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.