(Originally written in December 2012)
The great upheavals which precede changes of civilisations such as the fall of the Roman Empire and the foundation of the Arabian Empire, seem at first sight determined more especially by political transformations, foreign invasion, or the overthrow of dynasties. But a more attentive study of these events shows that behind their apparent causes the real cause is generally seen to be a profound modification in the ideas of the peoples. The true historical upheavals are not those which astonish us by their grandeur and violence. The only important changes whence the renewal of civilisations results, affect ideas, conceptions, and beliefs.
The memorable events of history are the visible effects of the invisible changes of human thought. The reason these great events are so rare is that there is nothing so stable in a race as the inherited groundwork of its thoughts.
The present epoch is one of these critical moments in which the thought of mankind is undergoing a process of transformation. Two fundamental factors are at the base of this transformation. The first is the destruction of those religious, political, and social beliefs in which all the elements of our civilisation are rooted. The second is the creation of entirely new conditions of existence and thought as the result of modern scientific and industrial discoveries.
A Study of the Popular Mind
Gustav Le Bon
There was a cautious optimism among many who follow the Arab world as crowds gather on the Arab streets to demand openness, jobs, rule of law and hope in the previous year. It seemed that the citizens were eager to pursue a path to have a say in their future and make their leaders accountable for their actions, after decades of stifling rule which punished the dissent and crushed the opposition in the Arab world. People in the Arab world and specially the young, began the journey of making their social order more balanced and more equitable with real economic opportunities. After decades of authoritarian rule, citizens, frustrated with discredited institutions and paralyzed political parties, could not take it any more. Rising unemployment with massive income inequality and little hope for the future, the citizens became mob participants and brought down their rulers with lots of fanfare and enthusiasm for the future.
But, once the elections were over with new faces in the power – things stayed the same as they were before. Perhaps, the expectations among the Arab populace regarding the change were unreal. Perhaps with patience and by trial and error, the social order in the Arab world will finally get it right. Perhaps….
As a result, countries affected by the so-called Arab Spring now face political spheres that are shaped by crowd dynamics, rather than by genuine political or ideological movements. Indeed, much of what is happening in the Arab world today can be best understood through the study of crowds.
Crowds are the opposite of organizations; rather than being dominated by rigid hierarchies, they are often led by individuals with no formal rank. And, unlike political movements, crowds tend to form quickly and organically, like dark clouds gathering to form a storm, and their objectives are immediate: surround this police station, burn the palace, seize that ministry, etc.
The ongoing storming of the political institutions in the Arab world is a symptom of underlying anger and frustration in the Arab societies. What is common between Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Tunisia’s Sidi Bouzid, or Bahrain’s Al Daih, is the idea that the tipping point of anger among the Arab citizens is not far and once that point is reached, chaos will become the norm and the social order will be beyond control- no matter how brutal the crackdown might be-even with the firings of tanks and guns and as we might see in Syria, with chemical weapons. Then it becomes what Le Bon called the “sovereignty of the crowds” and the “sovereignty of political elites”.
Under these conditions, the real challenge facing the Arab Spring countries, at least in the short term, is not ideological, but institutional. Institutions have not delivered or have not delivered quickly what they promised. President Morsi must start the process of reforming the core Egyptian institutions to boost the economy and stabilize the social order. We are seeing in many nations in the world where the institutional promises were not delivered, people are taking on the streets. The recent violent demonstrations in India, Bolivia, Nigeria, Chile, Athens, Madrid and many other places are reaction by the people to promises gone unfulfilled.
For the Arab world’s new political elites, the lesson is clear: crowd dynamics cannot be ignored. There is no way, rulers can continue to consolidate the power as they did in the past and show no ability to solve the chronic problems of unemployment, inequality and lack of opportunity in their respective societies. For Egypt, the window to start delivering on the promises is closing and the top leadership of the Military is watching closely. If the system continues the way it has been, there is no doubt that the crowds will turn on Morsi and that will provide an army an opening to move in.
Social rage stems from collective injustice in society. One can identify many elements as to why and when crowds are formed and mob justice becomes the order of the day but one cannot deny that once crowds are formed to have their say, no firepower is enough to silence the dissent. President Morsi, are you paying attention, Sir?