A personal interest

Since January 25, I’ve been pretty wrapped up with following the unfolding uprising in Egypt, now recognized as a popular revolution, with Mubarak’s stepping down on February 11. The intensity of my interest was initially triggered because my 22-year-old, recent college graduate son has been living in Cairo (working with Ashoka Arab World) since late June. He came home in late December for the holidays, and had just returned to Cairo on January 22.  We both sensed that the scene there could be volatile, given the revolution that had just occurred in Tunisia, coupled with the pervasive sense of discontent among Egyptian youth and resignation among older folks he’d felt since soon after his arrival early last summer.

 

Initially my attention was on exactly what you’d likely expect from a concerned mom: “How safe is it in Cairo?” My son, Gabriel, was staying mostly in his neighborhood, but shared with me that from his apartment, across the Nile from Tahrir Square, he could smell the acrid tear gas and hear the pop of tear gas canisters being fired. And, the initial battle on January 28 between riot police and protesters on Kasr Al Nile Bridge was not that far from his neighborhood, with the government blocking both internet and cell phone communication that day.

 

Gabriel evacuated on January 31st and landed safely in Paris. He hopes to return to Cairo sooner than later, excited about what Ashoka’s work can contribute to Egypt’s nascent democratic space . But I’ve continued to follow events closely, finding myself deeply moved and inspired by the courage of the Egyptian people and amazed at their capacity to keep their protests peaceful (at least on their end), even in the face of extraordinary provocation from Mubarak loyalists.

 

Learning from the "back story"

Reading Al Jazeera English and the New York Times almost obsessively, I’ve been keenly interested in coverage of the “back story” — how the protests came to be and how they’ve been organized and orchestrated over the past weeks. In the midst of this, I’ve found myself thinking, “Those involved in organizing this are social entrepreneurs on steroids!”

 

Obviously, I’m not there in Egypt, on the inside. But, there is a story emerging in the fairly detailed reporting of those who are participating in or are privy to the inner workings that allows us to see that this movement was in the works for a while. And, because of the way those involved were working together, the network of organizers was able to capitalize on the opening that appeared in the wake of Tunisia’s successful revolution resulting in the Ben Ali’s departure on January 14.

 

Generally, social entrepreneurs are generating ventures that provide services or products that address an unmet need related to some dimension of social justice, sustainability or development. The organizers of Egypt’s revolution can be consider social entrepreneurs of another sort, demonstrating great ability mobilizing people around a critical and fundamental commitment to freedom and dignity. What are the lesson we can learn from their efforts that can support the likelihood of a social venture’s success, more generally?

 

Relevant lessons

The protests appeared to be and were talked about in the media, at least initially, as “leaderless”, by virtue of there being no central figures around whom people were clearly galvanized. The back story shows that, in fact, a network of activists has been working for several years studying successful nonviolent protests internationally, organizing smaller efforts of varying success, creating a network or community of learning across small organizations within Egypt and internationally.  Based on my reading of available accounts, here are some key lesson that might prove relevant and useful to social entrpreneurs:

 

  • Commitment over time: While the protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt began on January 25, organizers had been working on related efforts for several years. They demonstrated sustained passionate commitment to the possibility of democracy in Egypt.

  • Learning from smaller efforts: The organizers used their earlier, smaller efforts to learn about what worked through action and reflection. They shared learnings with other activists.

  •  Integrating learnings from others: The organizers studied nonviolent protest theory and action drawing on both writings and concrete experiences of others.

  • Creating communities of learning: Smaller initiatives were in communication to learn together about how to mobilize effectively.

  • Timing and energy: The initial organizers saw an opportunity for Egypt when the Tunisian revolution, initiated by young activists, was successful. Building a base constituency and message, learning from earlier, more bounded experiences makes it possible to see and be prepared to act on an “opening” when it shows itself.

  • Timing and building on an existing opportunity: The first protest was scheduled for January 25, which is already known as “Police Day” (to celebrate a police uprising against the British)

  • Using existing technology in a new way to build a constituency: By now it’s common knowledge that the organizers used social media to support building a core constituency of supporters who could be mobilized. Wael Ghonim (the now famous Google marketing executive) provided marketing know-how, setting up the We are All Khalid Said Facebook group, attracting several hundred thousand users, inviting them into exercises in online democratic participation through mechanisms like polling. For the initial planned January 25 protest, the site suggested that if at least 50,000 people committed to show up, the protest would be held. Over 100,000 people signed up!

  • Using technology in a new way to promote the message real-time:The use of cell phones and smart phones to take pictures and video, which could be almost instantly uploaded to the web, undermined the Egyptian government’s attempts to dominate coverage (or lack of it) of the protests. Fresh images showed clearly what was going on, in contrast to state television.

  • Bringing others along: To increase the base of constituents and, more immediately, the size of the crowd, the organizers began the January 25 protests by rallying Cairenes in poor neighborhoods.

  • Speaking to the stakeholders’ most central concerns: When the organizers went to poor neighborhoods to enlist a larger group, their message was one that appealed to the everyday concerns of those stakeholders – “pocketbook issues” vs. more conceptual democratic ideals that may have been more compelling to the organizers themselves initially.

  • Adopting proven tactics: The protest organizers received training from experienced others in how to deal with tear gas and violent attacks. (For example, using cardboard and plastic bottles under their clothing, lemons, onions and vinegar to fight off effects of tear gas.)

  • Discipline, focus, self-regulation of emotion: I don’t know what you all think, but I was pretty well amazed that the protesters remained relatively nonviolent (except the initial evening when to ruling party building was burned and when the protesters mobilized to defend themselves under attack from pro-Mubarak forces. They managed to stay true to their commitment to nonviolence, even after their disappointment and anger with Mubarak’s Thursday night speech, where he refused to step down. Coverage indicates that there were chants of “Peaceful! Peaceful!” even that night.

  • Adapting in the flow of activity, but having clear underlying commitments/values that are unwavering: With circumstances changing daily, the organizers met to assess their situation and plan next steps in response. In addition, in the face of the circumstances unfolding, they were steadfast in their commitment to values of nonviolent protest (and were successful in having protesters in general adopt this value) and to the necessity of Mubarak’s stepping down.

 

What relevant lessons can you draw from this historic unfolding of events?

Certainly, there are other lessons that can be drawn that are relevant to the work of social entrepreneurs. Those I’ve outlined represent just a start. I invite you to reflect on your own experience of the events in Egypt, read some of the articles for which I’ve provided links below and ask yourself, "What are the most relevant lessons I can draw from these historic events?"

 

"A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History"  (New York Times)

www.nytimes.com/2011/02/14/world/middleeast/14egypt-tunisia-protests.html

 

"Protests Old Guard Falls in Behind the Young" (New York Times)

www.nytimes.com/2011/01/31/world/middleeast/31opposition.html

 

"What America Can Learn from Egypt" (New York Times)

www.nytimes.com/2011/02/13/opinion/13kristof.html

 

"Egyptian Minds are Opened" (Al Jazeera English)

english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/02/201121322143201645.html