Lessons from Revolution 2.0
Images of Khaled before and after the assault spread like wildfire. [In the past] similar stories had not spread too widely … thanks to social media, it was proliferating like crazy
The words of Wael Ghonim, author of Revolution 2.0, refer to his Facebook page that helped mobilise 100,000 protestors to march Tahir Square on January 25th, 2011, an event that offset the Egyptian Revolution and the fall of Hosni Mubarak, whose regime helped butcher the young Khaled Said in the middle of 2010.
In the years leading up to the Egyptian Revolution of early 2011, the country hosted as many as 14 suicides a day. Unemployment was very high, especially amongst the young, and even those in work had to contend with extortionate price inflation. Freedom of speech was compromised and dissidents were detained without warrant or right to appeal (called the ‘emergency law’) and were even tortured. Police brutality was permitted while Egypt had a corruption score of 3.1/10 (with 10 being ‘clean’). For the five Presidents of the US since Reagan, Egypt had an increasingly dictatorial one: Hosni Mubarak, with prospects of passing power to his son. Ghonim anonymously created Kullena Kahled Said to identify with all innocent victims of the regime and soon mobilise activity against it. In the context of growing digital awareness and digital politicisation in the Middle East, membership of this page grew to more than 350,000 to become Egypt’s leading dissident virtual gathering.
With an outstanding education, exceptional work rate and warm romance with the Egyptian nation, the character of computer engineer Ghonim is an admirable one that offers inspiration and advice for all of us.
Our page, Kullena Khaled Said, was peaceful and inclusive; it sought justice and involved its participants in decision-making ... I avoided expressions that were not commonly used by the average Egyptian or that were commonly used by activists ...
It is often the isolated case that moves one to revolution, but this case is seldom detached from an oppressive context as if it is unrepresentative. With Khaled Said, Egypt was no exception and Ghonim tapped into the discontent in thousands of others who found courage and activism when they discovered their unity against a rotten state. ‘It was becoming clearer to me that Arabs, no matter how divided they seemed, shared a very deep common anger’. Of course, the Egyptian revolution was part of the Arab Spring that captivated the world in 2011. It was largely a failure, yet it brought the people together and united much of the world against Arab dictators. The account from the top of chapter 5 is testament to the urgency:
On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, an unlicensed vegetable-cart operator in Sidi Bouzid, a town 190 miles south of Tunis, had his cart confiscated by a police-woman, and when he complained to her, she allegedly slapped his face, humiliating him in front of everyone. He went to police headquarters to lodge a complaint, but the officers refused to see him. At 11.30 that morning he returned to headquarters and, as a protest, set himself on fire. He did not die immediately. He was transferred to a hospital near the capital. He passed away on January 4, 2011
Thankfully, Tunisia’s was the first revolution and the one that properly succeeded in the longer term.
Ghonim’s page achieved four ‘silent stands’ and a major contribution of numbers to the Jan25 protest after keeping its members updated and riled against the state machine, helping to bring Said’s killers to trial. There is a gut-churning moment when Ghonim’s identity is momentarily exposed after organising protests in the wane of 2010. This is an example of an anxiety spike in the reader. The risk of capture and the subsequent Orwellian wrath lingers under the pages of the book during the growth of Kullena Khaled Said. Despite the occasional reference to mundane details about technicalities like IP addresses, in the context of the emergency law and the heartbreaking example of Khaled Said this underlying anxiety keeps one sufficiently gripped. This is a fair achievement for a non-literary volume.
Moments before Jan25, Ghonim posted: ‘I have no idea where I might end up tomorrow night ... at home ... striking on the street ... arrested in a prison cell ... buried at a cemetery …’ Excitement gradually grows as Ghonim’s group struggles towards Tahrir Square, the quite ad hoc location of protest that replaced the planned one at Cairo University. Film director Amr Salama was present and almost experienced the same atrocity as Khaled Said. ‘[A guard] grabbed me and took me to a side street, where, on our way, we found a young man lying on the ground soaking in rivers of blood from his head’. Then, the ‘intense pounding’ serves to remind one that atrocities committed by apparently unreflective citizens with their conscience in the hands of a rotten authority are neither reserved for a time long gone nor so surprising:
I want you to kill him like the other guy, or otherwise I will come back and kill you. And if you’re hungry, eat him
Less than ten years ago, these words were spewed with vitriol in a country on the Mediterranean. The extent of the protest rapidly grew in number and enthusiasm, forcing the guards to disperse and giving Salama a chance to escape. Within a month, Mubarak was gone, too. Over 800 people lost their lives during the Revolution.
