The Molotov cocktail is a surprisingly incendiary explosive considering its humble origins and ingredients. First developed by the Spanish nationalist movement, it was used against the Soviet supported Spanish Republicans during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s. The Spanish made the cocktail with glass jars and heavy blanket material, along with its main ingredient of common petrol. Ever since its first appearance, it has been used in nationalist and revolutionary movements across the globe. The Finns gave the cocktail its contemporary title, derived from the name of Soviet administrator Vyacheslave Molotov. The IRA also adapted the Molotov using their own geographically-distinct ingredient, soaked peat, as the gasoline “canister.”
More recently, Egyptians brandished these homemade weapons as a part of their massive protests aimed at ridding the country of incumbent President Hosni Mubarak. A symbol of Mubarak’s political power, the National Democratic Party building, located downtown conveniently near Tahrir Square, stood burning for days. It fell victim to the humble cocktail.
Perhaps one of these guilty Molotov cocktails was assembled by Mona Shawki, a long-time Cairo resident, who assembled twenty in her living room using glass coke bottles and strips of rag. Meanwhile, her son Omar Shawki broke the glass coffee table into long shards for makeshift defensive weapons–the citizens’ weapon.
Shawki had no Internet or cell phone service during the last weekend of January, and so was forced to relay the exciting news of protests and rebellious cocktails to her daughter in London via a patchy land line. Her daughter, a friend of mine from the International Cairo High School, informed me of Mrs. Shawki’s newly developed weapon-making skills via Skype. The weapons used in Egypt ranged from the low-tech Molotov cocktail, relying on simple chemical processes, to the satellites and fiber-optic cables connecting the stories of Egypt’s protests to the rest of the world.
In this modern age, massive transfer of information is one of the best weapons–at least, we would like to think so. Often journalists think of investigative journalism as the Holy Grail of reporting because it reveals the truth, which will ostensibly create change for the better. Anderson Cooper and Christiane Amanpour both reported from the ground in Cairo during the protests and were even involved in physical altercations with “pro-Mubarak protesters” (a thinly veiled cover for security forces and hired thugs). Viewers watching the action from outside of Egypt were outraged at the blatant disregard for journalistic rights, and world leaders soon called for the Egyptian government to halt attacks on members of the media, professional and “i-reporters” both. Al-Jazeera’s Cairo news hub was ordered to close under the government’s accusation of igniting violence and unrest through their reporting of the protests. It was clear that someone did not want the news leaving the country.
Despite our tendency to credit the role of media in this uprising, especially in the new Internet age of sites like Facebook and Twitter, we should not exaggerate media dependency and subsequent outside pressure for the protesters’ success. It was rather the pure physical presence of millions of protesters filling the nation’s streets that finally forced Mubarak to step down on February 11.
Of course the Egyptian government understood the potential danger of information dispersion. In its haste to evade the international spotlight, Internet and cell phone service were shut off on January 28 for a five day blackout. Despite their efforts, thousands of photos, videos and status messages made their way out of Egypt and onto sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Internationally, millions of people joined the effort as they changed their Facebook profile pictures to the Egyptian flag in a mass showing of support.
Although media has been disruptive to governments since the inception of the printing press–holding the power to question and investigate political leaders and occasionally bringing regimes to their knees–we should not be so fast to assume that this is what happened in Egypt. In fact, the Egyptian government may have overestimated this also; they were hasty and efficient in cutting off communication and media lines, but had no way of effectively controlling protesters or enforcing curfew. For thirty years they had perfected the art of preemptive repression of protest, but once confronted with its physical manifestation, were largely powerless.
The police forces and “pro-Mubarak protesters” made a crucial mistake–they made it clear that there would be no differentiation on their part between violent protesters, non-violent protesters, or non-protesters. Looting began as the police mysteriously disappeared from the streets, and in many instances, the groups of “thugs” terrorizing Cairo were reported to be members of the same security forces. The ensuing anarchy during the night was aimless as they lashed out with no selectivity, and civilians took it upon themselves to protect their neighborhoods. As another one of my school friend’s mother distributed her household’s collection of golf clubs and baseball bats to her neighbors in the Cairo suburb of Ma’adi, Omar Shawki brandished his coffee-table weapon.
Civilians were now forced to go on the offensive. After this, the number of protesters was inevitably set to reach a critical mass. By January 31, the number in Tahrir Square alone was revised to estimates upward of 250,000. By this time, it did not matter whether Twitter or Facebook informed the population of the protest planned for Tuesday, February 1, the so-called “Million Man March”. The place to be was Tahrir Square, and there was no stopping millions of people from pouring into the large, haphazard, and usually traffic-filled space. The incentive for citizens to remain passive was now all but erased; instead, Egyptians’ survival was dependent on their ability to act, and therefore 80 million people–a large portion of whom had never known life in Egypt beyond Mubarak’s rule–became protesters.
His interview with Amanpour made this clear when he blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for inciting violence, an obviously false statement. “I don’t care what people say about me. Right now I care about my country, I care about Egypt,” Mubarak told the world.
Our President stays in power for four, possibly eight, years, and his power is severely limited by the people’s elected representatives and ultimately the threat of impeachment. It is hard to relate to Egyptians’ political discontent after a thirty year presidential entrenchment. It is also hard to understand the “pharaoh complex” that thirty years of power bred in Mubarak–despite millions of Egyptians calling for his resignation for days on end, he stood his ground, defiantly holed up in his Heliopolis presidential palace.
The glass Coke bottles sat on Mrs. Shawki’s floor on that January weekend, filled with an amber liquid and twinkling with promise. They stood representative of the Egyptian spirit during the protests–resourceful, quick spreading, and with no need for a satellite to incite the change wanted. The way we play this game in the U.S. is very different, and perhaps that’s why social media’s influence in the Egyptian protests has been inflated. Yes, the Internet and its information dispersion helped those outside of Tahrir keep abreast of the action for the eighteen days of protests, but my profile picture did not topple Mubarak. It was only the Egyptians themselves who could bring about change, and they rose to the occasion, rather majestically, after thirty years.