Critical mass

Basma Abdel Wahed lives on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the epicenter of the clashes that lasted from 19 through 24 November, in which rock-throwing protesters battled Ministry of Interior forces armed with rubber-coated bullets, shotguns, and copious amounts of tear gas. For five days, the 30-year-old marketing specialist could smell the gas and hear the gunshots just a few blocks away.

Abdel Wahed categorically opposes the police and military’s brutality and even sympathizes with the protesters. But that doesn’t mean she wants Tahrir Square to speak on her behalf. She has never been to a demonstration in the nearby square.

“At the end of the day, Tahrir Square does not represent the majority of the people,” she says. “Who are they to decide for us?”

This critique that has been leveled against Tahrir activists for a long time, by both the ruling military council and members of the “silent majority” who say they want stability over revolutionary change. In a news conference on 24 November, General Mokhtar al-Molla, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), sought to downplay the significance of the ongoing sit-in by echoing the phrase: “Egypt is not Tahrir Square.”

But the protesters say they will stand their ground until Egypt’s generals hand power over to a civilian salvation government. They argue that if protests were able to force Hosni Mubarak to relinquish power after 30 years of uncontested rule, they can also bring down the SCAF. Even after the start of parliamentary elections on 28 November, a committed group of protesters are maintaining sit-ins in Tahrir and outside the cabinet.

Sherif Gaber, a 27-year-old activist with a law degree who has been protesting regularly since January, says that the invocation of the “silent majority” is reminiscent of the propaganda spread by the Mubarak regime’s in January and February.

“In January, people said they [the protesters] were the minority and it turned out that our cause was the right cause,” says Gaber. “It is not a question of whether Tahrir is representative. It is a question of what the people in Tahrir are fighting for as goals, which is justice and freedom… It is a question of whether [their] causes are just.”

Revolutions do not require majorities, he says. “No social movement in history has brought out 51 percent or more of the entire population.”

Asef Bayat, a sociologist at the University of Illinois, agrees. “Active revolutionaries almost always constitute a minority, around 10 or 15 percent, of the population. Egypt is not an exception,” Bayat says.

The Iranian revolution is a case in point. The protests that rocked Iran and culminated in the ouster of the autocratic Shah in 1979 did not involve more than 10 percent of the entire Iranian population.

“In fact, there are simply physical and technical limitations for revolutionary street politics, which is usually the hallmark of revolutionary struggle. You cannot bring 5 million people into Tahrir. It simply cannot contain this massive number,” Bayat says.

The key is to have a critical mass of activists with skills and dedication who can induce effective collective action and cause “breakthrough” in the political process. So far, the Egyptian uprising has meets this requirement.

The latest round of protests began with a small sit-in in Tahrir Square, but quickly spread across Egypt to Alexandria, Suez, Mansoura and Aswan. Thousands took to the streets and clashed with police forces in most of these provinces, causing many to describe it as a “second wave” of Egypt’s revolution.

The SCAF has made few concessions to this “second wave,” refusing to appoint a salvation cabinet with full authorities to run the country during the transitional period. The incumbent cabinet was sacked but Kamal al-Ganzouri, a former prime minister who served under Mubarak in the 1990s, was appointed as premier.

On Friday 26 November, Tahrir Square was again packed with protesters who heeded the call for protests to further pressure the SCAF. Some went to camp outside the cabinet’s headquarters to prevent Ganzouri from taking over.

It remains hard to assess the numbers of people in Tahrir as there is no consensus on the physical capacity of the square. Estimates range from a quarter of a million to 2 million.

“Tahrir is not the entire Egyptian society, but that does not mean that Tahrir is opposed by a silent majority,” says Bayat, who taught for years at the American University in Cairo and has written extensively on Egypt.

“The Abbasseya protest should supposedly represent that ‘silent majority’ that the SCAF is talking about. Now, you compare Tahrir with Abbasseya. The Tahrir crowd has been by far bigger,” he says, referring to a pro-SCAF protest that took place in Abbasseya on 26 November. Besides its relatively small size, the Abbasseya protest lasted for only a few hours. The Tahrir sit-in is ongoing and another pro-SCAF protest of a few thousand was held in Abbasseya last Friday.

“I am not represented by those in Tahrir or those in Abbasseya,” says Abdel Wahed. “What is happening now is not acceptable — you take to the streets to flex your muscles. Today we have a million-man march in Tahrir and another one in Abbasseya.”  

For her, the military has been discredited after its failure to stop clashes that took place on her street. However, she does not support those demanding that the military return to the barracks immediately. There is no other political authority that can take over, she says.

“I agree that revolutions are made by minorities, but it is the ballot box that decides what the majority wishes for,” Abdel Wahed adds. She is one of 50 million eligible voters who can decide on the make-up of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliament.

According to the military-backed roadmap, parliamentary elections are the first phase in the process of transferring power to a civilian government. These elections are expected to be followed by presidential elections by the end of June 2012. Yet most revolutionaries say that the generals, who have proven to be resistant to reverse the old regime, should relinquish power immediately to civilians.

For some of the activists in Tahrir, the ongoing elections will not necessarily achieve the good of the people. “The elections now are not going to make a difference,” Gaber says. “[They] won’t change the fact that we are living under unjust military rule.”

Gaber, like some other Tahrir revolutionaries, has been calling for a boycott of the military-backed poll, hoping to delegitimize the SCAF.

“The regime will not be ousted by referenda and elections,” Gaber says. “It will fall by popular pressure exerted from all directions.”

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