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.

No More Coincidences: Big Bill’s Zipper Strikes Again

Back in Feb­ru­ary, I con­clud­ed my “Stop the Zip­per War Before it Starts” with the fol­low­ing:

Nothing’s real­ly changed now except U.S. polit­i­cal inter­ests. Hus­sein is still a tyrant. He’s still stock­pil­ing chem­i­cal weapons. Why are U.S. polit­i­cal inter­ests dif­fer­ent now? Why does Bill Clin­ton want U.S. media atten­tion focused on Iraq? Look no fur­ther than Big Bill’s zip­per. Stop the next war before it starts. Abol­ish everyone’s weapons of mass destruc­tion and let’s get a Pres­i­dent who doesn’t need a war to clear his name.

I put this at the bot­tom of the piece because then the idea that Clin­ton might have done this was still way out there.

Since then most every major turn­ing point in the President’s scan­dals has been echoed by mil­i­tary maneu­ver­ings.

On August 17th Clin­ton gave a tele­vised address which was wide­ly crit­i­cized as being “too lit­tle, too late” and non-repentant enough. Pub­lic opin­ion turned sharply against him. Three days lat­er Big Bill sent 100 cruise mis­siles into Afghanistan and Sudan in order to assas­si­nate Osama bin Laden, the pre­vi­ous­ly unknown arch­en­e­my of the Unit­ed States.

And now, on the after­noon before the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives was sched­uled to begin pro­ceed­ings on his Impeach­ment, Clin­ton has ordered an attack on Iraq. Con­gress will of course delay the vote. Rumors are that this new bomb­ing cam­paign might last more than a few days, and come January’s new Con­gres­sion­al term there will be five less Repub­li­cans.

Each time these coin­ci­dences hap­pen, a few pun­dits that mut­ter about “Wag the Dog” sce­nar­ios before assur­ing the audi­ence that Clin­ton would nev­er do that. Every­one talks about coin­ci­dence and then moves on.

But coin­ci­dence has been Clinton’s friend through­out his scan­dals. Remem­ber the long-lost White­wa­ter doc­u­ments that mys­te­ri­ous­ly appeared on Hillary Clinton’s coffee-table when inves­ti­ga­tors were threat­en­ing to issue here a sub­poe­na? Remem­ber the job offers that Clin­ton cronies arranged for key wit­ness­es just before they either recant­ed their sto­ries or lied under oath? All of Clinton’s scan­dals have been of the “who cares” variety-shady land deal­ings twen­ty years ago in Arkansas, his hav­ing sex with an intern in the Oval Office. They dis­played a lack of judg­ment and char­ac­ter, but were not Impeach­able. But his scan­dals have grown and tak­en a life of their own as Clin­ton and his wife have been vis­it­ed by an ever-growing amount of coin­ci­dences.

Enough is enough. How much more are we to believe? As I write this the mis­siles are scream­ing over Bagh­dad and Iraqis are dying hor­ri­ble deaths. This is real. This is not some polit­i­cal game. It is time for Amer­i­cans to stop deny­ing that these coin­ci­dences are real­ly coin­ci­den­tal.

It is time to demand Clinton’s res­ig­na­tion.

And if he refus­es, then it is time to sub­poe­na White House records on the last year of mil­i­tary actions. If they show that Clin­ton has mur­dered in his des­per­ate attempt to save his Pres­i­den­cy, then it is time not only to impeach him but to put him into jail.

Stop the Zipper War Before It Starts

Why is Pres­i­dent Clin­ton talk­ing about a reprise of the 1991 Per­sian Gulf War?

We’re told it’s because U.N. inspec­tors believe that Iraq has hid­den “weapons of mass destruc­tion.” But of course so does the Unit­ed States. And Britain, France, Rus­sia, the Ukraine, Chi­na, India and Pak­istan. Iraq doesn’t even hold a region­al monop­oly, as Israel cer­tain­ly has atom­ic weapons atop U.S.-designed rock­ets aimed this very moment at Hussein’s Bagh­dad palaces.

Insanely-destructive weapons are a fact of life in the fin-de-Millennium. There’s already plen­ty of coun­tries with atom­ic weapons and the mis­sile sys­tems to lob them into neigh­bor­ing coun­tries. Hus­sein prob­a­bly doesn’t have them, and the weapons U.N. inspec­tors are wor­ried about are chem­i­cal. This is the “poor man’s atom­ic bomb,” a way to play at the lev­el of nuclear diplo­ma­cy with­out the expens­es of a nuclear pro­gram.

Clin­ton seems obliv­i­ous to the irony of oppos­ing Iraq’s weapons of mass destruc­tion with our own. The air­craft car­ri­ers and bat­tle fleets that have been sent into the Gulf in recent weeks are loaded with tac­ti­cal nuclear mis­siles.

If the pos­ses­sion of weapons of mass destruc­tion is wrong for Iraq, then it is wrong for every­one. It is time to abol­ish all weapons pro­grams and to build real world peace along lines of coöper­a­tion.

He’s our Bul­ly

Most Amer­i­cans, on hear­ing a call to let Hus­sein be, will react with dis­be­lief. Con­di­tioned to think of him as our mod­ern Hitler, any­one oppos­ing a new Gulf War must be crazy, some­one unfa­mil­iar with the his­to­ry of the appease­ment of Hitler pri­or to World War II that allowed him to build his mil­i­tary to the fright­en­ing lev­els of 1939.

But Amer­i­cans have alas not been told too much of more recent his­to­ry. Sad­dam Hus­sein is our cre­ation, he’s our bul­ly. It start­ed with Iran. Obsessed with glob­al mil­i­tary con­trol, the U.S. gov­ern­ment start­ed arm­ing region­al super­pow­ers. We gave our cho­sen coun­tries weapons and mon­ey to bul­ly around their neigh­bors and we looked the oth­er way at human rights abus­es. We cre­at­ed and strength­ened dic­ta­tors around the world, includ­ing the Shah of Iran. A rev­o­lu­tion final­ly threw him out of pow­er and ush­ered in a gov­ern­ment under­stand­able hos­tile to the Unit­ed States.

Rather than take this devel­op­ment to mean that the region­al super­pow­er con­cept was a bad idea, the U.S. just chose anoth­er region­al super­pow­er: Iraq. We looked the oth­er way when the two got into a war, and start­ed build­ing up Iraq’s mil­i­tary arse­nal, giv­ing him the planes and mil­i­tary equip­ment we had giv­en Iran. This was a bloody, crazy war, where huge casu­al­ties would be racked up only to move the front a few miles, an advance that would be nul­li­fied when the oth­er army attacked with the same lev­el of casu­al­ties. The Unit­ed States sup­port­ed that war. Inter­na­tion­al human rights activists kept pub­li­ciz­ing the abus­es with­in Iraq, and denounc­ing him for use of chem­i­cal weapons. They got lit­tle media atten­tion because it was not in U.S. polit­i­cal inter­ests to fight Hus­sein.

Nothing’s real­ly changed now except U.S. polit­i­cal inter­ests. Hus­sein is still a tyrant. He’s still stock­pil­ing chem­i­cal weapons. Why are U.S. polit­i­cal inter­ests dif­fer­ent now? Why does Bill Clin­ton want U.S. media atten­tion focused on Iraq? Look no fur­ther than Big Bill’s zip­per. Stop the next war before it starts. Abol­ish everyone’s weapons of mass destruc­tion and let’s get a Pres­i­dent who doesn’t need a war to clear his name.