The bloody incidents which occurred in the city of Port Said were the latest in a series of overwhelming anarchical disturbances that have struck Egypt for almost a year. The most recent bloodbath left over 70 dead and hundreds injured. Even the smallest of events like a football match can now slide into a massacre, in these times of chaos and mob rule.
One of the most famous slogans chanted by the masses a year ago was: “The army and the people are one hand.” Then came a period of suspicion, whereby “the army and the Muslim Brotherhood became one hand.” Then, after a while, the people began to claim that “the Salafis and the authorities have become one hand against the Muslim Brotherhood,” as reported by Rose al-Yusuf’s weekly magazine on the 16th December 2011.
One of the key characteristics of 2011 was that it was the year of the politicized masses par excellence. Those masses were then used by others in the game of politics, so they could reap all the benefits alone. Regionally, we saw this happen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Internationally, we have observed in other parts of the world how each country endeavors to exploit the masses of its rival state in their political conflicts. For example, Russia has endeavored to politically exploit the Wall Street protestors in America and similarly in Europe against the West. In return, the West has endeavored to exploit those protesting against Putin’s comeback in Russia, in order to serve Western interests.
In Egypt, the masses are just about the masters of the scene. Here several questions arise: Are they all one category or a mixture of several ones? Are they divided into multiple levels or are they all one entity? Where do they agree and disagree?
It is easy to observe that the masses are not all one category, and that they do not represent the entire population of Egypt. Montesquieu used to say that “We must not confuse the people with the mob.” The masses are groups from among the people who at one specific moment head toward one particular purpose, and their motives usually vary. They either express anger, congestion, or a desire to fulfill the dreams that the political reality has suppressed.
The masses differ according to their cultural context, intellectual orientation or partisan belongings, to say nothing of how resentful they might be of the existing state of affairs. Just as the masses differ in their kind, they also differ in their social status; there is still an upper and lower class. Montesquieu believed that “In popular rule, power should never fall in the hands of the lowest segment of the people.” Here another question arises: Are the masses an ignorant mob or virtuous rationalists?
The dominant trend when it came to interpreting the phenomenon of political masses – which first emerged in the Western context – was to regard them as ignorant demagogues propelled by emotion rather than reason. Gustave Le Bon famously thanked God that modern discoveries had already been made before the rise of the mob! This was the general trend of interpretation, and the masses were only occasionally viewed as rational and virtuous. From Le Bon to Freud, and many other researchers in the disciplines of sociology and psychology, together with numerous philosophers, intellectuals, politicians, as well revolutionary leaders, most used to assert that the masses were ignorant in origin. But with the current scene in Egypt, we can add that the masses are politically aware, and hungry for a new authority at times.
Voltaire used to believe that “When the mob indulge in thought, everything is lost,” and that “The public are ignorant and stupid,” as detailed in the Diderot Encyclopedia. Le Bon used to argue that “The general public are always lower than the individual with regards to mentality and intellect.” John Adams touched upon the masses in European cities, concluding that any degree of freedom in their hands would instantly lead to the destruction and ruin of everything.
Driven by revolutionary zeal, some Arab researchers have shown a desire to set aside these theories or quotes criticizing the masses or depreciating their importance. Some believe that all those theories have been refuted by the “Arab Revolutions”, thereby nullifying their foundations. These researchers believe that those theories have become of no use other than serving as a reference for those who oppose revolutions, or at least express their apprehensions about them.
However, at this historic moment, I believe that we are in dire need of recalling these theories, quotes and analyses in order to be enlightened, and to discuss, criticize and build on them with more accurate assessments. The masses in the Arab World, and particularly in countries where demonstrations are being staged, stand as a key player in the arena. This is why it is imperative to carry out a careful and in-depth study regarding their mentality and behavior.
This study would incorporate all kinds of disciplines including sociology, politics, psychology, history and philosophy. Add to all that the theories proposed by Western intellectuals in periods now regarded as relatively old, compared to the advancement of Western societies. Yet these societies have outdistanced the world by centuries in terms of their culture and civilization. Sciences and communal relations in Western societies have developed at a stunning rate, but this does not negate the fact that some of the aforementioned “old” theories could still be fit for general application. They have proved their academic validity in numerous societies, becoming almost scientific facts from which other theories can evolve. Maybe some of those theories have become unsuitable to apply to the Western masses, but they are still applicable to other societies, especially those whose historic moment today resembles the moment during which those texts were originally written.
This argument is close to what some Arab sociologists have stated about Ibn Khaldun’s social theories. They contended that even though his theories have become unfit for application in the West, due to its advancement, they are still applicable to our Arab societies, owning to our underdevelopment.
The slogan “the army and the people are one hand” has transformed into “the people want to overthrow the Field Marshal.” In addition, political slogans like “the people want to overthrow the regime” have transformed into slogans brimming with the spirit of revenge and vendetta, like “either we avenge their deaths or we die like them.”
What is happening in Egypt causes us intense agony and pain, and prompts us to attempt to understand and assimilate these developments in search of a new horizon.