Tag - Egypt

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PDF 2011: The Arab Spring Examined
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Gladwell Gets It Wrong – Again
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Lessons and Thoughts on the Egyptian Protest

PDF 2011: The Arab Spring Examined

This year’s Personal Democracy Forum was focused, as you would expect, on the Arab Spring. There are a series of blog posts about the conference on the techpresident blog.

My favorite session (full disclosure, I could only stay for the  first day) was at the end of the first morning with a line up of speakers, largely Egyptian nationals, talking about the intersection of social media and the uprisings in the Arab world this year.

Alaa abd el Fattah provided a fantastic timeline and understanding of the history of resistance and organizing in Egypt that began in the 1970s and runs right through the current events there. He has been organizing using blogs at first and more recently Facebook and Twitter in Egypt since 2005, and been jailed at times because of it.

best places to organize continue to be on the ground through local social networks, at factories (remember when we had factories?) and through political parties (although, historically, less through parties because of the stranglehold the Mubarak regime had over their activities.) “Everywhere you go,” he said, “everyone is always talking politics in Egypt.” Social media offered a medium to build a single narrative that led to the revolution. If you’re upset about wages, it’s because of the totalitarian regime. If you’re upset about health care, again the regime. Jobs, the regime. And so on. Social media, he said, enabled his friends and co-conspirators to reach a large audience of people and continue to reinforce the same themes over time.

Social media also enabled them to reach individuals who were not connected to local organizations. Over time creating a larger network, refining messages that resonated with people enabled them to build a national movement. A key part of their communications efforts was to incorporate humor into their messages. They invented jokes as a key way to build participation that helped destroy the veneer of power and invincibility of the regime.

But, of course, ultimately they had to protest on land, in person to show people that they didn’t need to be afraid of the police and the army.

My other favorite speaker of the morning was Rasha Abdulla. Her speech was entitled, The Invisible Republic of the Internet. Rasha said that the use of the Internet for oeganizing began in 2003, blogs, websites. But it took time to build the courage to write content that was anti-government. “All our lives we had been communicated at veritically,” she said, meaning the ommunications coming at them from the government. Using social media, “We’ve learned how to talk and listen to each other.”

In 2008, they experimented with organizing a worker’s strike using Facebook. 70,000 people were on her site at that time. Egypt came to a standstill that day. ” Oh my God,” she said, “Look at what Facebook can do.”

This past January they were using Facebook extensively to organize. She enjoyed people telegraphing two weeks in advance that they would be attending the revolution!

It was an amazing and powerful experience to have these organizers at the conference relaying their experiences. It confirmed my feeling that the toolkit has matured this year – what you see is what we’ve got: blogs, Facebook, Twitter, email and text messaging. It was also a reminder that totalitarian governments can shut off access to the Internet if you want, leaving protestors excruciatingly vulnerable and cut off from the rest of the world. The calls to make the freedom to connect a fundamental right, as Emily Parker of the State Department rightly said, are morally correct if, perhaps, impossible to enforce given the fact that governments that are likely to shut off the Internet are probably not much for abiding by international law anyway.

Nonetheless, the citizens of the Arab world have shown all of us what the combination of online and on land organizing for people, like Iranians, living under totalitarian rule, can hope for and accomplish.

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Gladwell Gets It Wrong – Again

Malcolm Gladwell has done it again. Last summer he wrote, I thought rather flippantly, about the ineffectiveness of social media in generating and sustaining social protests.

And now he has followed with a post on the New Yorker blog. (An irony-free zone for Gladwell who apparently doesn’t believe that this blog is a social media tool, and for him it isn’t as he appears to pay no mind to the comments.) He writes, “People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along.”

Of course they did. We had a revolution in 1776 that wasn’t tweeted, pinged or posted. It doesn’t mean that the same recipe for organizing and sustaining the protests, and sharing them with the world, is the same as it was a decade or a century or two centuries ago.

The advent of social media provides three critical resources for protesters today:

  1. The ability to initially organize as the Egyptian protesters did on Facebook and Twitter to connect with their friends, but more importantly, the friends of friends, the network. It was difficult to do this previusly, but not impossible of course, because of the time and mistakes that happen with telephone trees, the expensive and danger of advertising and danger of organizing on-the-ground meetings.
  2. The power to change plans in midstream. Using tools like text messaging, Twitter or Foursquare protesters can change meeting places or times in real time, moving thousands of people at a moment’s notice.
  3. Finally, social media enables citizens to share their stories, pictures and videos with the rest of the world. This gives voice to the previously voiceless and puts pressure on other governments to support legitimate protests.

As I wrote the other day, the only drawback to a reliance on social media at this time is the ability of governments, including ours that pressured companies to deny service to Wikileaks recently, to shut down service and cause a blackout for social media users in country and out. As we’re seeing in Egypt, resourceful individuals, citizens, reporters (see Nick Kristof’s powerful tweets here), news agencies, are finding a way to share the news of what’s happening in Egypt and around the world.

Social media aren’t causing revolutions, they are aiding them. Gladwell can sarcastically imagine Mao using Twitter while missing the point entirely that Mao never needed a vehicle or a voice, but the people of China certainly do. We will never know how the protests in Tiananmen Square might have been different with social media, but we’re seeing in Egypt the power that side-to-side communications can have in starting and stirring protests.

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Lessons and Thoughts on the Egyptian Protest

I’ve been watching and reading about the protests in Egypt with awe at the courage of the participants and fear for the reprisals they may face. Perhaps it’s too early or easy to generalize, but that’s never stopped me before! Here are a few thoughts about the Egyptian protests, and what makes it similar and dissimilar to recent protests in Yemen, Tunisia and Iran:

  • Are heroic leaders always necessary for overthrowing dictatorships?  The protests appear to start in similar fashion. A long-simmering unhappiness, catalyzed by an economic or political event that is spread and catalyzed side-to-side in part because of social media, particular text messaging, that spills out into the streets. This progression mirrors those from twenty five years ago in Eastern Europe. However, one drawback to the  lack of an opposition party, is that it is unclear to whom the protesters expect power be handed to. Lech Walesa, Vaclev Havel, Nelson Mandela personified their country’s opposition forces. And, in the Nobel Prize winner, Mohamed ElBaradei, it appears the country now has it’s heroic leader. No clear leader emerged in Iran and the protests were beaten back. Is a heroic figure an essential ingredient to success?
  • How valuable can social media ultimately be for social change if access is to easily denied? What is different about these protests from those a quarter century ago is how easily and quickly the protests can grow and spread because of social media, But just as easily as social media can be a catalyst for spreading protests, the access to social media can be cut off instantly and without explanation or recourse. This applies not only to the protests, but also to the recent skirmish Wikileaks had with American companies trying to cut off its Internet access. Although the Pew Center for American Life and the Internet now considers online social networking tools, “standard tools for political engagement,” they are also easily blocked by countries or companies. We do not have open, unfettered access to the Internet here or abroad, and these recent events should support the argument that access to the Internet is a fundamental right not a privilege. It should — but, sadly, it won’t because the corporate world has a stranglehold on the democracies, and the dictatorships control the rest. If you want to be scared about the stranglehold that the telecoms have on politics and the Internet here watch Susan Crawford talk about it here
  • I wonder if there are common characteristics to the protests, protesters, countries, circumstances, dictators that make the overthrow of a dictatorship possible in some places and impossible in others? Can anyone point me to any studies on this?

It’s a fast changing world in some ways, but some things remain stubbornly the same. The desire of people to be free is certainly something that has never, and will never, change or dimish.

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