Revolution 2.0

Call out the instigators
Because there’s something in the air
We’ve got to get together sooner or later
Because the revolution’s here,
and you know it’s right.

– Thunderclap Newman

Whether Mubarak really couldn’t see the writing on the wall or if throughout these last days he was negotiating his surrender, getting assurances or perhaps buying guarantees for his safety, arranging to shore up his money, is something we may never know for sure. It struck me today that Mubarak could have been a sort of hostage, maybe the money men behind him who had a lot to lose if he stepped down, wouldn’t let him go . . . well, that is the past now.

The hardest part of a revolution is often the aftermath. We’ve seen it before: the French Revolution was followed by the Reign of Terror; the Russian Revolution was followed by Bolshevik tyranny; the 1949 Chinese Revolution led to modernization but also state-sponsored terrorism and starvation for between 20 and 43 million people in the Great Leap Forward. Revolutions can be hijacked, the glorious ideals that sparked them can be betrayed, and freedom can be fleeting.

There are hard revolutions, where violence plays a key part, and there are soft, mostly non-violent revolutions. The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 belongs to the latter category, like Gandhi’s movement and Poland’s “Solidarity” in the 1980s. Yet, in many ways, I think it was truly unprecedented. It seemed to have transformation as it cornerstone. The peaceful, ground-level approach the protester’s took belied the idea that there was something covert and sinister going on. It may have had a transforming effect on the military, and from reports I’ve read, it has begun to transform the Muslim Brotherhood, the group so many fear may the primary hijackers of this revolution – it certainly transformed Egypt and its people.

We can also say that Revolution 2.0 changed revolution itself. It started with a Facebook page that quickly attracted over than 70,000 friends. It’s called We are All Khaled Said, named after an Egyptian businessman beaten to death by police officers in Alexandria on June 6, 2010. The young man who made the Facebook page is Google’s Middle East and North Africa marketing manager, Wael Ghonim. It was through this page that word was first spread about plans for the Jan 25th protest. On January 27, Ghonim disappeared – picked up and held by the police until February 6, when Amnesty International demanded that the Egyptian authorities disclose Ghonim’s whereabouts and release him.

That’s just a synopsis of the story. It’s a remarkable one, and I urge you to doing some searching on Google and learn the rest of it. I wrote about this “new” revolution on Jan. 31. but I didn’t know at the time it was Revolution 2.0.

You can read about the “film directors, protest organizers and computer whiz kids dressed in J. Crew and Ralph Lauren, men in their 20s and 30s who had come to embody Egypt’s restive, tech-savvy youth” and who have called themselves Revolution 2.0. in this Los Angeles Times article.

One member of the group says, “This isn’t like any revolution in history.” I don’t think that’s overstating it too much. Last night on CNN, Wael Ghonim gave a telephone interview and had this to say, “You know, I always said that if you want to liberate a society, just give them the Internet. If you want to have a free society, give them the Internet.” Ghonim, who shrugs off the notion that he is a hero, is 31 years old.

Technology has been the tool of revolution before, but never as powerfully.  For many Egyptian protesters, social media provided their first chance to be heard, to say what they wanted and needed to say – it gave them a voice and it fed their hunger for freedom.

Now, there’s something in the air . . .  the Egyptian people’s victory is being celebrated throughout the Middle East . . . Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Syria and Yemen have announced reforms in an attempt to stave off dissent . . . anti-government protests are scheduled over the coming days in Algeria, Bahrain, Libya, Iran and Morocco . . .

BLITZER: Wael, this is Wolf Blitzer in Washington. So first Tunisia, now Egypt. What’s next?

GHONIM: Ask Facebook.


Uncertain Days

Uncertain days in Egypt. It’s getting very ugly. The general consensus is that Murbarak is behind the violence of the last couple of days. Here’s the lead paragraph of today’s NY Times article: “President Hosni Mubarak struck back at his opponents, unleashing waves of his supporters armed with clubs, rocks, knives and firebombs in a concerted assault on thousands of antigovernment protesters in Tahrir Square calling for an end to his authoritarian rule.”

Mubarak struck back . . . unleashing waves of his supporters . . .

