Sunday, August 14, 2011

The power behind Egypt's unrest

The following first appeared in The National's Review section on February 4, 2011

The revolution will be Twitterised, said one young Egyptian on January 25, the day that the protests in Cairo began. Her tweet was meant both to praise the social networking site and to condemn TV news channels, which at the time seemed more interested in the rioting in Lebanon than in the mass demonstrations in Cairo.

For years, pundits and social media activists have heralded the internet as the great leveller, a forum for true democracy. To the internet evangelists, sites such as Facebook and Twitter can be used to bring governments to account. And yet the internet is unlikely to fulfil the utopian visions of its most ardent advocates.

The power of the medium has been evident in events in Tunisia and Egypt, which were organised online. There have been other breakthroughs in the past weeks. In China, so-called "human search engines" - web users who perform research to humiliate targeted individuals - recently scored a coup when Li Qiming was sentenced on Monday to six years in prison for drunkenly driving over a young college student.

The 23-year-old Li reportedly tried to escape arrest by saying "my father is Li Gang". The phrase and the story went viral and a human search engine revealed that that Li's father was a local police chief. Both father and son were subjected to online ridicule, and attempts by the Communist party to hush up the controversy failed.

All the same, the web's limitations as a tool of rebellion are striking. This becomes clear when one considers the shadowy organisation known as Anonymous. A group of so-called "hacktivists", they are, in their own words "the hardened war veterans of the internet". The group was responsible for interrupting service on the websites of Mastercard, Visa, PayPal and Amazon, punishing those companies for halting payments to Wikileaks. More recently, Anonymous sought to offer alternative means of web access to protesters in Egypt after the Egyptian government took the country offline.

In many ways, the members of Anonymous and their ilk typify the internet - Clark Kents who become Che Guevaras when they get home and log on. And as of last Thursday, dozens of them have had their cover blown.

The FBI arrested 40 purported members of Anonymous for their alleged participation in the web assault on credit card companies. One of those arrested reported in surprise that the agents had pointed "real guns" at him. Another turned out to be an 18-year-old computer science student at a university in the state of Georgia.

It is debatable whether the FBI needed to kick down doors with pistols drawn, but it is a sign of how seriously governments take online activists. In the US they arrest them. In many other countries they incarcerate them as political prisoners. The Man, it seems, also runs the internet, and in Egypt, he did something unprecedented: he shut it down.

The fact that protests continued points to another underacknowledged aspect of the web. As revolutionary a tool of communication as it is, that's all it is. The message is more important than the medium, and the audience has to be ready to hear it.

Egypt furnishes other proofs of this. In 2008, when the April 6 movement used Facebook to bring thousands on to the streets in El Mahalla El Kubra, the world was abuzz. Advocates for democracy in the region praised the site and some governments considered blocking it. Yet a similar protest called on the same day a year later attracted almost no support.

Something much older than the internet has fuelled the latest protests in Tunisia and Egypt. It is the same thing that sparked revolutions in America, France, Iran and Eastern Europe - anger at a government that people feel is out of touch, repressive and corrupt. That's something that can't be unplugged, and which retains its power even when it steps out from behind the keyboard.