Monday, March 19, 2012
A Tale of Two Squares; Comparing Tiananmen and Tahrir Square protests
This article is a comparison between two books. The first is Almost a Revolution, by Shen Tong. Shen was one of the organizers in China's Student Revolution in 1989 that took over Tiananmen Square and culminated in a brutal crackdown by the military where hundreds were killed. Shen escaped China and has lately been volunteering with Occupy Wall Street.
The second book is Revolution 2.0, by Wael Ghonim. Wael started a Facebook account promoting demonstrations against Hasni Mubarak's regime in Egypt. These led to the takeover of Tahrir Square by activists who held the square until they succeeded in removing President Mubarak in 2011. Ghonim was arrested and held for several days, but released in time to see the fall of Mubarak.
I believe that comparing these two books will shed light on differences in resources and methods that will be useful for future protests. This article, then, is not an attempt to write a concise history of either event. It is just a comparison of what two organizers wrote about their respective revolutions at different time periods. The comparison shows the power of Internet Collective Action in the case of Egypt.
Shen Tong was a student in Beijing when he became a political activist. In 1989 Hu Yaobong, one of the politboro seen as most friendly to students, died. The students decided they wanted to pay their respects to Hu Yaobong, believing that “to honor him at the time of his death was a way of challenging the current Party hierarchy” (p. 167). The students chose this event as a starting point to demand changes from the government:
Wang Den led a group of Beida students to the National People's Congress that afternoon with seven demands: restore Hu Yaobong's reputation; end the anti-Bougeois Liberalism Campaign; guarantee a free press, free speech, and the right to peaceful demonstrations; increase the budget for education; and end official corruption. A movement had begun. (p. 169)
The students gradually built up an organization, conducted marches, sought dialogue with the government, and increased their activities. In April the police beat up students at a rally and destroyed their bicycles. This brought out even more students and more activism. Beijing citizens took the side of the students. Many faculty at the universities sided with them as well.
The attempt to dialogue with the government went poorly, as the students were often left waiting for someone to speak with them, but no one came. But still the movement grew. The students started a low-powered radio station, a newspaper, a printing press for flyers, and a media room for the many journalists from around the world who had taken an interest in the movement. They used “dizibao” or information walls to post viewpoints and information. They organized several committees for different aspects of the movement. Shen Tong was a part of some of these committees.
After the mourning period for Hu Yaobong was over, the government declared any more demonstrations illegal. But on April 27 150,000 people went to Tiananmen Square to once again push for dialogue and political reform. Another big march happened on May 4, an important day historically for students. On May 13 thousands of hunger strikers from schools within Beijing and from other cities set up camp at Tiananmen Square, again demanding dialogue with the government and political reform. On May 17, two million people rallied, but on May 20 martiall law was declared and the military started moving into Beijing. All negotiations between students and the government failed, partly because the government was divided, and partly because the students did not have one single voice to speak to the government. On June 3 the military swept into Tiananmen Square and surrounding neighborhoods, killing hundreds of people and clearing out all protesters. This ended the public aspects of the student movement, and many of the protest organizers managed to flee the country. Others are still in prison.
Shen Tong seems to partly blame the failure of the protests on disorganization within the movement. As one example of this, in May one student committee responded to the government's order to end a class boycott with five demands that must be met first. But then, ANOTHER committee put forth a different set of demands. This was "another indication of how the leaders of the student movement had the same goals most of the time but were unable to organize enough to speak with a united voice. There were so many of us, so many groups, often going off in different directions, that the government couldn't possibly have been sure what we were asking for and who was asking for it." (p. 228) Inside Tiananmen Square, the federation of all the groups there had a leadership group. The hunger strikers, however, gradually saw themselves as the most dedicated and thus most eligible to be in charge. Eventually, "the hunger strikers and the federation leaders were fighting over control of the square." (p. 272) There were so many people there from so many groups, that different people popped up here and there as respresenatives of the whole protest. A joint conference was arranged to try to work out a united front, but "we couldn't decide who the real student leaders were and who would lead this new organization." (p.285) Eventually the hunger strike group wrestled the main control of the Square. Then on June 3 the military moved in and violently emptied the square.
