With love from Tottenham to Tahrir

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

August 15 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Top-of-the-pops ringtone is the Beatles’ From Me To You: If there’s anything that you want. If there’s anything I can do. Just call on me and I’ll send it along. With love from me to you.

I should declare my interest. I grew up with John Lennon. We’re both Ashlars – we went to Quarry Bank school in Liverpool. He’d dunk my sister at the swimming baths. Wet-haired we joshed past Strawberry Fields, me the youngest being shoved into privet hedges along the way to fish and finger pies.

We learned rock ‘n rolling gawking at bee-hived Daphne at St. Peter’s, met the impish Paul McCartney there one night, hopped the #4 bus to The Cavern and had our hair cut at Bioletti’s in Penny Lane.

My mate who was staying with me in Cairo recently had his Dad immortalized by Lennon… On the corner is a banker with a motorcar… The little children laugh at him behind his back. And the banker never wears a mac. In the pouring rain…Very strange.

If only nostalgia: could be canned.

‘There beneath the blue suburban skies’ a pall of black smoke hung over our teenage haunts when Liverpool joined in the loot-fest that started in Tottenham in north London after a Bobby killed a mobster’s kid.

The Tottenham riots are bemeaning. They pull the rug from under Britain’s pretention to being a model society for emerging democracies. They demolish faith in British policing, which shied away on the first night. The justice system set up night ‘n day blue night specials – quickie courts with lawyers who complained they were handed briefs without meeting clients who were frog-marched into the dock in Mubarak-style white jumpsuits. Habeas corpus 2.0? Or Habeas requiem.

Civil disobedience organized across social networks can be used for evil, destabilizing the smug. Sanguinary, resorting to violence, overwhelms the sanguine, the confidently optimistic. Tanned MPs on both sides of the House of Commons, recalled from their languid summer holidays sported enraged red faces. Prime Minister Cameron banged his fists on the dispatch box: We will hunt you down.

The minister responsible, Theresa May, uncommon for her, was hidden most of the time from the TV cameras. Nick Clegg, Cameron’s co-governor made it clear he wasn’t going to be a partner in crime. Before the General Election he’d forecast if Cameron pushes through swingeing spending cuts there’ll be riots in the streets.

Yet aren’t MPs the people who voted the cash for protection – the same Pecksniffian, unctuous Johnny-come-latelies who brought Britain to its parlous state?

Gene Sharp is the Clausewitz of nonviolence, a reclusive 83-year-old academic growing orchids in a house he paid $150 for outside Boston MA. His 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action was used by the April 6 Movement to plan their campaign in Egypt.

Underpinning Sharp are two imperatives. Tyrants overlord countries by exercising monolithic power over its institutions: political, economic, policing, schools, healthcare – Egypt’s Pharhaonic god culture.

Secondly it’s futile to confront head-on the pillars propping them up: If you don’t like violence, you have to develop a substitute to give people a choice. If they don’t see one, violence is all that’s left. Sharp’s followers include some who came to Cairo before the revolution got underway and stressed three stages would-be rebels should work through.

1. Unity: Bind together the widest possible section of society, all ethnic groups, all religious groups, and all economic strata around a limited set of achievable goals. Designate a leadership that has legitimacy to mobilize these groups in the service of its goal.

2. Continuous planning: Look objectively at your capabilities, how you can mobilize, what tactics are at your disposal, how to sequence those tactics in a way that has the biggest negative impact on the opponent where the cost is greatest to the opponent than it is to yourselves. That planning, the brewing revolutionaries were told, needs to go on at offensive and defensive levels. The defensive level means anticipating some things that are going to happen to you. For example some of the leadership may be killed or incapacitated. There needs to be planning for redundancy in leadership.

Then there are offensive tactics of non-violent – strikes, boycotts and mass protests.

3. Non-violent discipline: Non-violence is a strategic choice not a moral one. Civil resistance can’t succeed unless you induce loyalty shifts and ultimately defections from the other side that weaken the opponent’s power base.

They were warned it’s highly likely that the majority of the population will go indoors because not everybody is willing to take the same risks for a civil resistance movement. ‘The general population that you worked so hard to get involved is the group that’s most likely to take the least risk. Once violence is afoot they’ll go indoors. You’re also trying to create loyalty shifts which and it’s very hard to create loyalty shifts if you’re trying to kill or maim them.

Gathering sympathizers to support a cause goes back centuries. The Royalists’ counter offensive to the French Revolution in the Vendée Militaire took 45,000 republican troops to quell. Pitch battles raged from March until August in 1793 culminating in a scorched earth ‘pacification’. Some estimate half a million were killed; too many to count injured.

Unlike the Tottenham troglodytes the pro-democracy forces in Egypt used Facebook and Twitter to peaceful advantage to organize.

In Egypt a survey by Williams and Associates, for the International Republican Institute and reported in the Daily News Egypt found informal networks of friends and relatives were the most important means for initializing and sustaining Tahrir Square.

Word of mouth between family and friends was widely used by 72 percent of Egyptians to get information about the events of January 25. Twenty-eight percent used Mobile phones and 15 percent Facebook; Twitter by only one percent. Ninety-eight percent stayed in front of the TV.

Even if these numbers are skewed, there’s a warning bell ringing. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is the largest political party in the Middle East on the Internet. Not to decry their professionalism, the organization of voter participation this year should not be over influenced by one group’s expertise to marshal balloting on handhelds.

Even Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu is a bemused hawk held hostage by doves dialing. Facebook-mobilized peaceful protesters camped out on his doorstep are bejangling him protesting about everything under the sun.

John Lennon’s lyric is an apt ode.

Ev’rybody’s talkin’ ’bout
Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism
This-ism, that-ism, ism ism ism.
All we are saying is give peace a chance.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based commentator.


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