1789 didn’t need a hashtag: Why the Mubarak regime shutting down Egypt’s internet won’t derail the revolution.
Posted Under: Democracy,International,Media,Revolution
Anybody interested in the revolution in Egypt should take the time to read this interview by Parvez Sharma with an Egyptian protester: http://www.al-bab.com/blog/2011/blog1102c.htm.
Being interviewed is the man previously referred to as ‘Yousry’ to protect his identity, but who now insists on having his real name – Omar – published openly (demonstrating the new sense of confidence among the protesters). We learn that more and more women are demonstrating in the streets, that fear of looting is no longer so widespread and that, from what we can tell, all classes in the country are united against the regime.
But what interested me the most was Omar’s rather dismissive take on the very idea of ‘social media’ having a significant role in any of this:
M[e]: Hey Omar…you know that there [are] many tweets coming in saying he is going to shut down everything tonight…whatever little internet was left and mobiles and landlines even?
O[mar]: Fuck the internet! I have not seen it since Thursday and I am not missing it. I don’t need it. No one in Tahrir Square needs it. No one in Suez needs it or in Alex…Go tell Mubarak that the peoples revolution does not need his damn internet!
Westerners see great significance in the Mubarak regime shutting down the internet, but most Egyptians (70%, according to Sharma) are not regular internet users. Here we see here just how little anyone in Egypt actually cares about this stuff; at one point Omar complains about trying to “[get] on the fucking internet which is not working and try and do these damn tweets you keep on telling me about.”
It simply doesn’t matter. As Anne Applebaum put it in Slate recently: “For all the guff being spoken about Twitter and social media, the revolution in Cairo appears to be a very old-fashioned, almost 19th-century revolution: People see other people going out on the streets, and they join them.”
During the revolt in Iran, the use of Twitter by protesters was often reported as the main story. (People still talk about Iran’s ‘Twitter revolution’, conveniently forgetting that the Mullahs are still in power.) The idea that collective action – the only way any progress has been made anywhere – was more important than this new medium just wasn’t satisfying. Democratic change has never – and will never – come about through technological change alone. But the idea that it will is now accepted and championed by modern media. Televsion news pieces will often end with ’And you can get on twitter and tell us what you think…” Yes, send us your videos and stories and we’ll report your news; ‘like’ us on Facebook. ‘Get involved’. This is anti-political nonsense. Some years ago, the expectation was that the internet, by unleashing a deluge of information, would transform society and the way democracy works. I’m still waiting for this revolution in social relations.
Today, Google and Twitter offered Egyptians a way to bypass the sudden lack of internet connection: Egyptians can leave a voicemail on an international phone number on Google’s blog, which will then be tweeted, allowing Egyptians to ‘stay connected’. (You can see it here: http://twitter.com/speak2tweet).
This is a lovely gesture, but we can’t forget that this is a revolution involving the entire country. As Omar puts it: “40 % of this country is living below the poverty line and a large chunk above that is barely surviving…I can tell you that the majority of Egyptians have no idea what Facebook is or what Twitter is!” The strife in Egypt will continue in the ordinary way, whatever Google or twitter decide to do.