The chorus of pundits gleefully declaring the end of the “Facebook Revolution” continues today, when none other than Thomas Friedman gets in on the action. Friedman does little other than recapitulate Francis Fukuyama’s piece from last week (and at least admits that this is what he is doing). But that doesn’t mean the argument is any more coherent.
Three points are important to consider:
1) The “revolutionaries” (a term that is being used a little too broadly here) spent most of the last 14 months in the streets, challenging Egypt’s military government on a series of issues, and often winning concessions: on the timing of presidential elections, on the prosecution of Mubarak himself, on some changes in the Ministry of Interior. Sometimes they lost, as they did with the March 2011 constitutional referendum. But the reality is that many people who organized and participated in the revolution thought there were more important things to organize for than presidential elections. You can criticize that strategy, but you can’t hold it up as proof that they went all-in on some particular candidate and got beat. It just isn’t true.
2) There is not a single person in Egypt — not one activist! — who would sit in an interview with you and tell you that Facebook is somehow sufficient to win elections in a country with 26% Internet penetration (or anywhere for that matter) and where millions live on less than $2 a day. Friedman is engaging in the common practice of setting up the digital straw man, an argument he cannot hang around the neck of a single actual person, since no one makes this argument. After reading enough of these pieces, you get the feeling that these guys really want the digital activists to fail – having been wrong about the durability of authoritarianism in the Middle East, they hope to be proven right that young activists are little more than dilettantes who, as David McCullough’s obnoxious commencement speech put it last week, “lie around watching parrots rollerskating on Youtube.”
3) As I noted last week, many of these activists are extremely young, are engaged with politics for the first time, and are actively organizing and thinking about how to build a long-term movement that can challenge the entrenched power of the Brotherhood and the military, who have a decades-long head start on them. To declare, a year after the revolution, that their failure to consolidate power against these entrenched social forces makes the idea of digital activism obsolete or irrelevant, is kind of bizarre. These activists understand the limitations of the tools. They knew, a year ago, that they had a long way to go, that they had to get out and talk to people, and that they needed time to build a movement. They also knew they would probably lose at first. Instead of attacking them by using the world’s most prominent op-ed real estate, maybe Friedman should actually give them that time. And give them a little credit for the late surge of Hamdeen Sabbahy.
4) Friedman says the young revolutionaries “could learn about leadership and the importance of getting things done by studying Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party, known as A.K.P.” He then goes on to attack the A.K.P. for clamping down on freedoms inside of Turkey and then argues that “Its like China.” Sorry, what is it they are supposed to learn again? “Brick-and-mortar” politics were impossible in Mubarak era Egypt. The revolutionaries chose silicon-and-digital politics not because they thought it was cool, but because it was the only path open to them at the time. As always with Friedman’s articles, the ratio of facepalm moments to actual insights is about 5 to 1.
Fukayama, Friedman and countless other observers want to earn their “counter-intuitive merit badges” by arguing that, as people like Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov have argued all along, digital tools are insufficient to bring about political change. Having been proven spectacularly wrong a year ago, they now seem bent on impugning the strategies, motives and capabilities of the very brave activists who helped bring change to Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and beyond.