What the world can learn from Egypt… so far

2011 has begun as a momentous year in the history and practice of nonviolent civil resistance. Tunisia and Egypt have sparked movements across North Africa and the Middle East as ordinary people rise up to resist the autocracy, corruption, and abuse they have lived under for decades. This method of struggle is by no means new, however. People throughout history have waged nonviolent struggle to gain independence, dissolve oppressive structures, and demand rights. With each new movement we are given an opportunity to learn from those who wage these struggles. Here’s what we can learn from Egypt…so far.

Social media does and can play a significant role in civil resistance. Due to the sexy, catchy narrative that “Twitter” and “Facebook” revolutions provide for the mainstream media – something akin to the old guard kissing up to the very platforms that will eventually dismantle their monopoly on information – the impact of social media is often attacked for being overblown. Has it been? Sure. But in an attempt by some scholars, writers, and pundits to throw a wet blanket on these new modes of communication and information sharing, they have fallen into the trap of stubbornly hanging on to an argument that flies in the face of what’s actually happening.

What Egyptians have demonstrated is that a Facebook group—We Are All Khaled Said—can make people more aware and fed up with the injustice and brutality they face at the hands of their government. Young Google executive, Wael Ghonim, was the creator of said page, which soon became a platform for others to share stories, videos, and images of police brutality. Reporting on Ghonim’s efforts, Newsweek reporter Mike Giglio writes, “the page quickly became a forceful campaign against police brutality in Egypt, with a constant stream of photos, videos, and news. Ghonim’s interactive style, combined with the page’s carefully calibrated posts—emotional, apolitical, and broad in their appeal—quickly turned it into one of Egypt’s largest activist sites.” So it is no surprise that when this Facebook page called for mass demonstrations on January 25, which is also National Police Day in Egypt, that large numbers of Egyptians were sufficiently informed and enraged to a point of heeding the call for direct action.

In 2008, the April 6 Youth Movement blossomed out of a Facebook page that, for the next three years, became the virtual staging ground for a larger coalition of groups working together to demand an end to Mubarak’s reign, envision a new government, and organize protests and demonstrations in that effort.  Two young Egyptians, Ahmed Maher and Esra Abdel-Fatah, started the April 6 Youth Movement Facebook page to organize demonstrations in solidarity with a labor strike set to take place on April 6.  When the page first went live on March 23, 2008, the power of social networking took immediate effect.  David Wolman with Wired magazine writes, “By the end of March, the group was pushing 40,000 members. Participants began changing their profile pictures to the April 6 logo, which meant the logo kept popping up in the News Feed of anyone on Facebook who was connected to someone in the April 6 group. Adding to this barrage, the activists kept loading a link to the group into their Status Update fields, further flooding Egypt’s Facebook universe with connections to the group and its message.”

The organizing utility of Facebook was immediately apparent. The April 6 demonstrations became one of the biggest in Egypt’s history and put the opposition movement and larger Kefaya (Enough) coalition on the map in a big way. The Internet, blogs, and social networks were seen as a new virtual space for people to organize campaigns and discuss social and political issues that were extremely difficult and dangerous to hold offline in physical spaces.

Twitter hashtags – #egypt, #jan25, #tahrir, #mubarak – provided, real-time, citizen perspectives of what was happening on the ground in the middle of Tahrir square and in cities across Egypt.  Twitter was also used to confirm or deny rumors of certain developments being reported by the mainstream and state media outlets.  It stripped the power and concentration of information away from the state and instead Twitters set up their own system of trending certain topics and verifying credible sources.

Videos captured on cell phone cameras and posted on YouTube exposed what government censors didn’t want people to see – be it abuse at the hands of the government or movement successes that would add fuel to the resistance.  These videos were then remixed and mashed up by digital creatives into music videos, which became a source of inspiration to keep the movement strong and inspire other oppressed people to rise up.

SMS helped activists coordinate actions – where and when to meet, sharing protest routes, reminding people to remain nonviolent, sharing methods to protect one’s self from tear gas and rubber bullets. This instant communication could be texted to a small group of direct action takers or tweeted out to millions of followers.

Is it possible to do all these things without the Internet, social platforms, and digital tools? To a certain extent, yes. Do social platforms, digital tools and the Internet as a whole allow for this kind of coordination and information sharing to happen more quickly and be more widely shared – in other words, increase the chance the movement becomes viral? Absolutely.

Two of the most recognized critics of social media’s perceived role in revolutions, Evgeny Morozov and Malcolm Gladwell, make some important and interesting arguments on this topic. However, their analysis of social media’s role, from a movement’s perspective, is both naive and slanted.  In Gladwell’s much-debated article, The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted, he argues that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are based on and foster weak social ties.  Whereas encouraging someone to participate in a movement in any kind of meaningful way by engaging in high-risk actions relies on strong social ties.  This is a sophomoric view of both social media and social movements.

