egyptian revolution

Revolution 2.0: Fulfilling Egypt's Democratic Promise

A peaceful demonstration floods Tahrir Square last Friday. Image courtesy of Kar
A peaceful demonstration floods Tahrir Square last Friday. Image courtesy of Karen Jacob.

The huge throng filled the entire Square and was reminiscent of the historic mass mobilizations in February that brought down the Mubarak dictatorship. The rally was announced as a ‘million man march’ and was backed of a broad cross section of Egyptian activist groups, from liberal secularists to conservative Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood did not support the march, although many of its youth members joined the crowd. The rally had a positive and hopeful spirit, in sharp contrast to the earlier violent clashes, which we witnessed on November 20.

The atmosphere in the Square on Friday was almost festive. We saw families with children, vendors selling food and drinks, face-painting on children (and thanks to a group of laughing teenagers, painted hands) and everywhere we saw the red, white, and black stripes of the Egyptian flag. It was a diverse crowd, young and old, women and men, middle class and the very poor. We were welcomed and greeted warmly by many.

The crowd was friendly but determined in its commitment to fulfill the promise of the revolution. There were no speeches, but constant chanting rose from groups throughout the Square, all with a similar message: Military rule must end.

#OccupyWallStreet: A Digital Hootenanny

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Indie music darling, Jeff Mangum, who rarely plays in public, surprised #OccupyWallStreet protesters in New York City earlier this week with an impromptu concert. A New Jersey singer-songwriter pens two songs for revolutions. And an order of Catholic nuns offer free mp3 downloads of a protest song inspired by the life of St. Francis of Assisi.

How Egypt Changed the Conversation

In the aftermath of the world-changing events in Egypt, the story of how the uprising came about was slowly revealed. It was clear that such a thing doesn’t “just happen.” The grievances in Egypt had built up over 30 years of dictatorship. An educated new generation was coming of age. They didn’t fall into the old political categories; rejecting both autocracy and theocracy, they were not willing to settle any longer for stability over democracy.

As I watched them in Tahrir Square each night on television, it also seemed that they knew what they were doing in regard to security, logistics, and tactics. When they were attacked by the street thugs Hosni Mubarak’s government sent against them, they responded with disciplined nonviolence. They brought new social media to the old drama of fighting for democracy against tyranny.

I could see that those who were leading this nonviolent youth revolution had some training. Sure enough, we learned how the best tools of nonviolent resistance had been passed on, over the last several years, between activists across national boundaries. They drew on the work of seasoned nonviolent scholars and tacticians such as Gene Sharp, whose books on how nonviolent action could bring down dictators helped create the playbook for young Egyptian activists. It was clear that these young Middle East protesters were drawing from King and Gandhi, and that focused study, key relationships, and serious training had all preceded the public events.

It also became clear that these protesters were not radical Islamists eager for a new caliphate, but rather were young professionals, secular youth, and radically moderate Christians and Muslims working together, taking to the streets with both courage and discipline.

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The Best of Tools, and the Worst

THE EGYPTIAN revolution started on Facebook. True. The Iranians who took to the streets last year to try to overturn a fraudulent election used Twitter to coordinate their actions and to communicate with the outside world. Also true.

I used to think that all the visionary verbiage you sometimes hear about global community, the power of connectedness, and the “hive mind” of the Web was a bunch of pothead baloney. But now I have to wonder.

Meanwhile, last fall, old-school rock and roll star John Mellencamp stood up on his hind legs and declared, “The Internet is the most dangerous thing invented since the atomic bomb.” Mellencamp was thinking mostly about the Web’s impact on artists and the arts. “It’s destroyed the music business. It’s going to destroy the movie business,” he said. But he could have added that it’s well on the way to destroying mass-market independent journalism.

Of course, Mellencamp is a bit of a curmudgeon, and I may be turning into one, too. But I still think he’s on to something. The fact is that we’ve got ourselves a paradox here. Like every other technology since the wheel, social media are tools that can be used for good and for ill.

In repressive societies, like Egypt and Iran, in which independent mediating institutions (news outlets, political parties, labor unions, universities, religious communities, etc.) have been crippled, destroyed, or co-opted, social media can be a panacea. They allow people to work around the system, cobble together free and voluntary associations, and speak their subversive thoughts out loud. This helped the Egyptians to move a million people into Liberation Square, and once that analog community in the square was established, it didn’t matter when the regime shut down the virtual one.

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