Sunday, February 13, 2011

Is Mubarak's Downfall a Digital Revolution?

EGYPT/
Courtesy of ikhwan.net

By now, everybody would have known that long-time Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has resigned from his post, after facing a rebellion of epic proportions by the citizens of Egypt. After 18 days of protests where huge crowds of over a million showcased their democratic rights, compelling the beleaguered but stubbornly resilient 82 year old statesman to step down.


Deposed President Hosni Mubarak in happier times (Courtesy of the Bugle Wiki)

The downfall of Mubarak has been highly analysed by media pundits all over the world. Many in the tech world has associated Mubarak's downfall with the rise of social networks and the Internet. Apparently, his attempts at shuttering the Internet has backfired in a spectacular fashion. Techcrunch states that the "Mubarak shut down the Internet, and the Internet paid him in kind", while Mashable claimed that the digital revolution helped to spark off the real revolution in Egypt.


Courtesy of Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff

Two tools in particular - Twitter and Facebook - are lauded as the technology topplers of the Mubarak regime. Interestingly, Google got into the fray by allowing Egyptian protesters to tweet using their mobile via a loophole.


Source


The question on some people's minds is whether web-based social channels are the lynch pins for the revolts to be successful, or whether social networks are simply tools in an overturning of the administration that would have occurred anyway.

Apparently, renowned author Malcolm Gladwell doesn't think so. Against of chorus of voices lauding the "tipping point" effects of Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Wikileaks and blogs, Gladwell boldly asserted that...

"..surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along."


Gladwell thinks Egypt's "tipping point" isn't just technology (source)

Gladwell has his supporters like Ethan Zuckerman, who reported that the uprisings were broad-based popular revolutions. The people involved in it "aren’t just the elites using social media – they’re a broad swath of society, heavy on young people, but including a wide range of ages, incomes and political ideologies." Quirksmode also posted that Egypt is "not a social media revolution", and gave evidence that only 21% of Egypt’s population is online while 5% uses Facebook (source). In contrast, 66% has a mobile subscription and thus the age-old SMS could be the real "mobile technology" hero.

Naturally, views like this incited the ire of digital proponents like Brian Solis as well as Matthew Ingram. Solis states that technology provided the tools for the revolutionaries to organise themselves, achieve sufficient density, and build a united social culture, while Ingram states that it is the power of communication networks which helped unseat Mubarak regardless of their form.

My own assessment is that the key ingredients for any social activism probably lies first in the country's own socio-cultural situation and second in the presence of enabling communication platforms. For sure, the presence of digital technologies has greatly accelerated and facilitated the end of the Mubarak era. The arrest of Google Executive Wael Ghonim (captured in online video) probably helped fuel the revolt.

However, the initial sparks for the fire must be fanned first, and in Egypt's case, they probably belonged to the Kefaya, a grassroots organisation set up in 2003 who are largely staffed by young people. The initial stirrings of the uprising were largely onsite, with flyers being distributed and a guy setting himself on fire. It is thus likely that strong human ties and the right socio-cultural conditions are significant prerequisites in assembling any population for revolution, aided by whatever communication technologies available.


Kefaya activists played a key role in the revolt (Courtesy of Ikhwanweb)

What are your thoughts on this? Will Egypt still be undergoing a regime change without the power of digital might?
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