A Brief Taxonomy of Middle East Crowds

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The rapidly spreading phenomenon of the Middle East crowd requires some distinctions, especially between the different kinds of crowds that have lately been assembling for different purposes. These gatherings are not all reflections of a newly emerging sense of popular empowerment, and they don't all yield the same meaning.

My colleague Jesse Walker has observed that some Bush supporters have ripped some of these phenomena from their contexts and imposed a political meaning on them. In some cases, I agree with him. A recent, large gathering in Morocco, for example, has been cited as yet more evidence of political ferment in the Arab world. In fact, that crowd—which demanded the release of Moroccan prisoners being held by Algeria—appears to have been a familiar nationalist crowd; any greater political meaning involving change would appear to be limited at best.

By obvious contrast, the groups that have been demonstrating in Cairo and Kuwait are far, far smaller—hardly "crowds" at all—but they yield greater potential political meaning: That such popular-empowerment groups have assembled at all represents a challenge to long-standing, top-down political norms. Indeed, the significance of the Egyptian Kifaya protests is not that they involved tens of thousands of marchers, but that they were an unanticipated phenomenon that quickly went from negligible to noticeable. No one doubts that Egypt's Mubarak could conjure up a counter-crowd of a million people to chant his name, but that wouldn't change the significance of the smaller protest gatherings.

Just such a conjured counter-crowd is what marched Tuesday in Beirut. The Hizbollah crowd that gathered to protest U.S. and French pressure for a full Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon (and also against UN Resolution 1559, which would disarm Hizbollah) has impressed some Bush critics by its size. The size of the crowd matters—it reflects the strength of the crowd's organizers—but so does the nature of the crowd. Indeed, the point of such conjured crowds is that they are about their organizers far more than they are about their participants. (The Lebanese blog Bliss Street Journal observed that the Hizbollah march was really about its speakers, and not—in contrast to opposition marches—about the participants. [Link Via Across the Bay.])

The various Lebanese opposition rallies that have taken place since the murder of Rafiq Hariri have also featured a degree of factional group organization (the flags of certain factions have been visible), but I've yet to see anyone argue that these now-famous events are not essentially popular expressions. These crowds are about their participants, not their organizers. Indeed, the original Beirut outpouring following Hariri's murder may actually have been a "natural," self-organized phenomenon. As far as I know, a "natural" crowd sympathizing with Syria has never formed in Lebanon since Hariri's murder, though a small and violent outbreak in Tripoli consisted of followers of the country's resigning premier.

To use Elias Canetti's terminology, Lebanon's opposition crowds are "open" crowds, originally self-organized and constituting a popular challenge by much of the Christian, Druze, and Sunni communities to Syrian domination. Hizbollah's crowd on Tuesday was a "closed" counter-crowd, created to be poured in front of Beirut's UN offices by those who benefit from the current power arrangement. Different crowds, different meanings.

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  1. Charles Paul Freund,

    I’m still trying to figure out how the Hezbollah crowd lacks legitimacy. Do the members of the crowd support Hezbollah or not? To use an analogy, when the Republican party organizes an event, I’m still pretty sure most of the attendees (aside from the press, etc.) support the Republican party’s platform in the main. How is this any different from what Hezbollah is doing?

  2. GG,

    I’m not CPF, but I’ll give my answer. Well, a few answers. First, I don’t think anyone’s afraid that violence will come to them if they don’t attend a GOP event. Hezbollah, not so much. Also, the Syrian government isn’t a bunch of nice guys either. It’s like looking at an opinion poll in a totalitarian country. Second, it’s not that the crowd “lacks legitimacy,” as in, “it’s totally fake.” It’s just not the same type of crowd as one that forms spontaneously, and you can’t draw precisely the same conclusions from it.

  3. yet another Steve,

    First, I don’t think anyone’s afraid that violence will come to them if they don’t attend a GOP event. Hezbollah, not so much. Also, the Syrian government isn’t a bunch of nice guys either. It’s like looking at an opinion poll in a totalitarian country.

    Maybe, or maybe not. But none of this really undercuts my point.

    Second, it’s not that the crowd “lacks legitimacy,” as in, “it’s totally fake.” It’s just not the same type of crowd as one that forms spontaneously, and you can’t draw precisely the same conclusions from it.

    Well, I find the stark demarcation to be less than credible as well. I would curious how well they jive with crowd theory.

  4. Suppose Nabih Berri comes to terms with the opposition? What then happens to Amal’s participation in the next Hizbollah march?

