Social media is often described as a 'revolution', but in Egypt, this appears to literally be coming true. Wael Ghonim, the Google executive credited for creating the Facebook page that first called for the protests on January 25th, has emerged as the first genuine 'face' of the movement he helped catalyse. After re-emerging from being held by the Egyptian authorities for ten days, most of the time blindfolded, he received a hero's welcome in Cairo's Tahrir Square. In his recent CNN interview, (whilst carefully making it clear that 'This is not about me', but rather the Egyptian people) it is clear that Ghonim's articulate -- and tech savvy -- passion is making him an icon of the revolution.
It is also extremely significant that Google, during the Egyptian government's take-down of the internet, moved to set up phone numbers by which Egyptians could send text messages to Twitter. Obviously, Google were motivated to support Ghonim, whose whereabouts at that time were unknown. Nevertheless, such an overtly political action on behalf of a multinational corporation of this scale is a stunning precedent. Suddenly, social media wasn't just a tool of political activism, but an active participant itself! Ghonim calls this 'Revolution 2.0'. This revolution will not be televised (except on Al-Jazeera where it plays 24/7), but it will be virally shared through endless social media sites.
Strikingly, Ghonim cited as his greatest heroes Mahatma Gandhi, the father of India's independence movement, and Mark Zuckerberg, the 26-year-old founder of Facebook. An unlikely seeming alliance, but one that exactly captures the zeitgeist of this global moment.
The speed at which the 'January 25th' movement has grown and organized is simply unique. It has left traditional political operators, like the veteran Egyptian opposition figurehead El Baradei and the Muslim Brotherhood, desperately clinging onto its coat tails, looking all but irrelevant in its wake. What we are witnessing here is not just a revolution, but also a fundamental tipping point. This is a moment that will define not just Egyptian, but world history. It is the moment when a critical mass of empowered citizens collectively discovered that they are more powerful than any police state.
A fundamental balance has shifted, with implications that go far beyond the Arab world. More than 50% of the world's population is under 30. Last year alone, facebook added more than 200 million users. The ubiquity of social networks and mobile phones means that we are connected to each other in a way that just hasn't happened before. The Egyptian government's internet and mobile shutdown was an epic fail. As studies on communities and resilience show, once the reciprocal bonds of networking are established, it takes more than a momentary disruption of the internet to shut them down. In fact, reciprocality is how resilience is built. Habits of exchange are the key. (Who knew that when we were playing Farmville on Facebook!)
The actual physical revolution has almost exactly mirrored in its wildfire dynamic the way that the social media revolution has spread. It is as though, through the virulent growth of social media, a peer-to-peer mycorhyzzial network has quietly grown around the roots of the creaky old information tree. Then, in one critical moment, it has felled the old hierarchy of top-down trickle-down news, rendering traditional media instantly irrelevant. In this seismic shift, newspaper publishers and television networks are just as likely to be swept away by Revolution 2.0 as oppressive governments and their secret police.
As traditional journalists go to their traditional government sources and 'usual suspect' experts, all they are able to do is to re-capitulate the out-of-date opinions of a geo-politics that is in freefall. The responses of governments like the US, have been particularly telling. Bound to dictators and despots in the realpolitick of maintaining the global status quo, they are unable to offer anything other than a superficial change of guard. Israel and the USA's favored plan B, swapping Mubarak for his intelligence chief and 'vice president', Omar Suleiman, has already hit a major snag when Suleiman went seriously off message by saying publicly that 'Egypt isn't ready for democracy'. That soundbite must have had the spin-doctors biting their knuckles! He obviously hasn't read the script.
This is to be expected, the contemporary institutions of national government, born out of the age of radio and television, are simply constitutionally incapable of processing what is happening. They are analogue institutions in a digital age. They are as defunct as tape recorders and VCRs. The Egyptian government is the MySpace of Revolution 2.0. The underlying dynamics of this situation are literally out of anyone's control. The mechanisms that have maintained the status quo for thirty years in Egypt, just suddenly no longer work. No matter how desperately the Egyptian government rearranges the deckchairs, it isn't stopping their Titanic from sinking. This is for the very simple reason that the people are no longer listening. They are speaking to each other. They are texting, phoning and tweeting each other. They are sharing on facebook and uploading video to YouTube. Then, most importantly, they are taking action.
