FACT: In the past two days, reporters for the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post have each written accounts of the ongoing confrontation in Egypt between the government and online activists – the “Facebook Revolution” as the Post reporter terms it, hyperbolically. One interesting aspect: the two accounts are not carried as actual news stories in the “newspaper” (real or virtual), but as blog posts by the reporters on dedicated foreign-correspondent blogs. The Washington Post account is on the “PostGlobal” uber-blogsite, under Jack Fairweather’s “Islam’s Advance” blog, while the L.A. Times account is on the “Babylon & Beyond” blog, which carries a sub-head of “Observations from Iraq, Iran, Israel, the Arab World and Beyond.”
ANALYSIS: Up to now there’s been little coverage in traditional American media outlets of the emerging political tenor of some social networks in Egypt over the past several months. Major newspapers and the cable-news channels have not explored the topic, but I just returned from some time in Egypt and I learned that of course it is a widely covered and discussed topic there. One young woman in her 30s, an urban professional, told me “I’m on Facebook all day long!”
Every morning outside my hotel room I would find an English-language newspaper, and for many days in a row it was a different paper – often because they were weekly editions. That gave me the opportunity to read a variety of opinions from a somewhat broad band, as measured in “distance to/from the government position.”
Helpfully, on May 6 2008 the Egyptian Mail included a summary of the raging controversy over Facebook, noting that “In Egypt, Facebook is the stage for the latest twist in the generation gap, playing host to politically hungry young Egyptians eager to take on their ageing leader.” Only at the end of the article did I notice that it was reprinted from a New-York-based Egyptian blogger, the respected Mona Eltahawwy.
I also read the front page of “The Egyptian Gazette” on May 5 2008 and an above-the-fold story, “Strike Call Gets Short Shrift”:
A call for a nationwide strike was met with a cool reception in Egypt yesterday, as few people minded the call, while the vast majority of Egyptians went about their own business as usual. The strike was advocated by a group of young Egyptians who spread news about their planned action through the social networking site Facebook. They cited deteriorating economic conditions, soaring prices of basic commodities and low salaries as reasons for their actions….”
A few days later, I read in the Al-Ahram Weekly an excellent analysis of the government’s response to “the website that has become a favourite venue for Egypt’s disaffected young.” The full analysis, titled “Facing Facebook,” is online, but I’ll quote just one point which will resonate with Western readers who think about not the revenue-commercial aspects but the socio-political aspects of the future of social-networking:
Technology, says political analyst Nabil Abdel-Fattah, has provided young people with spaces that transcend the barriers that nation-states might want to impose. “There are hundreds of websites that bloggers have created so that their voices can be heard loud and clear… It is as if the state can come up with nothing but old policies in facing new, revolutionary techniques.”
I make no characterization of the Egyptian government’s positions, tactics, or policies – because it’s not my place and because I simply don’t know enough about the issues involved or the history of the grievances cited by the protestors.
But I’m very interested in the phenomenon of social-networking sites and Web 2.0 approaches in the nexus of government-citizen relationships. Much of the American discussion has been limited to the political campaign usage in the 2008 presidential race. (Come to think of it, Barack Obama’s Facebook and MySpace focus is, to my mind, simply a linear extension of Howard Dean’s use of Meetup.com in 2004, and of both Republican and Democratic innovative email efforts in 2000.)
The utility of social networks for positive relationships between governing entities and the governed is more interesting I think, and has a lot more room to run. Conversely, their utility for anti-government communication and information transfer among politically-voiceless classes is certainly light-years past the old Soviet era of samizdat and tamizdat. (That’s a memory test for my old Kremlinological colleagues, but if you’re interested at all in the mechanics and social dynamics of information-sharing within closed societies, you could do worse than read George Saunders’ Samizdat: Voices of the Soviet Opposition, or even better Samizdat Register 2: Voices of the Socialist Opposition in the Soviet Union by the remarkable dissident-Soviet-historian-turned-Russian-politician Roy Medvedev.)
Most Western attention has been more on the technology — the “network” — than on the “social” aspects of what’s going on, even to the point of being fascinated by seemingly related issues as the “using Twitter to get out of an Egyptian jail” story last month. That actually had little to do with the indigenous social network(s), though it definitely underscored Abdel-Fattah’s point about transcending boundaries.
But as I say there has been an uptick this week in Western coverage of this phenomenon from Cairo (e.g. this thoughtful analysis in World Politics Review), and I’m continuing to follow the events in Egypt and elsewhere internationally, as it makes a definite change from reading about Facebook’s revenue from eyeballs and social-net-commerce :-)
Oh – and go ahead and check this out.
[Note: Also see here for a more recent updated post on the issue.]
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