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Mark Pfeifle

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Arab Spring, Version 2.0

Posted: 12/27/11 02:02 PM ET

In the port city of Damietta, about 200 miles from Cairo at the place where the Nile intersects with the Mediterranean, Amhad Rizq had good reason to fear what might happen as he took his bed-ridden mother to vote in the ongoing Egyptian elections.

The Arab Spring was triggered by the brutality of police and the military, and nowhere was official repression greater than in Egypt. Nevertheless, 900 Egyptians had died so these elections could take place, and Ahmad's mother insisted that she vote, even if she had to do so in a wheelchair.

As they reached the polling place, they eyed a uniformed squad of still-feared and mistrusted soldiers.

"When the military saw her at the polling station, four of them came over to carry her up to the third floor," where balloting took place, "and then bring her down."

Returning home, Ahmad rushed to his computer to describe his experience on a new website, "Egypt Votes," where he expressed his joy and relief.

"I'm very proud to be Egyptian!"

Democracy requires the unrestrained exchange of thoughts and experiences like these, but in a closed society like Egypt's, opportunities for open communication by ordinary citizens have been virtually non-existent -- which is where "Egypt Votes" comes in.

As Egyptians took to the polls in the first free elections of their lifetimes, "Egypt Votes" gave them a chance to share their experiences and observations, not just within the gated neighborhoods of their own Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but with untold millions of Egyptians, worldwide.

In Alexandria, Jabir Abdullah says that he woke up early on Election Day, which he likened to "a fun outing."

"I was overcome with joy to be able to go to the first real, legitimate elections, courtesy the Revolution and its martyrs," he posted. Those standing in the long lines "got into deep discussions, and I even jumped in at a few points," so that when he finally reached the polling place, "it felt like only a minute had passed."

"More than anything else, I felt like I had finally been freed from the old regime, choosing a candidate to really represent me and the rest of my compatriots."

A U.S.-based technology and Internet company, ElectionMall.Com, and its guru of international campaigns, Ravi Singh, launched the site as part of its continuing nonpartisan commitment to promoting democracy worldwide. Singh is coming off successes of developing online solutions for electoral platforms, including recent presidential campaigns in Colombia and Ireland, but this project drives into new territory and the concept of e-Democracy.

Utilizing a platform called Campaign Cloud, powered by Microsoft technology and in cooperation with MSN Arabia and the Egyptian news site "Masrawy," the site guides first-time voters to their local polling places, helps them understand registration requirements and provides immediate posting of official election results.

There's nothing complicated about "Egypt Votes," which is Web 1.0 for a nation whose democracy is still in its infancy. Past elections were widely viewed as a sham, so few voters wasted their time. As a consequence, for most Egyptian voters, this is their first experience in a voting booth.

These first-time voters want the A-B-Cs of democracy, not graduate courses in political science. "Egypt Votes" provides that, and the Egyptian voters' response has been like that of desert travelers coming upon a cool mountain spring.

Over 70 percent of Egyptian adults are literate, and 1 in 4 have access to the Internet, so the popularity of the site comes as no surprise. After all, Egypt's advanced communications played a major role in bringing about the Tahrir Square Revolution in the first place.

With users eagerly flocking to the site, there's never been a need to "force" discussions, nor even to suggest topics: the principle here, as with the Revolution itself, is bottom-up. Users themselves are leading the conversation, just as they doubtless will also begin developing Web 2.0 applications as their political skills mature.

Already, the site seems to be fulfilling an important purpose.

Under the provisional Constitution, the new Egyptian People's Assembly and Sura Council will be chosen in three separate rounds of voting, each involving a series of run-offs. It would be complicated even for a mature democracy, and in addition to confusion, some voters, disappointed by the results of the first- or second-round of voting, have found a healthy outlet to express their frustration.

Without taking sides in a challenging environment where the Muslim Brotherhood has disturbing goals and leadership that may fill the void, "Egypt Votes" has given voters a tool to educate, mobilize and reassure one another. It's rather like the Internet phenomenon of "crowd-sourcing," but for voting.

After a year of Revolution and centuries without a voice, a significant number of users report being less concerned with the outcome than with the prospect of elections at all.

The comments of Mahmoud al-Huwayty are representative. Calling voting "a wonderful experience that makes you really feel like a true citizen of Egypt," al-Huwayty said that, to him, "it doesn't matter who wins or who loses -- what's important is that the elected officials win fair-and-square and that our votes actually count. This is the wonderful outcome of the Revolution."

While Twitter and Facebook gave rise to the Arab Spring, websites like "Egypt Votes" hold the greatest promise for ushering the Middle East to a period of true and lasting democracy.

 

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