What caused the uprising in Egypt that swiftly brought down Mubarak’s thirty-year-old regime? Depending on whom you’re listening to, the Internet had either everything or nothing to do with it.
On one extreme are the so-called “Cyber-Utopians,” who hail Egypt’s revolt as the “Facebook Revolution” and emphasize the role Internet tools played in sparking it over offline organizing by activists. On the other extreme are Malcolm Gladwell, Jon Stewart, Frank Rich and other media figures, whose eagerness to dismiss the Internet’s role has been equally unsubtle. Focusing almost entirely on social conditions in Egypt, these critics have treated the uprising as the inevitable consequence of poverty and human rights abuses.
Rich has a point: some Western media outlets dwelled on the novelty of social media while under-reporting the longer-term social forces that precipitated protests in Egypt. But others, criticized for having credited the Internet with ushering in the wave of protests in Iran, have downplayed social media’s role in bringing down Mubarak.
Oppressive social conditions do stoke a common hunger for change; however, a movement isn’t born until a core group of extraordinarily brave activists take that extra step, translating their outrage into public action. The reality is that social movements arise from a combination of conditions and courage.
What’s been missing in these arguments is a consideration of those early movers. How did they summon the courage to first step into Tahrir Square—and did the Internet embolden them?
In recent days, a young Google employee from Cairo named Wael Ghonim has emerged as the hero of the protest movement. Ghonim—who was arrested on January 28 and secretly detained until February 7—was the then-anonymous founder of the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page that initially called for and organized the January 25 protest. The page, which honors a 28-year-old from Alexandria who was pulled out of an Internet café and beaten to death by police who suspected him of releasing videos of police corruption online, was launched over six months ago. What started as a campaign against police brutality grew into an online hub for young Egyptians to share their frustrations over the abuses of the Mubarak regime. Among the active early participants in the “We Are All Khaled Said” community were human rights activists and dissident bloggers, many of whom knew one another and had been organizing against Mubarak’s policies for years, and some of whom had endured jail time for their activities.
Dalia Ziada, a long-time human rights activist and blogger, was one of these core activists. A few years ago, she came across an American comic book from the 1950s that told Martin Luther King’s story. Inspired by the success of King’s nonviolent tactics, she translated the book into Arabic and published it in print and online.