Lessons in Social Media from Egyptian Protesters

A few days ago the NYTimes ran a fas­ci­nat­ing ear­ly look-back at the rela­tion­ship between social media and the largely-nonviolent rev­o­lu­tion in Egypt writ­ten by David D Kirk­patrick and David E Sanger. I doubt we’ve seen the last twist and turn of this tumul­tuous time but as I write this, the world sighs relief that long­time auto­crat Hos­ni Mubarak is final­ly out. Most of the quotes and inside knowl­ege came via Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old civil engi­neer and a lead­ing orga­niz­er of the April 6 Youth Move­ment, who became an activist in 2005.

Lesson One: Years in the Mak­ing

The Times starts off by point­ing out that the “blog­gers lead the way” and that the “Egyp­tian revolt was years in the mak­ing.” It’s impor­tant to remem­ber that the­se things don’t come out of nowhere. Blog­gers have been active for years: lead­ing, learn­ing, mak­ing mis­takes and col­lect­ing knowl­edge. Many of the first round of blog­gers were ignored and repressed. Some of them were effec­tive­ly neu­tral­ized when they were co-opted into what the Times calls “the timid, legal­ly rec­og­nized oppo­si­tion par­ties.” “What destroyed the move­ment was the old par­ties,” said one blog­ger. A lesson we might draw for that is that blog­ging isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly a step­ping stone to “real activism” but is instead it’s own kind of activism. The cul­ture of blogs and main­stream move­ments are not always com­pat­i­ble.

Lesson Two: Share Your Expe­ri­ences

The Egyp­tian protests began after ones in Tunisia. The con­text was not the same: “The Tunisians faced a more per­va­sive police state than the Egyp­tians, with less lat­i­tude for blog­ging or press free­dom, but their trade unions were stronger and more inde­pen­dent.” Still, it was impor­tant to share tips: “We shared our expe­ri­ence with strikes and blog­ging,” a blog­ger recalled. Some of the tips were exceed­ing­ly prac­ti­cal (how to avert tear gas – brought lemons, onions and vine­gar, appar­ent­ly) and oth­ers more social (shar­ing tor­ture expe­ri­ences). Lesson: we all have many things to learn. It’s best to be ready for counter-tactics.

One of the inter­est­ing side­lights was how the teach­ings of Amer­i­can non­vi­o­lence strate­gist Gene Sharp made it to Cairo. A Ser­bian youth move­ment had based their rebel­lion on his tac­tics and the Egyp­tians fol­lowed their lead, with exiled orga­niz­ers set­ting up a web­site (warn­ing: annoy­ing sound) com­pil­ing Sharp’s strate­gies:

For their part, Mr. Maher and his col­leagues began read­ing about non­vi­o­lent strug­gles. They were espe­cial­ly drawn to a Ser­bian youth move­ment called Otpor, which had helped top­ple the dic­ta­tor Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic by draw­ing on the ideas of an Amer­i­can polit­i­cal thinker, Gene Sharp. The hall­mark of Mr. Sharp’s work is well-tailored to Mr. Mubark’s Egypt: He argues that non­vi­o­lence is a sin­gu­lar­ly effec­tive way to under­mine police states that might cite vio­lent resis­tance to jus­ti­fy repres­sion in the name of sta­bil­i­ty.

As an aside, I have to say that as a longterm peace activist, it tick­les me no end to see Gene Sharp’s ideas at the heart of the Egyp­tian protests. Amer­i­ca real­ly can export democ­ra­cy some­times!

Lesson Three: Be Relent­less in Con­fronting Lies

The Times reports that Maher “took spe­cial aim at the dis­tor­tions of the offi­cial media.” He told them that when peo­ple “dis­trust the media then you know you are not going to lose them. When the press is full of lies, social media takes on the fact check­ing role. Peo­ple turn to inde­pen­dent sources when they sense a pro­pa­gan­da machine. The cre­ator of a Face­book site was a Google mar­ket­ing exec­u­tive work­ing on his own. He filled the site We Are all Khaled Said “with video clips and news­pa­per arti­cles [and] repeat­ed­ly ham­mered home a sim­ple mes­sage.”