What Gladwell assumes in his argument is that everybody uses Facebook or Twitter in the same way he does. Just because his social ties on social media platform may be weak does not mean that it’s impossible for other people to develop strong social ties on these very same platforms. Second, even if his weak social ties argument were valid, it fails to recognize the dynamics of social movements. Most people in the midst of a social movement do not engage in high-risk actions, in fact most people engage in what would be considered low-risk actions. What is considered high-risk vs. low-risk of course depends on the nature of the movement, the ways in which an adversary responds to certain actions, and the personality of the individual implementing the tactics, but over all it is often a small segment of the population that is willing to subject themselves to physical and verbal abuse or risk imprisonment or death. Those low-risk actions do matter, however, particularly when they are adopted by a lot of people. What encourages and emboldens those who are willing engage in high-risk actions is the knowledge that the arc of history is bending in their direction. That arc can manifest itself quite potently through online social networks. We saw this in Egypt. If you have mobilized and informed enough people online, and a critical event takes place, that active online network can quickly morph into on the ground action.

Morozov argues that the Internet and the liberating virtues that are increasingly ascribed to it mask the fact that it is also being used as a tool of oppression. Because the Internet has no moral code, autocratic governments can and are leveraging it to censor information, disseminate propaganda, gather intelligence on activists, and, in turn, control the population. I do not deny this reality. But it’s that reality that makes a struggle and movement strategy necessary. Just like printing and distributing fliers, setting up pirate radio stations, and communicating via land lines and short wave radio brings with it certain risks, so too does online communication and information sharing. This is why technologically savvy activists are finding ways to communicate in code, use proxy servers to access banned websites, and tap into online platforms and services that are so pervasive they become nearly impossible to ban without shutting down the Internet all together.  And once you’ve shut down the entire Internet and suspended cell phone service, as the government did in Egypt, the lie of the regime becomes even more apparent, not just in the minds of the movement, but also in the minds of those who were, until then, sitting on the fence.

To be absolutely clear, though, these platforms and tools are not the reason people rise up, and I don’t think anyone has actually been arguing that. Injustice, economic hardships, corruption, human rights abuse, and autocratic rule are the reasons. Savvy organizers in Egypt knew how to take advantage of these online tools by using them to communicate and amplify those reasons to the public.

United States foreign policy needs to rethink “stability.” Supporting autocratic governments with military and economic aid that is used to suppress people and deny them their basic human rights puts and has put America on the wrong side of history.

For almost 30 years the US government, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, supported the Mubarak regime with billions in economic and military aid—some of which was made evident by the “Made in the USA” markings on the tear gas canisters being thrown at the demonstrators during the uprising. The reason given for this support is that Mubarak’s secular autocracy prevented radical Islamist elements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, from taking control and potentially threatening the peace deal with Israel and destabilizing the entire region.

However, history has demonstrated time and time again that people yearn to be free and that eventually they will find a way to resist oppressive and tyrannical rule, be it through armed conflict or, as we have seen in Egypt (and many other countries), through nonviolent civil resistance. In addition, history has shown us that the very terrorism the United States wants to defeat is bred in the oppressive societies we support or helped put in power in places like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Egypt.

So, instead of looking at stability as something that remains steady or unchanged despite the evolving realities and shifting demographics within a given country, it might be better for stability to be the recognition that change and reform need to happen organically in ways that address the indigenous needs of the people who are affected by the actions and policies of their country’s government.

If U.S. foreign policy remains locked into their old way of viewing stability, future administrations will continue to find themselves in the uncomfortable position of either (a) supporting allies whose autocratic regimes act in direct contradiction to America’s stated values or (b) throwing autocratic regimes under the bus in favor of recognizing the legitimate will of ordinary people fighting and organizing nonviolently for rights and justice. Did the Obama administration throw Mubarak under the bus? Basically. Should they have? Absolutely. So now we will see if this new understanding and approach to stability will emerge.

President Obama’s comments on the eve of Mubarak resignation hinted that this shift may be taking place. He said, “The Egyptian people have made it clear that there is no going back to the way things were: Egypt has changed, and its future is in the hands of the people. Those who have exercised their right to peaceful assembly represent the greatness of the Egyptian people, and are broadly representative of Egyptian society.”

Autocratic rulers take note. When people living under intolerable conditions rise up nonviolently to demand human rights, democracy, and the basic freedoms for which we all yearn, the U.S. and other governments may start to go with the tide of history and appreciate that people power will take its course, whether they like it or not.

