Despite the well-known difficulties of estimating large crowds, it is clear that the numbers game was played by the opposition and the military to orchestrate and justify the coup d'etat against President Mohamed Morsi. For whatever reason, several external parties also used the numbers claimed to validate their support for the military intervention.
The Army presented a video to the media taken by military helicopter of demonstrations in Cairo to justify their coup; emphasising that the entire population had risen up against President Morsi and as such, it had no choice but to align itself with the people. No one questioned the fact that some of the video footage presented as evidence against Morsi was actually the filming of a pro-Morsi demonstration.
Disturbingly, certain countries in the west and leading political figures supported the argument without confirming the veracity of the figures quoted. They went along with the coup, which to all intents and purposes targeted not just the elected president but the entire process of democratic transition in Egypt, on the basis that this was the will of the overwhelming majority of the people.
To give their statistics an air of respectability and credence, the anti-Morsi alliance claimed that their crowd statistics were obtained from coverage and analyses conducted by Google Earth. Though never confirmed by the satellite giant, the estimates given ranged from 14.3 million to 33 million demonstrators. A search of the net revealed no official statement by Google Earth to confirm these claims. Meanwhile, MEMO requested a comment from Google but has not received a reply.
What made matters even more dubious was the intervention by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said that the army had to choose between "intervention or chaos". He added that while "seventeen million" on the streets is not an election, "it is an awesome manifestation of people power."
Ten years ago, on 15 February 2003, the organisers and media reported that two million British citizens marched in London against the war in Iraq. The Metropolitan Police estimated the crowd to be at least 750,000. Notwithstanding, Mr Blair ignored his people with consummate disdain. The enormity of that historic demonstration was recorded by a Metropolitan Police helicopter. At the time, London was not alone in its opposition to the invasion. There were simultaneous demonstrations in 800 other cities around the world, and an estimated 30 million protesters participated in what was considered the largest global demonstrations in one day in the history of mankind. That said, comparing the videos of these demonstrations to that of 30/6, it seems highly improbable that 30 million people or even a tenth of that figure were mobilised in Egypt on 30 June.
Although Google is yet to confirm the huge figures quoted by the Salvation Front and Tamarod, western researchers had previously used Google Earth Ruler to measure the capacity of Tahrir Square and the accessible spaces surrounding it. Having used this method himself, Dr Clark McPhail an emeritus professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois, and an expert in the science of crowd-sizing, ruled out the possibility of fitting one million people into the square.
While Cairo is by no means representative of Egypt it has, like most capitals, been the centre of major national protests. The area of Tahrir Square is 53,000 square metres. While the area from its peripheries to the other side of the Nile across the Nile Palace Bridge is 13,000 sq m. The area from Tahrir Square to the 6 October Bridge is 20,000 sq m. Accordingly, the total area that contained the demonstrators was 86,000 square metres.
Assuming that the highest number of people which can be squeezed into one square meter is four, it means that the maximum capacity of Tahrir Square and its environs on 30 June was 344,000 demonstrators.
As for the area of the Presidential Palace and its environs, the video shown by the opposition revealed that the length of the demonstration was 1,400 metres (just under a kilometre and a half); it had a width of 45 metres, giving a total area of 63,000 sq m.
Added to this, there was another demonstration north of the palace in an area of 9,000 sq m. Altogether, therefore, the total area accessible to the demonstrators in the vicinity of the Presidential Palace was 72,000 square metres.
Accordingly, the total number of demonstrators around the Presidential Palace, using the base figure of four people per square metre, would be 288,000. The grand total from Tahrir Square and the Presidential Palace area would therefore be about 632,000 protesters on the day. These calculations are consistent with findings of various researchers and bloggers.
Even if the figures are stretched, the number of June 30 protesters could not have been more than a few million people in the whole country. In fact, no credible media, even those which inflated the numbers and exaggerated them, ever used anything other than the vague term, "millions of protesters". The Egyptian media, however, were not as restrained in their reporting. Muhammad Hasanayn Heikal, the veteran Egyptian writer and former information minister under Gamal Abdel Nasser described the demonstrations on June 30 as "unprecedented in the modern human politics, larger than whatever England or France had witnessed."
However, there is nothing in the conduct of the Egyptian media prior to June 30 that suggests that they would offer an impartial estimate of the crowds on the day. Their anti-Morsi and anti-Brotherhood campaign throughout last year and even after his overthrow, as well as the media's role in endorsing, publicising and cheering Tamarod's actions from its inception until the realisation of its aim, all prevent us from regarding the Egyptian media as a neutral and reliable source on the June 30 protests.
It is incredible that the coup plotters' reference to Google Earth has never been viewed critically in Egypt, the Middle East or indeed in the west. People in positions of authority and influence have accepted the figures without any critical analysis or corroboration. Whether this was on account of their own laziness or because of complicity with the anti-Morsi opposition is anyone's guess.
What is absolutely certain is that today Egypt stands perilously close to the brink of national disaster. With no constitution, no parliament and a civilian president handpicked by the military, the country has become politically paralysed and polarised. Although the process of democratic transition which started on 25 January 2011 has clearly suffered a setback, it has not been aborted. The revolutionary Egyptians who brought down the Mubarak regime in 18 days will, in the fullness of time, regain the initiative and restore democratic legitimacy for the greater good. Unsubstantiated Google Earth estimates cannot replace the ballot box in ascertaining the real democratic will of the people.