Just like Egypt’s history since the start of 2011, Ghonim experienced some rocky days following the Tahrir Square protest. On January 27th, with more protests planned, his Orwellian alarm clock started buzzing. ‘I was walking down a dimly lit street. Suddenly three men jumped me from behind ... ‘it’s done, sir. We’re ready’ ... you’re going to regret it if you scream’. During his detainment, the planned protests were realised and spread, escalating into the burning of government buildings, greater violence and an active military presence.
Wael Ghonim was detained for eleven consecutive days without contact with family, friends or daylight. He remerged in a country on the verge of profound change, which made the coming reality all the more poignant and frustrating.
How did social media work for Ghonim? On the Kullena page, there was limited authority, with different viewpoints influential and welcomed to create something that can come closer to an agreement and greater chance of success. Run by Ghonim as the anonymous admin, the page was more representative and delivered Facebook at the level of the democracy Egypt lacked.
It was critical to rely on members to produce content that would engage everyone in feedback and discussion. This was the means to keep Khaled Said’s cause alive and to combat torture more broadly. I regularly asked everyone to participate. It was important for everyone to feel responsible and relevant. When attention is given to talents, they are cultivated further. Members enjoyed it when the content they produced was discussed by thousands on the page.
The page relied on participatory democracy in making most of its decisions, particularly those that involved activities on the ground ... engagement was the page’s core concept and was certainly far more important to the page than activism.
In short, the members of the page had a say in how the protests would unfold, the key to its success. I also admire Ghonim for striking a good blend of tradition and modern by using social media while believing in his religion and the traditional civic culture in Egypt. In the book, social media is used several times for otherwise rather conservative content like the dissemination of videos of Islamic sermons and teachings on scripture. This adds a sense of authenticity and shows that social media and tradition need not be incompatible.
With free and unlimited comments, shares and statuses, Facebook offers the unique opportunity to influence people and commit them to a cause. Regrettably, this potential is seldom fully realised beyond the confine of screens. Those on Ghonim’s page met in the end; the virtual space was used to arrange the physical embrace. With Facebook newsfeeds so divisive in the West and wherever else, we ought to consider improvements of our own and use social media to tap into those many things which can unify the masses, giving us the power that comes with the rapture of definition and the activation of a collective identity. In countries needing one, Facebook can certainly aid revolutions on all levels and uphold the national spirit. However, to preserve the nation, it must, after working out the details, serve as a stepping stone to the physical embrace, the one that delivers actual enjoyments and the capacity to alter the system. Ghonim also demonstrated considerable courage by compromising his privileged and young life for activism that endangered it. Few of us can say we would have done the same, but we’ll all do well to make the most of our talents.
Revolution 2.0 arouses fury against those corrupted by power and hope that social media can renew its purpose and be seriously used as a force for good. The context is life weighed down by a rotten state, but it captivates the reader in the build-up to mass mobilisations occasioned by the intimacy of a screen through which anyone may lead a discourse. A readable volume, it is a must for anyone interested in revolution, justice and the role social media can play in their deliverance.
I swear the whole world will marvel at the Facebook youth
Wael Ghonim, Revolution 2.0 Harper Collins, London (2012)
I suggest anything that offers insight into the state of Egypt since the Revolution. I can only apologise for not covering much of that here, but it is best not to pretend to profess a great understanding of the Middle East, where things are also constantly changing and can still be rather volatile.
It is simply too soon to tell the true outcome of the Arab Spring. Our own journey from autocracy to democracy took centuries and included bloodshed, extremism, civil war and many false starts. Why should we expect modern transitions from dictatorship to democracy to be instant and painless? - David Cameron