  5. i was wondering when one of the supporters of idealism-and-guns would finally find a way to pooh-pooh yesterday’s march.

    tens of thousands sympathetic to lebanese opposition politics march, inspired in the moment by the cathartic assassination of hariri and bolstered by those out of favor with the syrians — and that means more than 500,000+ in beirut simply because they were organized by hezbollah? i don’t mean to dismiss the idea, but why?

    this seems to presume that demonstrations in support of organizations and institutions are somehow less virtuous or important or legitimate by that fact. why would that be so? because they are not sparked by fleeting emotions? why are less organized (but surely not unorganized or unencouraged) crowds, animated by the passing passion of a political moment like hariri’s death, inherently more meaningful than hezbollah demonstating its considerable influence?

    i would think the opposite is more likely true — after all, it’s not as though hezbollah is unimportant simply because they stand against this created narrative of “freedom on the march”, and the probability of this passionate moment for the opposition is that it will win some concessions, the emotions will pass and things will ebb back. or am i missing something?

  6. What then happens to Amal’s participation in the next Hizbollah march?

    a lot of things we can “what if”, mr freund, but that doesn’t make the pro-syrian interests in lebanon less powerful or important, and therefore their intimidating ability to mass people less important. again, i don’t mean to dismiss you out of hand — i simply don’t see your point, unless you actually mean that emotional protests have some transcendental value others don’t.

  7. The worst that can happen from putting your head to the ground, trying to listen to the “Arab Street” is having to pick camel shit out of your lug holes.

  8. Gary Gunnels,

    I don’t know if the Hezbollah crowd was threatened into attendance as yet another Steve suggests, but if true, it certainly would undercut your point because it would suggest that the attendees were not necessarily in support of Hezbollah but rather simply there to save their skin. If not wholly, then possibly in part, implying that person-for-person the attendance would not reflect the same level of support a noncoerced crowd would reflect. Now, I don’t know if such threats of violence exist, and if they did I don’t know why CPF would fail to mention them since they would much more strongly make his case than this abstract stuff about who the crowd is “about.” But just for logic’s sake, if the crowd was coerced as yet another Steve suggests, I don’t see how you could possibly discount the significance of that, unless it simply is not in your DNA to ever admit being wrong. Hell, stick a knife in my back and I’ll say you have the nicest personality among H&R commenters! 🙂

  9. “i simply don’t see your point ….”

    the point is that, unlike a “open” crowd, you can shrink a Hizbollah sort of crowd through its faction organizers. I was answering gunnels’ question about whether the participants supported Hizbollah or not. a core of them obviously do, many others were there for factional reasons. if the Franjieh family makes a deal with the opposition (not exactly likely), the Zghorta Maronite faction will be at the next opposition rally. if Nabih Berri switches sides, Hizbollah’s next turnout is a whole lot smaller.

  10. CPF:

    “if the Franjieh family makes a deal with the opposition (not exactly likely), the Zghorta Maronite faction will be at the next opposition rally. if Nabih Berri switches sides, Hizbollah’s next turnout is a whole lot smaller.”

    and if the opposition switch sides, then the opposition will disappear. This is getting silly.

  11. “and if the opposition switch sides, then the opposition will disappear. This is getting silly.”

    1. berri could fall out with nasrallah tonight. (not a prediction.) 2. the opposition is (essentially) popular.

  12. “1. berri could fall out with nasrallah tonight. (not a prediction.) ”

    and Aoun could kiss and make out with Assad tonight .(not a prediction.)

    2. the opposition is (essentially) popular.”

    and Hizbollah isn’t?

  13. 2. the opposition is (essentially) popular

    and therefore capricious.

    it would simply appear that “gaining freedom” is simply not the central preoccupation of the majority of the lebanese (as it is for many political americans). all these factions did, in the end, see fit to march in this event and not the other. maybe that’s just playing politics for them — but playing politics is usually far more consequential, and many more seem willing to forsake whatever populist idealism there is in the so-called cedar revolution for this factional pragmatism. not exactly a ringing endorsement of “beirut spring”.

  14. “and Hizbollah isn’t [popular]?”

    the opposition is (essentially) “popular” in the sense that it has no Nabih Berris who could withdraw substantial numbers of crowd participants. did you say something about this getting silly?

  15. Berri, represents the original faction of Islamic Amal; founded by Musa Sadr. The Sistani or Abdel Hakim, figure from Lebanon’s past; murdered by Kaddaffi around ’81. Berri, one recalls was the
    negotiator during the TWA 847 hijacking around
    ’86. Nasrallah, represents the Iranian backed
    Hezbollah faction, which fought the PLO at the
    battle of the Camps; at Bourj e Baraneh, after
    the Americans pulled out.(this wasn’t in the
    news much; it only matters if a one time Israeli
    ally; like Hobeika gets out of hand) One of his likely supporters in Iran; is Defense Minister Shamkhani ; formerly Admiral; Revolutionary Guards
    in control of the hostage camps at Baalbek in the Biqaa valley; (this according to Robert Baer; who
    happens to be one of the only American officials
    near there at the time).Nasrallah, is of the same
    generation, and probably well acquainted with Imad
    Mugniyeh, organizer of the Beirut bombings in ’83-84, the hostage taking under the false flag of the
    IJO; and a one time acquaintance of Bin Laden.

