The Common Good
May 2011

Nothing Spontaneous About It

by Rose Marie Berger | May 2011

The roots of Egypt's revolt: the story of Egypt's long preparation for nonviolent revolution.

It looked spontaneous. Thousands of people poured into Tahrir Square in Cairo on Jan. 25. Was it an instinctive social surge in a country with a repressive regime or a carefully planned resistance movement that chose a strategic time? In more than a dozen countries people have taken to the streets to demand political and social reform. In Egypt, the "18 days of revolt" -- as a nonviolent movement for social change -- has been years in the planning.

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Nonviolence is not new to Egypt. The 1919 campaign for independence from Britain was one of massive nonviolent civil resistance. On April 6, 1919, Mohandas Gandhi called for the first all-India day of nonviolent civil disobedience. Aware of Gandhi's mass protests in India and earlier in South Africa, 10,000 Egyptians marched on Cairo's palace in defiance of British martial law. Women leaders in traditional veils led hundreds of women in open opposition to British occupation. Activists organized labor strikes and boycotts of British commodities, and delivered thousands of petitions to foreign embassies demanding support for the nationalist movement. When organizers chose both the Christian cross and the Muslim crescent as the movement’s symbol, thousands more joined the cause, which won limited independence for Egypt. While violence (mostly from the British) occurred, the nationalist movement was predominantly nonviolent.

IN 2004, IN the wake of Egyptian protests against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Egyptian Movement for Change, known as Kefaya ("Enough!"), gained public prominence as a broad-based coalition for the pro-democracy movement. When a respected Egyptian judge pleaded with his fellow citizens to "withdraw their long-abused consent to be governed," Kefaya called for the first public protest organized specifically to demand that President Mubarak step down. Hundreds gathered before the Supreme Constitutional Court in silent rebellion; yellow stickers were taped across their mouths with the word "Kefaya" written on them.

Young Egyptians began experimenting with Facebook to organize public political gatherings. Esraa Rashid, then in her mid-20s, found Facebook an easy way for youth to plan their own protests. In March 2008, Rashid was texted by a young engineer, Ahmed Maher, to tell her that a sector of the Kefaya youth movement was beginning to organize support for a massive labor strike at a government-owned textile factory in Mahalla al-Kubra, about an hour north of Cairo. Rashid set up a Facebook page with herself and Maher as administrators. The textile workers’ strike was called for the first Sunday in April: April 6. In short order, the Facebook page had 70,000 fans and earned Rashid the moniker "Facebook Girl."

The Mahalla strike was a disaster. Police occupied the factory. Strikers set the building on fire. At least two people were killed. Support rallies dissipated under the violent police repression.

Lessons were learned: The organizers had failed to discuss tactics. They had no overall strategy. There had been no training for what to do in various scenarios. The newly formed, youth-led April 6 Strike group needed help.

An incredible convergence took place over the next two years. Egyptian youth began sharing lessons with the Progressive Youth of Tunisia about organizing strikes and public demonstrations. The U.S.-based International Center for Nonviolent Conflict led nonviolent strategy trainings in Egypt, including Arabic translations of civil resistance strategist Gene Sharp's 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action. One Egyptian blogger, Dalia Ziada, began leading her own training sessions adapted for the Egyptian context. She translated into Arabic The Montgomery Story, a 1958 comic book about the U.S. civil rights movement’s Montgomery bus boycott, and distributed more than 2,000 copies throughout the Middle East.

In December 2008, an April 6 activist attended a U.S. State Department-founded Alliance of Youth Movements summit in New York City, funded by Google, Facebook, and other social media corporations. According to private State Department documents, released by WikiLeaks, an embassy representative wrote, "On December 23, April 6 activist XXX ... alleged that several opposition parties and movements have accepted an unwritten plan for democratic transition by 2011; we are doubtful of this claim."

April 6 members also began studying civil resistance campaigns in other countries that brought down authoritarian governments. The Serb movement that deposed Slobodan Milosevic seemed most closely to match their situation in Egypt. By late summer 2009, 20-year-old activist Mohamed Adel was in Belgrade for a five-day training with former leaders of Otpor, the student movement that nonviolently brought down Milosevic.

One of those trainers was Srdja Popovic, now executive director of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) and co-author of Nonviolent Struggle: 50 Crucial Points, A Strategic Approach to Everyday Tactics. "The training we gave with the Egyptians follows the universal principles for success in nonviolent struggle," Popovic told Sojourners in an email interview. "Unity, planning, nonviolent discipline, identifying crucial institutions to be converted (we call those 'pillars of support') are all crucial. Clear slogans and strong visual identity along with communicating clearly with the target audience are all key to success. These are the elements that create a powerful group identity and move 'protest groups’ to ‘mass movements.'"

