The fall of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt has produced prolific analysis by media commentators across the spectrum. Some of this analysis has been excellent, but much of the conventional media interpretation of the why, how and what behind these events leaves much to be desired. There are a handful of misconceptions that have been parroted repeatedly in media coverage of the “Arab Spring.” These are important to recognize because the dynamics of how power is shifted matters enormously. In Gandhian language, means and ends are inseparable. That which is won through violence must be sustained through violence. That which is won through mass civil nonviolent action is more legitimate and more likely to be sustainable over the long term.
Additionally, how we understand and interpret the source of the power that emerged in Tunisia and Egypt last spring can go on to shape our long-term views about what is possible. If we consciously or unconsciously reinforce misconceptions or negative stereotypes about nonviolent action, we potentially undermine the morale of people engaged in ongoing struggles and, in the worst-case scenario, we can give credibility to the perspectives of the oppressors. What follows are the five most prevalent ways in which mainstream media has gotten the story wrong on the Egyptian uprising and the corresponding correction to each.
Misconception 1: It was spontaneous. Reality: Although commentators still tend to talk about the Egyptian revolution as though no one could have predicted it, the key variable in the victory was planning. As we saw during the height of Mubarak’s crackdown, the movement was able to keep the people of Egypt unified and, for the most part, nonviolently disciplined. Considering the lengths to which the regime went to try and provoke violence, it was quite remarkable how focused, creative and disciplined the activists remained. None of that would have been possible without several years of laying the groundwork. Egyptian activists worked for years to identify and neutralize the sources of power in the nation of 83 million. Their effort extended to making personal connections with the military forces and the commanders in particular. It’s a nuanced divide-and-conquer strategy. After building relationships with members of the regime’s pillars of support, the movement then helped them question the legitimacy of the ruler and the system they were upholding. When media analysts talk about an uprising like the one in Egypt as spontaneous, they are revealing their lack of understanding of the dynamics of nonviolent action and, simultaneously, are taking credit away from activists, who in many cases, have worked hard for years – often at great personal risk and sacrifice – to make this kind of victory possible. Regimes like Mubarak’s don’t fall when people just spontaneously show up in the city square. They only fall when movements are capable of exerting sustained pressure on them over a length of time. And that for that to happen, there must be unity, strategy, vision and, most importantly, planning, planning and more planning.
Misconception 2: It was a military coup. Reality: It was a people-power revolution. This misconception stems partly from the fact that, at the end of the day, much hinged on whose side the military took in the struggle. But instead of giving the people credit for winning the military to their side through effective campaigning and salient messaging, many media commentators erroneously regard the military’s defense of the people as a sign that it was they who were actually leading the uprising. But the loyalty demonstrated by the military to the people’s revolution should be interpreted as a sign of how well the movement did its job, not just of how powerful the military is in Egypt. The strategy was about unifying around a shared vision of Egyptian society. This misconception also is partly attributable to the fact that many of us cannot conceptualize power as taking any form other than a militaristic one. That perspective reflects adherence to outdated assumptions and frames about violence and power, namely the notion that those two concepts are interchangeable. Fortunately, the people of Egypt know better and they’ve given the rest of the world an example from which to build.
Misconception 3: It was orchestrated by the United States, either by backroom deals or “training and support” of activists. Reality: This unfortunate misconception shows a gross lack of knowledge of how nonviolent action works. There is really only one condition essential for the success of nonviolent struggle and that without which a struggle can never succeed: it must be indigenous. To claim nonviolent protests of the scale we saw in Egypt last spring can be manufactured abroad is to grossly overestimate the influence of US agents and agencies. How could US agencies organize broad-based protests and manage to get hundreds of thousands of people to maintain nonviolent discipline while under violent assault from half a world away, while these same agencies were, for more than five decades, unable to remove octogenarian Fidel Castro from his perch only 90 miles from the US border and with a population eight times smaller than Egypt’s? To say that it was the United States that somehow orchestrated the events in Egypt is also to show contempt for what the people did, which is to take control of their own destiny. To question the Egyptian people’s authorship of their own struggle serves the interests of a brutal dictator and others like him, and it risks undermining global support for what was, both at its heart and its implementation, an indigenous people’s movement. This, by the way, is not to say that US agencies have taken no interest in or have made no attempts at influencing democracy struggles around the world. It is just to argue that, in the case of Egypt and other successful people-power revolutions, that offer of help was declined.
