Left at the Crossroads: Revolutions and the new media

One interesting piece of information if you think that Ben Ali and Mubarak’s demises are essentially Twitter and Facebook revolutions: Tunisia was the first African country to get connected to the Internet in 1996, and the Tunisian bloggers were indeed pioneers of cyberdissidence in the Arab world. So it should have happened there, right?

One interesting piece of information if you think that Ben Ali and Mubarak’s demises are essentially Twitter and Facebook revolutions: Tunisia was the first African country to get connected to the Internet in 1996, and the Tunisian bloggers were indeed pioneers of cyberdissidence in the Arab world. So it should have happened there, right?

Well, in case you suffer from this kind of “technophilia,” here’s another one: the first League for Human Rights in Africa and the Arab world was founded in Tunisia in 1980. None of these two facts can be read in isolation from the other.

And by the way, the rate of Internet penetration (the number of users as percentage of the population) in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait is higher than in Tunisia (34%) or Egypt (21.2%). It’s even higher in the United Arab Emirates.

The debate is all the rage among tech-savvy pundits. Leading the skeptics’ bandwagon, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell observes scathingly that many governments were brought down before the Internet was ever invented: “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other.”

Then you have the frankly pessimistic, such as Belarus-born American scholar Evgeny Morozov, known for his reflections on the “dark side of Internet freedom.” Authoritarian regimes can learn to use the new media to their own advantage, and the ability to follow the electronic trails left by activists is a very valuable tool for secret police everywhere.

So how does it really work? Let’s see how it all went along for the two main activist networks at the origin of the January 25 first protests in Cairo. The April 6th Movement was named after the date of a general strike called for by textile workers in the industrial town of Mahalla in 2008. In the end, the strike never happened; the mobilization was too weak and dispersed, the preemptive measures of repression too strong. But the electronic network in solidarity with the workers did take off, with tens of thousands of sympathizers. On the same pattern, the “We Are All Khaled Saeed” page was created in homage to a young Internet cafe operator beaten to death by the security police in June 2010. Both networks partly overlapped and most of their respective founders knew each other.

The new electronic media do not miraculously abolish the laws of the political universe. They create new synergies, but they do not invent or recombine at will the arsenal of social protest. The young Egyptian cyberactivists knew that. They were mesmerized by the Tunisian events, but perfectly conscious that they couldn’t rely only on their online supporters to tweet their way to democracy.

They also knew that “something was in the air,” as blogger Hossama Halawy, a consummate interpreter of Egyptian street life, had already written back in October. “No one knows when the explosion is going to happen, but it seems everyone I meet or bump into today feels it’s inevitable,” reads one of his posts.

What the would-be revolutionaries had to do was pretty straightforward. Once they had chosen a proper date, they formed small groups that were sent to agitate some strategic working class neighborhoods in Cairo, the kind of place were most people have no idea what Facebook or Twitter are. That’s how they gathered the first thousands of protesters whose desperate determination triggered the general uprising. And their main tools on that historical day were paper leaflets, good shoes and strong vocal cords.

There’s another dimension to the new media debate. Cell phones with built-in digital cameras and satellite channels might well be much more important than the rate of Internet connection. The first images in Tunisia showing victims of the regime’s ruthless onslaught in the small hinterland town of Kasserine were taken in local clinics by unpaid amateurs and left and returned to the country in a few hours, making Ben Ali’s ferocious censorship powerless.

In Egypt, as explained by political scientist Sarah Ben-Nefissa, the key was the “demonopolization of the media” at the end of the 1990s. Even more important than Al-Jazeera were the local satellite channels such as Dream TV. Since 2004, there was a growing number of social protests. Blue-collar workers, doctors, lawyers, judges, slum residents and even real estate tax collectors would stage a sit-in in front of their workplace or any significant institution and call the desks of private newspapers such as Al Masri al Youm, Al Shuruk or Al Dustur. Photographs and reporters would be sent and, the day after, the protesters were often invited to a talk-show seen by millions of Egyptians.

That’s also how police brutality could become part of the show. New communication technologies don’t build social movements out of thin air, but they do raise considerably the cost of repression by enhancing its visibility. As for cyberactivists, paraphrasing Marx, one could say that they “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please, under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Too long for Twitter, Karl, but quite on the spot.

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Globalization might already sound like a stale catchword, but the new interconnected reality it describes still has surprising tricks up its sleeves. So what do you do when you’re a leftish French writer born in Africa and living in South America, with a background in Slavic Studies, a worried fascination for emerging Asian powers, and interests ranging from classical political philosophy to Bollywood film music? Read, travel, wonder. And send scattered dispatches from modernity’s frontlines.

Marc Saint-Upéry is a French journalist and political analyst living in Ecuador since 1998. He writes about political philosophy, international relations and development issues for various French and Latin American publications and in the international magazines Le Monde Diplomatique and Nueva Sociedad. He is the author of El Sueño de Bolívar: El Desafío de las izquierdas Sudamericanas (Bolivar’s Dream: the Left’s challenge in South America).


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