We reporters love crowd figures. The bigger the mob, the better the story. Politicians love them too. The greater the masses, the greater the popularity. Ask not who said: “I’m like, wait a minute. I made a speech. I looked out, the field was, it looked like a million, million and a half people.” Ah, those millions.
Back in 2011, the crowds in Tahrir Square were in their hundreds of thousands. A million Egyptians – that's the figure Al Jazeera went for. Or maybe it was a million and a half people in central Cairo. They helped to overthrow Hosni Mubarak – with the help of the army, of course, the people’s protector. Experts thought 300,000 was the greatest number of Egyptians you could cram into the Tahrir district. But what the hell? It was a revolution.
So Mohamed Morsi won the first democratic election in modern Egyptian history, but two years later the crowds were back in the streets of the Arab world’s most populated nation. Now they wanted the overthrow of Morsi and the strong hand of the people’s protector, the army. They produced a reported 22 million signatures on a youth movement protest petition. And they got General, later Field Marshal, later still President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. His publicists then announced that his coup d'état had been supported by protestors who took part in “the largest demonstrations in human history”. They touted the total cross-country crowds as 33 million, more than a third of the entire Egyptian population. This was fantastical, but obsessive.
No wonder that when Donald Trump met Sisi last year, he pronounced the Egyptian leader “a fantastic guy”. And let’s not forget that Obama’s administration went along with the utterly unverified signatures on that infamous ‘petition’. Hillary Clinton’s own State Department declared that the US could not reverse the will of the “22 million people who spoke out [sic] and had their voices heard”. But it was the scale of the 33 millions that the military used to claim legitimacy. When the BBC reported this Hollywood-style exaggeration, Sisi’s acolytes requoted the BBC as authenticating the fantasy.
The BBC’s Arabic service had some doubts. Only “tens of thousands” had massed for Morsi’s overthrow. But the damage was done. A local Egyptian television channel stated, “CNN says 33 million people were in the streets today. BBC says the biggest gathering in history.” The BBC authenticated no such figure, as journalist Max Blumenthal – one of the only American writers to seriously question this ballyhoo – pointed out.
Then a single anonymous “military official”, who may or may not have existed, claimed that 17 million had protested at Morsi’s rule and demanded new elections. Though slightly less ambitious a figure than 22 million or 33 million, this statistic was also delusional, an “alternative fact” if ever there was one. But step forward a man who understood personal popularity and who craved admiration and who also, no doubt, thought Sisi “a fantastic guy”. This eminent statesman then really did tell us that “17 million people on the street is not the same as an election – but it is an awesome manifestation of people power”. Yes, it was Tony Blair.
“Alternative facts” again. But what would you expect of Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara, who gave us weapons of mass destruction and 45-minute warnings and who did not, apparently, notice the million Brits (according to the BBC) who marched on British streets in 2003 because they did not want to invade Iraq?
The 2013 Egyptian figure dipped briefly to 14 million. But even that was pretty “alternative”. An Egyptian blogger worked out that if each Cairo protestor occupied 0.45 square metres of body room, the total number of pro-Sisi demonstrators you could fit into the centre of Egyptian cities was only 2.8 million.
Pretty measly. Not even twice the size of Trump’s million and a half. But let’s stay with Trump’s million for a moment. For when Lebanese protestors wanted to condemn the murder of their ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, hundreds of thousands of them turned out in central Beirut and demanded the withdrawal of the Syrian army from their country. Reporters liked to call this the ‘Cedar Revolution’. Were there 500,000 Lebanese demonstrators, as AP suggested? Or between 800,000 and 1.2 million, as others proclaimed? Let’s say a million – although Hezbollah produced a rally of perhaps half a million (possibly 800,000) a few days later in support of Syria.
As Washington rounded on Damascus, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad took umbrage at the anti-Syrian protestors. The Cedar Revolution was anyway a title invented not by the Lebanese but by a US State Department official. Assad complained that his Beirut antagonists were fewer in number and talked of camera ‘bias’ and spoke with anger of zoom lenses. “Zoom out and count,” read the next posters carried by the anti-Syrian protestors. At Trump’s inaugural, of course – and at Obama’s first inaugural with its larger numbers – the cameras didn’t ‘zoom’ at all.
But you could see what Trump’s weird spokesman meant when he said that this was “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration”. Whatever the final results of the US election that gave his master victory, Sean Spicer was untruthfully saying what his master truthfully wanted to hear: that the will of the people must be done. Crowds matter. When the Egyptian army staged its coup, Sisi’s friend Blair did actually say that it had done so at “the will of the people”.
Maybe crowd figures are taking the place of public opinion polls – which long ago took the place of elections in popular imagination – and that the magic million (or million and a half) is the new obsession of American presidents as it has been the obsession of Arab presidents for years. Zoom in on Trump. But let’s not get obsessive about him. All he was saying is that he had seen “an awesome manifestation of people power”.