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On the Egyptian Revolution

Ikuko Toyonaga
Professor, School of International Liberal Studies, Waseda University

A new revolution form was shown in Egypt on February 11th, 2011 when the Mubarak regime collapsed. The people were able to hold peaceful demonstrations, as if everything were prearranged, for eighteen straight days until they achieved the goal of ousting President Mubarak. What made such large-scale and long-lasting peaceful gatherings possible was their ability to constantly transmit information to huge numbers of people through devices such as cellular phones and portable computers, and Internet media such as Twitter and Facebook, which let immense numbers of their "comrades" share, respond to, and pass on to others the information (reminiscent of the democratic revolutions of Eastern European countries twenty years ago, where the then newly born media, twenty-four-hour broadcasting satellite channels played a key role, which was called the CNN revolution). The people who gathered there were able to keep civil and remain restrained without having to follow the guidance of any charismatic leader or being led by false rumors (in other words, without degenerating into "mass" or "mob"). The Internet may have shown that there is no need for charismatic leaders, that there is a way to incapacitate demagogues, as far as revolutions of today are concerned.

The gathering of people is strength in itself. The crowds that took to the streets in protest grew to unanticipated proportions and emerged as such in multiple cities at the same time, holding on to the same goal and the same peaceful means in all places thanks to the coordination enabled by the Internet. Thus, the enormous throngs of people, each embodying the strength of the many appeared here and there at once, expressing the strong determination of the people in their order and tranquility. Suppression by force against such simultaneous risings would have been difficult; it is doubtful it could ever have succeeded. Apart from that, psychological difficulty on the part of the government of taking any violent measures against the demonstrators was immense. Military crackdown upon them was psychologically, morally, and physiologically difficult; the crowd had grown to such overwhelming scale as to stir a sense of awe in anyone facing them; they were the gathering of unarmed civilians after all, the most dishonorable target for the military; they were innocent citizens just holding peaceful meetings, with nothing whatsoever to be blamed for; they were wriggling swarms of real live human beings crushing of which would mean a most grisly event: All this must have flinched any thought of crackdown. Besides, the US and European states, the major allies as well as aid donors to Egypt, caught the earliest timing to announce their support to regime change, and the U.S. forces, which had a close relationship with the Egyptian Armed Forces in terms of both the personnel and supplies, strongly urged military restraint during the initial critical phase of the situation, and all this surely made the imposing of military force even more difficult. Furthermore, it is hardly surprising if the actions of the military and government were restrained considerably as the demonstrations in such large scale were participated by friends and family members of the military and governmental officials themselves. The people had a good chance of winning as long as they were able to keep orderly protests without falling into "chaos" in the way that could make them easily routed, or turning into "rioters" to give the regime an excuse to apply to them violent measures. In other words, their chances were fairly prosperous as long as peace and order were maintained in their protests.

Meanwhile, it was understandable that for the protestors the ousting of Mr. Mubarak was their minimum objective that must be realized immediately and unconditionally. This is because of the possibility of retaliation from a dictator, which could start the moment the crowds disperse and pressures on the government effected by the physical presence of the crowds disappear. It was reasonable to expect that the retaliation would take the form of selective crackdown upon a few individuals whom the government would pick deliberately so that "terror" spreading among the rest of the population would enable the restoration of oppressive rule most efficiently. However, nothing goes against the logic behind this movement as much as sacrificing a small number of citizens for the sake of "the return to normalcy", "compromise" and other causes uttered by those who recommended the disbanding of demonstrations before seeing Mr. Mubarak's resignation.

I had a premonition that the people of Egypt would accomplish what they launched as it actually happened on February 11th. This is because of an Egyptian student in my course. On January 1st, a church of the Coptic Christian faith, which is said to have followers that account for ten percent of the population in Egypt, was struck by Islamic extremist bombing attack, which killed and injured more than a hundred people. This student, who had her acquaintances among the victims, spoke of the incident in class expressing her deep sadness without showing any anger or fear. Then she told us the following story: "However, there is a good sign to be found in all of this" -- There were Muslims who gathered before the Coptic church on the day of the Mass for celebration of the Coptic Christmas on January 7th. They met to form human chains in front of the church to show their determination to protect Christians.

