Rich And Gladwell, Wallflowers At History: Egypt

Frank Rich, from his perch in Manhattan, may not know this but before the Egyptian Revolution,

according to data from security firm zScaler ... fully 42% of the country's Web surfing on January 27 [was on Facebook], the day before Egypt's main ISPs abruptly severed ties to the Internet ... Data from zScaler shows that traffic to social networking sites account for around 39% of all Web surfing on January 27th, while traffic to news sites accounted for another 27% of overall Web surfing activity... out polled the Web sites of both Al Jazeera and Google by a factor of seven on January 27th.

Rich argues that because the authorities were able to shut down Facebook and Twitter thereafter, they were subsequently irrelevant. But if they were irrelevant, why did the authorities shut them down at all? Could it have something to do with this:

The Facebook appeal by Asmaa Mahfouz led to popular protests that saw tens of thousands congregating at Tahrir Square to demand an end to Mubarak's unbridled 30-year rule. ... Asmaa Mahfouz told Al-Mihwar TV (Egypt) that the first activity was on Facebook. "Yes. I was angry that everybody was saying that we had to take action, but nobody was doing anything. So I wrote on Facebook: 'People, I am going to Tahrir Square today'. This was a week before January 25.

By then, anyway, Mahfouz was not the only one:

Facebook said that in the last two weeks alone, Egyptian users have created 32,000 groups and 14,000 pages on the service, which allow people to share and make plans together.

This early organization was crucial:

“On the 25th, the movements of the protesting groups were arranged in real time through Twitter," [computer security specialist Ahmad] Gharbeia says. "Everyone knew where everyone else was walking and we could advise on the locations of blockades and skirmishes with police. It was real-time navigation through the city, and that’s why it was shut down."

So Rich gets it exactly the wrong way round. It was precisely because Twitter and Facebook were so effective early on that the dictatorship shut them down completely. Moreover, we know that one early spark was Wael Gohnim's Facebook page. Money quote from a Newsweek piece, describing Gohnim's Facebook call for civil disobedience:

In the space of three days, more than 50,000 people answered “yes.” Posing as El Shaheed in a Gmail chat, Ghonim was optimistic but cautioned that online support might not translate into a revolt in the streets. “The bottom line is: I have no idea,” he said. While some commentators hyped “that the internet is making a revolution,” others proclaimed that the “revolution can’t be tweeted,” he said. “I don’t know, and I don’t give a s--t. I’m doing what it takes to make my country better.”

Ghonim implored his Facebook fans to spread word of the protest to people on the ground, and he and other activists constantly coordinated efforts, combining online savvy with the street activism long practiced by the country’s democracy movements. Ghonim seemed to view the page both as a kind of central command and a rallying pointgetting people past “the psychological barrier.”

On Day 18, Ghonim tweeted

that he was not going to do any more television interviews and would communicate directly with his fellow Egyptians through Facebook. He then posted a long personal statement to his 700,000 followers on the social network, explaining, in Arabic, that he had not called for an end to protests, as Egyptian state television had falsely reported on Thursday night.

The real point here seems to me to be obvious, and certainly should be for writers as gifted a Rich and Gladwell. Words and images matter. And the sudden accumulation of words and images matter. They expose reality that is constantly veiled by tyrants. They inspire others to anger. They break through fear by revealing the courage of numbers.

Of course they are not enough. They are necessary but by no means sufficient. If a regime is as evil as Tehran's, nothing can stop the use of tanks and guns and thugs from murdering and torturing dissenters. But if social media can generate a collective spark that can then lead to street organizing, and then help spread that success via al-Jazeera, and the military and police split, then regimes once deemed unshakable can topple.

We just saw it happen three times in eighteen months in a region that has been stagnant with the same dictatorships for decades. One tragically failed to rid itself of its theocratic police state, but destroyed its legitimacy for good; two succeeded. But consciousness changed for ever. And social media empowered people, and helped give them the skills that democratic citizenship requires. No, it was not the whole explanation. But it was a critical, seminal, revolutionary spark.

(Photo: Peter MacDiarmid/Getty.)