The extraordinary events that took place last week in Egypt, culminating with Hosni Mubrak standing down on Friday, lay down a new marker for what it takes to make change to happen.
I don’t think I can allow myself the luxury of thinking things like ‘I went on the march and it didn’t stop the war’ anymore – just think what would have happened if that march took place day after day. That’s how much energy and resolve the Egyptian people showed.
And whatever happens in the future, it seems worth noting, as so many have, that the people have broke through a barrier of fear – and fear was a major means of control under Hosni Mubarak.
The decision of Asmaa Mahfouz , a young woman of 26, to post a video message on Youtube seems quite remarkable – she spoke straight to the camera, didn’t hide her face and held up a sign saying that she would go out and protest against Mubarak’s regime and, despite the possibility of arrest she faced, told others: ‘Do not be afraid’.
There’s two aspects to this I want to pick up on: first, the role of social media in the Egyptian revolt.
I read Laurie Penny in the New Statesman arguing that social media is “just a tool” and that the revolt in Egypt took place even though the state “pulled the plug on the internet”.
Laurie Penny doesn’t fit into the category of “curmudgeons” described by Jeff Jarvis in this Huffington Post piece.
She does make a point similar to those outlined by Jeff Jarvis, though I imagine for very different reasons to those he suggests:
…I’m a befuddled over the roots of the curmudgeons’ one-sided debate. Why do they so object to tools being given credit? Are they really objecting, instead, to technology as an agent of change, shifting power from incumbents to insurgents?
As with the Gutenberg printing press, social media could be described as merely a “useful tool” but it is clearly changing the way that people communicate, and importantly, organisers of the revolt have said that they relied on Facebook and Twitter.
Jeff Jarvis argues that:
Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube may be the Gutenberg press of the Middle East, tools like his that enable people to speak, share, and gather. Without those tools, could revolutions occur?
Of course, as Penny says, it is “the crisis of capital” more than the “knock on effect” of social media that has “set the wheels of revolt in motion” but I agree with Jarvis that “it does matter that the revolutionaries of the Middle East use – indeed, depend upon – these social tools and the net”.
We have seen how governments can try to restrict access to the internet and impose censorship.
When Mubarak shut down the internet, when China shuts down Facebook, when Turkey shuts down YouTube, when America concocts its own kill switch, they violate the human rights of their citizens as much as if they burned the products of Gutenberg’s press.
Perhaps Laurie Penny’s stance on the media fascination with social media reflects she’s part of something that the mainstream media still considers a novelty – the fact that people are organising online. The British media’s attempt to explain and interpret social movements has always been awkward – from punk to the G8 protests they’ve been the embarrassing Dad trying to make sense of “young people these days”. And there were voices in the British media that sounded almost as out of touch as Mubarak and his cronies did in their speeches.
The second ties in with Jeff Jarvis’s suggestion that what’s more important than discussing what credit tools such as Twitter and Facebook should be given in the revolutions is asking what role it has played and what its impact has been.
In the Middle East particularly, social media tools provide women with an opportunity to express their views and interact with others in ways that would not otherwise be available to them.
The fact that women like Asmaa Mahfouz can post a video online declaring her intention to demonstrate and influence others to join her shows that social media can be a powerful tool in a country where the freedom of women can be restricted. But reports that Egypt suffered the worst internet crackdown in history and that Asmaa Mahfouz later received death threats shows how important it is to protect our freedoms to use these tools and resist attempts by governments and corporations to restrict and control them.
- Jeff Jarvis: Gutenberg of Arabia (huffingtonpost.com)
- Egypt: The viral vlog of Asmaa Mahfouz that helped spark an uprising (boingboing.net)
- How Women Tweeted The Revolution In Egypt (blogs.forbes.com)
- Social media’s revolution (timesunion.com)