I am no great Anderson Cooper fan, but I do have to tip my hat to him, and the other CNN reporters on the ground in Egypt, as they literally put themselves in harm’s way to cover this story. All sides of the story. The video footage of Cooper and his crew making their way through the pro-Mubarak crowd as they were repeatedly assaulted (Cooper estimated he was struck in the head ten times) and pelted with derisive shouts was pretty dramatic. That’s understating it, but I can’t think of another appropriate word at the moment.

Even though it is bad for my blood pressure, occasionally I turn to Fox News just to see what they are saying. At this point, I can only assume that Fox broadcasts from a reverse parallel universe because any other explanation is just too disturbing to consider. How they get away with their constant distortion of the facts is beyond me.

Tahrir Square during the "March of the Millions"

Commentators on Fox are peppering nearly every other sentence with the words “Muslim Brotherhood”, “Islamic state”, and “Caliphate.” The latter does not refer to an earthquake zone in California (besides that would be Caliplate), but to the first system of government established in Islam. Fox, as well as the conservative press in general, are taking the stance that the protests in Egypt are something darker and more sinister than a street level nationalist movement.

Conservatives are just using the Egyptian crisis as an excuse to take pot shots at Obama. They  want people to believe their  unfounded and outrageous allegations that Obama is somehow behind the effort to oust Mubarak either because he is part of a conspiracy or just soft on Islamic fundamentalists. It gets even crazier when they suggest that if Mubarak leaves it will lead to an Egyptian/Iranian alliance that will dominate the Middle East and then try to take over Europe. Their anti-demonstrator stance shows how they lack any integrity, as they now, apparently, have completely abandoned the freedom movement banner they raised so often during the Bush era.

Here’s a piece by Andrew Sullivan, not exactly a liberal guy, where he unmasks the deception of the conservative line regarding the Muslim Brotherhood.

Deceptive is the word. I keep hearing how Osama bin Laden was a ”graduate” of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is meant to intimate that there is a real connection between the two

However, Bruce Riedel (Saban Center for Middle East Policy) writing for the Brookings Institution, one of Washington’s oldest think tanks, says “Al Qaeda’s leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, started their political lives affiliated with the Brotherhood but both have denounced it for decades as too soft and a cat’s paw of Mubarak and America.”

Some years ago, The Rand Corporation, published a paper entitled “The Muslim World After 9/11.” Here is what it had to say about the Muslim Brotherhood:

The Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun), for instance, had a record of militancy, conspiracies, and assassinations in its early incarnation; in the West Bank and Gaza it spawned Hamas. On the other hand, the Brotherhood has evolved into a largely nonviolent (but still politically radical) movement in a number of Arab countries. In its latest evolution, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood supported a Christian (Coptic) candidate for the Egyptian parliament, a hitherto unthinkable step for a Muslim fundamentalist organization. The Egyptian al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya is in a process of transition from terrorist organization to political action group.

This is not to suggest that we should be naive about the Muslim Brotherhood, but it seems like a case of jumping the gun to paint the Egyptian branch as “the enemy” at this juncture.

I am also not a big fan of Islam. Frankly, I have little regard or use for the religions that originated in the Middle East. I think they are b.s. But I have a high regard for the truth. Misleading people about the situation over there helps no one. In the United States, the Middle East and its culture is grossly misunderstood. This is a major reason why we have faltered so often in Middle Eastern affairs.

The key to understanding “Jihad” is to know that it is largely a youth movement. The people at the top, directing things, may be old, but the body and soul is young. It some ways it parallels the situation that led to the Chinese Revolution. Mao and his generation were frustrated with traditional Chinese culture, the antiquated Chinese system of education with its emphasis on Chinese classics, foreign intervention and the way the European “barbarians” had enslaved so many Chinese with the opium they brought into the country for just that purpose.

The problem with revolutions is that when they are over, things usually go downhill rather quickly. I think the United States may have had the world’s only successful revolution, in the sense that the immediate aftermath was not a bloodbath and that the new government remained stable, and democratic.

Che Guevara once said, “In a revolution, one wins or one dies.” In the coming days and weeks, we shall see who wins and how many will die in Egypt.

