My review of the two latest Egypt revolution books is up at The Daily Beast. I discuss Wael Ghonim’s memoir and Ashraf Khalil’s reported book about the uprising.
Two books released this month can help us start to make sense of this puzzle, with detailed accounts of the uprising a year ago and some insight into the institutions and attitudes that shape Egypt’s largely conservative society.
The first is a memoir by Wael Ghonim, the celebrated Google executive who helped spark the uprising with a wildly popular Facebook page dedicated to a middle-class kid beaten to death by the police. Ghonim tapped into a demographic that proved crucial to the Egyptian uprising: upwardly mobile college-educated youth frustrated by Egypt’s stagnation but wary of politics and activism.
As he tells his own story, Ghonim is a driven, socially awkward young man—ambitious but almost allergic to fame. His early clandestine ventures online revolve around building a library of religious recordings called IslamWay.com. He’s offered great sums of money but instead quietly donates it to charity, all while he’s still a teenager. In the years around 9/11, he marries and pursues his dream, which has nothing to do with unseating Mubarak’s tyrannical police regime. No, young Wael wants nothing more than to work at Google, a goal he finally achieves in 2008.
For a broader look at Egypt’s transformation, one can turn to journalist Ashraf Khalil’s Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation. Khalil’s illuminating reporting situates the revolt in the stultifying decades that preceded it. (I should mention that Khalil is a friend dating back to the days when we were both based in Baghdad.) He spends nearly half his story on the final decades of Mubarak’s crony rule, detailing the pompous ineptitude of the aging dictator with eternally young hair. And he does an admirable job pulling together the threads of the early dissident and activist efforts rooted in the late 1990s.
By the time Khalil gets to the demonstrations of Jan. 25, 2011, we understand why some Egyptians felt they could no longer “walk next to the wall,” as the proverb instructs, and felt they might as well risk death or imprisonment rather than submit to Mubarak’s capricious police state. But we share the wonder of Khalil, and many of the activists he interviews, who even as they promoted an uprising doubted that Egyptians would join them in significant numbers.
The state of the revolution in Egypt is today, for me and probably many others watching it closely, cause for rage and despair. The case for despair is obvious: the dumb, brute hydra of a regime has dialed up its violent answer to the popular request for justice and accountability, and has expanded its power. The matter of rage is more complicated: in Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab countries, it was righteous anger — forcefully but strategically deployed — that brought fearsome police states to their knees. The outrages of Egypt’s regime are still on shameless display. The only question is whether the fury they provoke will make a difference.
When we see the Egyptian soldier enthusiastically stripping a female protester while another kicks her abdomen, rage is a natural response. So too when we see soldiers and their plainclothes henchman cheerfully chuck rocks and chairs from a fifth-floor roof, and in at least one case, piss down below on their fellow Egyptians peacefully protesting in front of parliament, drawn to the streets in part because of the dozens of their comrades already killed by the state. Most enraging of all is the self-righteous, imperious lying that accompanies the industrial-scale state abuse of its citizens. General Adel Emara hectored the Egyptian reporters who tried to question him about last week’s outrages in Tahrir Square, including the blue bra sequence.
Like the American generals in the early years of the Iraq occupation who complained that the nay-saying media was telling mean, inaccurate stories about their swimming success, Emara blamed the media. The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces was protecting the nation and the demonstrators downtown were spreading chaos. “The military council has always warned against the abuse of freedom,” he said, apparently without irony. In statements this week, the military has incredibly claimed that the bands of hundreds or thousands of unarmed protesters are actually a plot to overthrow the state — a grotesque reversal of the truth.
The new prime minister, Kamal Ganzouri, blamed the “counter-revolution” and “foreign elements” for the demonstrations. He also promised no violence would be used against them, even as security forces shot more than a dozen people and beat hundreds of others. No shame here, but perhaps some ulterior plan to discredit protest entirely. An angry response might be the only one possible, the only way potentially to thwart this colossus. Remember the original protests a year ago in Tunisia and Egypt: people billed them as “Days of Rage.”
Why the violence against demonstrators, against women, against foreigners? Apparently the SCAF believes it can intimidate people into submission, that it can succeed where its authoritarian predecessor Hosni Mubarak failed. The death tolls of this year, and the arrest of 13,000 civilians brought before military trial, are measures of the repressive reflexes of the current military rulers. On November 19, police set upon a small group that had camped out on the edge of Tahrir Square, beating them and destroying their tents — and sparking two weeks of street battles that left at least 40 dead and 2,000 wounded. More recently, on December 16 security forces attacked a follow-on protest in front of the parliament building and the ongoing fighting has killed at least 16 people and critically wounded hundreds.
