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.