Recent events in the Middle East reminded me of an observation made by Stanley J. Tambiah: "…the French Revolution had ushered in the crowd as an enduring political force...." In this he was echoing Gustav Le Bon's prediction: "While all our ancient beliefs are tottering and disappearing while the old pillars of society are giving way one by one, the power of the crowd is the only force that nothing menaces, and of which the prestige is continually on the increase. The age we are about to enter will in truth be the era of crowds."
But first, let's get a misconception out of the way.
"The protests were started by a small core of secular, liberal youth activists organizing on the Internet who only a few months earlier struggled to gather more than 100 demonstrators at a time. But their work through Facebook and other social network sites over the past few years built greater awareness and bitterness among Egyptians over issues like police abuse and corruption.
'Facebook brought down the regime,' said Sally Toma, one of the main protest organizers."
This Associated Press report is hard to believe. How can anyone be so naive? Let's see what they are saying: A bunch of children on Facebook enlightened their elders (who rarely use social networks) and the poor (who are rarely, if ever, connected) as to what was going on in their own country, such was the secret efficiency with which the regime had been operating. Of course, before these kids used Twitter and Facebook, the average Egyptian lived in complete ignorance of what was happening: they knew Mubarak to be a nice guy, and then suddenly they see on Facebook (which they rarely use, remember) that that was not true. A people's coup takes place in Tunisia, the kids (left alone by the hideous regime to do their missionary work, remember) congregate people, and, well, the rest is contemporary history.
Anyone who swallows this should stop taking hashish. Somebody who does not is Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich. She takes media pundits to task: "They would have us believe that in spite of the fact that the Egyptians cry over the price of wheat, they have cell phones and access to social media. We are to accept that the poor, hungry, and jobless Egyptians are revolting against their lot by 'tweeting' in English.
"Their access to modern technology aside, we are told to accept that the knowledge of English among 80 million Egyptians is so strong that they can 'tweet' -- fully comfortable with tweeter abbreviations and acronyms. Else, we are to believe that Egypt is busy 'tweeting' in Arabic even if Twitter does not lend itself to Arabic any more than it does to Persian."
It's not Facebook wot done it!
The mob has been around for a long time: as long as there have been governments. We remember the Roman mob that had to be appeased with 'panem et circenses'. Long before Facebook and Twitter, Lisan al-Din Ibn Khatib (1313 - 75) advised the Caliph Harun al-Rashid on crowd control: "The common people may be simple, but they are quite powerful, especially when they act collectively. If the king is faced by them as a rioting crowd, he should be diplomatic with them and stick firmly to his position until they disperse." And then? "The king should strike hard at them and leave no room for mercy towards them."
Crowds don't need high-tech gadgetry to bring them together.
"Organised crowds have always played an important part in the life of peoples, but this part has never been of such moment as at present. The substitution of the unconscious action of crowds for the conscious activity of individuals is one of the principal characteristics of the present age," wrote Gustave Le Bon. Hence, the mob is nearly as old as civilisation. However, what has changed since the French Revolution is that the mob has become legitimate: hitherto, its demands were seen as irrational. A rabble is held to be legitimate just because it is a disgruntled group, as opposed to an individual. The mob, and mobocracy, is here to stay, thanks to the French Revolution, and western ideology. The Americans have been caught on the back foot, but it was their ideology of democracy and people power and mobocracy that has unleashed the mob.
The tradition of the French Revolution has been carried on most passionately in South Asia. Here we have been acquainted with mobocracy since Gandhi mobilized crowds against the British Raj. In the most infamous episode of collective 'nonviolence' a crowd of several thousand set fire to a police station in Chauri Chaura, burning twenty-three police officers inside.
The power of the mob was seen at work in India in what must surely be considered Gandhi's legacy – the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to national status by means of the demolition of the Babri Mosque.
The Iranian revolution of 1979 provides a unique spectacle. As Anthony Black observed: "It relied less on arms and more on popular demonstrations than perhaps any other modern revolutions". It has been estimated that 9 per cent of the population were involved, the highest proportion among the three revolutions, the other two being the French and the Russian.
There has been a persistent pattern of anti-government protests by the 'mob' (a French innovation, as we have seen) since the Berlin Wall collapsed. In Bangladesh, a democratically elected government was brought down after three months of intense street agitation amounting nearly to civil war in 1996. In the Philippines, the democratically elected government of Joseph Estrada, the people's darling, was brought down by the middle- and upper-classes (it was dubbed a 'cell phone' revolution; the people lost because at the time cell phones, presumably, were too expensive!). In Indonesia, thanks to IMF mismanagement, a mob overthrew General Suharto (and investment has never recovered while corruption has remained the same). In Kyrgyzstan, an autocratic government was overthrown by a mob of a couple of thousand, an event repeated a few years later against a democratically elected government. In China, a mob had tried something similar, but not comparable (see J.M.Roberts' 'History of the 20th Century'). In Iran, a mob tried – and is again trying - to overthrow the regime. The virus has spread to other Middle Eastern countries.
