by Gary Farber
Revolutions have happened in the Mideast? How? Why? Because this is the 21st century, and the revolution is online.
What happened? This.
The exchange on Facebook was part of a remarkable two-year collaboration that has given birth to a new force in the Arab world — a pan-Arab youth movement dedicated to spreading democracy in a region without it. Young Egyptian and Tunisian activists brainstormed on the use of technology to evade surveillance, commiserated about torture and traded practical tips on how to stand up to rubber bullets and organize barricades.
They fused their secular expertise in social networks with a discipline culled from religious movements and combined the energy of soccer fans with the sophistication of surgeons. Breaking free from older veterans of the Arab political opposition, they relied on tactics of nonviolent resistance channeled from an American scholar through a Serbian youth brigade — but also on marketing tactics borrowed from Silicon Valley.
By 2008, many of the young organizers had retreated to their computer keyboards and turned into bloggers, attempting to raise support for a wave of isolated labor strikes set off by government privatizations and runaway inflation.
After a strike that March in the city of Mahalla, Egypt, Mr. Maher and his friends called for a nationwide general strike for April 6. To promote it, they set up a Facebook group that became the nexus of their movement, which they were determined to keep independent from any of the established political groups. Bad weather turned the strike into a nonevent in most places, but in Mahalla a demonstration by the workers’ families led to a violent police crackdown — the first major labor confrontation in years.
Just a few months later, after a strike in Tunisia, a group of young online organizers followed the same model, setting up what became the Progressive Youth of Tunisia. The organizers in both countries began exchanging their experiences over Facebook. The Tunisians faced a more pervasive police state than the Egyptians, with less latitude for blogging or press freedom, but their trade unions were stronger and more independent. “We shared our experience with strikes and blogging,” Mr. Maher recalled.
For their part, Mr. Maher and his colleagues began reading about nonviolent struggles. They were especially drawn to a Serbian youth movement called Otpor, which had helped topple the dictator Slobodan Milosevic by drawing on the ideas of an American political thinker, Gene Sharp. The hallmark of Mr. Sharp’s work is well-tailored to Mr. Mubark’s Egypt: He argues that nonviolence is a singularly effective way to undermine police states that might cite violent resistance to justify repression in the name of stability.
The April 6 Youth Movement modeled its logo — a vaguely Soviet looking red and white clenched fist—after Otpor’s, and some of its members traveled to Serbia to meet with Otpor activists.
Another influence, several said, was a group of Egyptian expatriates in their 30s who set up an organization in Qatar called the Academy of Change, which promotes ideas drawn in part on Mr. Sharp’s work. One of the group’s organizers, Hisham Morsy, was arrested during the Cairo protests and remained in detention.
“The Academy of Change is sort of like Karl Marx, and we are like Lenin,” said Basem Fathy, another organizer who sometimes works with the April 6 Youth Movement and is also the project director at the Egyptian Democratic Academy, which receives grants from the United States and focuses on human rights and election-monitoring. During the protesters’ occupation of Tahrir Square, he said, he used his connections to raise about $5,100 from Egyptian businessmen to buy blankets and tents.
‘This Is Your Country’
Then, about a year ago, the growing Egyptian youth movement acquired a strategic ally, Wael Ghonim, a 31-year-old Google marketing executive. Like many others, he was introduced into the informal network of young organizers by the movement that came together around Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize-winning diplomat who returned to Egypt a year ago to try to jump-start its moribund political opposition.
Mr. Ghonim had little experience in politics but an intense dislike for the abusive Egyptian police, the mainstay of the government’s power. He offered his business savvy to the cause. “I worked in marketing, and I knew that if you build a brand you can get people to trust the brand,” he said.
The result was a Facebook group Mr. Ghonim set up: We Are All Khalid Said, after a young Egyptian who was beaten to death by police. Mr. Ghonim — unknown to the public, but working closely with Mr. Maher of the April 6 Youth Movement and a contact from Mr. ElBaradei’s group — said that he used Mr. Said’s killing to educate Egyptians about democracy movements.
He filled the site with video clips and newspaper articles about police violence. He repeatedly hammered home a simple message: “This is your country; a government official is your employee who gets his salary from your tax money, and you have your rights.” He took special aim at the distortions of the official media, because when the people “distrust the media then you know you are not going to lose them,” he said.
He eventually attracted hundreds of thousands of users, building their allegiance through exercises in online democratic participation. When organizers planned a “day of silence” in the Cairo streets, for example, he polled users on what color shirts they should all wear — black or white. (When the revolt exploded, the Mubarak government detained him for 12 days in blindfolded isolation in a belated attempt to stop his work.)