Misconception 4: It was an Islamist uprising. Reality: Not only is this incorrect, but it flies directly in the face of claims made by the same analysts who say they’re interested in promoting genuine democracy. There were Muslims in the movement, yes. But there were also Christians, Jews, atheists, and many others. In order to test the credibility of this assertion, it is important to look at the proclaimed objectives of the movement: it was about more rights, more freedoms and more democracy. Contrast those objectives to the common stereotypes about Islam held in the West: that it is undemocratic, violent and oppressive. There is no way to reconcile those two things. Either Western analysts must concede that the Egyptian revolution was not Islamist or they must concede that Islam is not a violent, undemocratic religion. The ideal course of action would be to concede the former completely and the latter mostly. But short of that, it must be one or the other. A related argument is that we should be wary about the Egyptian victory because it will create space for the Muslim Brotherhood to assert more control in that society. There are several things to note about this claim, however: first, it has never been an acceptable argument against democracy to say that it should be limited because of the outcomes it might produce. Secondly, those who make this assertion might do well to ask themselves if they would accept Egyptians picking their leaders for them. If the answer is no, then they owe the same courtesy to the Egyptian people. And lastly, the Muslim Brotherhood (a group which itself is widely misunderstood in that it formally renounced violence as a means of change of decades ago) seems to have begun evolving along with the Egyptian people. As of last week, it formed a coalition with one of Egypt’s most liberal political parties in an attempt to broaden – and moderate – its base.
Misconception 5: It wasn’t nonviolent. Reality: It is unrealistic to imagine that a revolution of this scale and with a target as brutal as this regime can be totally nonviolent. But there is a distinction between saying there were a few violent outbursts by undisciplined individuals and that there was violence by the movement. This movement itself was strictly nonviolent and that is what is most relevant. In a country as large as Egypt, it is impossible to train every person individually in nonviolent strategy. And so, not understanding the necessity of nonviolent discipline, there were some incidents of rock throwing, clashes with police, vandalism and a few outbursts of individual rage. There was a militant flank in many historical nonviolent struggles – South Africa, Chile and the US civil rights movement, to name a few. In each case, as in Egypt, the presence of that contingent undoubtedly made the work of the movement both more difficult and more essential. Because of the potential for possible outbursts, the movement had to: a) distinguish itself from undisciplined radicals, b) make it clear that no violence would be tolerated and c) train new activists on the ground. Consider the lengths to which the regime went to provoke violence by the people in order to create the perceptions that what the movement was doing was not nonviolent and, therefore, not legitimate. It was critical that the movement girded against vulnerability to these kind of agents provocateurs and they did that extraordinarily well, especially considering the movement’s enormous size. At the end of the day, the Egyptian uprising was one of history’s most significant nonviolent struggles and that is how history will remember it.
It is important that events like the ones in Egypt are conveyed as accurately as possible by media for many reasons, but one of the most significant is that the victory of mass nonviolent action in Egypt has implications for terrorist organizations and the perceived efficacy of terrorism itself. As nonviolent methods to push grievances succeed, they de-legitimize violence as a means of promoting change. Nonviolent action offers a realistic alternative to both violence and the status quo and it is, simultaneously, a very powerful form of struggle. If we consider that terrorist organizations and members of movements tend to share the same recruitment bases – disaffected people demanding significant change – then the victory in Egypt has likely done serious damage to the PR campaigns of terrorist networks. Because of that, the people of Egypt should not only be lauded for taking back their freedom through almost entirely democratic means, but for making the world a little bit safer for everyone.