Wael Ghonim is an Egyptian and Internet nerd. He was a representative for Google in the Middle East, when some things happened that stirred him to activism. In June, 2010, he saw a photo on Facebook of Khaled Mohamed Said, an Egyptian who had been beaten to death by Alexandria police. Khaled had been a witness to some illegal activity by a few policemen, so he was hunted down and dealt with in the usual fashion. But this photo outraged Wael and many Egyptians. It was time to stand up to such abuse and corruption. Wael made an anonymous Facebook page called “We are all Khaled Said.” The page quickly gained a large following, and also quickly the followers organized a real-life protest by gathering in one place in like clothes and silently looking out to sea. Thousands participated. Wael posted on his page:
Last Friday this page was launched... On Tuesday Mohamed sent his suggestion and it was announced to everyone... On Friday more than 100,000 members had joined the page and thousands went out in Cairo and Alexandria implementing an idea that was never done before in Egypt... So can we do just about anything or what? (p.81)
Gradually membership and participation grew. A large protest was planned for Police Day, January 25th. On January 13th, neighboring Tunisia's president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali gave a speech in reaction to the protests against him in his country. As the Tunisian protests grew in size and strength, Ben Ali told his protesting citizens, “Now I understand you.” Wael wrote “Ben Ali's speech changed everything... the victory of the peoplte of Tunisia would send a strong message to the Egyptian regime and, more important, to our Facebook page members: we can effect change in Egypt.” (p. 131)
Wael kept promoting dissent on his Facebook page, and began eliciting support from established groups as well. He got the “ultras” or extreme soccer fans to join in. Others distributed flyers to promote their next event on June 25, to reach those not on the Internet.
June 25 was to be a huge rally across Egypt. The goal as Wael wrote was “not to overthrow the regime or to change the president overnight... Because the problem now is not the president... the problem now is an entire system that needs to change...” (p. 147) The basic outlined demands of June 25 were for the government to address poverty, annul the emergency laws, fire Minister of the Interior Habib el-Adly, and place a 2-term limit on the presidency (p. 166).
On June 25 people marched from many different points in Cairo toward Tahrir Square, and were often confronted by cordons of police. Sometimes after physical scuffles, people managed to reach the square, especially after the police were mysteriously called back from their lines. Tens of thousands of protesters had arrived, and the people spontaneously began chanting “the people want to topple the regime!” (p. 184). This ws not one of the pre-arranged chants. That evening the government blocked Facebook and Twitter, in an obvious show that they feared these tools (p. 186). The police tried to clear the square for the evening, but it took many hours as the protesters resisted. Wael tried to continue his rallying on Facebook and Twitter, but by now “the people on the streets began to move at a faster pace than the political activists. The mob was now in charge, whether it was rational or not” (p. 189). Two nights later, Wael was arrested and held for 11 days. On January 28 protests erupted in town squares across Egypt. Police used batons and water cannons to disperse the crowds, then resorted to armored trucks, rubber bullets and bird shot. Some protesters reacted to the ratcheting of violence by burning police stations (p. 214). A curfew was declared and the military came out to enforce it. Most protesters applauded the arrival of the military, assuming that they would take their side, as had just happened in Tunisia.
Protesters took over Tahrir Square and prepared to stay. Electricians linked to light poles to distribute power. Plumbers rigged immobile armored trucks into bathrooms. And all the time, protesters emphasized to the military that they were on the same side.
The government withdrew the licenses of foreign media. They shut down the railroads to prevent more people reaching the square. But the army announced that it would not interfere with the citizens' right to protest (p. 227).
By February, “hundreds of thousands of citizens in Cairo and many more across the different governates took to the streets with a single demand; Mubarak had to go” (p. 232). Mubarak reacted with an impassioned speech that did turn some from protesting. Thugs and infiltrators tried to turn the square into chaos. But on February 6 the vice president began discussions with opposition groups. The government's main negotiating point was that chaos would reign if Mubarak resigned.
Finally, as protests grew in size and strength, on February 11 Mubarak resigned, turning authority over to the military.
There are several similraties between the two movements described in these books. There were predessesor movements before the final revolution, such as worker strikes. These paved the way for the people to see that they could voice their views and be heard, at least by the population even if the government did not always respond positively.
Both times, protesters took over the major square in the major city of the country. The people organized all the activities and requirements for maintaining their presence, such as supplies, communication, and health care.
Both movements strove to be nonviolent. This was not always the case, as when in both cases some students physically pushed their way through police cordons. But the stated goal was to stay peaceful and try to have good relations with the police and military.
The protesters cooperated with various established groups, such as unions, soccer enthusiasts, journalists and professors. They sought not only support and cooperation, but input and suggestions for how to manage the protests and what to do.