There are few plausible explanations for the recent spasms of violence against nonviolent demonstrators. It’s hard to imagine why state security attacks civilians during periods of calm, sparking new protests and reinvigorating the revolutionary movement. Perhaps the military has a strategy designed to discredit protesters and revolutionary youth, allowing or even engineering street violence which they can then use in the state media to portray activists as hooligans. Or, perhaps, the police and common soldiers have developed such an intense hatred for the demonstrators — who let us remember, succeeded at putting the security establishment on the defensive for the first time in 60 years — that whenever they confront a protest their tempers flare and they lash out.
There’s also a theory that the police, and even some parts of the army, are simply in mutiny, disregarding the SCAF’s orders. Some believe that the SCAF genuinely believes that all protesters are saboteurs, foreign agents, and traitors out to gut the Egyptian state. Some also suggest that the SCAF is simply incompetent, and that each sordid episode of protest, massacre, political agreement, and betrayal is an act in a bumbling melodrama starring a cast of senescent, befuddled generals, most of whom lived their glory days in military study abroad programs in Brezhnev’s Moscow.
Whether there’s a plan or no plan, some of the results are becoming clear. The Muslim Brothers and the Salafis, who dominated the election results so far, have essentially supported the SCAF’s vague schedule to transfer power to a civilian president by summer. Liberals have coalesced around a new demand for a president to be elected immediately and take over by February 11, the one-year anniversary of Mubarak’s resignation. The SCAF has continued its divide and conquer tactics, undermining all dissent in public while meeting in private with politicians from all parties.
All power still rests in the hands of the military, which has designed an incomprehensible transition process clearly engineered to exhaust any revolutionary or reformist movement. (Before Egypt can have a new government with full powers, the military believes there must be a referendum, two elections of three rounds each for a legislature, another referendum on a constitution, and then a presidential election. That doesn’t include runoffs and do-overs.)
Meanwhile there’s a debate underway about who “lost” the revolution, as if the demonstrators and liberal Egyptians could have gotten it right and changed Egypt over the last 12 months. Steven Cook partly blames the protesters for “narcissism” and “navel-gazing,” claiming they lost the opportunity to engage the public because they were too busy on Facebook and Twitter. Marc Lynch writes that the protesters have not captured the imagination of the wider public, though he (correctly) holds the SCAF responsible for bungling the transition so far.
Perhaps the most depressing read this week is a dark and self-critical essay by the revolutionary, blogger, and failed parliamentary candidate Mahmoud Salem, better known by his blog pseudonym Sandmonkey. He now believes that he and his fellow revolutionaries blew a chance to connect with Egyptians during the brief, hopeful moment after Mubarak quit; that, Salem argues, is when people were willing to change. Now that moment of possibility has evaporated.
One common thread runs through these writings, and through much of the critique of the uprising: that the revolutionaries never bothered to try to reach “the people.” There is some truth to that claim. Some of the most talented organizers among the original January 25 revolutionaries quickly turned their focus to party politics. Their efforts might bear fruit within one or two election cycles — five to ten years — but theirs is a dreary and inside job of crafting party platforms, opening branch offices, and recruiting staff and members. Another crucial cadre of revolutionaries were radical by conviction; it was by design, and not by accident, that they invested their energy in street protests and in forging links with labor activists, in order to spread the revolution into the workforce. That’s not to say that the remainder, who number at best a few thousand, didn’t try to engage the Egyptian public; they’ve been trying, but they haven’t been too successful. They go on television, they write newspaper columns, they hold press conferences. In August and September, they put on Revolutionary Youth Coalition road shows, where they went to towns and neighborhoods across Egypt to explain the goals of the protests. Even without a budget, however, they could have done that kind of outreach, in cafes and poor neighborhoods, every week since February 11; instead, much of their time was tied up in Tahrir protests whose utility made less and less sense even to sympathetic Egyptians.
The revolutionary youth alone hold promise for Egypt’s politics of accountability, rule of law, minority rights, and civilian control over the army — the unpopular but important bulwarks of a more liberal order. It would be a mistake to focus too much on public opinion of the protests, or even the gatherings’ size. What matters is their impact. The military, in fact, has set the parameters. Since February, they have scorned those who negotiate with them in good faith at polite meetings. The only concessions the generals have made — including, last month, their agreement to schedule presidential elections a year and a half earlier than they’d originally wanted — came as the result of violent protests in Tahrir Square. Perhaps the revolutionaries found it simple to flood Tahrir in response to every crisis; but it was the generals who taught them that protest was the only tool that actually worked.
