Skip to content

Balk Like an Egyptian

February 4, 2011

So much for Malcolm Gladwell’s hypothesis that “the revolution will not be tweeted.”  While the associations and organizations and more hierarchical movements may be helpful and indeed necessary to achieve meaningful lasting political change, Egypt and Tunisia have significantly demonstrated that the change that might be wrought through decentralized and disintermediated communications and organization via the Internet will be lasting, if not particularly controllable.

The latest uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are the direct reaction to villainy that was already present in their political regimes; what’s new now is the inevitable transparency of the Internet that brings those state secrets to light (ahem, WikiLeaks), and the enhanced abilities to organize ad hoc that can transform political will into political power.  These Egyptian “protests”–I’m not sure if there is an accurate word for what’s going on yet–are the long-coming conflagration that arose from the giant spark of a repressive Internet shut-down, setting the fuel of resentment ablaze.

The uprisings have predictably pitted a broad swath of the populace against statists who have benefited from Mubarak’s regime of authoritarian control combined with selective and arbitrary privilege.  What was less predictable was how much latent resistance lay dormant in Egypt; every day since January 25th has seen tens of thousands, ranging up to hundreds of thousands, of protesters in Egyptian public squares.  What was only somewhat predictable was how easily the protesters would be able to circumvent the Egyptian state’s means of repression.

I heard one cynical observer ask why Twitter was such a big factor in this episode.  He sardonically asked (from rough memory), “How ever did people get together to rally in the ’60s?  When they planned to show up somewhere they followed through and did it.  Now we need Twitter to keep an appointment?”  The difference is that in a repressive state, if one group plans to organize in a particular square and the police forces shut it down the night before, when people show up, it is difficult to relocate the venue without some instantaneous means of communication that need not concern itself with state licensure (e.g., Twitter), unlike TV or radio.

However, I think my take on Gladwell’s argument at the time wasn’t too far off.  Gladwell may still be right about America’s relative inability to turn tweets into actions, given that the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples have a bit more incentive/necessity to dig in and fight than Americans.  They were on the margins of revolution in the first place, and the architecture of social networking, embodied most directly by Twitter, was the tipping point (to use another Gladwellian cliche).  In my less-than-humble opinion, if the Internet shut-down had been the only offense inflicted upon the people by Mubarak’s government, it would have been enough (or in Hebrew, “Dayenu“).  Access to the Internet is inherently about the freedom of information, the freedom of speech and communication, the freedom to know.

Perhaps one cause of the previous relative dormancy of Egyptian dissent is that the people had been satisfied enough.  Most of Egyptian society at least had their material and spiritual needs met, even if their political freedoms were always tenuous.  Perhaps they had partially succumbed to the logic that “well, it’s not like they would use this regime of arbitrary and unwarranted power against me,” and went along seeking paths of least resistance.  Perhaps they had been lulled into that state of political acquiescence and disorganization by the relative satisfaction brought about by the tools that would eventually allow them to organize against the state.

Perhaps America is in the same political boat.  Perhaps the increase in personal wealth that came along with our transition from concerned democracy to complacent oligarchy has conveniently given us ample distraction from the deterioration of our own government.  Perhaps the greatest achievement of American government since 1970 has been to placate the populace by making open dissent difficult and unseemly and by marginalizing those “starry-eyed idealists” who don’t believe that things are good enough.  Perhaps, in this state, we too would be distracted enough to fail to really notice that the Senate is still considering a bill that would give the government that same Internet kill switch.  Perhaps one arbitrary flipping of that Internet kill switch would send America into the same torrent of revolutionary rage, fighting for the liberties and freedoms for which our forefathers fought and hoped to enshrine in our government.  Perhaps not.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Craig permalink
    February 4, 2011 3:39 pm

    I really like that you included the US Senate bill here. What the hell is our government doing?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: