Web 2.0 Political Rebels

Stephen DeAngelis

February 6, 2009

I have not written anything about the on-going troubles between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors. It’s a serious subject, but a little off the topics I prefer to cover in this blog. Some situations, like the one in the Middle East, become intractable because both sides embrace positions that are non-negotiable. For more on that topic, read the interesting op-ed piece written by Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges [“How Words Could End a War,” New York Times, 24 January 2009]. They suggest that peace can’t be negotiated in situations where both sides hold dear to “non-negotiable” positions, but progress can be made when both sides sacrifice something they hold sacred. For their research, they interviewed thousands of Israelis and Palestinians.

“We asked them to react to hypothetical but realistic compromises in which their side would be required to give away something it valued in return for a lasting peace. All those surveyed responded to the same set of deals. First they would be given a straight-up offer in which each side would make difficult concessions in exchange for peace; next they were given a scenario in which their side was granted an additional material incentive; and last came a proposal in which the other side agreed to a symbolic sacrifice of one of its sacred values. … Absolutists who violently rejected offers of money or peace for sacred land were considerably more inclined to accept deals that involved their enemies making symbolic but difficult gestures. For example, Palestinian hard-liners were more willing to consider recognizing the right of Israel to exist if the Israelis simply offered an official apology for Palestinian suffering in the 1948 war. Similarly, Israeli respondents said they could live with a partition of Jerusalem and borders very close to those that existed before the 1967 war if Hamas and the other major Palestinian groups explicitly recognized Israel’s right to exist.”

Although those findings are optimistic, they are not likely to find their way into international negotiations anytime soon. An article that did catch my eye that relates to the problems between the Israelis and Palestinians discusses an interesting development in neighboring Egypt. It examines topics closer to those I prefer to discuss — in this case, connectivity. As you might imagine, the Israeli intervention in Gaza prompted a number of protests in Egypt, many of them organized by Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political organization that wants to govern Egypt according to Islamic law. That would not be a good development. Afghanistan’s Taliban demonstrated how such political movements can result in terrible injustices and tyranny. But protests by the Muslim Brotherhood are not what caught my interest. Samantha M. Shapiro wrote a long article for the New York Times that details how the social Web is playing an increasingly important role in Egyptian politics [“Revolution, Facebook-Style,” 22 January 2009]. Shaprio writes:

“Anti-Israel demonstrations in Arab capitals are nothing new. From Amman to Riyadh, governments have long viewed protests against Israel as a useful safety valve to allow citizens to let off steam without addressing grievances closer to home. But in Egypt, this time, the protests were different: some of the anger was aimed directly at the government of President Hosni Mubarak. In defiance of threats from the police, and in contravention of a national taboo, some demonstrators chanted slogans against Mubarak, condemning his government for maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel, for exporting natural gas to the country and for restricting movement through Egypt’s border with Gaza. As the street protests went on, young Egyptians also were mobilizing and venting their anger over Gaza on what would, until recently, have seemed an unlikely venue: Facebook, the social-networking site.”

Although Facebook might seem like an unlikely site to turn to foment political revolution, social networking plays an increasingly important role among young people in traditional, but connected, Muslim societies. The reason, of course, is that it is easier to meet someone of the opposite sex on-line than it is to meet them in public where such meetings are often frowned upon (or, in regions controlled by so-called fundamentalists, dangerous).

“In most countries in the Arab world, Facebook is now one of the 10 most-visited Web sites, and in Egypt it ranks third, after Google and Yahoo. About one in nine Egyptians has Internet access, and around 9 percent of that group are on Facebook — a total of almost 800,000 members. This month, hundreds of Egyptian Facebook members, in private homes and at Internet cafes, have set up Gaza-related ‘groups.’ Most expressed hatred for Israel and the United States, but each one had its own focus. Some sought to coordinate humanitarian aid to Gaza, some criticized the Egyptian government, some criticized other Arab countries for blaming Egypt for the conflict and still others railed against Hamas. … Some Egyptian Facebook users had joined all three groups.”

Using social network sites for political reasons is a far cry from using them to meet girls or guys, but the reason for using them is the same — it is safer than meeting in public.

“Freedom of speech and the right to assemble are limited in Egypt, which since 1981 has been ruled by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party under a permanent state-of-emergency law. An estimated 18,000 Egyptians are imprisoned under the law, which allows the police to arrest people without charges, allows the government to ban political organizations and makes it illegal for more than five people to gather without a license from the government. Newspapers are monitored by the Ministry of Information and generally refrain from directly criticizing Mubarak. And so for young people in Egypt, Facebook, which allows users to speak freely to one another and encourages them to form groups, is irresistible as a platform not only for social interaction but also for dissent.”

