THE BLOG
01/26/2016 09:06 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2017

"Digital Democracy" and the "January 25 Revolution" in Egypt

Adam Berry via Getty Images

It is the fifth anniversary of the so-called "January 25 Revolution" of 2011, which led to the removal from power of Egypt's authoritarian President, Hosni Mubarak. In the years that followed Mubarak's compelled resignation (followed by his arrest, trial and conviction), Egypt has seesawed between a democratically-elected Islamist President, Mohammed Morsi, and the reemergence of an authoritarian secular military dictatorship in the person of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, an Egyptian general who orchestrated a coup d'état in 2013 that removed Morsi from office, and who later resigned from the military and was subsequently elected as Egypt's President in 2014.

The only constancy in American policy toward Egypt during this time was the absolute lack of any discernible policy in the aftermath of the "January 25 Revolution." This dearth of policy stands in stark contrast to the role played by an influential State Department policy maker turned Google executive, Jared Cohen, in formulating and facilitating a form of "soft" regime change policy in Egypt during the "January 25 Revolution" known as "digital democracy." (It should be noted that Cohen was not operating in a complete policy vacuum; "digital democracy" was enthusiastically embraced at that time by the then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.)

It was actually the administration of President George W. Bush that took the lead in creating "digital democracy." Jared Cohen was hired by the State Department in September 2006 and subsequently assigned to the Policy Planning Staff to work on issues pertaining to counter-terrorism and counter-radicalism. Cohen had turned two years of personal tourism experiences in the Middle East into a best-selling book titled Children of the Jihad, where he postulated that the youth of the Middle East were sophisticated enough to distinguish between people, politics, and religion, and that, having been socialized by satellite television, mobile phones and the internet, were well aware of the realities of the world they lived in; they rejected the conservative politics of their parents, and wanted the same things as American youth did -- freedom (which Cohen somewhat naively couched in terms of access to music, recreation, and members of the opposite sex.)

While it was the popularity of his book that caught the eye of then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, it was the convergence of Cohen's theories on the transmogrifying properties of Middle Eastern youth with the policy needs of the Bush administration that ultimately proved irresistible to government officials facing growing anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. This convergence of theory and need in turn led to the formulation of a new ideological tangent to the kind of American "smart power" policies promoted by Condoleeza Rice that became known as "digital democracy," and which sought to harness the potential of Muslim youth to effect political change in their respective countries through the allure of American culture and values as communicated via the tools of social media.

In 2008 Jared Cohen spearheaded a State Department-run effort known as "the Alliance of Youth Movements," which focused on how web-based social networking sites such as Facebook could be used as a vehicle to enhance the organization and activism of young people in repressive regimes. "Digital Democracy" became the darling of a new generation of American interventionists who, especially in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, viewed the exportation of western democratic values as a key weapon in the struggle against terrorism.

The administration of President Barack Obama, which entered office in January 2009, publicly embraced a more pragmatic approach toward international relations, jettisoning the ideologically-motivated policies of the Bush administration (especially those which centered on the use of force to achieve regime change), the overall policy direction continued to be geared more toward co-option than accommodation when it came to governments the United States had fundamental disagreements with, such as Syria and Iran.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in particular, advocated for the use of so-called "smart power" to achieve American policy objectives which had, from a strategic point of view, changed very little from the previous administration. Through Ambassador Dennis Ross, a long-time diplomat who had served in the administrations of Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton and who was appointed the Secretary of State's Special Envoy to Iran in February 2009, Hillary Clinton was introduced to the efforts spearheaded by Jared Cohen to use the internet as a vehicle for mobilizing dissent among the youth of a targeted nation.

"Digital democracy" had, at last, come of age, and theory was put into practice in Iran in the lead-up to the 2009 presidential election, where the very social media tools espoused by Cohen and others were used by the so-called "Green Revolution" to promote the notion of a stolen election and thereby undermine confidence not only in the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (whose reelection was being contested by the protesters), but in the Islamic Republic itself. Jared Cohen achieved a brief moment of notoriety during the unrest that followed when he intervened with the leadership of Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance on that application's servers so that demonstrators could continue to stream data out of Iran.

Ultimately the Iranian experiment in "digital democracy" failed. However, within a year both Jared Cohen and those inside the Obama administration who believed in the capabilities of technology-driven "soft power" to motivate and mobilize social movements in the Middle East and elsewhere were given another opportunity to market their product, this time in Egypt at the height of the so-called "Arab Spring" reformation.

Egypt was a long-time ally of the United States and a critical partner in peace with Israel. Given the importance of Egypt's role in preserving regional stability, the United States had long turned a blind eye to the excesses of the Egyptian government, both in terms of corruption and human rights violations. But the dramatic and rapid demise of Tunisian President Ben Ali at the hands of massive public protest against decades of corrupt rule took American policy makers by surprise, and when the protest spread into Egypt, many began to characterize the events as part of a larger "contagion" of protests and demonstrations that morphed into the so-called "Arab Spring." This "contagion" represented a fundamental shift in the political tectonics of the region, creating an atmosphere where America's traditional relationships with authoritative governments such as those in Tunisia and Egypt were no longer considered sacrosanct.

