There is something refreshing about the raw spirit of the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Their messages were simple and unwavering, and the best part was that they didn’t have a face—political dissent was carried out in pure, unadulterated form— by the masses. The protesters have proven that the previously foolproof military, economic, and social tools on which Arab dictators relied to suppress their populations no longer work as well as they used to. Though democracy in the Arab world is still far from ubiquitous, it is clear that the people have begun to insist on the basic democratic tenets of limited terms in office and freedom of speech. We have a long way to go in fulfilling our goals of “reaching out a hand to Egypt,” as President Obama pledged in his Cairo speech last year. But it is obvious that the democratic movement in the Arab world is accelerating.
Unlike Arabic revolutions in years past, when murder and mass oppression could go unnoticed for months or years, the revolution in Egypt, from start to finish, lasted only a few weeks. In Tunisia, one man lit himself on fire and within weeks that fire had spread to the rest of the country via the internet and cell phones. The result transformed the entire country. In comparison, the Iranian revolution of 1979, which was considered exceptionally speedy and widely popular, lasted a year.
Of course, in 1979, Iranians didn’t have the internet. In contrast, with today’s increased connectivity between vastly disparate cultures across the globe, the oppressive chokehold of dictators across the Arab world is beginning to slip. Experts disagree as to whether or not the revolutions are the beginning of a more widespread and frequent series of democratic uprisings to come. One thing, however, I think we can all agree upon: when they do happen, they will probably be quicker and hopefully easier than ever before.
Again, this is not to say that the revolution in Cairo was by any means “easy.” At least 135 protesters were killed during the 18 days of battle, and many hundreds more were wounded. But compared with the estimated 3,000 people killed in the Iranian Revolution, this number is a sigh of relief. The truth is that one man who is videotaped dying for his country will have a much greater political effect than many more equally brave men giving their lives without media coverage.
The important role that internet-based media has played in the Arab revolutions is undeniable. And yet, ask any Egyptian or expert on the matter, and they will tell you that such media platforms played only a secondary role in the revolutions. Facebook and Twitter are applications, not people; they cannot get angry and they certainly cannot fight. Revolutions have taken place for thousands of years before any of these were invented. To credit the success of the revolution in Egypt to these technological advancements from the comfort of our privileged lives is to disrespect the brave and arduous struggle of protesters. Technological advancements must take, at most, a secondary role to the human willpower in our analysis of what has happened in the past few weeks, as Kate Miller makes clear in her column inside.
And yet, staging a revolution is not just a cooperation problem; it is also a coordination problem. Without either of the two—if the military had not finally sided with the protesters, or if protesters hadn’t found a way to circumvent cell phone and Internet outages—the revolution would have been much messier, and in all likelihood Mubarak would still be in power. Without any single revolutionary figurehead, the protesters had to resort to a Google map of the current protest locations in Cario (televised on AlJazeera) to assemble and motivate hundreds of thousands of people within minutes.
As the global internet nexus continues to expand and intensify, so will the strategic efforts of dictators to suppress information and media. The scale of the Egyptian internet shutdown was unprecedented: 97% of Egyptian internet traffic disappeared in minutes, with just enough remaining for the stock market to function. Nothing comparable has ever happened in history. Even more impressive, however, was the tenacity of Egyptian protesters who managed to use what little resources they had to penetrate the information barrier to coordinate their struggle into a concerted movement. With the aid of technology, every Egyptian could act as a journalist, and every world citizen could become an activist.
Before this all started, most Americans I spoke to were largely unaware of the dire situation in Egypt, a country that receives roughly $1.7 billion of American taxpayers’ money every year—more than the budget of our lovely State of Vermont next door. This disconnect between our intimate political connection with Egypt and our public awareness of the country was no mistake: Mubarak understood the value of controlling the flow of public information—whether in the form of cell phones, television, or social media.
And his understanding was spot on. Freezing the media may not provide long term “solutions,” but it certainly acts as an anesthetic during times of upheaval. Note the 1959 Cuban Revolution: the first thing Fidel Castro and Che Guevara did when they laid siege on Havana was to destroy every existing media company, replacing them with the socialist propaganda machine “Cubavision.” Next, they replaced all newspapers with a single government-run publication called “Granma.” By controlling the media, from the newspaper to TV to the internet today, they were able to solidify a movement that still exists after 50 years.
Both in Cuba and across the Arab world, things are beginning to change. It is becoming cheaper and easier to start an Internet blog, buy a cell phone, or watch restricted TV channels. The problem of coordinating an organized demonstration is becoming increasingly surmountable. Ultimately, though, without the willpower and cooperation of the masses, this does not get anyone anywhere. What these media technologies do is help open the doors of democracy across the world. If every country living under oppressive rule eventually gains access to this kind of public media, then the voices of the oppressed will be impossible to ignore. Such a future would by no means be perfect; there would still be miscommunication and general bad behavior. But hey, isn’t that what democracy is all about?