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Is 140 Characters (Enough!) for Arab Civil Society?

Posted: 02/22/11 04:11 PM ET

CAIRO and PALO ALTO -- The National Democratic Party headquarters was not the only thing left smoldering in ruin after the Egyptian Revolution; so too was almost everything we thought we knew about the socio-political dynamics of Egypt and, perhaps, the region as a whole. Egypt's civil society was too weak; its populace too socioeconomically stratified and technologically unconnected; authoritarianism reigned supreme, and its relatively free press relieved just enough pressure to avoid catastrophe. For all these reasons, the Mubarak regime was never supposed to fall. But fall it did -- and with a force rivaled only by the political science curriculums now being hurled out of university windows.

At the center of this failure of theory were civil society and the role of social media in facilitating its growth. Experts and pundits alike, guided -- or misguided by a mindset steeped in Eurocentric prejudice -- were caught off-guard by the powerful protests that swept the region. Nothing in their theoretical tool kits had prepared them for this eruption. Yet the inability of observers to predict the massive demonstrations that unseated President Hosni Mubarak -- and their profound misinterpretation of the events after the fact -- should not be all that surprising given that the only "popular" force they recognized was Islam; and a narrow fanatical brand of Islam at that. As the rapid mobilization of a huge cross section of Egyptian society and the relatively guarded role played by the Muslim Brotherhood would soon demonstrate, however, this could not have been a worse misreading of the Egyptian situation.

So, what has filled the breach between these earlier misconceptions and the obvious success story (however troubled and uncertain the future may be) of Egypt, and before that Tunisia? One glance at the news will tell you it is Twitter and Facebook. Not the long regional history of critique and dialogue grounded in coffee shop cultures (alive and well since the 16th century); not the strong ethic of rebellion against foreign overlords or imperialist ventures (a significant focus of energy since the 18th century); not the emergent unionization of labor and it's gradual push toward a collectivity that transcended individual factories, neighborhoods, or towns (gaining ground since the late 20th), but a technological innovation that alone now carries the weight of democratization.

This sounds eerily akin to the belief that Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 single-handedly wrested the region from the grips of traditionalism and brought it into the modern age: from Napoleon's horse to Twitter and the cell phone. As the now famous Egyptian Google exec Wael Ghonim recently told CNN's Wolf Blitzer: "If you want to liberate a government, give them the Internet." What is missing from this picture? Let's start with the Egyptian people.

For a full five days during the revolution there was no Internet, no cell service, no Twitter. True, Websites like We are all Khaled Said played a significant role in galvanizing support prior to the revolution, but in a society with around 15% Internet penetration the importance of low-tech communication cannot be overstated. Egypt's new brand of popular revolt was sustained by decidedly old-fashioned means: word-of-mouth, kinship ties, community interconnectedness,
coherent linkages between the military, business, and activists, and new coalitions such as the political party Kefaya (Enough.) There was even "a kind of national telepathy" that aided the protesters amassing in Tahrir (Liberation) Square, if we are to believe one activist quoted by Wendell Steavenson in the New Yorker. In any case, the droves of young people who convinced their parents to join the protests had at least as great an impact as the savvy few who were able to outsmart the Internet blackout with remote servers and the like.

On the other side of the social media debate are the equally unhelpful Malcolm Gladwells of the world, bent on demonstrating that Facebook and Twitter had no impact at all. As Gladwell recently blogged on the New Yorker's Website, "Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along." This is as obvious as it is unhelpful. The success of the Egyptian revolution clearly stemmed from some combination of what Gladwell criticizes as "weak ties" -- created by the Internet -- and the stronger, more personal ties that he thinks enable high-risk social activism. Even farther out on the spectrum are those who see social media as a hindrance to popular mobilization, citing, among other things, the potential for governments to weaponize tools like Facebook and Twitter and launch misinformation campaigns or pinpoint specific users. Such were the alarms sounded during the failed Iranian uprising in June 2009. This certainly calls to mind the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault's notion of "biopower," whereby new technologies can become instruments of subjugation.

Yet the fact that much of the buzz surrounding the Egyptian Revolution neatly mirrors the decades-old Foucault-Jürgen Habermas debate about civil society and social media (Habermas, foreshadowing the Twitter enthusiasts, argued that that the printing press contributed to the
democratization of Europe) may actually help explain why most analysts got it so wrong. Neither of these frameworks can adequately account for a civil society that is not polarized between public and private,religion and secularism. We have much to learn from this, for we are
entering a new global framework where such binaries -- and here we could add the most problematic of them all, East and West -- can no longer explain new regional coalitions in Central and Southwest Asia, not to mention North Africa. Perhaps the best place to start building a new basis for both analysis and policy is with "Enough": enough to biased representations of the so-called Arab Street, and enough to fear-mongering that insists any grouping that includes Islam necessarily rules out democracy.

As the world turns its gaze to Libya -- the next potential domino in a now global backlash against authoritarianism -- it will do well to downplay the paradigms that have been so unhelpful for interpreting the Egyptian Revolution. Here, the temptation to call out the Islamist threat or point to political exclusion and a moribund civil society, will be even stronger. After all, the Gadhafi regime has battled a vigorous Islamist insurgency for years, all the while pursuing adeliberate path toward what Dirk Vandewalle, an Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth College, calls "statelessness." This, as most analysts are quick to point out, has left the average Libyan isolated, demoralized, and unconvinced of the efficacy of politics. But much has changed since Mohammed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in front of a local government building in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, and as violence on the ground escalates, we should strive to avoid any analytical abuse that denies a newly empowered voice of despair.

Ty McCormick is a Presidential Intern at the American University in Cairo. Heather Ferguson was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Abbasi Program for Islamic Studies and is now a Visiting Professor in the Department of History at Stanford University.