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Exactly How Many Millions Were We, My General?

Mateo Bertelli, February 2011. In Cartoon Movement.Valérie Châr-Aux-Boeufs and King Tucky, Facebook, July 4, 2013.

Estimates of how many people demonstrated against Mohamed Morsi in Egypt at the end of June have varied by tens of millions of people. Is it really so hard to quantify such gigantic masses of human beings? The numbers are important because the size of the demonstrations was used to justify the military coup which followed them. If anyone had actually cared what these numbers were, the Egyptian military gave them a simple tool: aerial overhead videos of the demonstrations.

Here is a reality check.

For a lot of Egyptians, the army’s move against the unpopular president and the Muslim Brothers was merely an exercise of the popular will, a new phase in the country’s revolution. They make wild claims about the number of demonstrators, declaring that there were more people calling for Morsi to step down than voted for him in the first place.
This seems to me to be ludicrously exaggerated, even if you ignore the conflation of calls for resignation with the military coup that followed, and even if you take as legitimate the idea of short-circuiting the electoral process via crowd action.
But let's treat the idea of the "legitimacy of the crowd" seriously for a minute, nevertheless. Is there any possibility that the crowds in Tahrir really outweighed Morsi's voters of last year?
Tahrir square, defined generously, is an irregular polygon taking in all of the empty space between the Mugamma and the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise up near the corner of Talaat Harb Street, and from Qasr al-Aini street to the walls of the Arab Contractors construction site in front of the Egyptian Museum, about 160 meters by 250 meters. In addition, we should include open space in front of the Omar Makram mosque and all of the street surface area surrounding it, on Mohamed Mahmoud Street and Abd Al Qadir Hamza street; this adds another 60 by 120 meters of surface area to Tahrir Square, for a total of 47,200 square meters. Finally, we can throw in all 600 meters of Qasr al-Nil bridge, all the way from Tahrir and across the Nile to Opera Square, since there were frequently crowds on much or all of the bridge. At about 15 meters of pedestrian-usable width, that adds another nine thousand square meters. So we are looking at 56,200 square meters of space.
How many people can fit into a square meter? German scientific studies suggest that the maximum observed densities of large crowds are usually about 4 people per square meter, very rarely climbing above 5. Two people per square meter is the upper limit official guideline for most public events in the UK, and is a pretty dense crowd. Four people per square meter is the UK upper limit guideline for moving crowds (ie queues); 4.7 people per square meter is the maximum permitted crowd density at UK sporting events. I think we can safely take that as the upper limit for the overall density of the crowds at Tahrir two weeks ago. Assuming the crowds for the whole square and the bridge were packed equally densely, shoulder to shoulder, all the way to the Opera House, we are looking at a crowd of...264,140 people.
Typically crowds tend to thin out substantially toward the edges, meaning this is a very liberal estimate. I have here assumed 4.7 people per square meter; based on my view of the (Egyptian-Army provided) helicopter shots of the crowds, I think 2 people per square meter is a better estimate of average density, suggesting commensurately lower crowd figures.
There were simultaneous demonstrations in Heliopolis in front of the presidential palace. Let's charitably say they packed the entire 45-meter wide Al Nadi Road, from Saleh Salem all the way to Mostafa Kemal intersection, a distance of over a kilometer. The videos of crowds I have seen at that demonstration did not appear to be more than 1 or 2 people per square meter (still a dense crowd), but let's grant them 4.7 people per square meter as well, on the assumption that there was a point that they were packed like canned sardines, shoulder to shoulder for that entire kilometer. That gives us an additional crowd of 211,000 people. So in Cairo, the two biggest gatherings seem to me to have been of less, and possibly a lot less, than half a million people. Western news agency reports give vague figures for protests elsewhere, saying that 'hundreds of thousands' marched in Alexandria and other cities.
Morsi got nearly 3 million votes in Cairo and Giza, (and another 10 million elsewhere) in the June 2012 runoff election. The crowds two weeks ago were huge and exciting, but they were certainly a tiny fraction of the number of people who voted for Morsi. Even Morsi's first-round votes, probably a better indication of his real support, (it subtracts the substantial anti-Shafiq vote of the second round), was well north of a million in Cairo and Giza.
The early sources for the crowd estimates of June 30...'millions', seem to have been the military and the interior ministry (which remained under the military's control despite the civilian government). Not terribly objective sources, since they were planning a coup based on the 'legitimacy of the crowd.'
As time has gone by, estimates of the crowd sizes drifted into the realm of the improbable and then the absurd, born aloft, perhaps, by the opposition's unconscious desire to justify the illegal seizure of power. We early on saw claims for 14 million demonstrators-a convenient number which is slightly more than the number of people who voted for Morsi last year. Later, a figure of 17 million was thrown around, suggesting that a crushing majority of last year's voters were now on the street. Most recently, Nawal Sadawi has claimed that 34 million people demonstrated, another neat figure: a majority of the entire voting age population of Egypt. How convenient.
There is a much simpler way to play these numbers games, a way of establishing legitimacy that has worked well enough for 2,500 years of human history, and that is voting. Morsi should have been obliged to undergo an early referendum, perhaps timed to coincide with September's parliamentary elections. A small deviation from constitutional norms, but a deviation I suspect he might have consented to. And given the impressive mobilization of the Egyptian people against his opaque and incompetent administration at the beginning of this month, that is a vote I suspect he might have lost.
What happened on June 30 must have been hallucinatory for Egypt's liberal democracy activists: a vast uprising of the masses demanding that the state focus on bettering their lives, an uprising against a government of the Muslim Brothers. These are activists who have spent their lives in the shadow of the Muslim Brothers, openly belittled by Egypt's mainstream Islamists as being out of touch with Egyptian society. As it turned out, it was the Brothers who were out of touch, pursuing a bland and ineffective social and economic agenda that conformed to their own social class, but not the Egyptian masses. Had there been true leadership among the opposition, this was a moment when a democratic alternative to the Brothers might well have emerged.
Tammarrud should have immediately and firmly rejected the army's July 1 'ultimatum' to Morsi. Instead, leaderless and disorganized, they fell into a well-laid trap, no doubt carefully planned by Al-Sisi and his grim little clique.

