The Nation: The Cyber World Brought Down Mubarak

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In this photo illustration, a smartphone displays a page from Twitter in Cairo, Egypt. People across Egypt used Twitter and other social media to mass organize protests with the searchable hashtag, #jan25. i i

hide captionIn this photo illustration, a smartphone displays a page from Twitter in Cairo, Egypt. People across Egypt used Twitter and other social media to mass organize protests with the searchable hashtag, #jan25.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
In this photo illustration, a smartphone displays a page from Twitter in Cairo, Egypt. People across Egypt used Twitter and other social media to mass organize protests with the searchable hashtag, #jan25.

In this photo illustration, a smartphone displays a page from Twitter in Cairo, Egypt. People across Egypt used Twitter and other social media to mass organize protests with the searchable hashtag, #jan25.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Sam Graham-Felsen was Barack Obama's chief blogger on the 2008 campaign. He writes and speaks on technology, politics, and social movements.

What caused the uprising in Egypt that swiftly brought down Mubarak's thirty-year-old regime? Depending on whom you're listening to, the Internet had either everything or nothing to do with it.

On one extreme are the so-called "Cyber-Utopians," who hail Egypt's revolt as the "Facebook Revolution" and emphasize the role Internet tools played in sparking it over offline organizing by activists. On the other extreme are Malcolm Gladwell, Jon Stewart, Frank Rich and other media figures, whose eagerness to dismiss the Internet's role has been equally unsubtle. Focusing almost entirely on social conditions in Egypt, these critics have treated the uprising as the inevitable consequence of poverty and human rights abuses.

Rich has a point: some Western media outlets dwelled on the novelty of social media while under-reporting the longer-term social forces that precipitated protests in Egypt. But others, criticized for having credited the Internet with ushering in the wave of protests in Iran, have downplayed social media's role in bringing down Mubarak.

Oppressive social conditions do stoke a common hunger for change; however, a movement isn't born until a core group of extraordinarily brave activists take that extra step, translating their outrage into public action. The reality is that social movements arise from a combination of conditions and courage.

What's been missing in these arguments is a consideration of those early movers. How did they summon the courage to first step into Tahrir Square — and did the Internet embolden them?

In recent days, a young Google employee from Cairo named Wael Ghonim has emerged as the hero of the protest movement. Ghonim — who was arrested on January 28 and secretly detained until February 7 — was the then-anonymous founder of the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook page that initially called for and organized the January 25 protest. The page, which honors a 28-year-old from Alexandria who was pulled out of an Internet café and beaten to death by police who suspected him of releasing videos of police corruption online, was launched over six months ago. What started as a campaign against police brutality grew into an online hub for young Egyptians to share their frustrations over the abuses of the Mubarak regime. Among the active early participants in the "We Are All Khaled Said" community were human rights activists and dissident bloggers, many of whom knew one another and had been organizing against Mubarak's policies for years, and some of whom had endured jail time for their activities.

Dalia Ziada, a long-time human rights activist and blogger, was one of these core activists. A few years ago, she came across an American comic book from the 1950s that told Martin Luther King's story. Inspired by the success of King's nonviolent tactics, she translated the book into Arabic and published it in print and online.

"MLK was only 29 years old when he launched his campaign and motivated the whole Afro-American community," Dalia told me. "When people learned about MLK and Gandhi success stories they realized they can do it here too. We have the power to turn our dreams into real tangible facts." Ziada distributed thousands of print and digital copies of the comic book to her fellow organizers, who took not only inspiration but instruction from the persistence and tactical sophistication of the civil rights movement.

Over time, hundreds of thousands joined the "We Are All Khaled Said" page, sharing stories of police abuse and posting inspirational YouTube videos and photos, while core organizers pushed them to attend a series of nonviolent "silent stand" protests in public. None of these protests, which took place in June and August of 2010, drew more than a few thousand people.

But in the wake of the Tunisia uprising — when activists saw that the nonviolent tactics of King and Gandhi had succeeded in a nearby country — Ghonim and his fellow organizers seized on the collective hope. Calling a protest on January 25, activists quickly began distributing downloadable flyers and detailed instruction manuals that included advice on how to counteract tear gas. To ensure greater numbers, organizers promised one another that they would each bring at least ten non-connected people they knew to the protests. They even agreed on messaging tactics in advance. In order to better succeed at recruiting poorer, less-educated Egyptians to join them, they focused on economic issues as a rallying cry, not torture. "We spoke their language," said Dalia, "not our language as Internet users."

"The fact that everything was very organized from the beginning made people feel safe and more willing to participate. For example there were maps to the protest locations and how groups should move and who should be in the front row," says Dalia. "This gave some sense of safety for the participants. In other words, it was not a random or spontaneous upheaval. No, it was well planned and organized." This web-based planning was critical, given that the vast majority of people on the "We Are All Khaled Said" page — and those who entered the streets on the 25th — were not veteran human rights activists and bloggers.

Call it "Cyber-Pragmatism." The Internet has helped activists like Ziada weave history into the present, to promote examples of nonviolent movements that have succeeded elsewhere, learn from those that failed and rapidly evolve their nonviolent tactics as their own movement progresses.

When I asked Kamal Sedra, another Egyptian activist and blogger who has been active in the protests, what he and fellow activists have learned since the movement began, he replied, "There are many, many points we learned… this movement will add a lot to nonviolence civil resistance science."

Ultimately, activists are developing a kind of movement wiki — one that is being continually re-edited and improved upon by an increasingly expanding web of contributors. In doing so, they have given each other the sense that they just might bend history towards justice.

It's worth taking a step back to consider that for most ordinary people living under repressive regimes, nonviolent public protest is an absurd, laughable notion. The risk of being beaten, jailed, tortured or killed — as many Egyptian human rights activists have been over the past three decades — is terrifying. The only way a street protest becomes a remotely tenable proposition is if you know that you're not alone — that many, many people not only share your anger but share your desire to do something about it. And when you see that your fellow protesters have a plan — that they are knowledgeable, organized and prepared — it gives you the confidence that your participation won't be in vain. This is why the "We Are All Khaled Said" page — and the online organizing through private Facebook messages, e-mail list serves and Google Docs that sprung out of it — was so important for first-time activists.

When these young activists took their collective confidence into the streets — in numbers that hadn't been seen for decades in Egypt — they showed that nonviolent mass mobilization was possible. Only then did the hundreds of thousands of older and non-connected Egyptians, who silently shared their grievances all along, feel compelled to act, too.

A veteran opposition leader told Sedra, "The youth have done in six days what we've been trying to do for thirty years."

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