Both movements were run by young people; students in Tiananmen Square and Internet users in Tahrir Square. The youthfulness brought some naivete as well as great enthusiasm. It also created unpredictability since the protesters had no established methodology.
Both Shen Tong and Wael Ghonim expressed their enthusiastic nationalism, and this was reflected at both revolutions and throughout both books.
There were both male and female organizers and leaders in each protest.
The government appeal in both situations was that chaos would ensue if the government fell.
The differences between Tiananmen Square and Tahrir Square are stronger and more important than the similarities. One difference was the inability of the Tiananmen Square protesters to present clear and specific demands to the government, as explained above. This caused problems both amongst the ranks of the students as well as during any negotations that did happen with the government. This problem can be partially explained in that the movement was not planned far in advance. It just sort of grew from the students' desire to express their grievances at an opportune time.
In Tahrir Square this seemed to be less of a problem. The protesters were often communicating online and working to form a consensus on what their next steps would be. Through this process and just as a reaction to how the government treated the protests, the essential demand boiled down to Mubarak leaving office. As I stated above, Wael had posted four demands on his Facebook account, but by the time the actual rally at Tahrir Square began, it all boiled down to getting rid of Mubarak.
At the beginning the Chinese students just wanted to open a dialogue with the government to discuss reforms. This was no movement to topple the regime. But to my mind, Wael in Egypt was pushing from the beginning to make more revolutionary changes. Corruption within the government was through and through, and he saw big changes were needed.
Shen Tong was continuously concerned with who the leadership of the movement was. He joined several committees such as the Olympic Institute, the “Dialogue Delegation,” the Preperatory Committee, etc. Leaders of each of these groups were voted in. They had authority of office and were looked up to. There was a constant attempt to make it clear which organization was the overall leadership. That this failed does not weaken the perceived need for such leadership. In Egypt, in contrast, there was no leadership. As Wael writes, “it was a revolution without a leader and without an organizing body” (p. 139). I believe this is a profound and growing change in how activities are accomplished today as compared to 1989.
The most important difference between 1989 and 2011 is without a doubt the methods of communication. Shen Tong in China had no Internet, no cell phone, no text messaging, no videophone. He had to use a public phone if he wanted to call someone. If he wanted to plan and collaborate with others, he had to have a meeting. If he needed to talk to someone on the other side of Tiananmen Square, he walked over there. The movement in China in 1989 set up their own radio station on campus, started their own newspaper, set up a press room, and used a public wall and flyers to disseminate information.
By contrast, Wael Ghonim in Egypt had a cell phone with built-in video recorder and text messaging, Facebook and Twitter on the Internet, and hundreds of thousands of others with these tools. Planning and collaboration was instantaneous, with as many people as wanted to be involved. If he needed to contact some other organizer, text messaging or a phone call was instant. Distribution to fellow protesters or worldwide was just as easy, quick, and cheap, be it text, audio, or video.
I believe this difference in communication between 1989 and 2011 not only made things easier, but it made for success. The ubiquitous tools for discussing plans, spreading useful data (such as police movements), and keeping people informed made everyone in the movement equally informed and equally involved. The movement did not have to rely on a hierarchy to make decisions, because everyone could give their input via the Facebook pages, Twitter, etc. A consensus could quickly form.
What I learn from this comparison is that protests should have a simple obtainable goal (and by obtainable I mean, hoped for). In Egypt, for instance, the goal was to get Mubarak to resign. There were more demands as well, but this was the core agreed upon demand. There is no need to have conferences and committee meetings for an obvious goal. And once that goal is met, then you can meet and decide if you want to keep going as a movement. But generally I see collective actions like this as heading to an agreeable simple goal, and declaring victory once reached. Pizza and beer, dissolve the group. On to the next project. I don't know if this could have been done in Tiananmen Square. They were unable to coalesce behind one simple goal for multiple reasons.
The rise of instant communication has given protesters a huge advantage. These are tools, not sure-fire techniques. And governments have methods available to thwart these tools. But still it is quite obvious that Egyptian protesters were much better off communicating than the protesters at Tiananmen Square.
Simple goal, no hierarchy, use all tools available to you, especially the Internet. I call this Internet Collective Action, or ICA, and have a blog about it (www.internetcollectiveaction.org). The group Anonymous used this powerfully against the Church of Scientology (www.lisamcpherson.org/pc.htm). Other groups have now run successful campaigns as well. ICA deserves more academic study as it is used more and more. Technology and society are changing fast in this age, but for now ICA works and it helps people.
at 8:20 PM