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Egypt '11 Recalls ... Iowa '08?

[Guest post by Noam Scheiber:]

Clearly I'm going to catch a lot of flack for this--much of it deserved, since the analogy is flawed in too many ways to list (though I feel some obligation to list the biggest one: Obviously turning out to protest an autocratic regime is an almost infinitely greater act of courage than showing up to vote for a presidential candidate in a liberal democracy).

Still, if you followed the way the Obama campaign organized for the Iowa caucuses, it's hard not to think of that episode when you read this excellent New York Times piece about the origins of the Egyptian protest movement.

It's not just the superficial analogy involving young people and social networking, which isn't very compelling. It's that, in both cases, the people doing the organizing realized they'd get precisely nowhere if they mainly relied on the people who traditionally turn out for these things (regular caucus-goers in the case of Iowa; longtime opposition activists in the case of Egypt), and so they used social networking tools to help expand the universe of people they drew from, which skewed toward the young and previously apolitical, and rendered the more traditional organizational structure somewhat beside the point. The Obama-Iowa story is obviously familiar by now. Here's the Times on Egypt:

The Egyptian revolt was years in the making. Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old civil engineer and a leading organizer of the April 6 Youth Movement, first became engaged in a political movement known as Kefaya, or Enough, in about 2005. Mr. Maher and others organized their own brigade, Youth for Change. But they could not muster enough followers; arrests decimated their leadership ranks, and many of those left became mired in the timid, legally recognized opposition parties. “What destroyed the movement was the old parties,” said Mr. Maher, who has since been arrested four times.
By 2008, many of the young organizers had retreated to their computer keyboards and turned into bloggers, attempting to raise support for a wave of isolated labor strikes set off by government privatizations and runaway inflation.
After a strike that March in the city of Mahalla, Egypt, Mr. Maher and his friends called for a nationwide general strike for April 6. To promote it, they set up a Facebook group that became the nexus of their movement, which they were determined to keep independent from any of the established political groups. Bad weather turned the strike into a nonevent in most places, but in Mahalla a demonstration by the workers’ families led to a violent police crackdown — the first major labor confrontation in years. ...
After the Tunisian revolution on Jan. 14, the April 6 Youth Movement saw an opportunity to turn its little-noticed annual protest on Police Day — the Jan. 25 holiday that celebrates a police revolt that was suppressed by the British — into a much bigger event. Mr. Ghonim used the Facebook site to mobilize support. If at least 50,000 people committed to turn out that day, the site suggested, the protest could be held. More than 100,000 signed up.

At the very least (and here I'm departing slightly from the Iowa analogy) this suggests that Malcom Gladwell's highly skeptical view of social networking--which I found pretty compelling at the time--is a bit overdone. Gladwell argued that Facebook and Twitter are great for getting people to do things that don't require much commitment (like, say, circulating a video of adorable puppies, or protesting the demise a special panini at your local deli), but are lousy for getting people to do things that entail real costs or personal risk. For that you need the kind of deep personal relationships that aren't normally forged using social networking tools, at least if they didn't exist before.

Egypt strikes me as a pretty big counter-example. What Gladwell and other social networking curmudgeons (like myself) missed is that if people share some fairly intense feeling--alienation, persecution, hope, maybe all three simultaneously--it doesn't really matter if they already know one another. The social networking tools can harness those emotions even if the social bonds aren't great to begin with.

Now Gladwell might say that the strong social networks existed among the people undertaking the greatest risks--the people who set up the Facebook pages in Egypt, who studied other successful social movements and transmitted that information to their peers. That may be true--it's tough to tell from the Times piece, though it doesn't necessarily sound that way. But, whatever the case, it's hard to argue that the other tens of thousands of people who participated were engaged in a low-risk activity.

Similarly, I'm sure Gladwell would say that the people who turned out in Tahrir Square probably did so because many of their friends did, and that the people most likely to turn out were people with lots of friends involved. He might even say that, if you drilled down deeply enough, you'd find that very few protestors were more than a couple degrees removed from any other.

Of course, these are ultimatley empirical questions that the Times doesn't broach. But I'd say two things in response. 1. Obviously Twitter and Facebook weren't themselves what drew people into Tahrir Square, or that forged the relationships among activists. I'd argue it was the emotions I alluded to earlier (and I'd concede that existing social ties probably played a role). The point is that, whatever the reasons people turned out, the social networking tools were pretty damn efficient at getting them there simultaneously, which is the stuff of revolutions. 2. The people who have access to social networking tools and the intellectual capital to use them tend to fit similar sociological profiles. So it's almost tautological to say they're only a couple of degrees removed from one another. That's how sociological groups work. 

Final, related point: David Rieff writes on our site today:

[I]f there was a proximate cause, on the order of Connors’ “10 folks in a small apartment using social networks,” to the Tunisian uprising, it was that least virtual of political acts—the decision of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid who burned himself to death in protest over the police seizing his cart and the produce he was trying to sell, and, more generally, over police brutality and grinding unemployment, poverty, and lack of opportunity. That was the action that provoked the first anti-government demonstrations in Tunisia and soon spawned other self-immolations from Egypt to Mauritania.

I'd put it slightly differently: At least in Egypt, the policy brutality, grinding unemployment, poverty, lack of opportunity created the context that allowed the revolution to congeal. But, again if the Times' reporting is to be believed, the people who organized it and turned out appear to have been more educated and better off--and more sophisticated in their protest techniques--than the broader, more dispossessed populace Rieff describes. Revolutions need vanguards. And, of course, it's the vanguard that's figured out how to exploit social networking tools. (It's also this class whose expectations tend to rise and then get frustrated, per the famous term...)

Then again, I'm not entirely sure Rieff would disagree with me about this, since his piece ends with the following warning, which I completely endorse:

It will be a fine thing if, as has been promised in both Algeria and Egypt, the army makes good on its promises to end decades-old states of emergency. But will these changes from the top down, from which the upper middle classes—the Bluetooth, tweeting classes, to be blunt—stand to benefit almost immediately, do anything  to improve the lot of the Mohamed Bouazizis of the world? Will they find it easier to find a job, feed their families, in short, to live with dignity? On that, surely, the verdict is very much still out.

This kind of illustrates the problem with this whole debate, which is that people on either side tend to speak past each other, or at least speak way too categorically, when in fact many would probably agree with the more modest version of what the other side has to say.

OK, now I'm going for real. Promise. I'll save the rest of this for the birdie-thing.