After the Tunisian revolution on Jan. 14, the April 6 Youth Movement saw an opportunity to turn its little-noticed annual protest on Police Day — the Jan. 25 holiday that celebrates a police revolt that was suppressed by the British — into a much bigger event. Mr. Ghonim used the Facebook site to mobilize support. If at least 50,000 people committed to turn out that day, the site suggested, the protest could be held. More than 100,000 signed up.
And the online revolution was real.
[...] A sign like that lends a little weight to the idea that, whatever tactical role that social technologies might have played in the Egyptian uprising, they've captured the hearts and minds of Egyptians. Alec Ross, the U.S. State Department's senior advisor on innovation, found vindication in the photo. "14:58 ... 14:59 ...," tweeted Ross this morning. "Cyberskeptics, your 15 minutes are up."
It's the real deal, or at least all signs point in that direction. The photo has been tweeted many, many times, but it was originally, it seems, posted to the hosting service yfrog by NBC New's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel. And Getty Images is offering a photo, taken by staff photographer John Moore, showing what looks a whole lot like the same man grasping with both hands the same sign and wearing the same green jacket and light brown shirt, only this time standing alone in a Cairo street. Moore is a highly-regard photojournalist who, in 2007, was the man behind the camera for a gripping series of photos tracking in real time the assassination of Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto. So there's that.
As to what the sign itself actually reads, the Arabic-trained Aaron Banks translates it as, "Thank you...youth [of] Egypt," then the Facebook reference, and then "Steadfast we will not go."
It's one man and one sign, but the imagery of social media like Twitter and Facebook, as well as of digital culture more broadly, has for sure been popping up all through the Cairo protests. NPR strategist Andy Carvin linked this morning, for example, to a photo of a young man holding a red, white, and blue sign that reads "Mubarak" and "Shift + Del.," a call for the Egyptian president to erase himself from the political stage.
[...] the debate over what real true role of the Internet (and Facebook, and Twitter) has been in this historic Egypt uprising has to include consideration of what the idea that is the Internet (and Facebook, and Twitter) means to the ones doing the rising up.
How do we know? We saw the retweet:
Mona Eltahawy -- an NYC based Egyptian Twitter user who stands out for arriving at the events earlier than most - and Andy Carvin of NPR dutifully shared and reshared Tweets from the ground, amplifying their impact.
The degree to which international observers relied on these retweeters underlines the importance of what they're doing and of other platforms which provide similar services. One example is Storyful, a well funded new platform that received a lot of attention at an event today on the subject of real time publishing. Similar, but different in a few important ways, is the more bootstrapped Crowdvoice [disclosure: this is a project of Mideast Youth, run by Esra'a al Shafei, who is a friend]. Crowdvoice, made by and for activists, allows them and their supporters to share and highlight the best information covering demonstrations and human rights campaigns.
This is real time publishing by protesters as opposed to by journalists. Each page (or voice) on a particular topic, for example police brutality in Egypt, spotlights information that's been added by a varied group, with a wide range of perspectives, home cities and religions.
Want to help the next Mideast revolution? You can.
What is CrowdVoice.org?
CrowdVoice.org is a user-powered service that tracks voices of protest from around the world by crowdsourcing information. The platform brings together activists and journalists with the topics they care about and want to follow. Information about human rights abuses, demonstrations and current events are chosen and approved by the community. Said information is pooled from news sources, blogs, video and social networking sites. Anyone is able to contribute news, suggest new topics, or approve what others already submitted.
The White House had been debating the likelihood of a domino effect since youth-driven revolts had toppled President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, even though the American intelligence community and Israel’s intelligence services had estimated that the risk to President Mubarak was low — less than 20 percent, some officials said.
According to senior officials who participated in Mr. Obama’s policy debates, the president took a different view. He made the point early on, a senior official said, that “this was a trend” that could spread to other authoritarian governments in the region, including in Iran. By the end of the 18-day uprising, by a White House count, there were 38 meetings with the president about Egypt. Mr. Obama said that this was a chance to create an alternative to “the Al Qaeda narrative” of Western interference.
American officials had seen no evidence of overtly anti-American or anti-Western sentiment. “When we saw people bringing their children to Tahrir Square, wanting to see history being made, we knew this was something different,” one official said.
On Jan. 28, the debate quickly turned to how to pressure Mr. Mubarak in private and in public — and whether Mr. Obama should appear on television urging change. Mr. Obama decided to call Mr. Mubarak, and several aides listened in on the line. Mr. Obama did not suggest that the 82-year-old leader step aside or transfer power. At this point, “the argument was that he really needed to do the reforms, and do them fast,” a senior official said. Mr. Mubarak resisted, saying the protests were about outside interference.
