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A State Department 2.0 Response to the Arab Spring

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Digitally enabled protesters in Tunisia tossed out their dictator. The protests in Egypt have drawn out the largest crowds in 50 years and the crisis in that country is not over. Several autocrats have had to dismiss their cabinets. Discontent has cascaded over transnational networks of family and friends to Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen. The Sudanese held a referendum. The State Department needs a 21st Century strategy for dealing with the Arab Spring.

In the last two weeks and months, social protests have cascaded across North Africa and the Middle East, largely because digital media allowed communities to realize that they shared grievances and had transportable strategies for mobilizing against dictators. This "Arab Spring" is not about traditional political actors like unions, political parties or radical fundamentalists. It has drawn networks of people, many of whom have not been political before: young entrepreneurs, government workers, the urban middle class.

The Bush White House fundamentally misunderstood how social networks operate. His advisors consistently used "terrorist network" to refer to hierarchically organized, top-down command and control structures, with globalized reach connecting like-minded groups. In fact, networks are multifaceted communication systems, held together by historical relations that allow for dynamic, emergent, adaptive and flexible associations.

Civil society networks, through Twitter, Facebook and mobile phones, connect social networks across North Africa and the Middle East. These are the networks that are passing a cascading message of fatigue with authoritarian rule across the region. These are the networks that have pulled out such large numbers into Tahrir Square.

In the past, it has made sense to consider media and cultural institutions as controlled by elite forces. Winning hearts and minds meant siding with a strongman with a good grip on the military and the media. In recent years, digital media have clearly come to be anathema to centralized control. Some regimes have developed very aggressive censorship strategies. Despite those efforts, there is a strong trend towards increasing civic use of social networking software and digital applications that are not controlled by political elites.

The State Department has had an impressive overhaul since 2008, bringing in talent with fresh credentials and a new literacy for how statecraft needs to be conducted in a digital world. The State Department has a nascent strategy to encourage democratic movements by actively supporting civil society and for actively engaging social networks through digital media. This has been a forward thinking, innovative approach to statecraft.

This new State Department has treated civic networks as incongruent with traditional political parties, unions, or factions. That is good. Social movement theorists tell us that what makes a regime collapse is not urban poor rioting in the streets, but "elite defection." When a country's entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, teachers, students, and state bureaucrats switch allegiances, a dictator falls.

We need the State Department to do some 21st century thinking. Egypt's elites are defecting, and taking their networks of support away from Mubarak. The protests in Egypt are about social networks that are beyond Mubarak's reach. Don't worry about who is next, worry about which networks need recognition, support, and encouragement. The State Department 2.0 strategy needs to bet on networks of civil society participants in Tunis, Cairo, and the other regional capitals now in crisis. Think in terms of networks, not individual power brokers and traditional political actors.

Even the Muslim Brotherhood may be best thought of as a network organization. Many experts say the only thing holding it together is opposition to Mubarak--it is so loosely coupled that sub-networks wouldn't even stay together in a real election campaign. In fact, in the first week of Egypt's protests, it was clear that the social networks being activated were neither connected to Mubarak nor the Muslim Brotherhood.

It's time to put State Department 2.0 to work, and the next step is to make more confident statements and commitments to supporting civil society. Practically speaking, this will mean taking the side of civic networks that have turned on Mubarak, and supporting their conversations about transition. Democratization is always a messy process, plagued by uncertainty. But experience shows that it takes hold when a strong network of civil society agrees it must be so. Digitally-mediated social networks are at the heart of the Arab Spring. The State Department needs to move quickly to keep them alive.

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