Revolutionising the Revolution

Caelainn Hogan looks at how the wave of technologically-inspired protests in the Arab World has changed the face of people power

Caelainn Hogan

There is a joke circulating in Kashmir which has Hosni Mubarak, after death, in conversation with past Egyptian presidents Gamal Nasser and Anwar Sadat. They ask him the reason for his demise, poison or bullet? Mubarak replies: Facebook and Twitter! The recent uprising across the Arab world will be one of the key historical developments of our generation, particularly due to the key role of the internet and online social networks, which has transformed the scale and medium of reporting and political activism, and has indeed revolutionised the act of revolution itself.

I witnessed the influence of online social networks as a forum for protest in Kashmir last summer during a period of unrest that claimed 110 civilian lives. While the region was under almost constant military curfew, and SMS services were shut down, Facebook and Youtube became a new outlet for young people to express their solidarity and protest. This grew into a veritable “cyber intifada” with Facebook groups such as “I Protest” attracting nearly 10,000 members, and grassroots reporting of the acts committed by security forces against civilians through a proliferation of photos and videos uploaded and shared. It also became a crucial source for local news when, under curfew, newspapers were often prevented from distributing. The Egyptian uprising and its virtual campaign follow the same principles, but on a massive and international scale which heralds a veritable global zeitgeist in communication and political action.

Children protest outside the Egyptian embassy in Dublin Photos: Caelainn Hogan

Online social media has been the catalyst behind the viral nature of the uprisings across the Arab world. It is significant that the causes of these Muslim societies, often disregarded due to the stereotypical correlation with fundamentalism and ‘terrorism’, are now reaching Western audiences directly and are being received with empathy and solidarity. Solidarity is inherent in the Muslim faith; all Muslims consider themselves brothers and sisters under Islam. Online social media has helped to show this as a positive and dynamic solidarity, breaking the stereotypes of Muslims united only in opposition to the West. It has the potential to dissolve the most threatening and polarising conflicts of our time, that between the Islamic world and the West.

Facebook has been a crucial platform for people across the world to take a stance against the Mubarak regime and support the cause of the Egyptian people. There are 866,066 netizens attending the Facebook event “A virtual “March of Millions” in solidarity with the Egyptian People” and so far there are 48, 142 attending the “A Virtual-ONLINE- March of Millions in Solidarity with Iranian protesters” event. The protests outside the Egyptian Embassy in Dublin were publicised by daily Facebook messages rallying people to the cause. Facebook, Twitter and Youtube brought the Egyptian protests to an international scale. The Youtube video entitled “Mubarak, the world is watching you!” is the most powerful testament to the international nature of the Egyptian protest. It features clips from across America and Europe (Dublin features prominently), with short footage of anti-Mubarak protests for each city named. Each protest visually portrays a solidarity which has transcended national boundaries. At one of the many demonstrations held outside the Egyptian embassy in Dublin people chanted the slogan “Free, free Egypt! All of us, Egypt!” The unifying power of online social networks in the Egyptian uprising and beyond is encapsulated in those four words: “All of us, Egypt!” The virtual world has become a post-national platform for global movements, enabling a global community to identify with even small grassroots causes.

Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing executive and previously anonymous cyber activist who started a revolution with a Facebook page, has been heralded as the leader of a leaderless revolution, although this is counter to his aim to remain an anonymous facilitator. After Tunsia’s public revolt sent Ben Ali running, Ghonim announced a revolution in Egypt through his Facebook page “We are all Khalid Said“, inviting all members to a protest on January 25th. Ghonim is “So proud of our generation”, describing how a 64 year old medical doctor he met said he had created a Facebook account in solidarity. He warned in a Tweet on February 15th that “This revolution is not over until democracy is enforced & until unemployment & poverty rates reaches the same levels of developed countries”, and also states that female empowerment is “key for new Egypt”. What Ghonim has named “Revolution 2.0”, is the first revolution to pre-announce its time and location and to which people were cordially invited, the first in which “no one was a hero because everyone was a hero”. He believes, and has been proved right, that “The Power of People is stronger than the People in Power”, and Egypt has proved that this truism, easy to execute in the virtual world, can also be successfully implemented in the real.

An Egyptian woman smiles at the protest outside the Egyptian embassy in Dublin.

Ironically, it was the Egyptian government’s attempt to stifle the uprising by shutting down all internet networks in the country, which emphasised the power of online social networks to enable activism and solidarity on a global scale, promoting innovative initiatives to sustain communication with the Egyptian people. From January 25th there were reported interferences to online social networks, with Twitter reporting on its official PR stream that it was being restricted. From the 27th internet monitoring firm Renesys reported “In an action unprecedented in Internet history, the Egyptian government appears to have ordered service providers to shut down all international connections to the Internet.” The growing power of Anonymous and political hacktivism was quick to react, threatening to attack any companies complicit with the shut down. Google and Twitter activated a service called Speak2Tweet which allowed Egyptians to leave Twitter messages through dial-to-tweet voicemail after internet networks were shut down. This led to the creation of Alive in Egypt (http://egypt.alive.in), where three outside organisations, Small World News, Yamli and Meeda were brought together to translate the Arabic messages into English, “transcribing the voices of Egypt”. The site now includes videos, radio and longer reports delivered over Speak2Tweet and can be translated into over 50 languages. Small News World has devoted itself now to pioneering a new platform for grassroots level reporting, enabling “real-time collaboration on real-time collaboration on an even bigger scale to produce truly global stories.” The fact that The Guardian’s reports often consisted purely of published Twitter updates, which gave a fascinating and quick timeline of events as they progressed and the immediate reaction, heralds a revolution in journalism and media.

These leaderless uprisings, enabled and propelled to an international scale through online social media have reminded us of the true essence of democracy, in stark contrast with the stagnant and often corrupt political institutions, greatly exposed during the economic downturn as flawed and failing. Democracy is not simply a benevolent mask behind which capitalism runs riot, but a political ideal which is centred on the power of dissent, the right to question and hold to account those in authority, because the power lies with the people. The acquisition of the virtual space as a site for protest and revolution has translated into a renewed conception and utilization of public space. The online world is a limitless one, one of rapid proliferation and accessibility. The sheer magnitude of the “march of millions” across Egypt was mirrored and multiplied online, and the visual impact of Tahrir square transformed into was a physical embodiment of this solidarity. The reoccupation and creation of free spaces, whether virtual or physical, is being made possible through the demand for full transparency and accountability, through initiatives such as Wikileaks and grassroots reporting brought to an international scale through online networks.

In his article for the Guardian “Why fear the Arab revolution?” Slajov ŽIžek highlights the hypocrisy of Western liberal democrats who seem to endorse a manageable Egypt under a dictatorial regime rather than an Egypt that is free but unpredictable, or perhaps not so easily manipulated. The uprising itself has exposed the hypocritical actions of the West, particularly the democratising mission of the United States. Many protesters reported that the tear gas canisters used against them were US made. Robert Fisk argues that the West’s aim has always aimed to keep the Middle East divided, to keep it under control, and that “The freedom they ask for is the freedom to make their own choices, and this we do not give them, and that is why they ask for justice.” However, the Egyptian people did not ask for justice, they demanded nothing less. In this case, it is not the Arab revolution the powers of the West, as well as governments throughout the world, should fear, but the new virtual revolution which has been its catalyst and facilitator.