A Brief Taxonomy of Middle East Crowds


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.