  16. A crowd is a crowd is a crowd is a crowd. — Not Gertrude Stein

    500,000 people (mostly Lebanese and mostly voters) make a crowd, a Lebanese crowd. If Berri pulls out, the size dwindles, if the latest kitaibi incarnation pulls out, the opposition dwindles. Lebanon is feudal even in the salons.

    The Beiruti bourgeoisie is not the center of Middle East progress or the Middle East universe, nor even, it seems, Lebanon’s. I happen to agree with them on the issues of the day but they are not all the Lebanese and I am not Lebanese.

    In fact, if more effort was made reaching out to the Shiite fellahin and slumdwellers than looking down on them, maybe they would be joining in.

  17. I know from experience that I am a lousy crowd-counter, so I won’t even try, but I do agree with a commentary I stumbled across last night, which said that the anti-Syrian rallies were fundamentally more INTERESTING, in that the excitement was supplied by the participants who showed up, and their elan and ingenuity…
    …and the pro-Syrian rally was basically boring, in that it was about the dreary wind-bags lecturing at the passive, obedient “masses”.

    Hard to disagree.

  18. I read this stuff about how the counter-crowd isn’t spontaneous or there for itself or whatever and my Wishful Thinking Alert starts clanging at maximum volume.

    Look: we’d all *like* to believe that there isn’t a substantial, genuine groundswell of popular support for a nasty bunch like Hezbollah. And it may even be true! But the subjective assessments of Western commentators with very obvious prejudices and desires are just not good evidence for this view.

  19. Andrew,

    Thank you for merely repeating what Freund already wrote.

    Nicholas Weininger,

    Well put.

    fyodor,

    I was having a hard time believing – based on my own readings crowd theory and the history of crowds – that coercion was the explanation. After all, as a rule, large crowds are not coerced into being.

  20. Charles, I don’t buy into your theory. If Jumblatt switches sides (an unlikely event, I admit, but a possibility nevertheless especially given his history) the opposition will shrink in the same way if Franjieh pulled out of the counter-crowd.

    One thing I think you, and many others, ignore is that before Hariri’s assasination, for years all the opposition could muster to protest the Syrian presence in Lebanon is a thousand or so die-hard Phalange despite the French and US support. That changed with Hariri’s assasination and that could change back with a similar unforseen event.

    Andrew:
    “the anti-Syrian rallies were fundamentally more INTERESTING, in that the excitement was supplied by the participants who showed up, and their elan and ingenuity…
    …and the pro-Syrian rally was basically boring, in that it was about the dreary wind-bags lecturing at the passive, obedient “masses”.”

    I liken the anti-Syrian crowd to I like to call the “video-clip” crowd. They look lovely to party with and have a drink with, but when it gets tough don’t count on them.

  21. ‘a commentary I stumbled across last night, which said that the anti-Syrian rallies were fundamentally more INTERESTING, in that the excitement was supplied by the participants who showed up, and their elan and ingenuity…
    …and the pro-Syrian rally was basically boring, in that it was about the dreary wind-bags lecturing at the passive, obedient “masses”.’

    Sounds like the anti-Syrian elites have been getting some pointers from the IDI and/or IRI. Would this make their crowd less legitimate?

    And, BTW, wouldn’t the moniker “nationalist” (from the second paragraph) apply to the people marching against the presence of a foreign army in their country?

  22. I don’t know why joe and GG are gassing on about “legitimacy”, or what it is supposed to mean. Why not have elections, absent Syrian troops who have been credibly accused of interfering with them in the past? Y’know, like the resolutions call for?

    joe If a parade sponsered by an occupying army, and an armed militia they sponsor, is enough to rattle your nerves, it is clear that your lot aren’t capable of making foreign policy decisions any more.

    The anti-Syrian demonstrators broke a fearful taboo…and the meme joe gleaned off his left-wing talking-point sites this week, is that “since the mob ain’t peasants. they ain’t really legit’mate…or brave” That’s pathetic.

  23. “I don’t know why joe and GG are gassing on about “legitimacy”, or what it is supposed to mean.”

    It’s a jab at people like Michael Young, who claim that the cause of the people in the much larger march lacks “legitimacy,” because it was organized in support of a poltical faction they dislike.

    “Why not have elections, absent Syrian troops who have been credibly accused of interfering with them in the past?” Yes, elections, by all means. Elections and grassroots activity, that’s what democracy’s all about.

    My nerves aren’t rattled, Andrew. Though you seem to be a little wobbly in your “people power will save us from terrorism” stance since you discovered that Hizbollah has more people power than the reformers.

    Actually, I side with the anti-Syrian reformers. I’m just not pretending that they have a democratic mandate or represent the inevitable wave of the future.

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