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You say you want a Revolution 2.0

By Rosie Perera | February 12, 2011 at 2:07 am

The streets of Cairo and Alexandria and news media around the world are abuzz with stories of what has been unfolding in Egypt over the past 18 days. History is being written. Something unprecedented has happened. A strong dictator who has been in power for 30 years has been ousted. Things are still very uncertain as to the future there, but a new era has surely begun, and there is much elation in the air. I was moved by this celebratory song, “The Sound of Freedom” (Arabic with English subtitles):

Much credit is being given to the leadership of a 30-year-old Egyptian Google executive named Wael Ghonim. He has emerged as a spokesman for a group of people who used social media (Facebook and Twitter, until they were blocked by the government) to help organize the peaceful protests in Tahrir Square (“Freedom Square”).

Hear Ghonim dub this “Revolution 2.0” and tell how “We are getting back our country” in this CNN interview with Ivan Watson:

Here’s another moving interview with Wael Ghonim on Dream TV (three parts; Arabic with English subtitles; if you can’t see the English subtitles, click the “CC” button in the video player to turn them on):Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

I wrote last June about Twitter as a tool for freedom of speech in the midst of the attempted revolution in Iran. It was similarly exciting at the time, but ended up fizzling out when Ahmadinejad’s government clamped down. What is different this time around that allowed it to succeed where the Iranian one failed? This new revolution in Egypt is being called an Internet Revolution, a Twitter Revolution, a Social Media Revolution. But that can’t be the entire story, because the Iranian people had the Internet too (though it was shut down by the government), and the Egyptians blocked Facebook and Twitter and the whole Internet for a while, too. No, surely there are other factors at play. But one cannot deny the role that social media have played.

Here are some of @Ghonim‘s tweets:

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, wrote an article in The New Yorker in October titled “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.”
Wael Ghonim’s response to that, on January 26, was:

Hey @Gladwell, #Jan25 proved you wrong. Revolution can be a #Facebook event that is liked, shared & tweeted.

Some critics have asked how we in the West can think we know what’s going on over there by following English tweets, as surely the real communication is going on in Arabic. True enough. But I imagine that most of the young Internet-savvy people of Egypt are pretty facile with English. No doubt Ghonim’s English tweets are designed for the rest of the world to be able to know what’s going on. But he is not a Western outsider. He tweets plenty in Arabic. And if one is really determined, one can read the Arabic tweets too, using Google Translate (I was pleasantly surprised to see how good a job it does). They’re not much different from what he’s saying in English.

@ElBaradei (a Verified Account, so it’s really him) tweeted just a few minutes ago:

Google Translate tells me that means “Egypt today is free. God bless the people of Egypt.”

Some are skeptical that this revolution really was brought about by social media. Here is a selection of editorials and blog posts:
The ‘Twitter Revolution’ Debate: The Egyptian Test Case
Malcolm Gladwell and the Twitter backlash
Is the role of social media in Egypt being overstated?

Those who are pooh-poohing the role of social media say revolutions happened before the Internet. They point to the American Revolution and the French Revolution, for example. I maintain that while Twitter and Facebook didn’t bring about the Egyptian revolution, they surely were tools that facilitated it happening so quickly and relatively bloodlessly. I say relatively because I know that some people were killed and beaten by Mubarak’s defenders in this struggle. But it was a largely peaceful revolt, and the people did not fight back. They did not need to. They got their wishes in two and a half weeks.

The nay-sayers also point out that such a small percentage (less than 7%) of Egyptians use Facebook that it couldn’t have played a big role. But as Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” They also say that the government shut down Facebook and the revolution continued. Yes, but once you start a fire, it’s hard to put it out.

Just as the invention of the printing press didn’t cause the Protestant Reformation (there had to be many other factors at play that made the timing ripe), so social media did not cause the Egyptian revolution. But to use Malcolm Gladwell’s own terminology, perhaps it was the tipping point. The Internet has enabled a generation of Egyptians to get beyond the brainwashing their own government was using to try to keep them in line. And it facilitated the communications necessary for a popular uprising. Wael Ghonim said: “If you want to liberate a society, just give them the Internet.” The converse is also true: If you want to keep a society in bondage, severely restrict their access to the Internet. Can you say “North Korea”?

Here’s a clever snippet seen on CNN:

While all of this is fascinating from a political, historical, sociological, and technological perspective, and I am rooting for the people of Egypt, as a Christian I do not believe that “people power” is the ultimate solution for all evil, nor is technology our savior. When Jesus came, many mistakenly thought he had come to overthrow the Roman oppressors of the Jews. But that isn’t what his kingdom is about. Jesus came to set captives free in a spiritual sense, to release those who are in bondage to sin and evil. But part of God’s kingdom coming “on earth as it is in heaven” involves healing (both physical and spiritual, of both individuals and peoples), reconciliation and justice. One of the most hopeful images to come out of the past couple of weeks is this one of Christians forming a ring of protection around Muslims as they prayed:

I’m going to be fascinated to watch how things turn out over the coming days and weeks. I pray that “it’s gonna be all right…”

EDIT: This post got a visitor from Iran within its first few hours of being birthed. Intriguing. I wonder whether it’s the government trying to look for stuff to block their people from seeing or whether it’s a freedom seeker looking for information and inspiration. (Click to enlarge.)

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