This episode came back to me when I saw the people of Egypt crowding the streets in their demonstrations. I felt that the people were filled with the same spirit that the student thought she saw in the Muslims gathering at the Coptic church, that she rendered her hope. (As for the revolution at issue, it is reported that it was triggered by the movement on the Internet that protests the death of a young man who was beaten to death by the police. What gave the spur to this movement growing to be of such impact was the Facebook page "We are all Khaled Said", the site named after the murdered young man.) It is easy to say "they protest", but the participants of the demonstrations took to the streets fully aware of the danger and threat of suppression from the government, just as the Muslims who assembled in front of the church were aware that there could be another bombing attack that might hurt them. However, they knew that as long as they were together, there would be less chance of being attacked violently, which would thus make them bulwarks of others in the same place, especially if more people joined them. They willed to protect others from violence and their vision was to keep violence from being provoked by sticking together. At first it may be the case that we have only groundless hope akin to a gamble that anyone with the same cause will come out to stand next to us, but such anticipation soon turns to trust as people actually gather from which a sense of fellowship arises and real experience of "solidarity" follows. We might have seen this process unfold on the streets of Egypt.

Political philosophers such as Locke and Rousseau called the people's act of forming a political community where they protect one another a Social Contract. I felt that I saw on the streets of Egypt the very moment of the making of a social contract, which is normally understood as fictional event that only takes place in theory. Viewing the moment, I reaffirmed my conviction that a social contract is the creation of the strength of the many to put a stop to violence and that this strength does not contradict peaceful behaviors of the many, rather, this strength precisely springs from their utmost commitment to peaceful actions.

Because of this, I found it hard to believe that Egypt's democratization would lead to anarchy, tyranny of religious extremism, the birth of a new dictator, a surge of anti-foreign sentiment, or military threats to neighboring states, unlike so many disputers who were worried about such things. Those people who filled the streets were thoughtful and full of courage, and showed something of essential value that exists at the heart of the citizens' political society. That is where my hopes lie.

*The original article in Japanese was written on February 15th, 2011 and published on February 28th, 2011 on WASEDA ONLINE, Japanese edition. The publication of the English version had to be postponed due to the earthquake on March 11th, 2011.

Ikuko Toyonaga
Professor, School of International Liberal Studies, Waseda University

Ikuko Toyonaga was born in 1966. She graduated from the Faculty of Law, the University of Tokyo and got her academic training as a research associate and lecturer on the Faculty of Law, the University of Tokyo. She served as an associate professor on the Faculty of Law, Kyushu University for eight years before assuming her current position in April 2004. She received her LLD from the University of Tokyo. She specializes in political science.

Major publications include The Paradigm of Thatcherism: An Analysis of the Operative, Revised Edition with a New Afterword [Thatcherism no Seiki: Sayo no Seijigaku e, Shinpan] (Keisoshobo, 2010, the 1998 first edition was Winner of the Suntry Academic Prize in Philosophy and History), The Scope of Neoconservatism: Transformation of Politics under Nakasone, Blair and G.W. Bush [Shin Hoshushugi no Sayo: Nakasone, Burea, Busshu to Seiji no Henyo] (Keisoshobo, 2008), Ozawa Ichiro: The Distance between Vanguardism and the Ethic of Responsibility [Ozawa Ichiro Ron: Zeneishugi to Sekinin Rinri no Aida] 1st and 2nd part, published in the July and August 2010 issues of The World [Sekai], and "Possibilities for American Style Subnational Governments under the Current Japanese Constitution [Gen Kenpo ka ni okeru Amerika Gata Chiho Jichi no Kanosei], published in the July 2005 issue of Local Government [Chiiho Jichi]. Articles in the back number of this corner, WASEDA ONLINE Opinion, include Why Hillary Lost [Hirari wa Naze Maketa ka] (2008), A Look at the 2007 House of Councillors Election [2007 nen Saninsen o Furikaette] (2007), and My Objection to Manifesto Politics [Manifesuto Seiji ni Mono Mosu] (2005).