At the time, the "Egyptian contagion" phenomenon was being popularized by a western media fueled by the self-promotion of social networking internet sites run by Egyptian youth groups, which took a very public stance opposing the Mubarak regime and calling for political reform. The "contagion" phenomenon represented the logical extension of the notion that the "young people in the Middle East are just a mouse click away, they're just a Facebook connection away, they're just an instant message away, they're just a text message away," to quote Jared Cohen, one of the staunchest promoters of the contagion model.

One of the entities leading the "digital" aspects of the social unrest unfolding inside Egypt was a group known as the "April 6 Youth Movement," an organization that had come into existence in 2008, and which had benefited greatly by receiving training and financial support from the "Alliance of Youth Movements" initiative which Cohen helped oversee. As an organization, the "April 6 Youth Movement's" very existence was premised on the kind of social unrest that erupted in Egypt in December 2010, something both the State Department and Jared Cohen knew and understood when they provided support, and, as such, it was far removed from representing a spontaneous response to the so-called "contagion" of freedom blowing in out of Tunisia.

Cohen had left the State Department in September 2010 to take a new position with internet giant Google as the head of "Google Ideas," a global initiatives "think tank" run by Google and intended to "spearhead initiatives to apply technology solutions to problems faced by the developing world" -- more or less the same job he was doing while at the State Department, only this time in corporate guise. One of the first "initiatives" Cohen became involved with was the January 25, 2011 demonstrations in Egypt, where another Google employee, Wael Ghonim, rose to prominence after using social networking sites to call for demonstrations and political reform. For Cohen, the revolution taking place inside Egypt represented the manifestation of the core ideas of "digital democracy," and, as such, he viewed it as a much needed validation in the aftermath of the failure of the "Green Revolution" in Iran.

But his enthusiasm was misplaced. The success of the Egyptian youth movement in influencing western media reporting on the social unrest in Egypt did not mean that information so sourced represented a full and accurate picture of what had actually been transpiring inside Egypt. A web site which generated 70,000 to 500,000 "hits" was virtually meaningless in a nation where so few people had access to the internet, including many of those involved in the Egyptian youth movement. Moreover, these media-savvy youth movements were not the originators of social and political dissent in Egypt.

While the internet no doubt played a role in facilitating communication between those like-minded Egyptians who were equipped to use it, the reality is that the largest driving force in generating awareness and support for the anti-Mubarak demonstrations came not from digital information posted on the internet, but rather through word of mouth in forums such as Friday prayers held in Mosques, the traditional venue for social political discourse in Muslim society (the control over religious affairs exercised by the Mubarak government, while substantial, did not fully extend into major cities such as Alexandria and the suburbs of Cairo, where the Muslim Brotherhood held sway).

Few, if any, western journalists were present inside the Egyptian mosques during this period of radical social transformation, choosing instead to rely on information contained in social networking sites, and further magnified through interviews with the very Egyptian youth who posted this data to begin with. This closed-loop information cycle allowed for both the misrepresentation of what was actually transpiring inside Egypt, and the misinterpretation of what this change meant to the people of Egypt, the Middle East, and the West. Had western journalists been reporting from inside the radicalized Egyptian mosques, they would have recognized the reality that the anti-Mubarak sentiment which exploded throughout Egypt had been festering for years, fueled not only by the rampant corruption and extreme social inequities often cited by the western press, but also by larger issues of Egyptian identity and national pride, which were far more grounded in traditional Islam than many in the West dared admit.

In the end, the anti-Mubarak movement was not a manifestation of "contagion" bred by political unrest in Tunisia, but rather the seeds of discord long existent in Egypt itself. Egypt's modern history has been heavily influenced by the struggle between nationalism -- perhaps best represented by the Egyptian military -- and Islam, personified by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Mubarak era was not a singular phenomenon, but rather a continuation of the complex political interaction between nationalism and Islam that dates back to the rule of President Nasser in the early 1950's. Despite the attention given to groups such as the "April 6 Youth Movement" by the western media, the future of Egypt was, in the end, decided by factors dictated more by the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood -- nationalism and Islam, respectively -- than the "contagion" of "digital democracy."

In his book, Children of the Jihad, Jared Cohen noted of the Muslim youth in the Middle East today that:

"... [t]echnology and unprecedented access to the outside world have given these young people sources of entertainment and means for communication that their parents have never enjoyed. They embrace connectivity that transcends politics, religion and extremism ... technology widened the generational gap, affording these youth the opportunity to communicate in new and liberating ways. I found youth of every political persuasion in the Middle East living multiple lives, separating their social and recreational activities from their ideological enterprises."

