site for reporting sexual assault, and member of Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment. “We’ve seen it in football crowds: there’s fireworks, singing, celebration, and harassing women.”
With such massive crowds, when people step in to intervene in an attack, Engy says it becomes very messy. “It’s hard to know who steps in to assault and who steps in to help,” she said. What often happens is that people trying to help end up taking swings at each other.
In attempts to keep individual women safe from the masses, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, an all-volunteer squad in yellow shirts, monitors all large protests, often lightly armed.
One of the crowd’s organic solutions to the appalling number of sexual assaults was to create “human chains” of men holding hands, creating a protective barrier around women. While perhaps effective, Ghozlan says it also gives the wrong idea.
“It sends a message that you’re vulnerable, you’re unsafe, that you need to be protected by males.”
Despite a unified battle against wider political injustice, internal disorder still remains an unfortunate element of the crowd’s self-rule. It may not be a mob, but mob mentality still pokes through.
In the days after Cairo’s massive protests, I continued to wander the streets, marveling at how quickly the insane can return to mundane—traffic, taxis, bank lines, and donkey carts loaded with vegetables ambled through the same terrain that had supported hundreds of millions. It felt empty.
The events of June 30 have left Egypt more divided and fractured than ever before. The crowd had an agenda but no unified plan. Spontaneous authority does not translate easily to spontaneous leadership—much less lasting government.
One of the reasons, according to Mariz Tadros, a fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, and former assistant professor of Political Science at the American University in Cairo, has to do with the unique composition of the crowd itself.
“[This crowd] is not a political constituency of one or two political forces, or a mobocracy of emotional anger, or just civil society organizations,” says Tadros. “It crossed classes, genders, religions, and geographical focus.”She says Egypt’s recent crowds represent a new form of “unruly politics” in the Middle East, where democracy is being overturned and rewritten by the power of the people it’s meant to represent. Politics are shaped not by constituencies but by the power of massive crowds, a far more fluid and impatient political body.
As a result, Tadros continues, “the conventional pathways through which people engage in politics, recipes of democracies, and how people engage in citizen action, have become both morally and practically irrelevant”.
For example, on January 25 and June 30, Egyptians went out as “the people”, not “a people”. Different interests and grievances were framed into a single, common goal: the ousting of Mubarak and then Morsi.
Yet with the goal achieved, unity starts to crumble. The crowd disperses, and “the people” return as individuals, each with his or her own interests and grievances outside of the goal. And in Egypt, the military is charged with cleaning it up.
Above the Crowd
It seems that no matter what Egypt’s crowd is capable of achieving, the military is always waiting in the wings, like a big brother stepping in to save a younger sibling in a bloody street brawl. The crowd pushes the buttons, but it’s the military that pulls the strings. They have the final authority.
Almost to prove this point, less than a month after assuming control of the country, General al-Sisi himself called upon the crowd in a rare show of power—asking them to take to the streets in protest against “terrorism and violence”, in blatant reference to the pro-Morsi Muslim Brotherhood protests that resulted in a series of bloody clashes across the country.
One Friday in late July, I heeded his call and took to the streets as the city shut down and “the crowd” formed again. But this time it was different. Tanks and barbed wire guarded every entrance to Tahrir Square. People waved posters and flags of General al-Sisi, chanting “the people and the army are one”.
It was, in short, a military lovefest. Kids posed for photos on tanks, and grown men kissed the cheeks of heavily armed soldiers. But it felt aimless. Confusing. Misguided.
A crowd of hundreds of thousands celebrating military rule seemed like the antithesis of the Egyptian revolution and of the entire Arab Spring. It was the crowd celebrating the one force that could essentially destroy it, the one force that could cancel the crowdocracy. The streets seemed to share the same sense of unease. Cheers were lower, less enthusiastic; the mood was tense, unsure, almost frustrated. What do you chant about at a military-rule-sponsored protest, when three years ago the same military was firing upon you in the same square?
Amr Nabil, of Tamrood, whose petition originally ignited the crowd’s fire and launched Egypt into its current situation, says that they are now working with the military to set the country on the right path. Yet recent events have sharply divided one of the most proud and nationalistic citizens I’ve ever seen, and to this day the situation under military rule remains confusing, volatile, and unpredictable: government crackdowns and massacres, a state of emergency, and a hazy roadmap for the future. All sides are fueling anger, hatred, and revenge. If democracy was a challenging climb before, today the hole is even deeper.
Still, Nabil, like most Egyptians, is hoping for the best. “The crowd will use democracy by voting,” when the time comes, he told me confidently. “But if the next president fails or uses fear, people will go to the streets again.”
“Democracy is like a new child, and we don’t know how to use it,” Nabil admitted, staring through the haze of the basement café, stubbing out his final cigarette before heading back out into the streets above to join whatever crowd populated the streets that day.
“We have a long way, and we are walking on that road. But it’s a long road.”