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Iftekhar Sayeed
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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."

This Associated 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.  

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, ├ éČ┼ŻBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL ├ éČ┼ŻTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. ├ éČ┼ŻHe (more...)
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