The most interesting political Facebook group that Shipiro discusses is called “the April 6 Youth Movement, a group of 70,000 mostly young and educated Egyptians, most of whom had never been involved with politics before joining the group.”

“The movement is less than a year old; it formed more or less spontaneously on Facebook last spring around an effort to stage a general nationwide strike. Members coalesce around a few issues — free speech, economic stagnation and government nepotism — and they share their ideas for improving Egypt. But they do more than just chat: they have tried to organize street protests to free jailed journalists, and this month, hundreds of young people from the April 6 group participated in demonstrations about Gaza, some of which were coordinated on Facebook, and at least eight members of the group were detained by police. As with any group on Facebook, members can post comments or share news articles, videos or notes on the group’s communal ‘wall.’ The wall of the April 6 group is constantly being updated with new posts, and the talk is often heated and intense.”

Although Israeli actions in Gaza prompted a flood of comments by April 6 members (many expressing hatred for Israel), some of the more influential members reminded others that changing Egyptian politics is more important than hating Israel.

“Unlike many protest groups in Egypt that were angry about Gaza, [Ahmed Maher, a 28-year-old engineer who is one of the group’s unofficial leaders,] saw Gaza as a way to stoke and focus discontent against Mubarak and his government. Maher saw Egypt’s relationship with Israel as one symptom of a larger set of problems — censorship, corruption, joblessness and government incompetence — whose solution would lie not in resistance in Gaza but in democratization at home. ‘We should link politics with economic and social problems to show that our suffering is caused by a corrupt regime,’ Maher wrote. The fact that tens of thousands of disaffected young Egyptians unhappy with their government meet online to debate and plan events is remarkable, given the context of political repression in which it is occurring. Organized groups opposed to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party have long lived under constant surveillance by the government; their leaders are regularly jailed. As a result, most Egyptian opposition groups remain small and are often plagued by infighting. And although about a third of Egypt’s population is between 15 and 29, young Egyptians have for years been politically disengaged. A 2004 study by the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies found that 67 percent of young people weren’t registered to vote, and 84 percent had never participated in a public demonstration.”

Members of the April 6 Movement represent a microcosm of those who would like to address the challenges that face many developing countries — lingering poverty, unemployed youth, and corrupt governments that are perceived as disconnected from the very people they are supposed to serve.

“Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, … said that it was no surprise that young Egyptians have chosen to put their political energy into a group that is not part of the Egyptian political process. ‘The state of the opposition in Egypt is so pathetic that existing parties have lost all credibility. … They’ve been around for a long time and produced nothing.’ The April 6 Facebook group, he said, ‘has credibility because it hasn’t sold out to the regime or played the pathetic, limited game of politics the regime engages in.’ … The April 6 movement has its roots in Egypt’s brief burst of political freedom in 2005 and 2006, which came after the Bush administration put pressure on the Mubarak regime to hold its first multiparty election. Although the election was far from free, it created new opportunities for activists to organize and demonstrate, and out of the campaign a loose coalition of socialist, leftist and Islamist groups emerged called Kefaya (‘enough’ in Arabic). They focused on direct action and rarely discussed ideology, but they were united on one issue: that Hosni Mubarak should not be allowed to transfer power to his son Gamal. Kefaya organized street protests to pressure Mubarak to step down, hold free elections and allow the Egyptian judiciary to remain independent. Some demonstrations attracted as many as 10,000 people. This flare-up of political activity coincided with the moment Egyptians were starting to gain access to the Internet in large numbers. Home computers and Internet cafes were becoming more popular, and the cost of getting online was dropping, thanks to a government initiative intended to encourage technological innovation in Egypt. The new technologies and political movements grew symbiotically. Shortly before Kefaya started, Wael Abbas, who is now one of Egypt’s most influential bloggers, set up a Web site called Egyptian Awareness, and it quickly became the main source of information on Kefaya’s activities, which were largely ignored by the state-run media. Abbas and a few other early adopters of blog technology worked simultaneously as political advocates and crusading journalists. In 2006, Abbas posted cellphone-video footage of a police officer sodomizing a screaming minibus driver with an iron rod, which ultimately led to the officer’s conviction. Another prominent blogger and friend of Abbas’s, a woman in her early 30s named Nora Younis, posted stories about sexual harassment of women who participated in street demonstrations, which helped spur Egypt’s mainstream media to cover the issue. (Younis worked briefly for The New York Times as a stringer.) Political blogs became essential reading for opposition parties; in 2005, Al Dustur, a weekly paper opposed to the regime, started a blog page, which reprinted important posts for readers without Internet access.”

