Egypt's Numbers Game: How Crazy Claims of 33 Million Protesters Were Used to Boost a Coup
The debate over the legitimacy of Egypt's new, military-installed government has become a popularity battle, with some of the most vocal supporters of the coup claiming that the June 30 protests against President Mohammed Morsi represented the largest demonstrations in human history, a real-life Cecil B. DeMille production, with crowd sizes ranging anywhere between 14 to 33 million people - over one-third of the entire population of Egypt.
Substituting subjective head counts for vote totals, Morsi's opponents have also pointed to the 22 million signatures supposedly gathered by the newfangled Tamarod youth movement. To them, the tens of millions in the streets were a clear sign that "the people" had sided unequivocally with the army and its political allies.
The importance of head counts to the military-installed government's international legitimacy was on display at a July 11press conference at the US State Department. Pressed by Matt Lee of the Associated Press on whether the Obama administration considered Morsi's ouster a coup, and if it would respond by canceling aid including a planned shipment of four F-16's to Egypt, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki countered by citing Tamarod's figures, declaring that the US could not reverse the will of the "22 million people who spoke out and had their voices heard."
Days later, the Pentagon announced that the F-16 sale would proceed as planned. As far as the US was concerned, Egypt had not just witnessed a military coup. Instead, "the people" - or at least 22 million of them - had spoken.
With Egypt's new army-backed regime relying on jaw dropping, record-shattering crowd estimates and petition drive figures to assert its democratic legitimacy, it is worth investigating the source of the numbers, and asking whether they add up at all.
Baseless claims born in an echo chamber
Among the first major Egyptian public figures to marvel at the historic size of the June 30 demonstrations was the billionaire tycoon Naguib Sawiris. On June 30, Sawiris informed his nearly one million Twitter followers that the BBC had just reported, "The number of people protesting today is the largest number in a political event in the history of mankind." Sawiris exhorted the protesters: "Keep impressing…Egypt."
Sawiris was not exactly a disinterested party. He had boasted of his support for Tamarod, lavishing the group with funding and providing them with office space. He also happened to be a stalwart of the old regime who had thrown his full weight behind the secular opposition to Morsi.
Two days after Sawiris' remarkable statement, BBC Arabic's lead anchor, Nour-Eddine Zorgui, respondedto a query about it on Twitter by stating, "seen nothing to this effect, beware, only report on this from Egypt itself." Sawiris seemed to have fabricated the riveting BBC dispatch from whole cloth.
On June 30, one of the most recognisable faces of Egypt's revolutionary socialist youth movement, Gigi Ibrahim, echoed the remarkable claim, declaring on Twitter, "I think this might be the largest protest in terms of numbers in history and definitely in Egypt ever!" Over 100 Twitter users retweeted Ibrahim, while a BBC dispatch reporting that only "tens of thousands of people [had] massed in Tahrir Square" flew below the radar.
Some Egyptian opponents to Morsi appear to have fabricated Western media reports to validate the crowd estimates. Jihan Mansour, a presenter for Dream TV, a private Egyptian network owned by the longtime Mubarak business associate Ahmad Bahgat, announced, "CNN says 33 million people were in the streets today. BBC says the biggest gathering in history."
There is no record of CNN or BBC reporting any such figure. But that did not stop a former Egyptian army general, Sameh Seif Elyazal, from declaring during a live CNN broadcast on July 3, just as the military seized power from Morsi, "This is not a military coup at all. It is the will of the Egyptians who are supported by the army. We haven't seen in the last -- even in modern history, any country in the world driving 33 million people in the street for four days asking the president for an early presidential election." CNN hosts Jake Tapper and Christian Amanpour did not question Elyazal's claim, or demand supporting evidence.
Three days later, Quartet's Middle East special envoy Tony Blair hyped a drastically different, but equally curious, crowd estimate. In an editorial for the Observer (reprinted by the Guardian), Blair stated, "Seventeen million people on the street is not the same as an election. But it is an awesome manifestation of people power." The former UK Prime Minister concluded that if a protest of a proportionate size occurred in his country, "the government wouldn't survive either."
From what source did the claim of 17 million demonstrators originate? Apparently, it was a single anonymous military official. One of the first Egyptian outlets to cite the number was the newspaperShorouk, which headlined its June 30 report, "Military source: The number of demonstrators is 17 million and increasing."
Strangely, a day before the military told Shorouk that 17 million demonstrators were in the streets against Morsi, another unidentified military source claimed to Reuters that 14 million were protesting. The news service noted that the figure was "implausible," but amidst the excitement and chaos, examples of critical detachment like this were rare.
Meanwhile, the Tamarod youth movement triumphantly announced that it had collected a whopping 22 million signatures on its petition calling for early elections and Morsi's withdrawal. European and US outlets repeated the claim without any critical scrutiny, noting that the number of signatures far exceeded the votes Morsi received when he was elected president.
Like the massive crowd estimates, Tamarod's signature counts were impossible to independently verify. Increasingly it appeared that the numbers were products of a clever public relations campaign, with the Egyptian army and its political supporters relying on the international press and Western diplomats to amplify their Mighty Wurlitzer.
'Impossible' crowd estimates collapse under scrutiny
Was there any credible source for the widely cited figure of 33 million demonstrators? It has been impossible to locate one, either in English or Arabic media. As for the estimations of 17 and 14 million anti-Morsi protesters, there does not appear to be a valid source beyond the two anonymous military officials – not exactly dispassionate observers.
On July 15, the BBC reported that it was unable to find any legitimate sources for the opposition's claims of either 14, 17, or 33 million protesters, affirming the conclusions of BBC Middle East correspondent Wyre Davies, who concluded that mobilising such a massive number of protesters was "impossible."
Through simple Algebra, the Egyptian blogger Shereef Ismail has also poked gaping holes in the opposition's numbers. Estimating that each protester occupied a space of approximately .45 square metres, Ismail calculated that the absolute maximum number of anti-Morsi demonstrators who could fit in the total area of major public spaces in Egyptian cities was at most 2.8 million.
There are other factors that cast doubt on the June 30 crowd estimates, like the basic logistics of cramming between 20 and 40 percent of Egypt's population into already densely populated urban spaces without a staggering number of deaths and injuries ensuing, especially in the oppressive summer heat. Yet many among the army-installed government's supporters are holding fast to their claims, insisting that "the people" led the way against the Muslim Brotherhood's anti-democratic "ballotocracy."
The opposition may have made an impressive showing on June 30 and in the days that followed, but the stunning crowd counts it spread across the world do not seem to hold up against critical scrutiny. And as the mirage of a 30-million-person march evaporates, an unsavory military coup stands exposed.