So when it comes to blame, save it for the military, the actor driving events and the sole authority responsible for Egypt. The act, now ragged, has the generals pretending to be reluctant rulers, eager to hand over the keys if only a responsible captain would materialize to steer the ship of state. The rest of the players in Egypt merit mere disappointment: the mediocre politicians; the Muslim Brothers who repeatedly passed up the opportunity to take a moral, national position rather than defend their narrow institutional self-interest; the activists who failed to weave a national culture movement in the aftermath of January 25; the Egyptian elites who didn’t invest their money and influence in revolutionary causes; the civil servants and state institutions that slavishly serve whoever is in power; and Washington, which has utterly failed to persuade its billion-dollar welfare ward, the SCAF, to behave responsibly.
Is Egypt’s revolution dead, beguiled by its own hype, endlessly occupying and fighting over meaningless patches of pavement while the rest of the country forgets about their utopian aims? “Symbols are nice, but they don’t solve anything,” Mahmoud Salem writes. “There is a disconnect between the revolutionaries and the people. … Our priorities are a civilian government, the end of corruption, the reform of the police, judiciary, state media and the military, while their priorities are living in peace and putting food on the table.”
Can persistent revolt eventually beget genuine revolution, like wind carving a valley through granite? I’m of two minds. The women’s marches this week fill me with hope. With determination and creativity, Egyptian women flooded the streets to shame their oppressors and reclaim the righteous narrative fraudulently hijacked by the SCAF. “Egypt’s women are a red line,” they chanted, and for once, the SCAF issued a formal apology. But another recent encounter, a private one, fills me with despair. A man I’ve known for some time, who used to work in the tourist trade and whose financial well-being teeters precariously between Spartan and destitute, confided in me that he saw only one option to provide for his children in the new Egypt: to rob an armored truck. At first I thought he was kidding, but he was not. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “I have a plan. No one will get hurt. The bank can afford to lose the money. I will be able to be strong again for my children.”
I hope I dissuaded him, but for my friend and presumably many like him, this year of political turbulence has been more terrifying than inspiring, for reasons only tenuously connected to the SCAF’s abuses, the missed opportunity for a cultural revolution, or the birth of a new Arab politics. The junta’s propaganda habitually describes critics as unpatriotic, counter-revolutionary, or “not Egyptian,” eager to present a uniform mold of the “true Egyptian.” On the contrary, however, the proud marching women and the marauding soldiers are all Egyptian, just like the perplexed revolutionaries and the would-be bank robber. All of them will be aboard for the voyage.
In the weeks since I returned from Egypt, I’ve made a number of previously scheduled talks, originally intended to cover Hezbollah and the most recent developments in Lebanon. I’ve made a stab at addressing the tumultuous change more broadly, as three forces are now competing for popular momentum: revolution (the massive and ongoing regional wave), reaction (the old statist regimes and monarchs), and resistance (the axis of empowerment through armed uprising).
It appears that Salve Regina, the small college in Newport, R.I. that hosted one of those talks, has posted the video online. It is with some trepidation that I post the link.
Tunisia’s popular uprising began in December when a man set himself on fire in protest against a repressive, US-allied government. Quickly, one man’s gesture sparked a national movement that within a month toppled a dictator, a first-time event for the Arab world.
Even before the fleeing autocrat had found refuge in another country, internet boosters were calling Tunisia a “Twitter Revolution” and a “Social Networking Revolution.” Chroniclers of the revolt – mostly bloggers and journalists – traced the revolt to disclosures from Wikileaks that quickly spread among Tunisians through Facebook and Twitter. In this telling the social networking sites were pivotal to organizing the street protest that toppled the regime.
Luke Allnut on Tangled Web writes that our Western eagerness for an easy, quick explanation for a distant revolution blinds us to truer but less jazzy narratives – like the one about people in Tunisia rising up because of chronic unemployment and violent government repression. “Twitter revolution narratives are popular because rather than being about Tunisia, they are often really about ourselves,” Allnut writes. “When we glorify the role of social media we are partly glorifying ourselves.”
The enthusiasm of social media evangelizers echoed their breathless reaction to Iran’s massive anti-regime protests in 2009. Jared Cohen, a whizz kid at the State Department who put social networking at the center of democracy promotion, intervened to keep Twitter online during the protests. He made a much-ballyhooed trip to Syria promoting the idea that better web access would lead to more freedom. Last fall he left government to found a “think/do tank” for the web monolith called Google Ideas.
Clay Shirky, an NYU professor who is one of the most eminent theoreticians of the internet, argues that the tools of social network have forever altered the geography of power in the world. His view is a more staid and academic version of Julian Assange’s radical claims about the power of Wikileaks to counter American power. (He is best known for his gospel of crowd sourcing, “Here Comes Everybody,” and his latest book is “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.”)