Even recently, superficial concessions and re-branding might have worked in dispelling the momentum of a popular movement like this. Yet, in Egypt, the old strategy of containment and then waiting it out is failing. This is in marked contrast to the massive protests against the invasion of Iraq that happened in 2003. Then huge numbers of people took to the streets, but the US and UK governments simply waited for them to dispel and then went about their business as usual. What is the difference between then and now? In February 2004, an obscure website called thefacebook.com launched at Harvard University. By December 2004, they had one million users. Now, there are more than 500 million. In 2011, if facebook were a country, it would be the third biggest in the world. It's not just facebook, of course, that's responsible for the Egyptian revolution. More specifically, it is a critical mass of networked humanity.
This is not to say that the Egyptian revolution is a fait accompli. It is far from certain how events will play themselves out over the coming days and weeks. The decisive element will be whether critical mass really has been achieved. It needs more moments like the one where the Egyptian army was forced to abandon its plan to check the identity cards of those entering Tahrir Square, by the sheer force of numbers. The key is that when the people stand up and take collective action that they do so in such a decisive way that they are irresistible. Even in the most repressive of regimes, the armed forces, police, and government agencies of any nation will always be a minority. When enough people stand up at once, these agencies are effectively powerless. This is the key realization that has rippled throughout the collective consciousness of the Egyptian people, that the people united are stronger than any force that opposes them. A key moment was the rout on Kasir Al Nile Bridge*, when police and protesters did a tug of war across the Nile in a scene reminiscent of the closing scenes of V for Vendetta. A film, incidentally which Ghonim cites in his recent CNN interview as being a major influence, though it wasn't the blowing up of parliament that inspired him, rather "a character who anonymously advocated for change." This is the myth of revolution meeting the reality of revolution in a prophetic mashup, live on Al-Jazeera and all over YouTube!
Of course, lurking in the shadows, there is a still the risk of a Tiananmen Square type of situation happening in Egypt, a sobering example of what happens when a popular uprising is just below the threshold of critical mass. This is why all lovers of freedom and justice everywhere must vocally support the Egyptian people in their struggle. This is a world moment. If we do not stand up for the aspirations of the Egyptian people and make our voices heard with them, we will fall back into tyranny as normal.
The old political dialogue of left vs. right or conservative vs. liberal has nothing to say about this situation. This is nothing like any political movement we have ever seen before. There is no ideological handbook being waved in Tahrir Suare, just mobile phones and Egyptian flags. Revolution 2.0 is born of the will of the people to see justice and equality prevail in the face of corruption and grotesque hording and extravagance on behalf of the elite. The old inequities simply can't hide themselves any longer in the glare of ubiquitous communication. The game is up.
While peace purists and pacifists may point a wagging finger to the occasional skirmish in Tahrir Square, or stone throwing by protestors when under assault, this is a totally different animal from an armed struggle. And frankly, revolution only happens when people get out on the streets and make it happen. The massive majority of protestors in Egypt have been the very model of Gandhian non-violent direct action, forming human chains around the army lines and government buildings. This has been imaginative, brilliantly self-organizing, and inspiring considering the extreme duress and brutality the Egyptian people have been subjected to.
In keeping with the goals of Mahatma Gandhi, the Revolution 2.0 is not just a peaceful revolution, but also a revolution of peace. The structures under threat here are at the very heart of the military-industrial complex. It brings into question the very concept of a representative democracy. Who needs it when we can have a participatory democracy? Right here. Right now.
The implications of Revolution 2.0 are profound. The US state department just cautioned the Egyptian government that the "genie cannot be put back in the bottle." They are right, but that genie is not just a djinn from an exotic Arabian tale. This genie is going to go global. Yes, there will be set backs, and probably there will be some very ugly moments. Nonetheless (to paraphrase a social media buzz phrase) it's not a question of if we do Revolution 2.0, but how we do it. It's as inevitable as the social media revolution that catalyzed it.
Mark Heley is the author of The Everything Guide to 2012 and 101 Things you need to know about 2012 which was released this month in both paperback and kindle editons.
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"Wael Ghonim talks about the roots of the Egyptian revolution, how the internet fueled it -- and the Muslim brotherhood. " http://edition.cnn.com/video/#/video/world/2011/02/09/wael.ghonim.interv...