Photo-Tahrir Square: yamaha_gangsta; Poster: FreeStylee


The New Revolution: Habermas’ Public Sphere & Social Networking in the Middle East

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

Gil Scott-Heron wrote those lyrics over forty years ago. Things have changed. The revolution is being televised.

It has been fascinating to watch the events in the Middle East unfold over the past week. Of particular interest to me is the revolution within the revolution. Up to now, with the exception of this blog, I have done my best to ignore the social networking phenomenon. I have a number of reasons, which I may go into in some future post, but this week I found myself somewhat in awe of it.

Social media has been one of the driving forces behind the uprisings, so much so that it’s prompted many commentators, such as former Mideast negotiator and Ambassador to Israel for President Clinton, Martin Indyk, to make statements such as, “You are witnessing here a 21st century revolution.” Speaking on this week’s Meet The Press, Indyk, now director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, added,  “And this has changed the whole nature of communication and organization and made it now impossible for autocratic authoritarian leaders in the Arab world to suppress the views of their people.”

I don’t know if that is overstating things or not. But this new revolution is certainly changing the face of revolution.

Some years ago, German sociologist and philosopher, Jurgen Habermas developed the concept of the “public sphere,” a space in which groups and individuals could come together to engage in discussions over matters of mutual interest.  This space within social life is separate from, yet not unconnected to, the private sphere and the “Sphere of Public Authority” or the state. Habermas maintains that one of the main functions of the public sphere is to support discourses critical of the Public Authority.

However, Habermas predicted the demise of this public sphere, and I can’t help but wonder if in considering the rise of the internet and social media whether or not he has revised his thinking. Habermas said that the demise of the public sphere is inevitable because eventually advertising replaces news and media becomes a tool of the state, thus the public sphere ceases to function in the manner originally intended. It’s true that in capitalist societies nearly everything becomes a commodity to be packaged and sold, and that in dictatorships, everything becomes a tool for totalitarian rule. However, what we have seen this week suggests that the public sphere which is social networking may be inherently resistant to any attempt to co-op or destroy it.

Is this, then, an indestructible public sphere? Consider this: On Tuesday the Twitter ‘hashtag’ #jan25 went viral, thousands of Tweets coming from the Cairo protest itself as well as observers around the world. Mubarak’s government then reacted by shutting down access to social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Internet access from the country’s four major internet providers was blocked. And yet, Egyptians have been finding ways to break through.

We Rebuild” is a group that has been using landline phones, fax machines and ham radio to get messages out of the country. They’ve also been breaking the blockade by calling numbers that connect to modems available in other countries which provide access to the outside world. The “We Rebuild” group established a connection in Sweden through dial-up and an activist in the group wrote on Twitter: “When countries block, we evolve.”

Some people have used services like Tor, which reroutes a user’s traffic through a network of volunteers’ computers around the world, making it impossible to trace. Others are using Hotspot Shield, software that secures Web surfing sessions. And there have been reports of satellite modems and phones entering Egypt in order to circumvent government controlled telecommunication companies.

The rise of social media is hardly news. However, I haven’t given it much credence until now. Naturally, a debate has already begun about the actual role social media is playing. I tend to think it is significant. Mathew Ingram writes about this debate over at Gigacom, and I agree with his point that “In the end, it’s not about Twitter or Facebook: it’s about the power of real-time networked communication.”

Of course, there is no question that the real fuel for this week’s events is a suppressed peoples desire to have freedom.  Here, too, I think we are seeing the impact of social media. For the first time, people around the world can get a taste of what real freedom is like, freedom of expression, as social networking opens up avenues for them to express themselves without the need to go into a physical public square, and as we have seen, it is a powerful tool for pulling people into that physical space when the time comes.

Once people get a taste of freedom, they often become insatiable.

One final note, as much as I would love for the US government to denounce Mubarak as a dictator and get out of the dictator-supporting business once and for all, I know it is not that simple or easy. I remember very well supporting the uprising in Iran against the Shah in 1979 and we all know how that turned out. There are many reasons why the US needs to tread carefully, not the least is that who governs Egypt is a matter for Egyptians to decide for themselves. Middle East peace has many underpinnings and they are all interconnected. Please resist the temptation to look at the situation in black and white and try to see the deep complexity underneath.