This article was first published in French with Maghreb Emergent on July 11, 2013

Jack Brown

Comments (11)

  • Nishanta
    Some of the 'progressive' blogs that sell war to liberals are<a href=""> sitnatrg</a> to link the Syria opposition to Assad with the Egyptian protests. Hmmm.The Syrian operation, mercenaries, Muslim extremists (just like the Morsi gang) financed and armed by US, France,Israel, and NATO are scum as anyone paying attention knows.The real honest Egyptian people standing up against Morsi are the same types who support Assad in Syria.Up is down, black is white.
  • Sidra
    Every political party would try to peotrct their ruling using all sorts of methods available for them after they obtain their power by elections. If they turn to using undemocrartic methods because of any reason, bad luck! Normal citizens will either have to live under dictatorship or to rebel.
  • Reem
    How will the world look like if only people stopped using their imagination in analyzing situations that they have nothing to do with...
    As an Egyptian and being in Tahrir square and the presidential palace starting from June 28th, this article has a unique way of persuading people yet, has nothing to do with reality..
  • John V. Walsh
    Great piece - I saw it on CounterPunch today!
    I had the same questions about the crowds.
    Also about the number of signatures on the anti-Morsi petitions. No verification there although an Egyptian billionaire close to the generals takes credit for bankrolling the petition drive and the attendant advertising blitz. But no count.
    Kermit Roosevelt must be smiling in his grave at how smoothly the coup that is not a coup went down.
    Keep up the great work.
  • Jamal
    As a secular individual and one that believe in separation of church/ mosque from state, I believe that Egypt had a great opportunity to allow democracy to work without a military intervention. Because tomorrow a secular government can be overthrown by a fundamentalist military.
  • jamal
    It is so clear, and the "numbers" do not lie. By no standard of imagination can anyone call this a revolution. Let's call it what it is, a "military coup".
    Was there a sect of the Egyptian population that disagreed with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood? YES!!!!! Should they be able to demonstrate, organize and elect a new president, when Morsi term was over?? Yes, most definitely!!!
  • Michael Neumann
    to clarify, I was referring to Asha and Waters of the Nile.
  • Michael Neumann
    For those of you who know nothing of Egypt, please don't think that all Egyptians are as contemptible as the previous two commentators :)
  • Ahmad El Gamal
    Thank you Mr. Brown for taking a scientific approach to your accurate and generous analysis of what actually took place, and the reality of the Military Coup!

    As a Civil Engineer, I totally agree with your analysis.

    As an Egyptian American, I am saddened by what some brainwashed Egyptians did, ending any prospects of democracy in Egypt in the near future, and igniting the flames to civil war!
  • asha
    Were you in Egypt during the demonstrations of June 30? Have you ever visited Egypt? Obviously you did not. Your article shows the extent of your ignorance of our country. All serious journalists agree that these were the biggest demonstrations in world history. Americans just can't accept the fact that Egyptians are capable of accomplishing such a great thing as the revolution.
  • Waters of the Nile
    This article is arrogant beyond belief. Mr Brown you seem to have a lot of time to waste.
    Do you really think that everybody got it wrong talking about millions of Egyptians on the streets and only your smart little ass is capable of actyally counting the number of protesters???

Tags: Fixer Blues, Egypt, Military Coup, Protests, Millions, Muslim Brothers, Mohamed Morsi, General Al-Sisi, June 30, Demonstrations, The Egypt Method