The mob can take a curious turn in a democracy. The author, during his long years under military dictators, had never known of any lynching in the city or any city of Bangladesh. The standard practice was to give the thief or robber a good beating and then hand him over to the police. When a thief tried to steal chickens from my farm, employees and neighbours insisted on roughing him up, but I declined. I was later instructed on good authority that I had made a terrible mistake: I had merely 'insulted' the criminal, who would surely be back. The proper course, apparently, was to take a bottle of hot water and apply it vigorously to the soles of the feet. And then to hand him over to the authorities.
But not to kill him.
The first lynching in Dhaka occurred soon after the democratic transition in the commercial centre of town. According to my reckoning, there have been 83 lynchings last year, 50 the previous year and 78 in 2008. Interestingly, in the first year of military rule in 2007, the number of lynchings dropped from 63 to 29. It rose again the next year, by which time it was clear that civilians would be back to power by December.
It was also in the commercial centre of town that probably the grisliest episode of mob justice occurred. In January 2002, an irate mob caught three muggers armed with guns and riding a motorcycle while fleeing the scene of the crime with a great deal of money snatched from a businessman, whom they had shot. Then the mob poured petrol on the muggers, and set them, and the motorbike, on fire. The people did not even allow the fire department to extinguish the fire, and prevented the police from visiting the area. Needless to add, the muggers perished (The Bangladesh Observer, 29 January, 2002, p1).
Another incident might compete with the above account for the laurel of cruelty. According to the Daily Star Magazine (26 December, 2003, p 11), villagers chased a group of bandits into a forest in Char Clerk, Noakhali, and flushed them out over several days. "The criminals, who had apparently unleashed a reign of terror in the village raping and looting and killing, were killed by the villagers in the most gruesome way. While around 40 of them were killed a few had their eyes gorged (sic) out and one of them had his genitals cut out."
But what fascinates the casual observer is the air of sanctity that covers these acts: newspaper reports invariably show sympathy for the mob. An act which would have been regarded as barbaric, and invoked the death penalty, if committed by an individual, acquires the aura of just retribution.
In a democratic world, it is very clear, as Le Bon envisaged, that rule by the mob – ochlocracy - would prevail.
This is in direct contradiction to what John Locke maintained. "To this perhaps it will be said, that the people being ignorant, and always discontented, to lay the foundation of government in the unsteady opinion and uncertain humour of the people, is to expose it to certain ruin; and no government will be able long to subsist, if the people may set up a new legislative, whenever they take offence at the old one." If people revolt habitually, there will be no peace. To which he replied that people don't usually rise in rebellion. "To this I answer, Quite the contrary. People are not so easily got out of their old forms, as some are apt to suggest. They are hardly to be prevailed with to amend the acknowledged faults in the frame they have been accustomed to. And if there be any original defects, or adventitious ones introduced by time, or corruption; it is not an easy thing to get them changed, even when all the world sees there is an opportunity for it." We have seen so many revolutions and rebellions in the last twenty – especially the last five – years, that John Locke has been practically refuted.
But then he had another line of attack. If rulers are tyrannical, then people will, in fact, overthrow them, whatever the political philosopher has to say. "…for when the people are made miserable, and find themselves exposed to the ill usage of arbitrary power, cry up their governors, as much as you will, for sons of Jupiter; let them be sacred and divine, descended, or authorized from heaven; give them out for whom or what you please, the same will happen. The people generally ill treated, and contrary to right, will be ready upon any occasion to ease themselves of a burden that sits heavy upon them."
But we have seen that even democratically elected governments have been overthrown by 'the people' – who never act collectively, but of which only a part acts for the whole. I do not see how the people suffered under Joseph Estrada, or how the people are miserable in modern Thailand. The young men who overthrew Suharto did not blame the IMF, as they should have, but misdirected their ire against the man who had raised their prosperity to admirably high levels. Under military rule in Bangladesh, the judiciary, the bureaucracy and the army were all neutral: under democracy, they have each become politicized, and the career path of a young person clearly depends on his or her party allegiance, no matter how talented the person. Clearly, the people are worse off today, but they show no sign of rising up against this democratic tyranny. Indeed, when the country was on the brink of civil war, thanks to the murderous rivalry of the two political parties, it was the donors who had to call in the military; the people would have been slaughtered. Thus the people rise use when they shouldn't, and don't when they should.
Given these events, the wisdom of Muslim political thinkers, who developed a doctrine of nonresistance to the ruler, known as 'zel Allah', the shadow of Allah, must be acknowledged. “Sixty years of tyranny are better than an hour of civil strife,” maintained al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali said that it was a duty never to overthrow a ruler "no matter how mad or bad". So long as he could maintain the peace and protect against external enemies, he must be tolerated. Arabs have casually tossed away their long tradition.
But we have entered an era of perpetual revolution – misguided, misdirected, misused by that modern sovereign, the ochlocracy.