Lesson Four: Don’t Wait for Those Sup­posed To Do This Work

Most of this social media was cre­at­ed by stu­dents for good­ness sake and it all relied on essentially-free ser­vices. Everyone’s always thought that if Egypt were to explode it would be the dreaded-but-popular Mus­lim Broth­er­hood that would lead the charge. But they didn’t. They scram­bled not know­ing what to do as protests erupt­ed in the major cities. Even­tu­al­ly the Brotherhood’s youth wing joined the protests and the full orga­ni­za­tion fol­lowed suit but it was not the lead­ers in any of this.

When we’re talk­ing about pop­u­lar orga­ni­zat­ing, mon­ey and estab­lished cre­den­tials aren’t always an advan­tage. What’s inter­est­ing to learn with the Egypt protests is that the gen­er­a­tion lead­ing it doesn’t seem to have as strict a reli­gious world­view as its par­ents. This came out most dra­mat­i­cal­ly in the images of Chris­tian Egyp­tians pro­tect­ing their Mus­lim broth­ers in Tahir Square dur­ing times of prayer. This is hav­ing ram­i­fi­ca­tion in copy­cat protests in Tehran. Ira­ni­an lead­ers tried to paint the Egyp­tian stu­dents as heirs to their own Islam­ic rev­o­lu­tion but it seems prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions are more impor­tant than set­ting up an Islamist state (stay tuned on this one – protests have begun in Tehran on one hand and the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood might well take over from Egypt pro­test­ers now that Mubarak is out).

On a per­son­al note…

It’s inter­est­ing to watch how the three-year old Save St Mary’s cam­paign has mim­ic­ked some of the fea­tures of the Egyp­tian protests. Their blog has been pret­ty relent­less in expos­ing the lies. It’s attract­ed far more media atten­tion than the professionally-staffed Dioce­san press office has been able to muster. There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes talk­ing with church­es in oth­er regions to com­pare tac­tics and antic­i­pate counter-moves. As far as I know it’s one of sev­en church­es nation­wide with round-the-clock vig­ils but it’s the only one with a strong social media com­po­nent. It’s aver­age age is prob­a­bly a gen­er­a­tion or two younger than the oth­er vig­ils which gives it a cer­tain frank style that’s not found else­where. The Philadel­phia Arch­dio­ce­se is explod­ing now with arrests of recent Dioce­san offi­cials and rev­e­la­tions from the Dis­trict Attoreny that dozens of priests with “cred­i­ble accu­sa­tions” of pedophil­ia are still min­is­ter­ing around kids and while church clos­ings and the pedophil­ia scan­dals are not offi­cial­ly con­nect­ed, as a non-Catholic I’m fine admit­ting that they arise from a shared Dioce­san cul­ture of mon­ey and cover-ups. Again, “repeat­ing­ly ham­mer­ing home a sim­ple mes­sage” is a good strat­e­gy.

When Isaac Penington, Margaret Fell and Elizabeth Bathurst join the reading group

Not some­thing I’ll do every day, but over on Quak­erQuak­er I cross-referenced today’s One Year Bible read­ings with Esther Green­leaf Murer’s Quak­er Bible Index. Here’s the link to my post about today: First Mon­th 20: Joseph ris­es to pow­er in Egypt; Jesus’ para­ble of wheat & tares and pearls. It’s a par­tic­u­lar­ly rich read­ing today. Jesus talks about the wheat and the weeds aka the corn and the tares, an inter­est­ing para­ble about let­ting the faith­ful and the unfaith­ful grow togeth­er.

As if know­ing today is Inau­gu­ra­tion Day, Isaac Pen­ing­ton turned it into a polit­i­cal ref­er­ence: “But oh, how the laws and gov­ern­ments of this world are to be lament­ed over! And oh, what need there is of their ref­or­ma­tion, whose com­mon work it is to pluck up the ears of corn, and leave the tares stand­ing!”

