If you have any interest in the aforementioned topics, I think you should watch this talk…
...and read this article.
If you have any interest in the aforementioned topics, I think you should watch this talk…
...and read this article.
The violence that erupted in Maspero yesterday signals an acutely dangerous turn in the already murky atmosphere of Egypt’s post-revolutionary transition.
I say acutely dangerous because what started out as a peaceful demonstration by Christians, joined by a few Muslims, calling for passing a law that regulates building places of worship, has not only turned into a violent clash with the army for reasons that are still open to speculation, but also because such clash carries what is quite possibly the most explicit sectarian violence associations witnessed since the fall of the Mubark regime, and the starkest undertones of religious tension in recent memory.
I say acutely dangerous because of the shockingly inflammatory rhetoric of misinformation deployed by the Egyptian state media, invoking unwelcome reminders of the Mubarak propaganda machine fielded in full strength during the 18 days that preceded his ouster. The vocabulary used and incendiary undertones implied are confirmations that all talk of state media reform has been nothing but hot air, and that SCAF – heralded as the “Guardian of the Revolution” – is nothing but an annexe of the toppled regime and a disguised tool of continued oppression.
I say acutely dangerous because, as readily evinced to any observer of the Egyptian social and political scene right now, what happened yesterday in Maspero is akin to pouring buckets of kerosene on a field of smouldering coals. Given the vagueness of most reports on what ignited the violence and the mounting dissatisfaction with SCAF’s actions (or often, non-actions) once cannot help but feel that something ominous is brewing.
With the dismal implications of these incidents casting a menacing shadow over the unfolding consequences of Egypt’s revolution, we have to remember that post-January 25th Egyptians are much more flinty-eyed and aware that the SCAF is going to have a very rough time playing divide-and-conquer, if such is indeed the game they choose to play now.
Ahmed Abdel Muiti Hijazi is one of my favorite Egyptian progressives. Hijazi is not only one of the most prominent Egyptian modern poets, he is also a staunch secularist and sharp social commentator.
In an article (perhaps sarcastically) titled “This Miracle, how is it to be explained?” published in the Egyptian Al-Ahram daily newspaper, Hijazi warns of the perils of thinking of the Revolution as an impulsive popular action or an “inexplicable miracle”:
Note: (I will try provide a correct translation, as opposed to metaphrase, of the bits I quote from Hijazi’s article, in order not to risk loss of intended meaning)
We would be making a grave mistake if we relied on [what we see on] television and shallow journalistic commentary in evaluating the [results of] the Egyptian Revolution, and considered it merely an impetuous revolt, or an inexplicable miracle and reduced it to the [herosim of] youth who used modern communication technologies, the potential threat of which was unfathomable to and unchecked by the security of the ousted regime, to come together in Tahrir Square and call for change.
Such is a severely naïve and deficient rationalization [of the Egyptian Revolution], because it stops at the tool that the youth of January 25th used to rally around their cause, but it does not elucidate the strong motivations that provided those youth with vision, resolve and the requisite bravery to face a regime of which its brutality and viciousness they are certain, and inspired them to put the tools, technologies and networks at their disposal to use in this stand-off. The same tools, it could be argued, could be used by others to create a surrogate world that isolates them from their problem-ridden society and provides a self-exemption from their responsibilities towards that society.
(In the rest of the article, Hijazi emphasizes the importance of preserving one of the most important gains of the revolution, which is putting freedom of speech and secularism (including relevant constitutional amendments) at the forefront of popular debate in a society long plagued with intellectual terrorism in the name of “religious taboos”.)
Jan. 25. I listened to the shouting crowds from my balcony yesterday, as groups of protesters were heading to Tahrir square. I wished I could join but fear held me back. Fear of being harassed or harmed by the forces of the National Security, fear that going through pain and humiliation would make me more and more hateful of our circumstances, and thus lose my stamina towards carrying on my efforts in making things better on the long term without any political confrontation.
Media manipulation and Twitter blocking changed my stance; it got on my nerves so much that I could not stay in. A minute long phone call from a friend got me out of the house, together we went to Tahrir square.
Yesterday was a firm answer putting an end to all the allegations and brainwashing that claimed that the current system is better than all other options in front of us; it was also a good revision to all that I have learned through my Political Science courses. And because I believe in what I’ve learned, I see a ray of light. If change doesn’t happen now, it’s coming nonetheless. We have changed, and we have proven that we want and deserve to change.
That’s why authoritarian governments have silly things like Ministries of Information. That’s why open public debate on reform was stifled and state-terrorized not only throughout the Mubarakian era, but since the days of Nasser. The fake freedom of the press given by Mubarak was but a bone thrown to obsolete pseudo-intellectuals-slash-regime-brown-nosers and seemingly-dissenting yet unfocused traditional media. As long as it is contained within the conventional realm of information dissemination, it could be controlled at will. Regime-defined lines will not be crossed. A truly Orwellian nightmare for reformists.
