Revolutionaries vs. Facebook friends
Pepe Egger - 17/06/2011
Revolutionaries vs. Facebook friends, or the importance of Internet, Twitter & Co for the Arab revolution
The coverage of the on-going Arab spring and the Arab revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere insists again and again on the fact that these are twitter-revolutions, or revolts 2.0, supported, led and perhaps even made possible by social media. This view is limited, Euro-centric, and even dangerous.
It is limited, because it zooms in on one element and makes it the all-explaining feature, missing a whole panorama of real people, real dynamics and real events around it. To illustrate this, let us look at a photograph taken in April 2008 in the Egyptian city of al-Mahalla al-Kubra. It shows a large group of experts with regards to the question whether the Arab revolution owes itself to Facebook, Twitter and others: These are the workers of Ghazl el-Mahalla, who on 6 April 2008 downed their tools and took to the streets. The picture shows them denouncing and opposing the henchmen and thugs of the Mubarak regime with bare hands, alone and let down by tens of thousands of virtual protesters and Facebookfriends, whose contribution remained just that, virtual.
In the spring of 2008, I had been living for some time in Cairo. The protesting workers of Mahalla have accompanied me since in this picture - taken by Per Björklund -, as they represented (to me) the best that Egypt had at that time. And it is their courage, their transformation into revolutionaries that has now, almost three years later, taken hold of the whole country and swept Mubarak away. Back in 2008, however, they were the only ones that confronted the regime, left alone by their Facebookfriends. Perhaps their photo was so powerful because they represented a promise, and a premonition, that even a police state such as Mubarak's would be powerless in front of revolutionary despair and courage.
The general strike on 6 April 2008 had become, in the weeks preceding it, a highly fashionable topic in all kinds of new media: The workers in Mahalla el Ghazl had called a strike to protest against rising food prices and stagnant wages; on the Internet this call swelled up to become a ‘general strike’. The Facebookgroup calling for it had quickly grown to more than 70,000 members, and gave the impression that something unheard of was brewing here: a general strike in Egypt? That had not been seen for decades, since all trade unions had been incorporated into the regime and tightly controlled. Suddenly, the revolution seemed near, and the window to freedom open. Then the Interior Ministry got wind of it.
A harsh statement by the Interior Ministry on the eve of the strike warned the demonstrators that no unrest would be tolerated. And of course, there was the usual deployment of police forces in order to stifle any protest. The result? The only people who followed the strike call were the workers of Mahalla, despite a state of siege around their factory. None of their Facebookfriends was anywhere to be seen. The regime of course did not tolerate the march in Mahalla, and tried to suppress it by force; a child and a man died at the hands the police.
Of the workers on the street, probably only a few even had a computer or Internet access. Their despair, their determination and courage did not originate in cyberspace. On the contrary, the virtual demonstrators were the ones who deflated quickly. Now, three years later, millions of Egyptians followed the example of the workers in Mahalla; fortunately, not that of their Facebookfriends.
Now, in Tunisia and Egypt, one could perhaps partly understand how the impression arose that this was the Twitter generation at work: The western coverage was based to some extent on accounts obtained through blogs, twitter and anonymous video testimonies on youtube. And in both countries there were some activists who could be turned into figureheads: Wael Ghonim in Egypt, a blogging Google employee, and Slim Amamou in Tunisia, the first blogger to become cabinet minister. But how could we keep repeating this same mantra, if now in Yemen and Syria despots are overthrown by Internet-illiterate demonstrators?
Or was it just that the subject of twitter –revolutions got Western viewers hooked, so that the media kept highlighting that element among many, because they knew that audiences would pay attention to it? Which would mean, conversely, that a revolution without Facebook would be too old-fashioned, too uncool, and uninteresting for Western viewers? In Yemen, a revolution can only have to do with courage and desperation, not with the Internet. Could it be, in that case, that the interest of Western audiences is not just declining because the Arab spring is already going into its fifth month, but also because it is no longer about us, because it is no longer produced, broadcast to us, in our medium of the moment? Clearly, such a lack of interest would only help the reaction. But such a view would also be misleading, however, because it seeks out only what we already know, and makes only the already familiar a subject of observation. What if this is not about free Google access? What if there are not only middle-class bloggers at work here? (Another example of this kind of naval-gazing is Julian Assange, who suggested that the Arab revolutions are born out of Wikileaks’ revelations…)
One more connotation to the theme of Arab twitter revolutions is that some observers probably also used it to reassure themselves, highlighting that the revolutionaries in Egypt and elsewhere are Facebookfriends but no enemies of Israel, and that such westernised Internet users could not at the end be anti-Western. Well, they can. At the same time as the despot, 'the people' in question also desired the downfall of 'the system', which upheld the despot in the first place. And that 'system' always also included and intended the whole regional and international fabric of power, the client states of the USA and Europe, and the hinge of the western-supported and controlled fabric of power in the region, i.e. Israel.
Courage, and the despair of thousands and millions have taken aim at the entire status quo. That cannot be covered up by the fact that someone also started a Facebook group.