Mar­garet Fell sees the wheat and tares as an exam­ple of jeal­ousy and false min­istry: “Oh how hath this envi­ous man got­ten in among you. Sure­ly he hath come in the night, when men was asleep: & hath sown tares among the wheat, which when the reapers come must be bound in bundles and cast into the fire, for I know that there was good seed sown among you at the first, which when it found good ground, would have brought forth good fruit; but since there are mixed seeds­men come among you & some hath preached Christ of envy & some of good will, … & so it was easy to stir up jeal­ousy in you, you hav­ing the ground of jeal­ousy in your­selves which is as strong as death.”

We get poet­ry from the sev­en­teen cen­tu­ry Eliz­a­beth Bathurst (ahem) when she writes that “the Seed (or grace) of God, is small in its first appear­ance (even as the morn­ing -light), but as it is given heed to, and obeyed, it will increase in bright­ness, till it shine in the soul, like the sun in the fir­ma­ment at noon-day height.”

The para­ble of the tares became a call for tol­er­ance in George Fox’s under­stand­ing: “For Christ com­mands chris­tian men to “love one anoth­er [John 13:34, etc], and love their ene­mies [Mat 5:44];” and so not to per­se­cute them. And those ene­mies may be changed by repen­tance and con­ver­sion, from tares to wheat. But if men impris­on them, and spoil and destroy them, they do not give them time to repent. So it is clear it is the angels’ work to burn the tares, and not men’s.”

A cen­tu­ry lat­er, Sarah Tuke Grubb read and wor­ried about reli­gious edu­ca­tion and Quak­er drift: “But for want of keep­ing an eye open to this pre­serv­ing Pow­er, a spir­it of indif­fer­ence hath crept in, and, whilst many have slept, tares have been sown [Mat 13:25]; which as they spring up, have a ten­den­cy to choke the good seed; those ten­der impres­sions and reproofs of instruc­tion, which would have pre­pared our spir­its, and have bound them to the holy law and tes­ti­monies of truth.”

I hope all this helps us remem­ber that the Bible is our book too and an essen­tial resource for Friends. It’s easy to for­get this and kind of slip one way or anoth­er. One extreme is get­ting our Bible fix from main­stream Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian sources whose view­points might be in pret­ty direct oppo­si­tion from Quak­er under­stand­ings of Jesus and the Gospel (see Jean­ne B’s post on The New Calvin­ism or Tom Smith’s very rea­son­able con­cerns about the lit­er­al­ism at the One Year Bible Blog I read and rec­om­mend). On the oth­er hand, it’s not uncom­mon in my neck of the Quak­er woods to describe our reli­gion as “Quak­er,” down­grade Chris­tian­i­ty by mak­ing it option­al, unmen­tion­able or non-contextual and turn­ing to the Bible only for the oblig­a­tory epistle ref­er­ence.

This was first made clear to me a few years ago by the mar­gins in the mod­ern edi­tion of Samuel Bow­nas’ “A Descrip­tion of the Qual­i­fi­ca­tions Nec­es­sary to a Gospel Min­istry,” which were pep­pered with the Bib­li­cal ref­er­ences Bow­nas was casu­al­ly cit­ing through­out. On my sec­ond read­ing (yes it’s that good!) I start­ed look­ing up the ref­er­ences and real­ized that: 1) Bow­nas wasn’t just mak­ing this stuff up or quot­ing willy-nilly; and 2) read­ing them helped me under­stand Bow­nas and by exten­sion the whole con­cept of Quak­er min­istry. You’re not read­ing my blog enough if you’re not get­ting the idea that this is one of the kind of prac­tices that Robin, Wess and I are going to be talk­ing about at the Con­ver­gent work­shop next mon­th. If you can fig­ure out the trans­port then get your­self to Cali pron­to and join us.