A Perfect Storm: Tipping Points, Critical Mass,
And Dynamics Of The Egyptian Revolution
By Paula Cerni
02 March, 2011
On February 5th this year, shortly after protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square
defeated government-sponsored thugs armed with rocks, guns, petrol-bombs,
horses, and at least one camel, Hillary Clinton addressed an international
security conference in Munich. “The region is being battered by a perfect
storm of powerful trends,” she said, referring to the uprising in Egypt and
to the surge of popular dissatisfaction sweeping over the wider Middle East.
Clinton has made some objectionable comments about Egypt in the past, among
them that she considers “President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my
family.” This time she had a point. A historic event, like any other event,
is the result of many factors pushing and pulling in a certain direction.
Every storm, properly considered, is perfect. Every chunk of reality, as
philosophers of the dialectical school would put it, is the unity of many
The determinations of Middle Eastern instability Clinton referred to in her
speech aren’t unique to the Middle East. The rise of a young, frustrated,
internet-savvy generation; the severe economic downturn; the undemocratic
regimes – these can be found, to a lesser or greater degree, all over the
world. More regional in character are the fallout from the Iraq war and the
decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For Egyptians, as for everyone
else, such global and regional trends collide and comingle with national and
Classifying a storm and disentangling its main causes is always easier to do
after the event; far more difficult is predicting any one future occurrence.
We only become aware of the coming thunder when lightning is already blazing
across the sky.
The flare-up, crisis, or tipping point is the moment when a threshold is
reached and breached, when gears must be changed, when the old dynamic can
no longer be sustained but is nevertheless sustained and carried beyond its
limit. In the language of dialectics, it is the moment when things turn into
But that moment doesn’t exist in isolation. It is a culminating point, and
therefore also a point that is part of a line, of a trajectory. Crucially,
that relatively quieter and usually longer period of time is what allows the
diverse factors to evolve together until they reach a critical mass. In the
case of the Egyptian opposition, it took more than thirty years of
persecution to learn the many painful lessons that would prove useful this
Quantity and quality turning into each other is another way of describing
change in dialectical terms. Consider what happened when a sufficient number
of people publicly ignored the Mubarak-imposed curfew. The curfew became an
anti-curfew, a display of popular rather than government power. In turn,
that display encouraged many others.
Scientists use the term ‘phase transition’ to describe similar processes in
nature. If we apply heat to a body of water, for example, we force the water
molecules to move faster and faster until, if enough heat is applied, the
boiling point is reached and the water turns into vapor. The phase
transition is the turbulent period when liquid water and vapor bubbles, the
old and the new, the past and the future, fight it out violently among
themselves in their own liberation square.
A leap, a tipping point, a disorderly transition – that’s what a political
revolution is. The chain of events starting on 25 January 2011 and ending
with Mubarak’s resignation is a textbook example. Over a larger scale, as we
have seen, that chain stretches out longer and wider than 18 days in one
Middle Eastern country. Over a smaller scale, it linked together countless moments
of change and transition that were, in their own way, revolutionary. The
epic moment when a throng of protesters beat back the uniformed ranks of
police over the Qasr al-Nil bridge; the hard-fought battles with Mubarak’s
thugs during what Egyptians call Black or Sad Wednesday; the wonderful shows
of solidarity that drew in growing numbers of people, each time creating a
new critical mass; the decision by unions and striking factory workers to
add their weight to the struggle; the explosion of anger that followed
Mubarak’s last speech, launching Cairo’s protests beyond the square, to
the state TV station, the parliament building, and the presidential palace.
These are the most memorable, but not the only tipping points within the
larger point that finally tipped Mubarak out.
This fractal-like pattern of development is typical of revolutions and, more
generally, of many natural and social processes involving systems of related
elements. It consist of diverse nested and interconnected cycles that don’t
go back to the starting point, but spiral out into new dynamics along
What now? Is the storm over? It is for Mubarak’s government, but not for the
millions of Egyptians who want more fundamental changes in their lives.
Exactly how far and how fast those millions will go we cannot tell in
advance. Storms too turn into their opposite, into periods of calm; but the
nature and duration of such periods depend on the wreckage of past episodes
and on the speed and size of newly gathering clouds. Calm has its own
perfection, its own determinations. For that very reason, it is never really
The Egyptian revolution might still suffer setbacks, but it cannot be
undone. It will forever be a landmark in the struggle for freedom and
democracy in Egypt, in Libya, and beyond. It is already, therefore, a fact
of history, a human-made event of heroic proportions that inevitably shapes
future developments. Mixed together with other winds of change blowing from
multiple directions, it will lead to new tipping points when the time is
right. For humanity as a whole, struggling to liberate itself from a long
history of oppression and exploitation, it is not over and it will not be
over for a while yet. We live, after all, in stormy times.
Paula Cerni MPhil is an independent writer. For a list of publications, please visit
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