Egypt: Protests built on a computer format

July 9, 2013

Protesters opposing President Mohamed Mursi at Tahrir Square in Cairo June 30, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Much commentary and reporting on Egypt’s evolving crisis depicts these events as a relatively balanced conflict between protestors and supporters of toppled President Mohamed Mursi.

The grassroots opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood regime, some analysts say, could not have gathered the 22 million signatures it claimed in order to compel new elections. For voters not only had to sign the petitions, they also had to verify their signature by including the number on their national ID cards.

That 22 million does indeed seem a stunning amount to gather in less than three months. But it is not. I believe that the grassroots organizers succeeded where the Muslim Brotherhood did not in gaining support of Egypt’s largely Muslim population.

As an Egyptian computer scientist who studied at the Tahrir campus of American University in Cairo, I know the demonstration sites; I know some protestors at those sites — and I know numbers.

I study and design “distributed systems” — computer systems that need to operate reliably as they expand in scale to millions of individual cooperating, yet independent, devices. This is similar to the challenge faced by the signature gatherers attempting to reach and coordinate millions of Egyptians.

Those now celebrating Mursi’s ouster include some of the same citizens who voted him in two years ago. There were reportedly more anti-Mursi demonstrators on the streets (14 million) than the 13 million who voted him into office, with a 52 percent majority.

The anti-Mursi campaign mounted an effective petitioning mechanism: a brief form calling for a new election to replace the increasingly divisive Mursi presidency. The form’s simplicity and the mechanism of its distribution helped make it accessible to these unexpectedly large numbers.

Volunteers across the nation downloaded or photocopied the forms, and recruited other volunteers to do the same, expanding the possible universe of signatories. The photocopied forms essentially went viral, with numbers increasing far beyond expectations.

This distribution mechanism could be comparable to doubling a single grain of rice as it moves over a chessboard — a classic example used by computer scientists and mathematicians to demonstrate the dramatic rate of exponentially growing phenomena. By the time that grain reaches the other end, you’d have about a thousand years’ worth of global rice production.

This virtual phenomenon became real on June 30. The forms had asked citizens to demonstrate their discontent by protesting in the nearest square on that date. The result was 14 million protestors across Egypt, the military removing Mursi from office and new elections now planned.

Meanwhile, those supporting Mursi claimed to have gathered 26 million signatures in support of the ousted president. But this appears untrue. The Mursi regime had access to the official national ID database, and they were able to transport the regime’s backers from across the nation. Yet the deposed president’s supporters were unable to fill more than one large intersection near the presidential palace at the Rabaa mosque. The disparity was evident. Comparing this contrived demonstration with the millions of people who flooded squares in all 27 Egyptian governorates on June 30 is ludicrous. The fervor of Mursi’s supporters is clearly real, but these numbers are not.

Yet the national Al-Ahram newspaper, which had a Muslim Brotherhood supporter as editor in chief, featured a headline the next day suggesting the protests as equal in size. Essam El-Haddad, Mursi’s foreign policy adviser and a Muslim Brotherhood member, claimed the Rabaa protest was larger.

The Rabaa rally and these continuing  pro-Mursi rallies assert the opposition is out to destroy Islam in Egypt. The protestors who brought down Mursi, however, are a diverse group, secular and Islamist, middle class and poor, pitted against Mursi intimidators who tried to sow sectarian hatred  and condemned their opponents as violent traitors and “infidels.”

This struggle is not between two halves of a community. It is between a massive portion of a nation trying to be heard by demonstrating their sheer numbers, and an organization trying its best to turn a peaceful demonstration of discontent into a clash.

As Egyptians move forward, attempting to build the democracy they’d demanded at the start of the Arab Spring, there will likely be pain and uncertainty in addition to the hope. Removing Mursi, however, was not, as some claim, a civil war on religious lines or an attack on democracy by a conspiring minority. It was a confrontation between a freedom-hungry, peace-loving nation trying to preserve its identity, and a organization seeking to hold it hostage.


PHOTO (Insert): Protesters against President Mohamed Mursi in Tahrir Square in Cairo July 3, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany





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A fine, accurate and well composed piece. Well done!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Removing Mursi, however, was not, as some claim, a civil war on religious lines or an attack on democracy by a conspiring minority. It was a confrontation between a freedom-hungry, peace-loving nation trying to preserve its identity, and a organization seeking to hold it hostage.

A coup by any other name is still a coup.

Posted by MPA | Report as abusive

Thank you for the kind comments.

While I would agree that there is contention over whether this is a coup, I fear that is irrelevant to the point I was trying to make and even the paragraph you quote. If you are contending that the June 30th protestors were a minority voice, or appeared in insufficient numbers to demonstrate a widespread (if not clear majority) voice of discontent, then I can understand your quoting of the concluding paragraph. What I was offering was an analysis and opinion of the nature and scale of the protests, not the mechanism by which Mursi was ultimately removed from power.

That being said, I would hasten to point out that a coup is an illegal seizure of power, which is contentious in this instance for at least three reasons:
– Mursi himself had declared his government to be illegitimate if there was widespread dissent against him,
– the courts had recently accused him of a serious crime that would have necessitated impeachment,
– and the constitution under which he ruled was not the same as that under which he’d been elected.

Any one of these reasons would arguably be enough to question the legitimacy of his presidency and trigger a new election, but in most democracies that would be a snap election initiated by the elected government itself if it genuinely felt it had a popular mandate, or a recall election called in response to an agreed upon mechanism. As the protests on June 30th 2013 were arguably much larger than those of January 25th 2011, the argument can be made that such a mechanism was more than satisfied.

I do not pose these issues as proof this was not a coup in academic terms (since there are legal scholars who are far better qualified than myself to answer that point), but to indicate that the issue is a legitimate subject of debate, not to be easily dismissed. So while a coup under any other name is indeed still a coup, my opinion is that this has not yet been shown to be such an illegal act. Only time will tell if it was a military power grab, or an honest attempt at a transitional government in response to an unprecedented demonstration of public will. A will that was being ignored by the public’s supposed representatives.

Finally, regardless of how we characterize the mechanism of Mursi’s removal, I would argue that it is irrelevant to my analysis of the protests. And lest we forget, they were only asking for a recall election – a perfectly reasonable democratic mechanism that has been around since the days of Aristotle.

Posted by a_amer | Report as abusive

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