Recent events in the Middle East reminded me of an observation made by Stanley J. Tambiah: ""the French Revolution had ushered in the crowd as an enduring political force...." In this he was echoing Gustav Le Bon's prediction: "While all our ancient beliefs are tottering and disappearing, while the old pillars of society are giving way one by one, the power of the crowd is the only force that nothing menaces, and of which the prestige is continually on the increase. The age we are about to enter will in truth be the era of crowds ."
But first, let's get a misconception out of the way.
"The protests were started by a small core of secular, liberal youth activists organizing on the Internet who only a few months earlier struggled to gather more than 100 demonstrators at a time. But their work through Facebook and other social network sites over the past few years built greater awareness and bitterness among Egyptians over issues like police abuse and corruption.
'Facebook brought down the regime,' said Sally Toma, one of the main protest organizers."
Press report is hard to believe. How can anyone be so naive? Let's see what
they are saying: A bunch of children on Facebook enlightened their elders (who
rarely use social networks) and the poor (who are rarely, if ever, connected)
as to what was going on in their own country, such was the secret efficiency
with which the regime had been operating. Of course, before these kids used
Twitter and Facebook, the average Egyptian lived in complete ignorance of what
was happening: they knew Mubarak to be a nice guy, and then suddenly they see
on Facebook (which they rarely use, remember) that that was not true. A people's
coup takes place in Tunisia,
the kids (left alone by the hideous regime to do their missionary work,
remember) congregate people, and, well, the rest is contemporary history.
Anyone who swallows this should stop taking hashish. Somebody who does not is Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich. She takes media pundits to task: "They would have us believe that in spite of the fact that the Egyptians cry over the price of wheat, they have cell phones and access to social media. We are to accept that the poor, hungry, and jobless Egyptians are revolting against their lot by 'tweeting' in English.
"Their access to modern technology aside, we are told to accept that the knowledge of English among 80 million Egyptians is so strong that they can 'tweet' -- fully comfortable with tweeter abbreviations and acronyms. Else, we are to believe that Egypt is busy 'tweeting' in Arabic even if Twitter does not lend itself to Arabic any more than it does to Persian."
It's not Facebook wot done it!
The mob has been around for a long time: as long as there have been governments. We remember the Roman mob that had to be appeased with 'panem et circenses'. Long before Facebook and Twitter, Lisan al-Din Ibn Khatib (1313 - 75) advised the Caliph Harun al-Rashid on crowd control: "The common people may be simple, but they are quite powerful, especially when they act collectively. If the king is faced by them as a rioting crowd, he should be diplomatic with them and stick firmly to his position until they disperse." And then? "The king should strike hard at them and leave no room for mercy towards them."
Crowds don't need high-tech gadgetry to bring them together.
"Organised crowds have always played an important part in the life of peoples, but this part has never been of such moment as at present. The substitution of the unconscious action of crowds for the conscious activity of individuals is one of the principal characteristics of the present age," wrote Gustave Le Bon. Hence, the mob is nearly as old as civilisation. However, what has changed since the French Revolution is that the mob has become legitimate: hitherto, its demands were seen as irrational. A rabble is held to be legitimate just because it is a disgruntled group, as opposed to an individual. The mob, and mobocracy, is here to stay, thanks to the French Revolution, and western ideology. The Americans have been caught on the back foot, but it was their ideology of democracy and people power and mobocracy that has unleashed the mob.
The tradition of the French Revolution has been carried on most passionately in South Asia. Here we have been acquainted with mobocracy since Gandhi mobilized crowds against the British Raj. In the most infamous episode of collective 'nonviolence' a crowd of several thousand set fire to a police station in Chauri Chaura, burning twenty-three police officers inside.
The power of the mob was seen at work in India in what must surely be considered Gandhi's legacy -- the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to national status by means of the demolition of the Babri Mosque.
The Iranian revolution of 1979 provides a unique spectacle. As Anthony Black observed: "It relied less on arms and more on popular demonstrations than perhaps any other modern revolutions". It has been estimated that 9 per cent of the population were involved, the highest proportion among the three revolutions, the other two being the French and the Russian.
There has been a persistent pattern of anti-government
protests by the 'mob' (a French innovation, as we have seen) since the Berlin
Wall collapsed. In Bangladesh,
a democratically elected government was brought down after three months of
intense street agitation amounting nearly to civil war in 1996. In the Philippines,
the democratically elected government of Joseph Estrada, the people's darling,
was brought down by the middle- and upper-classes (it was dubbed a 'cell phone'
revolution; the people lost because at the time cell phones, presumably, were
too expensive!). In Indonesia,
thanks to IMF mismanagement, a mob overthrew General Suharto (and investment
has never recovered while corruption has remained the same). In Kyrgyzstan,
an autocratic government was overthrown by a mob of a couple of thousand, an
event repeated a few years later against a democratically elected government.
In China, a mob
had tried something similar, but not comparable (see J.M.Roberts' 'History of
the 20th Century'). In Iran,
a mob tried -- and is again trying - to overthrow the regime. The virus has
spread to other Middle Eastern countries.
The mob can take a curious turn in a democracy. The author, during his long years under military dictators, had never known of any lynching in the city or any city of Bangladesh. The standard practice was to give the thief or robber a good beating and then hand him over to the police. When a thief tried to steal chickens from my farm, employees and neighbours insisted on roughing him up, but I declined. I was later instructed on good authority that I had made a terrible mistake: I had merely 'insulted' the criminal, who would surely be back. The proper course, apparently, was to take a bottle of hot water and apply it vigorously to the soles of the feet. And then to hand him over to the authorities.
But not to kill him.
The first lynching in Dhaka occurred soon after the democratic transition in the commercial centre of town. According to my reckoning, there have been 83 lynchings last year, 50 the previous year and 78 in 2008. Interestingly, in the first year of military rule in 2007, the number of lynchings dropped from 63 to 29. It rose again the next year, by which time it was clear that civilians would be back to power by December.