Commentary

Egyptian protests built on a computer format

Egyptian protests built on a computer format
Rebellion: An Egyptian protester holds up a form used by the grassroots movement Tamarod (meaning "rebellion") to gather more than 22 million signatures registering opposition to President Mohamed Morsi. Photo by Bora S. Kamel via Flickr and under a Creative Commons license
by Ahmed Amer |
Computer engineering professor Ahmed Amer argues that the anti-Morsi petition gatherers in Egypt functioned like a distributed computing system—and that's why they were so effective. The following op/ed was written for Reuters and first appeared on July 9, 2013.

Much of the commentary and reporting on Egypt’s evolving crisis depicts the events as a relatively balanced conflict between protestors and supporters of toppled president Mohamed Morsi.

The grassroots opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood regime, some analysts say, could not have gathered the 22 million signatures it claimed in order to compel new elections. Voters not only had to sign the petitions, they also had to verify their signature by including their national ID card number.

22 million verified signatures does indeed seem like a stunning amount to gather in less than three months. But it is not. I believe that the grassroots organizers succeeded where the Muslim Brotherhood did not in gaining support of Egypt’s largely Muslim population.

As an Egyptian computer scientist who studied at the Tahrir campus of American University in Cairo, I know the demonstration sites, I know some protestors at those sites, and I know numbers.

I study and design distributed systems—computer systems that need to operate reliably as they expand in scale to include millions of cooperating, yet independent, devices. This is similar to the challenge faced by the signature gatherers attempting to reach out to and coordinate millions of Egyptians.

Those now celebrating Morsi’s ouster include some of the same citizens who voted him in two years ago. There were reportedly more anti-Morsi demonstrators on the streets (14 million) than the 13 million who voted him into office, with a 52 percent majority.

The anti-Morsi campaign mounted an effective petitioning mechanism: a brief form calling for a new election to replace the increasingly divisive Morsi presidency. The form’s simplicity and the mechanism of its distribution helped make it accessible to these unexpectedly large numbers.

Volunteers across the nation downloaded or photocopied the forms and recruited other volunteers to do the same, exponentially expanding the possible universe of signatories. The photocopied forms essentially went viral, with numbers increasing far beyond expectations.

This distribution mechanism is comparable to doubling a single grain of rice as it moves across a chessboard—a classic example used by computer scientists and mathematicians to demonstrate the dramatic rate of exponentially growing phenomena. By the time that grain reaches the other end, you’d have about a thousand years’ worth of global rice production.

This virtual phenomenon became real on June 30. The forms had asked citizens to demonstrate their discontent by protesting in the nearest square on that date. The result was 14 million protestors across Egypt, the military removing Morsi from office, and new elections now planned.

Meanwhile, those supporting Morsi claimed to have gathered 26 million signatures in support of the ousted president. But this appears untrue. The Morsi regime had access to the official national ID database and they were able to transport the regime’s backers from across the nation. Yet the deposed president’s supporters were unable to fill more than one large intersection near the presidential palace at the Rabaa mosque. The disparity was evident. Comparing this contrived demonstration with the millions of people who flooded squares in all 27 Egyptian governorates on June 30 is ludicrous. The fervor of Morsi’s supporters is clearly real, but these numbers are not.

Yet the national Al-Ahram newspaper, which had a Muslim Brotherhood supporter as editor in chief, featured a headline the next day suggesting the protests were equal in size. Essam El-Haddad, Morsi’s foreign policy adviser and a Muslim Brotherhood member, claimed the Rabaa protest was larger.

The Rabaa rally and the continuing pro-Morsi rallies assert the opposition is out to destroy Islam in Egypt. The protestors who brought down Morsi, however, are a diverse group—secular and Islamist, middle class and poor—pitted against Morsi intimidators who tried to sow sectarian hatred and condemned their opponents as violent traitors and “infidels.”

This struggle is not between two halves of a community. It is between a massive portion of a nation trying to be heard by demonstrating their sheer numbers, and an organization trying its best to turn a peaceful demonstration of discontent into a clash.

As Egyptians move forward, attempting to build the democracy they’d demanded at the start of the Arab Spring, there will likely be pain and uncertainty in addition to the hope. Removing Morsi, however, was not, as some claim, a civil war on religious lines or an attack on democracy by a conspiring minority. It was a confrontation between a freedom-hungry, peace-loving nation trying to preserve its identity, and a organization seeking to hold it hostage.
 

Ahmed Amer is professor of computer engineering at Santa Clara University. Learn more about his research in the Fall 2012 Santa Clara Magazine.

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Spring 2014

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