As hundreds of thousands throng Cairo’s Tahrir Square today in celebration, remembrance and continued vigilance, it is worth thinking through the implications of these remarkable events for our understanding of digital activism. My book on the Egyptian revolution is forthcoming, but if I could distill 5 important takeaways, they would be this:
1. If this wasn’t a social media revolution, then there is no such thing.
The role of online organizations (or organizations that began online) such as We Are All Khaled Said and the April 6th Youth Movement is well-documented. In discussions with activists in Cairo this past summer, individuals were quick to point out that “this wasn’t a social media revolution.” This line was so default that it was almost like activists had gotten together and agreed on the spin. It is certainly true that most Egyptians took to the streets because their friends and neighbors had done so, and probably never saw the clarion calls on WAKS. But all agreed that it was social media that issued the call, and in the words of the activist Amr Gharbeia, “We created the crisis.” The idea for January 25th originated with organizers who met and did much of their important work online. Of course that work had to be paired with street organizing and innovating tactics, but the reality remains: there would have been no revolution on January 25th without Khaled Said and April 6th and the dedicated efforts of their members. It might be better to call this, as I do in a forthcomingPolitique étrangère article, a “networked revolt” than a social media revolution, since it avoids loading all causal responsibility on the technologies and allows us instead to take true stock of how those technologies contributed to the mobilization.
2. Social media activists have not inherited the political empowerment of the revolutions.
In both Egypt and Tunisia, the immediate political beneficiaries of the revolutions have been political Islamists, the long-banned Nahda in Tunisia, and the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. Pessimists have been taking to the media and declaring the revolution a failure, or more pointedly, “doomed.” This is as predictable a narrative as one can imagine in the modern world, since observers on the global right have been suspicious of the revolutions from the very beginning as detrimental to U.S. security interests. This discourse overwrites the broad consensus in places like Egypt – from liberals to reactionaries like the Salafist Nour Party – against actually existing U.S. foreign policy and the complicity of local governments in the repression and dispossession of the Palestinians. In fact, anger about local and American foreign policies was one among many long-held grievances in these body politics, and the digital activists who failed to see their achievements embodied in parliamentary seats in fact share the broad antipathy toward American policy that is expressed by Islamist groups. Many of these activists are quite young, and WAKS and the April 6th activists are in fact more emboldened than ever, and are embarking on a political transformation they themselves know to be futile in the short run but critical in the long-term.
3. Digital activism remains a critical tool for those seeking to push long-term change.
In spite of having been written off by observers and lambasted for their year-long presence in Tahrir Square, digital activists have been at the forefront of all the major challenges to Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, as the activists seek to build a broad-based movement meant to challenge remaining elements of authoritarianism. Thus it was activists, still putting out their calls to demonstrate on Twitter and Facebook, who succeeded in pushing presidential elections forward to June, altering the electoral system, and instigating the first, albeit tiny, steps toward reforming recalcitrant security behemoths. Many of these activists are quite young, just out of college or in their mid-to-late 20s. It was simply unrealistic to expect these groups to suddenly descend like some deus ex-machina and snatch power away from groups like the Brotherhood, who have been organizing in Egypt for over 80 years and maintain strong public support through their social service networks. “We Know the Way to Tahrir” is still the rallying cry of activists who, while dispirited about the Islamist wave and angry at the obstructionism of the SCAF, still believe in the spirit of the revolution, and plan to use their whole toolkit – from digital organizing to street politics – to press whatever authority replaces the SCAF on issues ranging from military trials to the state of emergency.
4. An open Internet remains the world’s most potent macro-tool to challenge authoritarian regimes.
We all know the many ways that authoritarian regimes have adapted to, co-opted and rolled up digital dissent from Russia to China and Iran. But we should not confuse these short-term set-backs and authoritarian victories with the bigger picture – with an open Internet and an evolving toolkit of circumvention devices, digital activism remains the only real choice for many activists toiling under tyranny and hoping to build long-term movements to challenge authoritarianism. From Russia to Tunisia, the networked revolt has become the de facto choice of publics fed up with authoritarian excess and seeking to capture the spirit of Tahrir at home and internationally. Companies that supply authoritarian regimes with surveillance and blocking software should be called to the carpet in the global public sphere, as campaigns like Access Now add to the pressure on Internet-filterers and their apologists. No one can say that these campaigns will be successful in places like Syria, where authoritarian rulers maintain an edge in arms and resources, but digital tools are still one of the primary weapons of the weak even where service is cut off and disrupted, web sites filtered and attacked and activists are murdered in the streets. Without the open Internet, we would not know what was happening in the streets of Homs like we do, and the documentation of these brave activists will continue to provide an unfolding record of the cruelty and savagery of their tormentors.
5. Arab digital activists have increased the sum total of freedom in the world.
Again reactionaries lament the results of free elections, as do some activists, but the truth is that we now have real politics in parts of the Arab world, with more on the way, and those victories can be traced to the efforts of the digital activists. There will be temptations in policy circles to tamp down on our efforts to promote digital freedom and activism, simply because these revolutions brought to power groups whose interests clash with Washington. In the long run, however, the activists took a crowbar and wrenched open the door to democracy in this region, and their efforts should be applauded and appreciated. Policymakers, academics and international organizations should always side with freedom against tyranny, and furthermore, understand that digital tools will be one of the primary paths of resistance to any renewed authoritarian politics in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. The tsunami of dignity and courage unleashed by April 6th, We Are All Khaled Said, and Tunisia bloggers like the administrators of Nawaat cannot be reversed permanently, and in fact, activists all over the region now know that the formula for success includes a role for digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter. We must not confuse short-term policy disagreements with the long-term benefits of global democratic politics. Digital activism is the only way forward.
A year ago today Egyptians inspired the whole world, from the Occupy Wall Street protests to the Wisconsin occupations, and reminded us of the power that ordinary individuals can harness through the ordinary digital tools they carry around in their pockets. Yes there will always be corporate and authoritarian threats to those tools, and no they will not always or even usually succeed. But the networked revolt is here to stay, as are the activists of the digital world. And don’t be surprised if in a decade or two, they do indeed belatedly inherit the beautiful revolution they authored.