[Note added much later, 5/31/2011: I recently learned more about what actually happened in Egypt, and now I don't believe what I say in this post. In fact, Facebook played a very major role in organizing the demonstrations. It turns out that you can propose a demonstration using Facebook and get a lot of people to come to it, and that can have a huge role in triggering a revolt, even if the people know that there might be some danger.]
At least in the beginning, the current revolution in Egypt was guided by a small team. It was not entirely a spontaneous uprising. How do these things happen?
A few months ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article in The New Yorker about the use of of Internet social media for social activism. He basically debunks a lot of what has been said about the use of Facebook and Twitter in recent revolutions. You may remember hearing about the great importance of Twitter in the Iran uprisings, e.g. how it was used to get information out of Iran, or allow the protesters to work together. He points out:
The people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote, this past summer, in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran”” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach — or didn’t bother reaching — people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”
Gladwell shows how the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960′s worked, in some detail. The volunteers had very strong personal connections. What they were doing was extremely risky and required a lot of physical courage. To make this work required work like a military campaign, with strong central leadership and careful planning.
Today, the New York Times ran an article about how the present Egyptian uprisings started. It fits the very model that Gladwell described a few months ago: a small central group, starting with careful planning and pre-testing. Anyone looking at what’s been happening in Egypt for the last few weeks could easily think that it was all disorganized and spontaneous. But the organization wasn’t easily appearent; in fact, the organizers kept their activities secret as long as possible, for obvious reasons. It’s only now that we are finding out in more detail what happened.
I see this as a vindication of, or at least a strong data-point in support of, the argument Gladwell put forth in his article. As Gladwell points out, social media such as Facebook, with their weaker forms of more-widespread links and decentralization are excellent for some purposes, just not for these, and we should not jump to conclusions.
By the way, when the protests started, I was not optimistic about success. Success is very difficult. I expected brutal retaliation followed by the regime’s becoming even more autocratic and harsh. I am very surprised and very pleased at what has happened. The people of Egypt have worked very hard and taken considerable risk to make this happen. As I write this, the news is that Mubarak is still refusing to step down, despite expectations earlier today that he would do so. He refused to give any assurances that he would step down in September. It’s hard for me to see why any such “assurances” would carry weight anyway; if the protests stop, he can just carry on business as usual.
Not surprisingly, he is blaming “foreigners” despite the obvious fact that the protesters are ordinary Egyptians. This is very, very different from foreign overthrows such as those of Mohammad Mossaddegh in Iran in 1953, or of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatamala in 1954, which were staged primarily by the C.I.A. I have read quite extensively about those events and there is absolutely no way that the present events in Egypt match that pattern.
I continue to hope for their success.