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After Mubarak: Mob Rule?

February 15, 2011

Unending protests. Riots. Clashes between police, protesters and army. Collapse of rule of law. Anarchy. I have to confess that this possible future for Egypt was entirely outside my realm of imagination until I was at a social gathering Feb. 13th, just two days after Mubarak’s historic resignation, and an acquaintance said to me of Egypt: “I look at this and I see mob rule.”

I was completely taken by surprise. From my perspective, the protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt cannot be called a “mob” in the traditional English sense, because their behavior has been anything but unruly. On the contrary, their behavior was peaceful, except when they were attacked. They created makeshift hospitals, waste management systems, food banks, forms of entertainment—they even celebrated a wedding.

Their behavior was a powerful rebuttal to Mubarak’s claim that the choice was always between him and chaos.

Even when the regime freed several thousand criminals from prison to create the chaos for which they needed to save the people, Cairenes worked together to protect local neighborhoods and shops from looting, to care for children, and to share food.

They literally recreated civil society institutions from the ground up in a matter of days out of necessity. The barbarism predicted by the regime never came.

And there’s certainly no reason to think it will now.

People like my friend the other night imagine mob rule because they see what is happening through the cultural lens of a middle class American who generally trusts (whether or not he has tested it) that he can trust the police to do their jobs “by the book”, that economic downturns are a temporary thing, and that most of his grievances can be dealt with through electoral mechanisms or the courts.

But Egyptians have a very different view of their relationships to the institutions of the state and their views are accordingly quite different. If I read them aright, most would love to see a day in which they take for granted the same assumptions as my ethnocentric friend.

Return to After Mubarak: What Next?

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