What social media has created is a sort of an alternate space for reviving a dormant public consciousness into a sentient, dynamic social discourse. The assumption that social media’s largest influence was during or shortly before the 18 days in which Mubarak’s regime was brought down is very naive. This has been simmering under the surface of the Egyptian political scene for a while, particularly since the Presidential “elections” of 2005. The boiling point was reached on January 25th 2011. What I refer to here as the virtualization of dissent is what happened when the popular desire for change was shifted (by whom? I’ll get to that shortly) from real space, where it was in long somnolence, and cultivated it in a space that the Patriarchs do not understand: virtual space. Faced with something they could not yet comprehend neither the workings nor the effects of, the best the regime could do was detain and intimidate, and ultimately completely shut down the medium when the revolution broke out (a move which only betrayed how weak they have become and added fuel to the fire). They never really attempted to understand this medium and instigate their own countermeasures in “virtual space”, much to their own peril.
A key thing to understanding all of this is that the instigators of this phase changing resistance (from real space to virtual space, then back to real space in the form of strong confrontational popular action) are not particularly representative of the vast majority of Egyptians. To understand what this means, take a quick look at the demographics of a random sample of Egyptian “net activists”: young, educated, tech-savvy middle/upper-middle class (as compared to a country with a 42% illiteracy rate, for instance). In other words, those are not the truly oppressed masses, especially from an economic sense. This minority, however, spoke for all of Egypt. By taking the war for reform to their virtual turf, away from the regimes clamp down on political action in real space, then funnelling it all back out to real space in the form of a mighty wave of revolt, they have reclaimed Egypt.
Then the Tunisian uprising and Egyptian January 25th Revolution came and BAM! We have rock solid empirical evidence for a significant positive correlation between the use of social media and progressive political action in the form of major, powerful grassroots tsunamis of rebellion overthrowing coercive regimes in surprisingly short time spans. As strong as such evidence is, it has surprisingly fuelled the debate in the blogosphere on this topic even further, mainly relating to the significance of observed causality (between social media and “real” social or political change).
Several opinions going against the popular grain on this topic (which generally holds that social media drives and catalyzes tangible political action) have understandable merit when regarded from certain perspectives. For instance, where does the use of social media play a larger, more significant and observable role? Is it about amplifying the dissenting voices and calling media attention to what is downplayed by state-controlled traditional media as insignificant, foreign interest driven and isolated action by rouge factions? Or is the real value in the community organizing efforts and the planning and coordination tools made possible by using digital activism? What is a fact, however, is that the overwhelming evidence provided by the current wave of popular protests and revolutions in the Middle East makes it exceedingly difficult for many dismissive views to hold any water. The debate itself is nothing surprising, what is baffling, though, is that one of such dismissive opinions comes from a guy like Malcolm Gladwell, author of books like The Tipping Point and Blink.
In a very short post titled “Does Egypt need Twitter?” on the New Yorker’s blogsite, Newsdesk, Gladwell argues that social media is not necessary for revolutions. Popular uprisings happened long before there was Internet. The means by which social change happens is, according to Gladwell, “less interesting” than the core causes that spark it. Gladwell writes:
“When Mao famously said that power springs from the barrel of a gun, it was assumed that he was talking about guns. There wasn’t much interest at the time in how he chose to communicate that sentiment: whether he said it in a speech, say, or whispered it to a friend, or wrote it in his diary or published it in a book. That would never happen today, of course. We now believe that the “how” of a communicative act is of huge importance. We would say that Mao posted that power comes from the barrel of a gun on his Facebook page, or we would say that he blogged about gun barrels on Tumblr—and eventually, as the apostles of new media wrestled with the implications of his comments, the verb would come to completely overcome the noun, the part about the gun would be forgotten, and the the big takeaway would be: Whoa. Did you see what Mao just tweeted?”
Gladwell goes on to say that…
“People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice”
Indeed, the revolt of the oppressed is inevitable, notwithstanding the availability of social media tools, but it is not a question of necessity, but one of effect.
In other words, perhaps it could be argued that the current wave of uprisings and protests in the Middle East would have eventually happened given the aging, coercive non-democratic patriarchal regimes that dominate the region. Nonetheless, to use a Gladwellian term, the “tipping point” of this dominos effect (Tunisia, Egypt, now Algeria, Bahrain and Jordan in progress) would have been much further down the road. These uprisings would have been disconnected and far between if social media tools were to be taken out of the equation. Strangely, Gladwell posits that social activism requires “strong ties“, then dismisses the role of social media in fostering and enriching such ties not only within nations, but across borders as is the case with the Middle East right now.
Addendum, February 16th 2011: Another thing Gladwell said in this blog post is rather perplexing (the way I read it):
People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.
(Photo credits: Mostapha El Shafey)
We did it.
I have an outpouring of thoughts in my head related to what happened in Egypt over the past two weeks that I would love to get out all at once right now, if only to attempt to clear my head by writing things down. Alas, doing so will be at the expense of coherence. Here is what I want to say right now...
To my mind, the most beautiful thing about the January 25th Revolution is not only the triumph of freedom and justice over tyranny and injustice, it is also – arguably equally important – in how it all happened; this was a “textbook revolution” if there is ever such a thing: (mostly) peaceful and relatively bloodless, grassroots-driven and leaderless, completely inclusive and uniting of disparate social classes and political factions, technologically-catalyzed and a model in community organizing, self-expression and humor.
We should write a reference book by the title of this post.
Another thing: I am of the opinion that the revolution has just begun. The ousting of the dictator is but the first step. I can confidently and optimistically say this is an opinion shared by many Egyptians now. More on that later.