Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Egypt and Democracy: The Ways of Revolution, Social Media and the "Youth" of the Middle Class

There is an old adage that revolutions do not begin in the slums, but begin in the middle classes. Revolutions throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th century have born this out. As incomes rises creating a larger middle class, so do the aspirations for political involvement. Psychologically, the ability to create wealth and manage their personal lives satisfactorily begins to create the idea that they could and should be able to manage their political affairs to their own satisfaction as well.

The American Revolution did not begin on the tiny farms of men barely eking out an existence on small patches of dirt, but the bourgeois merchants and large farmers who were angry that their voices were not heard by the British Parliament. "No taxation without representation." The various revolutions that began in 1848 and spread across Europe and on into the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 were fomented by the children of comfortable middle class families, sitting in the tea houses after classes in the University. Classes that only a generation or two before were unattainable by the masses. It was there that they determined to tap into the demands of the workers, many employed by their own families, to confront the Czar and his unresponsive, unrepresentative Dumas.

Then came the Iranian revolution, the fall of the Communist Block in Eastern Europe and then the USSR itself. All of it brought on by the rise of the middle class and their demand for a political voice. Now comes the Middle East. Egypt is the prime example of how the young middle class, having risen so far, sees no place else to go without removing the very obstacles that hold them down. Usually, whatever government is in place, stacked with entrenched partisans who have been getting their own from insuring the continuation and strength of a ruling party or class. As Eltaway calls them "old men".

Interview with Mona Eltahawy:

And then much more recently, we saw last year in Alexandria, a city on the Mediterranean coast, the police beat to death a young man called Khaled Said. Now, Egyptian police have been known to beat to death people for, sadly, too long, but what happened with Khaled Said was that they beat to death this kind of young, tech-savvy businessman who looked like a lot of the Egyptians who are on Facebook.


Especially Facebook. This [is] Generation Facebook. Kind of upper-middle-class, middle-class generation of Egyptians that have made Egypt the number one Arab user of Facebook. And when he was beaten to death and pictures came out of his corpse and his shattered face, it spread like wildfire. ... But here was this young man who looked like them. And if it could happen to him, it could happen to them. This was a moment for Generation Facebook to understand what it means to live under emergency law and the Mubarak regime.

As in the way of all revolutions, the middle class, not that far removed from the working class, is always able to tap into the issues and concerns of the working poor. The working lower and poor classes had organized into unions and had been striking occasionally, but would subside after some minimum of their demands were met coupled with the fear of serious repression. It was only after the middle class and the working class banded together that the power of revolution began.

One of the continuing discussions amongst many is whether social media such as Facebook and Twitter are the cause of revolutions or just a tool. Malcolm Gladwell, author of Tipping Point, suggests that the power of these tools is over rated. That forms of "high risk" social activism requires more than reading notes on an internet page and pressing "like". It requires personal connections. The idea that to risk life and limb needs a closer bond and that it is the bonds of close friendship, one person with another then another, that gives people the courage to stand up and take a potentially life threatening risk. That people may "meet" in cyberspace, but it is only when they are face to face, forming closer bonds, that this "high-risk" activism can come forward.

He gives an example of the sit ins and other activism undertaken by the anti-segregation, civil rights movement in the south (activism that inspired the Egyptian youth reading Martin Luther King, Jr and other books on the subject, per Eltahawy). There, the first roots of unrest appeared as small groups going to luncheonettes and sitting at the counters, risking violence and death. The movement grew as those involved convinced friends to join them who then convinced other friends to join them, but that those "friends" were not some passing acquaintance on campus. Instead, they had close, personal relationships with people involved that allowed them to make that move and that the underlying organizations had to be in place for this event and others to occur. That, in the end, Egypt did not need Facebook or Twitter to have a revolution.

Some reports of how the revolution began seem to bear this out. Many of the originators were not unknown to each other. They had been meeting and planning for months, even years. They worked with the MB, socialists, unions and human rights groups, but, in the end, they had never been able to pull off the size, unity and plurality of the group necessary to reach their goals.

Mona Eltahawy suggests in her interview that Gladwell and others' take is a complete misunderstanding of social media. First, it provided a space to meet. Not just for those already known to each other, but to find like minded individuals to share ideas with, to motivate and coordinate. The internet was a vast space with possibly billions of users logging on and off every day. They could move from space to space to talk and hide in the virtual world (a tool, by the way, that organizations like al Qaeda have been using for years).

Secondly, and this has been the problem with many in the older generations as she points out, those who do not use the internet as anything more than a "tool" completely misses how actual friendships can grow in the virtual world, building into trusting relationships, over time. It is not the physical reality of seeing someone that creates friendships, even over huge distances, capable of taking great risks. These friendships are built on sharing ideas and events, communicating on a daily, if not hourly occurrence, allowing one, two or even larger groups of people to share in the very personal day to day conversations and activities of otherwise unknown individuals. These friendships can become as strong as any in the physical world.

This lack of comprehension has severely limited the ability of organizations to counter problems such as "self selected" radicalization and internet related terrorist activities. In these cases, young men do not require the actual physical, face to face meeting of a "recruiter" to inspire, instruct or organize an attack. It only requires the user to log on and become "connected", even to people thousands of miles away. There are multiple cases of these events within the United States including the recent case of Maj. Hassan who opened fire on Ft. Hood.

