What the New Protests in Egypt Mean for the 'Twitter Revolutions'

What if digital tools make it easier to destabilize governments, but not to build new ones?

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The past several days have been hard ones for those who cheered the fall of Hosni Mubarak less than a year ago. More than 30 people have been killed protesting the continued rule of the military council, and the Egyptian cabinet has tendered its resignation. Tahrir Square, once a symbol of the possibilities for a new Egypt, has now become a stage for the revolution's unraveling. These developments (and others since last February) have provoked a simple thought: What if the combination of social media and mobile devices does make revolutions more likely, but do not in turn make republican governing any more possible? What then?

The Democracy ReportOf course, it's not been settled that these new communications technologies do make revolutions any easier. It never will be. The ingredients for a successful revolution -- frustration, leadership, organization, and luck -- are difficult if not impossible to quantify. Scholars will someday count the numbers of tweets retweeted or videos "liked" on Facebook, and we will still be no closer to knowing what the effects were, sum told. But if you think that there's even the possibility that the existence of social media makes autocracies less stable, you have to grapple with the possibility that the indirect result of these technologies is the kind of chaos we're seeing now in Egypt, a kind of chaos that emerges between revolution and government.

The challenges of organizing a mass social movement are in part those of communication: How do you coordinate large groups of people? How do you inspire anger against a regime? Social media can help with these problems, by spreading logistical information or videos of state brutality. But the problems of designing a new government and governing are different. What institutions should we have? Which rights should we protect in our constitution? How do we ensure fair and safe voting? How do we exorcise corruption? It's not clear that social media can help with those sorts of questions.

There are, of course, plenty of efforts to use social media to help improve governing. Here in America, the Obama administration has, for example, created its own e-petitions site, where people can create their own petitions and the White House promises to review any that receive more than 25,000 signatures in 30 days. But, if it's any indication of this project's success so far, one of the most popular petitions right now is a request to "actually take these petitions seriously instead of just using them as an excuse to pretend you are listening." New York City is also using some online tools as part of an ambitious participatory budgeting effort.

Another prominent example but more successful of an attempt to adapt social media for better governing is the open-source project Ushahidi, begun in Kenya, that enables real-time mapping and coordination for post-disaster relief. It has been used in places such as Haiti, Japan, and the Congo. But while it has proved life-saving in those situations, that purpose is fundamentally different than the questions Egypt now faces. Egypt is not trying to run a government program; it's trying to figure out what kind of government to have.

Perhaps the best example of a country trying to use social media for something on that scale is Iceland's efforts to crowdsource a new constitution, which would then have to be approved by an elected body. By "crowdsource" Iceland meant not a wiki where everyone could contribute but a process by which a constitutional committee solicited feedback online and posted updates on YouTube. A draft of the proposal was released in July but is still awaiting approval. 

These projects are all experiments, ones we can hopewill open up new ways for governing to be more representative, fair, and honest.  But as of yet they are in their earliest stages. And even with well-designed tools, e-governing faces great challenges in places where computer literacy is not widespread.

The point is this: Revolution is a completely different thing than state building. Revolutions may be fed by social media's power to fuel emotional response and organizing, but state-building does not require a fervor. It requires smart decision-making, leadership, and perhaps even idealism and vision, things no tool in the world can provide.


Image: Reuters.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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