Photo by Chris Slupski

Democracy & Technology Blog Facebook Helped Provoke the Egyptian Revolution; But Can it Govern?

The revolution in Egypt is another historic product of alternative media, espeically Facebook, home to the “April 6 movement” that commemorates the brutal beating death of a young Egyptian blogger who had exposed the 2008 beating of a demonstrator in the industrial city of El-Mahalla El-Jubra. Instead of stopping the communication, the police beatings provoked a huge following. And then a revolution.

Sonia Verma reports in The Globe and Mail (Toronto), “An estimated 3.4 million Egyptians use the (Facebook) social networking site, the vast majority under the age of 25. Egypt is the number 1 user of Facebook in the Arab world, and No. 23 globally.” Many have mobilized behind the April 6 movement.

Twitter, meanwhile, keeps cryptic messages pouring out, some from foreigners imposing their own interpretations on Egyptian events (such as a crowd of enthusiasts from Chavez’ Venezuela), but most from Egyptians telling fellow protestors where to show up for the next demonstration. YouTube videos provide homemade news coverage that leaves international broadcasters one step behind. The Mubarak government cracked down on cell phones and the internet for a while, but tonight some reportedly are operating again.

How odd it is to hear the Iranian media praising the Egyptian protestors, having assailed the protestors in their own country who opposed their own country’s oppressive regime.

Regardless, we are seeing alternative media maturing as a force of change throughout the region, albeit as an unfocused force. This especially describes the predominantly young populations of the Middle East. The mood in Egypt right now is not anti-Western; there are no Iran-style “Death to America” chants. It is is a mistake to confuse this revolution so far with the religious zeal of the Iranians 32 years ago.

Robert Fisk, writing in The Independent (UK), says, “Interestingly, there seems no animosity towards foreigners. Many journalists have been protected by the crowds and – despite America’s lamentable support for the Middle East’s dictators – there has not so far been a single US flag burned. That shows you what’s new. Perhaps a people have grown up – only to discover that their ageing government are all children.”
The Egyptian protestors, then, are hard to understand, perhaps because the goals of this largely leaderless movement are not codified in any sense.

The Facebook users appear to be decidely secular, rather than Islamist, but the composition of the revolt could change. The history of popular revolutions is that the broad front of the initial public outburst is followed by extremists forcing their way into control once the old regime is overthrown.

Right now, the unclear leadership of the revolt is why Hosni Mubarak is uncertain what to do. Likewise his army. The US seems surprised and uncertain, too, and has spoken out of both sides of its mouth–both sides of V.P. Biden’s mouth and Secretary Hillary Clinton’s mouth, to be specific.

The London Telegraph reports on Wikileaks that supposedly show the US in 2008 and 2009 encouraged the people who led the April 6 movement, knowing they were planning a revolt. That would implicate both the Bush and Obama administrations. But, so what? The job of an American embassy includes talking to all the political groups it can. The US government doesn’t even disguise that aim to foreign governments.

Indeed, if the Wikileaks story is right, and if the revolution succeeds, the US may may be glad later that the State Department did, indeed, reach out to at least some of the would-be revolutionaries. We could be dealing with them next.

Conclusion: Facebook not only is an incredible company, but an international force for revolutionary change. Social Network should win an Oscar for that alone.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.