A backlash has taken root though, with some serious scholars and analysts calling into question the information innovation bubble. Their counter-narrative tells a deflating story.
Malcolm Gladwell argued in a very influential New Yorker essay that the “weak ties” of Facebook and Twitter could effectively mobilize people to donate a few cents for Darfur, but only “strong ties” created by face-to-face life could inspire people to make the kind of physically risky sacrifices necessary for real protest, like the American civil rights movement.
Even less kindly, Evgeny Morozov – a scholar who has spent his career studying the effects of the internet on political life and comes across as an ornery skeptic – mocks what he derisively calls the American government’s “internet freedom agenda” as a chimera “that can boast of precious few real accomplishments.” He has just published a book called “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.”
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I have always been slightly puzzled by the certainty of the internet-freedom-utopians, who for a decade have been blogging their revolutionary ideas about how the world wide web has created a new taxonomy of power, tilting the balance away from central venues of control and toward the little man, the anarchic hacker, the crowd.
They seem always to be posting over comfortable connections in the United States; I sensed in their vertiginous web euphoria that they were surfing at warp speed on fiberoptic networks, streaming video or music over their ample bandwidth.
In contrast, I’ve spent much of the last seven years accessing the internet from places like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Gaza, Iraq and Lebanon. As a matter of course connections there are balky and heavily censored; watching YouTube or listening to Pandora was out of the question. Entertainment articles often fell astray of sloppy filters that target political content or un-Islamic porn. My own coverage of political events in American newspapers has been at times inaccessible to me online from the country in which I was reporting. This past summer as I covered a government crackdown on dissidents, I could follow the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights postings on alleged torture and detentions. Suddenly, the next day, their site was blocked.
Secret police loiter in the hotel lobbies; they listen in on phone calls and show up at interviews with dissidents that were scheduled by text message (this happened to me in Cairo this summer, when I met a Muslim Brotherhood webmaster). They’re carefully monitoring online activity too, and if it better suits the police state’s interests, they can sever access in an instant. Friends in Iran, Lebanon and elsewhere assumed that secret police were reading their email. Often enough the monitors would leave traces in my friends’ webmail, either out of carelessness or to send an intimidating message.
The people of Tunisia, or China for that matter, aren’t surfing our American internet. Information might want to be free, as the tech bubble generational saw has it, but many governments around the world still don’t want their people to be. Twitter and Google Chat are no match for a well-funded authoritarian ministry of the interior.
American thinkers have a tendency to project their own theories and tastes on political waves elsewhere; perhaps that explains the Twittermania and Facebook faddism over Tunisia today and Iran in 2009.
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One danger that Morozov often highlights is that the more the United States interferes with an internet it doesn’t really understand, the more unintended harm it might cause.
“The Internet is far too valuable to become an agent of Washington’s digital diplomats,” he wrote in a recent Foreign Policy essay.
Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in a speech just over a year ago at the Newseum in Washington acknowledged that the same technologies that help dissidents promote accountability also empower Al Qaeda and human rights transgressors. But she contrasted the divisive symbolism of the Cold War Berlin War with the open internet, which she called “the new iconic infrastructure of our age.”
“On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does,” Clinton said. “We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.”
The implications are stark. At best, the contrarians suggest that the web in all its incarnations and with all its tools and hype-fueled pseudo-philosophy – social media, crowd-sourcing, citizen reporting, web 2.0, the long tail, flattening the world, Skype and all the rest – are potent communication tools like the telephone and the television. What naïve boosters often ignore is that these tools and the multiplier effects they create are just as available to a repressive government looking to extend its control as they are to activists looking to overthrow it.
At worst, the internet skeptics point out, the world of web activism has disproportionately empowered despots. It gives frustrated citizens a harmless outlet to blow off steam, channeling their rage at a nasty regime into ribald blog posts rather than into underground organizing, street protests, or violent attacks that might truly threaten a police state. Even more importantly, the web concentrates opposition and other activists in forums that feel private and unified but which in fact are easily monitored and penetrated by state security. As a result, more than ever before in the wired age police states know exactly what their opponents are thinking, debating and planning.
Recent events illustrate the silliness of believing that new communications platforms have erased the advantages of old-fashioned coercive sources of power – secret police and surveillance for governments, and massive demonstrations and crowd violence for anti-government activists. Dictators in history haven’t been shamed out of office; they’re overthrown. Today, police states won’t be Tweeted, Facebooked or Wikileaked out of power either.