Channeling Egypt’s energy of the crowd into positive change

I didn’t have a pen in hand when I heard the broadcast from Cairo over the weekend, and I didn’t write down the precise words used by a woman demonstrator, interviewed at length by a BBC radio journalist, just after she heard the news of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. But I remember the sentiments with great precision: Exhilaration, excitement, elation, euphoria. She was proud to be an Egyptian. She had never thought it was possible that Egyptians could achieve so much. Her life had changed forever: She had helped force the Egyptian dictator from office, and nothing would ever be the same again.

Listening to her, I felt something like envy. Anyone who has ever attended a rock concert or a football game knows how much fun it is to be part of a roaring, victorious crowd. The experience is even more memorable when you are standing in a crowd that might be able to change your country, or your life, forever. In a New Yorker article that touched upon the emotional power of mass activism, as opposed to the loneliness of online activism, Malcolm Gladwell recently quoted the political theorist Michael Walzer, who had interviewed civil rights activists following mass sit-ins in 1960: “The answer was always the same: ‘It was like a fever. Everyone wanted to go.’ ”

“It was like a fever.” Walzer was not the first to observe that people who join an exultant crowd feel something out of the ordinary, as if they were in a hallucination or a dream. Since the 18th century, writers and sociologists have observed that a crowd thinks and acts differently from an individual, and even seems to have its own psychology. In 1896, the Frenchman Gustave Le Bon published a famous treatise called The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, which observed, among other things, that crowds can be variously “generous or cruel, heroic or cowardly” but always have one thing in common: “the interest of the individual . . . will not dominate them.”

Coming down from the high of a crowd experience and returning to the humdrum ordinariness of an individual life can never be easy, especially if one has been part of a crowd for almost three weeks. It’s not remotely surprising that demonstrators keep returning to Tahrir Square after Mubarak’s resignation, not just to celebrate but to demand more: “We won’t leave because we have to make sure this country is set on the right path,” declared one protester, described as unemployed. On Sunday and Monday, soldiers clashed with demonstrators who were reluctant to go home, and the army even threatened to arrest those who refused to leave.

A letdown is inevitable. Disappointment in the slow pace of post-revolutionary change cannot be avoided. Historically, the months following a revolution can therefore be more dangerous than the revolution itself. The dissatisfaction with the February Russian revolution of 1917 led to the Bolshevik coup d’etat in October. In France, the mob kept resurrecting itself in the years following 1789 (a tradition which continues into the present).

Disaster and dictatorship are not inevitable, but if Egypt is to avoid either a coup d’etat or a return to mob rule, the soldiers now ruling the country will have to do more than send everyone home. As Le Bon understood, the essence of crowd euphoria is the feeling that one is part of something greater than oneself. Now the country’s leaders must help channel all of that enthusiasm into institutional change, not next month or next year but right now.

By whatever means possible, the army should encourage the formation of political parties, the creation of citizens’ committees, the building of neighborhood watch groups and cleanup brigades: Anything to prevent those unemployed men in Tahrir Square from going home, staring at the wall, and then slumping down again in front of Facebook or Al-Jazeera. Online activism is not a substitute for real activism. The satisfaction one receives from Twitter is not the same satisfaction one receives from spending hours in a room with a group of people, planning an election campaign.

Traditional forms of political activity are not the only outlet possible, either. A couple of years after Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, I met a woman who had spent days camping out on the Maidan, the Ukrainian equivalent of Tahrir Square. Afterward she returned home, determined to re-organize her life. She quit her job. She founded a publishing house dedicated to Ukrainian-language translations. When I met her she was disappointed with the new Ukrainian government but philosophical about it.

“We can’t expect the government to do everything for us anymore,” she told me. “We have to learn to do things for ourselves.” If the woman who spoke so rapturously about Egypt last weekend can speak with the same distance about her own government a year from now, then the Egyptian revolution will have been a success.

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