Cohen derived these insights from observations garnered from a narrow spectrum of Lebanese and Iranian society, comprised primarily of hormonal young men who frequented McDonald's restaurants, back-street drag racing locales and back-alley make-out spots. It was as if he were speaking to the Middle Eastern version of the cast of "Grease.

Jared Cohen recently ruminated at a technology conference on the role played by online social networks as an enabler of social mobilization in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, giving it equal status with the traditional role played by the Mosque in a heavily Islamized society such as Egypt's. In doing so, Cohen conflated what he called the "virtual front" (i.e., social media) with the "physical front" (the Muslim congregations who gather at the Mosque to listen to Friday prayers) as demographics of equal status and stature in the revolution that swept President Hosni Mubarak from power. The absurdity of such a claim was illustrated by the elections for president in 2012, where the "darling" of the "virtual front," Amr Mousa, was eliminated in the first round after garnering barely 11% of the vote, while the candidate of the "physical front," Mohamed Morsi, emerged victorious in the second round with some 51.7% of the vote.

But just how shallow (and callow) Cohen's analysis of the "ground truth" in Egypt is became obvious from his anecdotal retelling of the role played by the social media-savvy Egyptian youth in the movement that pushed President Mubarak from office. "When I asked one young person why he went to the street," Cohen recalled:

"... he said, 'This wasn't my fight, but then Mubarak took away my internet and took away my access to mobile devices and he made this relevant to me. I wouldn't have gone to the street if he didn't directly go after the things that I use every single day.' I talked to another person who said, 'What was I going to do, sit at home in my house with my internet that didn't work and my mobile device that didn't work? And it was too hot and I couldn't do anything else so this seemed interesting."

The conclusion Cohen drew from these experiences? "I actually think had Mubarak not shut down SMS [short message service, the text messaging service component of the internet and mobile communications systems] and not shut down the internet, there's a better chance that he actually would have stayed in power," he noted, as if Egypt's five-year experiment with the internet (social media connectivity was established in 2007) somehow trumped the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's eight-decade struggle for political relevancy, not to mention the forces of secular nationalism that subsequently removed Morsi from office in 2013. In the end, it was the harsh reality of the "physical front" which prevailed over the nebulous character of Cohen's "virtual front." That, more than anything else, should have been the lesson for Cohen to take away from the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.

In many ways, the failure of "digital democracy" as a policy is illustrative of the overall failure of American policy against Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East. In the end, the very social media tools "digital democracy" envisioned would serve as a vector for the transfer of "American values" were instead effectively hijacked by the forces of Islamic extremism. This result brings into question the viability of any policy built on the assumption of American dominance in the field of ideals and values, especially in such an ethnically and religiously distinct region as the Middle East, and, as such, challenges the very premise of many of America's current strategic goals and objectives in that region.

The problem with "digital democracy" is that, as a theory, it was built on the false premise that the internet promotes democratic engagement. While many political scientists agree that the internet is capable of facilitating new forms of political organization, there is no consensus over the actual political impact such organizing could actually have -- the internet was attractive as a tool to those who were already engaged in political intercourse, but had little impact on those who were otherwise apathetic.

As implemented, "digital democracy" was never intended to be a vector for genuine democratic reform. Moreover, in places like Egypt, where the internet is the intellectual playground of the affluent, "digital democracy" under any guise simply reinforced the position of the political and economic elite without broadening a politicized base. Since the Egyptian government was (and is) the most effective gatekeeper of internet based information, "digital democracy" had no real chance at achieving any meaningful democratic gain inside Egypt. Moreover, the victors in the digital conflict brought on by the flawed implementation of "digital democracy" -- the military dictatorship in Egypt -- were the very political entity the concept ostensibly sought to marginalize or eliminate.

In the end, the problem with "digital democracy" can be synthesized down to the willingness by those in power within the Bush and Obama administrations (and later, Google) to embrace the incomplete musings of a naïve young man -- Jared Cohen -- about issues he was ill-positioned to proffer. One must question the viability of any policy formulation which has as its premise the marketing of American ideals and values in the Middle East through the tool of social media, especially in light of just how ineffective the American narrative of exceptionalism has become. In short, by employing "digital democracy" in Egypt and elsewhere, the United States has significantly undermined its position among the very people it intended to win over.

There has never been a greater need for American leadership in the Middle East than today, and yet America finds itself hamstrung by its own hand. How and when America will be able to resume a leadership role based on the values of its ideas, as opposed to the strength of its military, is impossible to predict (there is an American model that does work -- the Peace Corps, which promotes American values trough constructive action while fully respecting the culture and traditions of the nation so engaged). One thing is clear: in the marketing of its vision to the people of the Middle East, the United States must stop looking for quick fixes derived from false promises. Jared Cohen was, and is, wrong: Digital technology will never transcend the power of politics, religion and extremism. The sooner the United States accepts this reality, the sooner a policy capable of reversing course in the Middle East can be conceived and implemented.