Blaming Facebook For Egypt’s Elections

This repugnant Mark Steyn op-ed is merely the most open elaboration of a new meme travelling through the American punditocracy, namely that because an Islamist and a remnant of the Mubarak regime finished 1-2 in the Egyptian presidential election, Facebook has been proved useless (and of course, Egypt is lost to the “Shariah-enforcing, Jew-hating, genital-mutilating enthusiasts of the Muslim Brotherhood”). While the matchup of Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi and former Muberak PM Ahmed Shafiq is hardly ideal, it also not yet a foregone conclusion, as there is a pending court case against Shafiq’s candidacy that may yet disqualify him. There are also credible rumors that Shafiq was illegally assigned 900,000 votes, vaulting him ahead of the third-place candidate, Hamdeen Sabahy (Abel Moneim Aboul Fotouh did not finish third as Steyn mistakenly asserts in his article).

But even if Morsi and Shafiq do indeed square off next month in the run-off, this is hardly proof of Facebook’s failure as a tool, or more generally, of the revolution itself. First, Sabahy’s campaign was completely written off as little as a week ago, before getting support from the same revolutionaries and tech enthusiasts that Steyn dismisses. His third-place showing shocked everyone, and was almost certainly driven in part by online organizing and the enthusiasm of supporters of the revolution. (Sabahy in fact has 141,945 “likes” on Facebook, which is hardly enough to win a campaign but not the “0 friends” sarcastically mentioned by Steyn). Second and more broadly, why is anyone asserting a direct relationship between the tools used to organize the revolution and the results of these elections? Long before there was Facebook, there were multiple revolutionary candidates splitting votes and throwing post-transition elections to reactionaries – see Korea, 1987. Nothing that happens in these elections can retroactively invalidate the contribution of social media technologies to the revolution itself, and we should hardly be surprised that these revolutionaries, many of them barely out of college, were out-organized politically by more experienced and better-funded forces.

People like Steyn, and even calmer and more rational thinkers like Francis Fukayama, need to take a step back and stop trying to analyze everything about the Arab Spring through the lens of the Muslim Brotherhood’s success or failure. First, if Shafiq is disqualified, there is no question that Sabahy has at least a fighting chance against Morsi (I’m sure we’ll then be told that Sabahy is too Leftist, and that this is another reason why the Arab Spring has failed and Facebook is frivolous). Second, the kind of people that Mark Steyn dream about winning presidential elections in Egypt — Israel-friendly, secular, Mitt Romney-esque defenders of freeenterprisecaptitalism — barely exist in Egypt. Third, if Morsi does win in free and fair elections, the best move would be to work with him to design balanced institutions that might survive a turnover in power, rather than hyperventilating about the coming of the Islamists. A Morsi victory would, in fact, be the best possible argument for weakening the presidency vis-a-vis the parliament, removing the spectre of super-presidentialism which has dismantled democracies from Venezuela to Ukraine. Above all that, we should be grateful that these elections were held with minimal violence, and should marvel at the sight of the formerly repressed exercising their democratic rights. Or wasn’t it just yesterday that the American right-wing punditocracy tripped over themselves in admiration for Iraqi elections that ushered in a bunch that was every bit as regressive as Morsi and his allies? Maybe I dreamed that.

As for the Facebook-wielding revolutionaries themselves, I guarantee that you have not seen the last of them, whoever wins this election. In Korea it took another decade before the “386 generation” – born in the 60s, went to college in the 80s and entered their 30s in the 1990s — took power. There is no reason at all to hold Egypt, the revolutionaries, or even their preferred technologies to some kind of magical and impossible standard of success, to which no other revolutionaries in modern history have ever been held. It would also be helpful if people who genuinely do not understand Facebook and what it does (and who do not understand that the social media universe is much larger than just Facebook) would stop trying desperately to prove that their preferred old world of dead trees and committee meetings was preferable to what we have now.

To be clear: Many Egyptians are distraught about these election results, contrary to Steyn’s assertion that the country is comprised entirely of fanatics. But the victory of the Islamists was widely expected prior to the beginning of parliamentary and presidential elections – in fact, since the very first day of the uprisings. The Arab Spring, as well as digital activism, remain very much alive.

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