What the Egyptian Revolution Teaches Us about Power and Influence

Like most people around the world, I have been fascinated during the past 15 days by the largely peaceful revolution that brought down a 30-year-old dictatorship in Egypt.  The pictures of thousands of protestors chanting in Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square) were mesmerizing, as was their collective show of defiance when confronted by government-directed thugs days ago.  Unlike Dick Cheney, who self-righteously declared that Mubarak is our ally and we should stick by him, I was among the millions of Americans who cheered for the protestors and prayed that they would prevail. 

They did, in one of the world’s greatest moments in recent years.

Mubarak is gone, and now we can pray that the hopes of millions of Egyptians will be realized as they see their country transformed into a real democracy.  For me, one of the most fascinating parts of this modern political saga was observing how common people gained enough power and wielded enough influence to topple a brutal regime.

In The Elements of Power:  Lessons on Leadership and Influence, I wrote about the eleven sources of power people can have.  One of those sources is networking, and the power of networking was starkly in evidence on television day after day.  The Egyptian people preempted the power of the state in several important ways.  First, through their own circles of family and friends and through social media (mainly Twitter and Facebook) they were able to network with hundreds and then thousands and tens of thousands of other Egyptians who felt as they did.  The success of the Tunisian revolution gave them hope, and in networking with others who shared that hope, they gained courage and conviction.  It should be abundantly clear that without the power of networking they would not have been able to develop the critical mass necessary to incite sufficient action.  

Another critical source of power for the protestors, especially as the days wore on, was character.  Throughout their protests, people were heard to shout “peaceful, peaceful.”  They understood—as the government clearly did not—that if they had become a violent mob, the army would surely have had to intervene.  They would have faced a powerful military that may have had no choice but to put down the revolution with counter violence.  But even more importantly, they would have lost the moral high ground and, with it, the support of other arabs in the region and other governments around the world.  By remaining peaceful, they gained the world’s sympathy and support, and the pressure on Mubarak to step down kept increasing.  We will never know how many governments secretly advised the dictator to leave, but Mubarak had to have known that he could not count on friendly governments to keep him in power.

At the apex of the demonstrations, the protestors were confronted by a large mob of Mubarak supporters—who did instigate violence.  We learned that at least some of these “supporters” were government workers who were told that they would not be paid unless they joined this pro-Mubarak group.  Some raced into the square on camels and horses, whipping anti-Mubarak protestors.  Others hurled Molotov cocktails and wielded machetes.  It was an ugly scene, and everyone watching it knew it for what it was—and that cost Mubarak and the Egyptian government both legitimacy and any shred of support they might still have had from friendly governments.

What is most remarkable about the Egyptian revolution is that thousands of ordinary citizens used the power of networking to form themselves into, if not a coherent body, then at least a substantial force for political change, a force powerful enough to focus the world’s attention and wrest the moral imperative away from Egypt’s legitimate government and in short order bring it down.  The protestors accomplished this extraordinary feat through alliance building—one of the ten influence techniques I describe in my forthcoming book Elements of Influence:  The Art of Getting Others to Follow Your Lead (AMACOM Books, July 2011). 

Alliance building is influencing by building an alliance of supporters and using that alliance to influence others.  Alliance building is not used very frequently, especially when compared to other influence techniques like logical persuading, socializing, and stating.  People typically use alliance building when they lack the power or authority to influence in any other way, and of course this was precisely the case in Egypt.  No individual protestor would have had the power to bring down Mubarak’s government.  Even smaller organized groups—like the opposition parties—lacked the power to confront Mubarak.  But this mob of ordinary people, united by the passion for change and driven by the conviction that they had right on their side and would prevail if they persevered, was able to topple a corrupt regime and, in just 15 days, force a profound political change.

The lesson of the Egyptian revolution of 2011 is that a concerted effort by a mass of people over a period of time can be overwhelming to most other forces opposing it.  Wisely, the protestors avoided violence and in so doing gained the moral high ground that gave them the international support and encouragement they needed for other governments to give Mubarak the message he needed to hear:  Your time is up.  Leave.

Copyright © 2011 by Terry R. Bacon.

Photo © 2011 by Str/ UPI/ Fotoglif.  Used with permission.

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