Freedom and democracy are more successfully won nonviolently by the people who seek it, rather than imposed violently by governments who decide which people deserve it. George W. Bush famously stated in his 2001 that, “Freedom is not America’s gift to the world; its God’s gift to humanity.” I’ll admit, this phrase resonated with me, which is why I still remember it to this day. However, I find it rather unfortunate that for eight years the Bush administration took ownership of this “freedom” agenda, not because I disagree with the agenda in principle, but because the administration’s strategy for implementing this agenda was wrought with hypocrisy.

While promoting freedom and human rights in speeches, the Bush administration was imprisoning people without due process (ahem, Guantanamo), sending detainees to other countries to be tortured (ahem, Egypt!), eroding basic civil liberties domestically (ahem, Patriot Act), and turning a blinds eye to U.S. allies who are far more tyrannical and anti-democratic than Iraq was under Saddam Hussein (ahem, Saudi Arabia). Hence efforts to spread freedom and democracy fell extremely flat and the principles embedded in that agenda were betrayed.

I understand that Presidents must weigh a host of geopolitical considerations as they formulate their foreign policy. It is for this very reason though that democracy is best served, not when it is imposed on people by foreign governments with ulterior motives, but when democratic transitions and movements are homegrown, bottom-up, grassroots, and nonviolent. As we saw in Egypt, it was this kind of people power that toppled Hosni Mubarak, not foreign military intervention. War, killing, death, and bloodshed should not be seen as the default method of removing dictatorial obstacles to democratic rule.

In fact, the Freedom House report, How Freedom is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy, concluded that in the last 33 years of transitions to democracy, “…nonviolent civic forces [have been] a major source of pressure for decisive change in most transitions.  The force of civic resistance was a key factor in driving 50 of 67 transitions, or over 70 percent of countries where transitions began as dictatorial systems fell and/or new states arose from disintegration of multinational states.”

So what does this mean in terms of supporting or not supporting nonviolent action takers? Learning about the strategies and tactics employed by past nonviolent movements can be done by anyone and should be done by everyone who wants to find pragmatic ways to fight against oppression. But understanding and analyzing the specific context of a given conflict needed to develop an actual movement strategy – the various cultural, social, economic and political dynamics at play – can only be done by indigenous people on the ground who are actually waging the struggle, putting their bodies on the line, and will have to live with the outcomes of their actions. That’s the beauty of nonviolent civil resistance. Its success is based in large part on its authenticity; an authenticity that is compromised when foreign governments and institutions try to impose their vision of a “victory” and then prescribe the strategy other people should take to achieve it.

Successful nonviolent civil resistance is not spontaneous, but rather requires systematic organizing, strategy, and planning. Maybe a lot of people are already aware of this, but you wouldn’t assume that if you’ve spent time watching any of the mainstream media or cable news pundits. Hence it deserves to be reiterated.

The 18 days of mass demonstrations that began on January 25, and ended in the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, may have caught foreign policy “experts” by surprise, but these demonstration were a result of years of strategic brilliance and bravery on the part of several Egyptian groups and organizations – labor unions, Islamists, women’s rights activists, human rights advocates, lawyers, youth groups, Bedouins, and opposition parties.  Even though the mainstream media may only have taken notice when large numbers of people occupied Tahrir square, there was a lot of coalition building, behind the scenes organizing, and unrecognized acts of nonviolent resistance that led up to the culminating days in Tahrir square.

I don’t expect the mainstream media to follow every single event that takes place in the course of a protracted struggle. But when the victory for a movement is a near certainty, I would hope that it wouldn’t all be boiled down to spontaneous demonstrations in the streets.

Lastly, the thousands of Egyptians who built this movement and the millions who supported it have made it clear that the movement is not over.  More organizing, strategy and planning is needed because dissolving the Mubarak regime was just stage one.  The next stage is ensuring that a legitimate democracy representing the will of the people is actually established and that human rights are protected.  Given the lessons learned from nonviolent movements in the not too distant past, this kind of foresight and determination is essential. Yulia Tymoshenko, former Ukrainian prime minister and one of the leaders of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, recently wrote in the Moscow Times,  “Egyptians and Tunisians are right to be proud of their desire to peacefully overthrow despotic governments. But, as someone who led a peaceful revolution, I hope that pride is tempered by pragmatism, because a change of regime is only the first step in establishing a democracy backed by the rule of law. Indeed, as my country, Ukraine, is now demonstrating, after revolutionary euphoria fades and normality returns, democratic revolutions can be betrayed and reversed.”

This is why the title of this post ends in “…so far.”  If the numerous examples of civic pride and duty that were displayed in Egypt during and after the uprising are any sign of that country’s civil society, then the future looks good.  So we end with a recent Tweet from Wael Ghonim:

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