According to the official, Mr. Obama told him, “You have a large portion of your people who are not satisfied, and they won’t be until you make concrete political, social and economic reforms.”
“Eighty-five million people live in Egypt, and less than 1,000 people died in this revolution — most of them killed by the police,” said Mr. Ghonim, the Google executive. “It shows how civilized the Egyptian people are.” He added, “Now our nightmare is over. Now it is time to dream.”
The revolution is no dream; it has just begun.
Protests convulsed half a dozen countries across the Middle East on Wednesday, with tens of thousands of people turning out in Bahrain to challenge the monarchy, a sixth day of running street battles in Yemen, continued strikes over long-suppressed grievances in Egypt and a demonstrator’s funeral in Iran turning into a brief tug of war between the government and its opponents.
Even in heavily policed Libya, pockets of dissent emerged in the main square of Benghazi, with people calling for an end to the 41-year rule of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Iraq, accustomed to sectarian conflict, got a dose of something new: a fiery protest in the eastern city of Kut over unemployment, sporadic electricity and government corruption.
From northern Africa to the Persian Gulf, governments appeared to flounder on just how to outrun mostly peaceful movements, spreading erratically like lava erupting from a volcano, with no predictable end.
In Libya, Iran and Iraq, riot police officers also confronted the demonstrators — three of whom were killed in Kut, Iraq, when security forces opened fire.
Leaders fell back on habitual, ineffective formulas. A ban on strikes announced by the week-old military government in Egypt was ignored. The Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, called his Bahraini counterpart, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, to commiserate about the region falling victim to “foreign agendas,” according to the state-run Saba news agency.
[...]new generation has served notice that the social contract in play in the decades since independence around World War II was no longer valid.
Much of the generation in their 40s and 50s tried to effect change, but first accepted the empty promises of the rulers that change was coming. When it did not, many grew politically apathetic.
The protests are a fire alarm that the promises are not going to work anymore, said Sawsan al-Shaer, a Bahraini columnist. But governments that have stuck around for 20 to 40 years are slow to realize that, she said.
“Now the sons are coming, the new generation, and they are saying, ‘I don’t care that my father agreed with you — I am asking for more, and I am asking for something else,’ ” Ms. Shaer said.
Most rulers have surrounded themselves for so long with a tight coterie of advisers and security officers that they believe the advice that just a few young people are knocking around outside who will tire in good time, she said, even after the fall of the presidents in Tunisia and Egypt.
“The rulers don’t realize there is a new generation who want a better job, who want to ask what is happening, where did you spend the money?” Ms. Shaer said. “My father did not ask. I want to ask.”
The growing population throughout the 3,175-mile zone from Tehran to Tangier, Morocco, has changed too much, analysts believe, for the old systems to work.
In Bahrain, tens of thousands of people poured into Pearl Square late into Wednesday night, virtually all Shiites. They demanded changes in a system that they say has discriminated against them for decades in housing, jobs and basic civil rights.
In Yemen, police officers deployed in large numbers around Sana, the capital, and in Aden and the provincial town of Taiz in an attempt to end six days of street battles.
Students again organized protests at the capital’s central university, calling for Mr. Saleh’s ouster. But there were also clashes between antigovernment and pro-government demonstrators.
In Kut, Iraq, security forces opened fire, killing at least three people, according to a local government official. Protesters then stormed the governor’s headquarters and his house, burning both buildings. At least 27 people were injured in the violence, including one security officer, the official said.
Hundreds of riot police officers surrounded the nation’s symbolic center, Pearl Square, in the early morning on Thursday, raining tear gas and percussion grenades on thousands of demonstrators who had poured into the square all day on Wednesday to challenge the country’s absolute monarchy.
The protesters, including women and children, had been camping out and the atmosphere had been festive only hours before. But by about 3:30 a.m. on Thursday, people were fleeing, screaming “We were sleeping. We were sleeping,” and ambulances, sirens blaring, were trying to make their way through the crowds. At least one protester was killed, according to a parliamentarian, Ibrahim Mattar.
[...]Hours before the police action, the Internet was jammed to a crawl and cellphone service was intermittent. Those efforts, however, only seemed to energize the roaring crowds, which spilled out of the square, tied up roads for as far as the eye could see and united in a celebration of empowerment unparalleled for Bahrain’s Shiites, who make up about 70 percent of the country’s 600,000 citizens.
“They say you are few and you cannot make changes,” said Ali Ahmed, 26, drawing cheers from the crowd as he spoke from a platform. “We say, ‘We can, and we will.’ ”
They can, they will, and they are. It cannot be fought.
And it is glorious.
Update, February 20th, 2011, 2:22 p.m., Pacific time, I follow up.