Monday, February 13, 2012

The Importance of Being Connected

I've read a lot about the importance of social media in the worldwide struggle for democracy in the past year, and I don't deny that they have their uses. But today I'm reading Ashraf Khalil's new book Liberation Square (St. Martin's Press, 2012), about the Egyptian revolution. (Full disclosure: I knew Ash when he was studying journalism at IU in the early 90s. We had several friends in common, and kept in touch when he got started working.) It fills in a lot I didn't know about the background of the uprising, with plenty of details about the uprising itself. Ash was working in Egypt at the time, and covered it throughout.

Today I just want to notice that non-electronic communication isn't dead yet. It shouldn't surprise anyone, since a good many revolutions have taken place and succeeded without smartphones, Facebook, or Twitter. But even in Egypt, while the Internet was useful in stirring things up -- Liberation Square mentions a young veiled Egyptian woman who posted an inflammatory video to Youtube, daring Egyptian men to join Egyptian women in the streets -- and putting potential activists in touch with each other, electronics played almost no role on the Day of Rage, 28 January 2011, when the regime shut down the Internet and cell phone communications. That should have been the end of it, by the logic of the Twitter boosters, but it wasn't. In fact, the move may have backfired.
All through that day and deep into the night, Cairo reverted to a surreal word-of-mouth storyteller society. If you were walking on the street and you saw protesters coming in the other direction, you asked them where they were coming from and what the situation was like there. It was intimate and even pleasant. …

“There was no Internet and no cell phones. That more than anything brought people into the streets,” said Maha Elgamal. “If you wanted to know what was happening, you had to go out. If you were a mother scared for your son, and wanted to make sure he was all right, you had to go out. But even on the twenty-eighth, it was impossible to predict that a revolution was coming. I was still working on the assumption that we were five years away.”

Rawya Rageh, the Al Jazeera International correspondent, covered January 28 from Alexandria and observed an identical phenomenon. The lack of information produced a huge pool of curious onlookers, who were then either emboldened by the numbers around them or enraged by the violence they witnessed.

“Even those who had no interest in the revolution headed out to see what was going on. Then when they saw the brutality, they joined the protests,” Rageh said [164-5].
This also supports what I gathered from Sarah Sobieraj's Soundbitten (NYU Press, 2011): that the striving of much US activism to get corporate media attention, as though it was the media that mattered, gets social movements nowhere. It distracts them, in fact, from what ought to be their real goal: reaching the general population. Sobieraj noticed that activist groups often made no preparation, and so didn't know what to do, when people approached them. In Egypt, activists bypassed the official media to reach the public and get them involved.

There were other factors, of course -- you can't get people to revolt against a government that isn't corrupt to the bone, like the Mubarak regime, and one tipping point was the public murder by police thugs of a young slacker, Khaled Saieed, in Alexandria during the summer of 2010. Up till then, most Egyptians believed that if they simply minded their own business and kept their heads low, they wouldn't get into trouble and could get by.

Which reminds me of another interesting anecdote -- Liberation Square contains many -- about the regime's belated attempt at damage control after Saieed's murder. Mubarak's son (and presumed heir apparent at the time) Gamal, "issued a statement claiming that the National Democratic Party 'insists on the accountability of any wrongdoer within the framework of justice, transparency and the rule of law'" (80). Sounds familiar, doesn't it? We've heard virtually the same words many times here in the US.