Third, and it is surprising that the author of Tipping Points misses this, eventually, an idea takes on a power of its own, reaching critical mass or, in his words, "the tipping point". As Gladwell notes, it begins with "mavens" or respected people putting out an idea. Whether that is that pink tennis shoes are fashionable or that crime in a neighborhood will not be tolerated (as in New York's program to reduce crime). Then come the "salespeople" who take up this idea and start spreading it to people that they know. Finally, enough people catch on that it spreads like wildfire without the need for these ubiquitous middleman "salespeople".

How does the idea that pink tennis shoes are fashionable spread from New York to LA to London and Tokyo? In the past, it was through other media such as photographs, news papers, magazines, etc. Still, these media paths were often inter-related. As we know, a corporation can own multiple media organizations across the country and even globally, passing information among themselves, often at the insistence and assistance of "editors" who, in a way, acted as the continuing "salesman" for these ideas. The same can be said for ideas born in think tanks that are inter-related or political organizations, etc, through the meeting of people in real spaces, exchanging ideas. Baring out Gladwell's theory that it is in the physical, real time meeting of people that works to move ideas and, in the case of "high risk" activism, like revolution, move it out into the open.

What the new paths of "social media" allow people and ideas to do is leapfrog over these conventional paths of inter-connectivity. All it requires is a search engine and a keyboard. Someone can virtually search for something of interest, find it and latch on without ever having first shared those ideas with anyone else in the physical world. Allowing these ideas to take on a power of their own.

Eventually, these groups or ideas become so large that they "meet" in cyberspace as one anonymous person leaves a link here or a link there, driving people to these sites and bringing them together. Where, in the virtual world, they develop these close friendships and the strength and courage to act upon it in the real world. Hundreds and thousands who never personally met.

In the case of Egypt, that is how the protesters were first able to pull in enough people to begin the movement. What was first the leapfrog of ideas to groups, became the impetuous for numbers to come out, on their association in the virtual world alone. In some cases, their actions mirror Gladwell's concept that personal association, face to face, helped motivate people. Certainly, friends in the real world connected via Facebook and Twitter, shared these links and then spoke among themselves in the virtual world and real world to convince themselves of the necessity to act. On the other hand, there were many individuals who, out of fear of ridicule or reprisal from friends, family and the authorities, spoke not a word in the real world, but were motivated to act by their cyber-connection alone.

As Gladwell suggested in Tipping Points, eventually an idea takes on a power of its own, the shear numbers driving people to join and be part of this "something" that was going on. It happened both in the virtual world as well as in the real world. In the real world, those who had cooperated in the virtual were eventually forced to come to the streets, but it was their virtual connections that provided the numbers. As most observers have seen, the number of participants becomes a power of its own: strength in numbers, building courage to act by the shear momentum of "the mob". It was these numbers that then called down the masses of working poor to join them, people they did not know, but seemed to share their own concerns.

Finally, the thing that is missed by observers such as Gladwell and others that Eltahawy says dismissed them as "Facebook generation" pressing the "like" button. Aside from the fact that this little button, if pushed enough times, can drag an idea to the top of the list of a search engine for any anonymous, unconnected persons to find, it was the speed of the connections, both in the speed of the internet as well as the speed at which people can connect, that gave rise to this revolution.

Gladwell is correct to say that Egypt's revolution did not need social media to have a revolution. Eventually. It would have found any number of paths to connect as was the case in the American Revolution through pamphlets, newspapers and groups of people. Or, the case of the Bolshevik Revolution that came together in the tea houses, read books, published newspapers and pamphlets, etc, etc, etc. Even the Polish Solidarity movement that found its path through meetings and sermons in the Catholic Church. The difference is in the speed at which the Egypt revolution grew and reached "the tipping point".

Eighteen days.

It took years, some reading history would say "decades", for the American revolutionaries to talk, connect and share ideas until they were able to reach a point of "revolution". Likewise, the Bolsheviks languished in their basements and tea houses, slowly gathering adherents and building organizations to take on the establishment, building numbers of ever growing dissenters, making marches and spreading their revolution.

In Egypt, the problems and base groups lingered in the background, disorganized and incapable of growing because they lacked the ability to get their message out and meet in real time with other like minded people. People who no longer reached for paper pamphlets and newspapers, but read and spoke on the "net". Social media allowed them to leap frog over their predecessors in revolution. It did not take decades nor even years to grow their numbers once they were able to connect. It took two years, if we look at Elataway's narrative. Starting in 2008 with the April 6 Youth Movement to build some numbers to begin the real discussion of ideas.

Then came June 2010 with the death of Khalid Said. It took only six months from that moment to create a network of tens of thousands. Leapfrogging their historical counterparts. Then came the call for the Jan25 protests that drew in nearly a hundred thousand "friends" on the site, not including the thousands of others who connected through the "friend" of a "friend" of a "friend" on the internet. A march, the size and plurality of which would have taken previous "protesters" months to plan, organize and act, took only a few days. The speed of that organization the establishment of "old men" could not match.

The regime fell eighteen days later. Yes, even after it had cut the internet because the "real world" connections that Gladwell suggests is necessary had been built, but not before the virtual connections had paved the way.

Could Egypt have had a revolution of the "youth" without social media? History tells us that, yes, they could have. Eventually. A youthful middle class searching for the path to improve themselves past their parents' station and into the environs of the ruling class who hold their power through restrictions, laws and regulations, will eventually find its way. However, Egypt would not have had a revolution now, in 2011, without it.

That is the power of the internet and Social Media. As some have suggested, dictators should fear it because what they do not allow in the open space of the real world, can move at lightening speed in cyberspace.

As in the way of Egypt when they cut the internet, there is always the cell phone.

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