Adel and other April 6 activists developed indigenous nonviolent education programs and led intensive training, said Popovic. They actively cultivated solidarity among a variety of pro-democracy groups. They determined tactics to use when activists were arrested or fired from their jobs. All collaborating groups agreed to remove their individual symbols and replace them with the red, white, and black Egyptian flag.

Organizers also worked hard to promote religious unity. When Muslims at prayer were attacked by security forces using water cannons, thousands of pro-democracy Christians surrounded their Muslim colleagues to protect them. "This act of sacrificial love deeply touched the Muslim community," according to Dr. Nabeel Jabbour, a Syrian Christian on the advisory board of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, reporting what he heard from an Egyptian. "Even in that moment, the imam directing the prayer broadcast through the loudspeakers, said, 'Look around you; do you see it is the Christians who are protecting us. Do you know why they do this? They are following the teaching of Jesus. It is because they have Jesus in their hearts.'" Also thousands of Muslims protected Christians when they celebrated Mass in Tahrir Square. "These images impressed the world," said Popovic, "and they happened in front of the cameras."

"It is crucial for nonviolent movements to pull people out of the pillars of support like the police or military, rather than push people inside these pillars and appear threatening or aggressive to them," observed Popovic. Offering flowers, bread, and tea to members of the police and military was part of a strategy for creating a sense of fraternization and breaking down us/them barriers. People kissed soldiers and police officers as part of creative strategies for emotionally disarming the armed actors. "Once you understand that policemen are just men in police uniforms, then your perception changes and persuasion can take place."

But the context of Serbia and Egypt was not the same. Activists in the Middle East, remarked Popovic, "are in a tight space between an oppressive government and sometimes radical Islamist groups they don't want to affiliate with." The populations involved in the uprisings in Eastern Europe were mostly middle-aged, but the Arab societies are very young. "The average age in Egypt is 24, very much like Iran. These young boys and girls have been born after these anachronistic systems -- ike Ben Ali’s police state in Tunisia or the Iranian Islamist dictatorship -- were put in place," Popovic explained. "They have open minds, they communicate on the Internet. They are quite aware that life can be different and it gives them a strong boost over this politically frozen region that has been locked in place for decades."

In Egypt, Jan. 25 is a national day to honor a 1952 rebellion by Egyptian police against British forces. In 2011, the pro-democracy movement chose this date to protest police abuses under the Mubarak government. In particular, the April 6 Youth Movement distributed 20,000 leaflets that said: "I will protest on 25 January to get my rights." April 6 also issued a statement calling on everyone who was planning to attend the protest to first be trained in dealing with security forces and in working with the media in reporting police abuses.

Political and labor organizations, actors, authors, and many others publicly supported the protest. At the same time, many established institutions lacked confidence in the youth movement. Some Coptic Church leaders urged Christians to stay home and pray for Egypt's safety.

By late in the day on Jan. 25, tens of thousands were in the streets, in Tahrir Square and in cities around Egypt. Within a few days a booklet called "How to Protest Intelligently" was circulating by email and from hand to hand. It instructed people to gather in their neighborhoods and told them which routes to take to Tahrir Square. It included practical advice on what to wear and how to protect oneself from tear gas and police batons, suggestions for positive chants, and ways to persuade the police to join the people.

After 18 days of predominantly nonviolent resistance, to which government forces responded in violent backlash, the 30-year dictator Hosni Mubarak stepped down.

"Revolutions are often seen as spontaneous," says Ivan Marovic, a former CANVAS trainer. "It looks like people just went into the street. But it’s the result of months or years of preparation."

A nonviolent movement requires tremendous courage and discipline -- and often has martyrs. Nearly 400 people died during the 18 days of protest. Khaled Ali, a labor lawyer with the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, is investigating those who died. "Most of the cases [of deaths] we’ve encountered," says Ali, "are of people who were poor and lived in poor neighborhoods. They're the ones who came out and joined these street battles during the revolution. ... These people gave their lives without ever claiming that they were owners of this revolution."

Women leaders carried a double burden: targeted both by the government and by their male counterparts. Esraa Rashid, co-founder of April 6, spent more than two weeks in jail and was iced out of leadership by her male compatriots. While many women led the protests in Tahrir Square, they risked severe sexual harassment and in some cases rape. When women returned to the square on International Women's Day, they were attacked by a group of male counter-protesters. No women have been named to the new constitutional committee, and not one of the recently appointed cabinet ministers is female.

"The key to understanding what is happening all over the Middle East," said CANVAS' Popovic, "is that events in Tunisia and Egypt should be seen as a pan-Arabic phenomenon, one inspired by Tunisia, not Serbia. Not only that, it is quite obvious that they were internally driven by unemployment, corruption, censorship, and lack of human rights, but also driven by the young brave generation of educated and secular people who learned from each other and exchanged knowledge. It is their victory."

And it is only the beginning. "It was the moral force of nonviolence," said President Obama on the success of Egypt’s uprising, "not terrorism, not mindless killing, but nonviolence, a moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice once more."

Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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