For a peaceful demonstration organized within a police state to gain sufficient momentum, a critical mass of demonstrators must be mobilized. This critical mass of demonstrators can most easily be mobilized through existing social structures even if it is instigated within novel networks and communication technologies. In different socio-political contexts appropriate social structures will vary, but in Egypt the clear choice for organizers of the January 25th uprising was the congregation of Friday prayers.
It is no coincidence that each pivotal day of the demonstrations – the “Day of Rage,” the million man march, and the threatened ten million man march (that was eventually quelled by President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation) – all happened on Fridays, the Sabbath day in Islam. Friday is a day off for most of the employed, meaning traffic is very limited and more of the population is free to attend demonstrations, but it is also a day of Friday prayers where millions gather across Cairo to pray and listen to sermons from imams. Numbers at mosques swelled, likely because of the attendance of secular demonstrators, imams discussed the demonstrations in sermons (some to dissuade congregations from attending, others to encourage engagement), and at the close of prayers marches began at mosques and moved toward key areas – bridges, squares, and ultimately Tahrir.
By calling for demonstrators to gather at mosques on Twitter, Facebook, and SMS before protests, the organizers made it possible for demonstrations to continue even in the event of a media shutdown. By localizing meeting points – mosques are in every neighborhood in Cairo – and choosing a meeting point guaranteed to have a large number of people that could potentially be apolitical, organizers allowed for a cover of anonymity that could take the place of communication confirmation of the actualization of a planned protest.
Though mobile telephony was completely disrupted in Cairo on the Day of Rage — undoubtedly a turning point in the uprising — a critical mass of demonstrators gathered at mosques and marched on Tahrir.
Though the Muslim Brotherhood did not engage in the January 25th demonstrations until they gained momentum after the first few weeks, the meeting points chosen by demonstrators were initially politicized and given a veneer of radicalization by some western media outlets. The trope that the two choices for Egypt are autocracy or theocracy was reiterated and the use of mosques in the demonstrations put forward as proof.
In analyzing the mobilization of populations for change, particularly in the wake of well orchestrated digital media campaigns, it will become increasingly important, particularly in police states, to assess the social structures that are de facto off-limits from crackdown. These structures, that can rationalize the gathering of many under apolitical guise, are likely to be interesting points of focus during uprisings that are subject to media crackdowns. When communication capability is unplugged, organic social and community structures become critical to the mobilization of many and cater to a movement built of a population with radically different levels of risk-aversion and commitment.