As we watch the most incredible of events unfold in the Middle East, we certainly don’t know how they will conclude and it may take longer to understand them. Social Media, nay, the Internet, didn’t cause the revolution in Egypt. They underlying cause is more likely ineffective and unjust totalitarian rule. We can dismiss how Milennials are shaping the first world today. But whenever you have the largest demographic bubble in history at the peak of youth, and they don’t have a just role to play in an unjust society, they tend to find one.
Democracies look back fondly at student revolutions, from 1968 and beyond. But what is happening in the developing world today could hope to end so well. About 15 years ago there was an article in the Economist that I can’t access now that predicted the large concentration of impoverished youth in the Middle East would push thing to the brink. Were it not for the aggressive growth policies of Bejing subsidizing the poor in the Chinese hinterlands there would have been bread riots in a civilization predisposed to revolution.
Revolutions happen when circumstances are unjust, there is enough of a body to form a politic and they have the ability to organize. The internet certainly reduced coordination costs to bring #jan25 together. But perhaps we have reached a point across the world where enough connections have happened that people expect the ability to communicate with a high degree of freedom. Even when forbid by dictatorial or oligarchical rules of law.
I believe in Egypt enough people had just enough of a taste of free communication to know what it means. The ability to communicate across distances, groups, openly published or with a semblance of privacy. And when you have that, it is hard to picture going back.
I believe where Mubarak failed was not in his believe in his own power. But they way he wielded it in the end within this new environment. He let the internet become a terrorist.
While that word may spark a strong reaction, let me explain. Since the time of the Zealots, terrorism has always been a series of tactics deployed by the minority to provoke change by the group in power by turning the people they have power over against them. Terrorists cause terror to provoke an overreaction by the State against them. As the State’s countermeasures trend towards abusing their own norms and laws, and take away the civil liberties of the people, the people turn against them.
The protestor’s use of the internet served to coordinate their actions. But it was also an act of publishing. One the state was not prepared for, let alone accustomed to. By the time it was amplified and coopted by traditional foreign media it had something it new it had to react to as a second order. But not how to deal with the first order. So it shut it down.
When Mubarak shut down the internet, the people found ways to route around points of control. But the people also I believed realized that the state was acting unjustly towards them in an extreme way. It took away something they had learn to value if not expect.
The US administration has recently grouped net freedom into universal values, and is taking a stand to support them. I can’t tell you how proud I am that they are taking this stand. This isn’t US chauvinism that projects unilateral power and by direct consequence dismantles the greatest multilateral system of foreign relationships ever. That happened with the last administration. This one knows that in the balance of information arbitrage, the state with information values, Wikileaks or not, will prevail if it holds true.
This new foreign plank is what we used to be good at. Taking a stand upon a right or value and building alliances upon which it stands. It is foreign policy with the most modern purpose. For progression doesn’t stop at your shores when you want to build your future instead of cower in someone else’s past.
I wrote most of this on the day Mubarak stepped down to mark it for myself.