As you can imagine, all of this activity did not go unnoticed by the Egyptian government. According to Shapiro, “Members who identified themselves as government security agents joined the April 6 group, too, posting comments under the insignia of the Egyptian police.” The fact that the police let April 6 members know that they knew what they were up to (and have even arrested members of the group) has not discouraged continued activism.

“Ethan Zuckerman, a research fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, [asserts] that the April 6 movement illustrates what he calls the ‘cute-cat theory of digital activism.’ Web sites or proxy servers created specifically for activists are easy for a government to shut down, Zuckerman says, but around the world, dissidents thrive on sites, like Facebook, that are used primarily for more mundane purposes (like exchanging pictures of cute cats). Authoritarian regimes can’t block political Facebook groups without blocking all the ‘American Idol’ fans and cat lovers as well. ‘The government can’t simply shut down Facebook, because doing so would alert a large group of people who they can’t afford to radicalize,’ Zuckerman explained.”

That is one of the strengths of connectivity (particularly the Internet) — governments have a difficult time trying to provide access while simultaneously trying to limit content.

“Interestingly, young Islamists in Egypt have also started blogging in ways that challenge their elders, often posting critical comments about the senior leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the past, this kind of internal dialogue was suppressed by the brotherhood’s leadership, or at least hidden from view, since the brotherhood’s newspapers were outlawed. But the official leaders of the brotherhood and younger malcontents have both found a happy home on the Internet. Abdel Monem Mahmoud, one of the most prominent young Muslim Brotherhood bloggers, recently wrote a scathing critique of an article by a brotherhood leader arguing that all politicians must be devoted Muslims. And when the brotherhood circulated a draft of a political platform — the first step toward becoming an official political party — a 28-year-old brotherhood member named Mustafa Naggar used his blog to publish critiques of the platform’s prohibition against electing women or Coptic Christians to the presidency. A somewhat-grudging alliance has developed among some of the young Islamist bloggers and their secular-liberal compatriots over issues of free speech and the rights of opposition parties.”

According to Shapiro, leaders in Washington, DC, have taken notice of the April 6 Movement and have come to realize that the Internet has the potential to become a useful “soft power” tool in it diplomatic kit.

“James Glassman, the outgoing under secretary of state for public diplomacy, [indicated] he followed the group closely. ‘It’s not easy in Egypt, and in other countries in the Middle East, to form robust civil-society organizations,’ he said. ‘And in a way that’s what these groups are doing, although they’re certainly unconventional.’ Other State Department officials told [Shapiro] they believe that social-networking software like Facebook’s has the potential to become a powerful pro-democracy tool. They pointed to recent developments in Saudi Arabia, where in November a Facebook group helped organize a national hunger strike against the kingdom’s imprisonment of political opponents, and in Colombia, where activists last February used Facebook to organize one of the largest protests ever held in that country, a nationwide series of demonstrations against the FARC insurgency. Not long ago, the State Department created its own group on Facebook called “Alliance of Youth Movements,” a coalition of groups from a dozen countries who use Facebook for political organizing.”

Critics of using social networking sites for political activities note that on-line groups often consist of those willing to criticize the status quo but who offer little in the way of a positive alternative.

“As Amr Hamzawy, an Egyptian political scientist who is currently a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told [Shapiro]: ‘Just saying you are against Mubarak automatically gets a certain number of people behind you, but it’s not enough. Kefaya wasn’t capable and ready for the next step. They needed to put forth a positive platform as well as a critique of Mubarak in order to move beyond the base of elites in Cairo. April 6 will have to do this. It will have to become more organized in order to succeed where Kefaya failed.’ … By organizing online, the April 6 movement avoids some of the pitfalls of party politics in Egypt — censorship, bureaucracy, compromise with the regime. But whenever the movement’s members try to migrate offline, they find they are still playing by Egypt’s rules. They almost never meet in real life, certainly not in large groups, and when they do, the police often show up.”

When people connect, the world changes — sometimes for good and sometimes for ill; but mostly for good. The use of social networking sites for political purposes was probably not foreseen by their founders, but I’m sure they are delighted with such developments. More and more often I see conferences organized to help businesses understand and exploit the power of social networks. As members of the Network Generation move into positions of power, I predict that even greater use will be made of such sites.