Friday, February 11, 2011

What Egypt Tells Us About Crisis Response

As you probably know, Hosni Mubarak stepped down today as President of Egypt following 18 days of street protests in Cairo and throughout the country. Others more informed than I will have intelligent things to say about what this means for the future of the country, the region, the world and democracy. And others less informed than I will have unintelligent things to say on these topics, I'm sure. A few things jumped out at me, however, from the point of view of crisis management and response.

During the protests last week, an apparently organized group of armed men in plain clothes, some riding camels and horses, attacked the protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square. This received widespread coverage around the world, and widespread condemnation as well. At the same time, however, this incident was still part of the story. It did not become the story.

If you stop to think about it, that is truly remarkable. Can you imagine armed people attacking a march on Washington -- any march on Washington? The coverage would no longer be about gay rights or the Tea Party or whatever the march was about. It would be about the violence. But that didn't happen here, even though people died in the fighting. Why not?

I think the violence failed to take over the story because, in some real sense, the story was still unfolding. The "incident" here, to take a page from CISM, was the uprising. It was so unusual and so gripping and it captured everyone's attention. No doubt, had the violence ended the protests, as it did in Tiananman Square in 1989, that would be the crux of the story. But it didn't, and one of the great principles of crisis response is that you have to wait until the incident is over.

Last week, it just wasn't over. Today feels much more like an ending. Even though there is still tremendous uncertainty about what lies ahead for Egypt, there is a sense that this is the end of a chapter. So it is now that those most affected by the violence will start to feel it the most, and now that others will start to go back and find out the names of the dead, erect memorials to them, etc.

The other great connection I see between the events in Egypt and the principles of crisis response has to do with the actions of Mubarak and others in the government in the last 48 hours or so. If you listened to Mubarak's speech yesterday, the one where everyone expected him to resign and he didn't, it felt a little like you had stepped into the Twilight Zone. Was it actually possible that he thought that speech would placate the protesters? Did he really believe that if he said he was handing over some power but not all and working on the constitution that they'd pack up and go home?

During a crisis -- any crisis -- it is critically important that those in authority pay close attention to what people are asking for. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen the powers that be enter a room full of people who want to hear X and deliver an impassioned defense of Y. When you ask them why they do it, they say that Y is more important. Y is good and right and what people should care about. But during a crisis, people don't care about things just because you tell them they should. People care about what they care about, and the biggest mistake you can make is to ignore that.

Last night, Hosni Mubarak got up before a country -- or even a world -- that wanted him to say he was leaving and explained why he was staying. He had important reasons, reasons that seemed right and good to him. But he lost sight of the fact that what seemed right to him was not the point. He failed to address what people wanted to hear. Not only did he not say he was going, he didn't even acknowledge that that's what people were expecting.

Would it have made any difference? We'll never know. But I suspect the reaction might have been even a tad more positive if he had begun with, "I know you are expecting me to resign tonight, and I understand why, and you have a point. I will be going soon. But first we need to . . ." It wouldn't have been perfect, but it would have been a start.

And speaking of starts, the Egyptian people now have a fresh one. Their future is much less than certain, however. Let's hope they use this opportunity wisely.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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