In a world of insta-analysis that demands predictions, many commentators looked at the Tunisian revolution and argued that it was an isolated affair, and that structural factors would prevent the rest of the Arab states from suffering similar fates. In a particularly incoherent article containing some gobbledygook about the Roman Empire in the New York Times, primordialist du jour Robert D. Kaplan argued that the unrest was unlikely to spread to Cairo and beyond and plainly stated his admiration for dictators like the late Habib Bourgiba of Tunisia (who he hilariously referred to as “one of the lesser-known Great Men of the twentieth century”). The American political class’s love affair with cooperative dictators is obviously alive and quite well. This journalist consensus reflects what I consider to be an increasingly smug agreement in American political science about the entrenched nature of authoritarian rule in the Middle East – a consensus that both empties social science of any moral obligations, and gives license to the political class to continue dealing with reprehensible tyrants as if they will be around forever.
In any case, last week’s predictions are moot, as the unrest has now demonstrably spread to Egypt (and to Yemen, where I will defer to others). The regime is frightened enough that it has reportedly shut down the Internet across Egypt. And this is not just Cairo – credible reports are rolling in that the regime may be losing control in places like Sallum, on the border with Libya. The Muslim Brotherhood, probably the most organized opposition force in the country, has finally joined the fray and promised to join in demonstrations after Friday prayers tomorrow, whose slogan is now, according to al-Masry al-Youm, “No Retreat and No Surrender” (AR). The unrest has its own unique Egyptian causes, most notably a longstanding campaign against police brutality and torture that intensified with the Khaled Said campaign, but it is also undeniably influenced by events in Tunisia.
There is no way to know what role digital technologies have played in the unrest, but certainly it appears that people are relying on them for coordination. We are privy to video footage of the kind that would not have been possible ten years ago, like this already-iconic video of a single protester bravely castrating a water gun being fired on him by cowards in an armored vehicle. Shutting down the Internet may interfere with Egyptians’ sense that the unrest is national, which is where international activism can play a role by relaying reports from contacts inside Egypt. The question is – will they shut down the mobile networks too? Unless they do, the intrepid will manage to ensure that the Tweet goes on.
I would personally like to take a break from trying to parse the events and wish my friends in Egypt safety and good luck. I was lucky enough to meet dozens of kind, bighearted people during my research in Egypt, earnest and thoughtful young people who yearned for a voice, and for democratic change, many of whom had been to prison for the crime of free expression. They deserve better, and I am in awe of their courage. I certainly hope that if nothing else, we refuse to continue countenancing the sacrifice of their rights at the altar of geostrategy.