The prophets of social media are getting excited. Not only can such forms of media as Twitter and Facebook often prove to be banal time wasters, they can also generate revolutionary excitement. Communities connected by messages instantaneously gather to promote their demands on political change. Tribes of cyber connected groups gather to post messages and terrify officials.
The case with Egypt is being touted as a classic example of this movement. Various facebook groups numbering in the tens of thousands have mushroomed. Their demands are various: an end to the emergency powers that have held the country hostage for over three decades; a desire for reforms targeting corruption. Protests are being arranged and coordinated through the various formats and the government is worried.
The protesters have derived momentum from the events in Tunisia, which have seen the former leader President Zine el-Albidine Ben Ali ousted. He is now wanted on an international arrest warrant. A contagion of popular sentiment is seemingly sweeping the regimes of North Africa, threatening to undermine governments with the swiftness of a tweeted text. The dynamics of each case will, however, be different.
The Obama administration has found itself in a characteristically awkward position. Keen to give support to the intangible voice of revolution on the one hand, but clear that outright support would be tantamount to direct interference, it finds itself neatly perched on the diplomatic fence. Egypt remains an annual recipient of over a billion dollars of US military aid, something the protesters have been keen to point out. The last thing the publicity machine behind Obama wants to see are Egyptian security forces using American weapons on protesters.
It would easy to mistake the effectiveness of such a movement. Exaggeration, as Kahlil Galbran reminds us, is a truth that has lost its temper. And it is with much temper that we are viewing the current revolution by social media in Egypt. Even the government has succumbed to a sense of terror about the media. Twitter has been banned for a few days now. Facebook has been reported to be inaccessible at various stages (PC Mag, Jan 27). But for all of this, where is the talk these days about the Iranian revolution that never took place, despite being frothed and bubbled along by Facebook followers and aficionados? President Armadinejad remains in power, his opponents seemingly silent.
The Egyptian rubric of potential revolution is also complicated. Destabilise the veteran President Hosni Mubarak in the name of popular revolution, and one risks creating a vacuum of resentment that might be filled by the fundamentalists of the Islamic Brotherhood. Many Egyptians are speaking about a nascent popular revolt, but such inspired movements can be vague in form. Discussions of the ‘people’ are always abstract and prone to mystification.
In the end, technology cannot, of its own accord, engender revolution. People, for ill or good, are what drive it. Perhaps it will be less the incidents of Facebook and Twitter and more the meetings organized through mosques and religious gatherings where the greatest impact will be had. Mosques, unless Facebook, can’t be shut down or entirely blocked. Armed ideas expressed in public settings are far more dangerous than tweets typed in rapid form from a gathering of political dissidents. The medium can never be the message when it comes to overthrowing regimes. The message must come from within.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org