At his Idle Scrawl Blog, Paul Mason offers “Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere” to explain the “wider social dynamic” of youth-led uprisings in Northern Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Mason’s general thesis is:
“At the heart of it all are young people, obviously; students; westernised; secularised. They use social media – as the mainstream media has now woken up to – but this obsession with reporting “they use twitter” is missing the point of what they use it for.”
Mason’s primary argument is that, “1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future”, supported by the following three reasons:
“9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.
10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.
11.To amplify: I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.
Where to begin?
First, the graduate with no future is not a sociological type, but rather a facile indicator of the catalysts of the recent public protests in Egypt. The reality is that the Egyptian youth movement is part of a larger socio-political-legal upheaval that cuts across generational lines. As one commentator to Mason’s post, “Nick” rightly points out:
“ Every new generation of young people is convinced that they are ‘special’ because they understand things in a way the ‘old guard’ can’t. I remember feeling the same way getting my ass kicked in 60s demonstrations. Our music was special, our clothes, drugs, relationships etc etc. It’s a great feeling. But if you really imagine that there aren’t forces at work here in the background, with agendas you may not have imagined, you’re delusional. Some of us have been trying to get things done about oppression, freedom and all the rest of it for our whole working lives with precious little to show for it. You want to take over because you have facebook? Cool, I’m tired.”
Back in April 1995, the renowned (now late) Israeli essayist and author, Amos Elon, wrote about the fragmented Egyptian psyche in a piece for the New York Review of Books entitled: “One Foot on the Moon” :
“Egypt today is a somber country, grim and disillusioned. Intellectuals are frustrated, cynical, and pessimistic. Having squandered their credibility in the 1950s and 1960s by their enthusiasm for Marxism and Nasserism, some are now trying to regain it by openly siding with the Islamicists. These intellectuals preach an amalgam of religious fundamentalism, nationalist unity, and xenophobia. One evening in Cairo, I met Dr. Mohamed Amar, a former Marxist militant who, in the past fifteen years, has made the transition from Marx to the Prophet Mohammed with all of his militancy intact. “Humanitarian ideologies are on the retreat everywhere, especially in Egypt,” he said. He talked enthusiastically about the “Islamic uprising in Egypt,” which he said was “much larger than the Muslim Brotherhood,” the principal Muslim organization, “larger than its violent offshoots.” Dr. Amar said that he deplored violent actions by Muslims, such as the recent shootings of secular opponents. But, he explained, “The aim of the Islamic uprising is the elimination of the evil after-effects of foreign influences in Egypt…. The French introduced debauchery into Egypt, fornication, belly-dancing. The British tried to undermine Islam by sponsoring the Bahai heretics. Its founders were agents of British intelligence. Islam is not only a religion.” Dr. Amar went on, “It is also a political philosophy, a system of law, a comprehensive way of life.”
Before we jump to the conclusion that after three decades of police state brutality and suppression of freedom, the Rule of Law will reign supreme, consider also the following:
- Egypt worst Arab state on rule-of-law index (via www.almasryalyoum.com/ )
- Human rights groups condemn Egyptian raid on Cairo law centre (via www.zawya.com)
- Egyptian lawyers blame Israel for church bombing (via www.jpost.com)
- Egypt’s justice system divided: Lawyers vs judges (via www.almasryalyoum.com/)
- Muslim Brotherhood join Egyptian bar group (via www.upi.com)
- Am Law Firms in Cairo React to Egyptian Unrest (by Brian Baxter via http://amlawdaily.typepad.com )
- A Guide to Egyptian Law Enforcement (by Jill Goldenziel via http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com )
Second, the problem with prescribing social media as the elixir of youthful rebellion and panacea for social problems and political unrest is that it is not only banal; it diminishes the personal sacrifices of those at the front-lines at Tahrir (Liberation) Square and elsewhere in the Middle East. The technophiles and technocrats who continue to exalt the power of the internet misconstrue McLuhan’s aphorism that “the medium is the message”. When he published Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in 1964, McLuhan proposed that the medium itself, rather than its content, should be the focus of study. Despite the advent of Facebook and Twitter, the post-information age still relies on traditional media to assemble, filter and cull the cyclonic and cyclical overload of raw data and information from a multitude of competing sources. In this sense the medium is not the message and the message is not the medium. If you don’t believe me, just try to follow the #Egypt hashtag on Twitter and make sense of the white noise.
Third, when Mason suggests, “Therefore truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable” he fails to understand that truth and lies move at the same velocity, depending on who controls the internet traffic flow. I learned this truth after Pasadena attorney and legal writer, George Wallace (Twitter: @foolintheforest) corrected an earlier story I tweeted and offered this timely update on Twitter regarding Mubarak’s resignation:
Egyptian state television has now, apparently, retracted the Hosni Mubarak resignation report. http://bit.ly/hlsiZX
In reply, I suggested that:
“In every revolution, the propaganda war is won by those who effectively use both misinformation & disinformation.”
It is dangerously naïve to speak of rejection by the youth of “traditional and endemic ideologies” without providing some clear alternative belief-system to fill the ideological vacuum: whether it will be Islamic fundamentalism or Western style democracy is anyone’s guess. However, If the “graduate with no future” is the archetype for youth-led revolt, then the ideology is economic and class-based.
In her post, A Brave and Confused New World, Hania Sholkamy , assistant professor at the Social Research Center of the American University in Cairo, provides needed perspective and retrospective:
“The first is an emerging class war, albeit an unusual one as it is a war against both the rich and the poor. The defamation of ‘business men’ as the culprits that precipitated the fall of Egypt is a worrying and dangerous development. This revolution is demanding the rule of law not the rule of the mob! Why are certain people being prosecuted for unspecified crimes? Is this to appease the masses or to rectify a wrong? Is this a continuation of paternalist politics that produce scapegoats so as not to face-up to the complicities and complexity of what we call corruption? What are the crimes for which the named officials are being investigated? In our post revolution era we need to know the crime not just relish the fall of the once rich or mighty!”
Egypt is also facing a dangerous prospect of mutual exclusions and suspicions. The brilliant achievements of the demonstrators is appreciated by most but resented by some. There are those who have their sinister reasons for feeling angry and frustrated. They are the parliamentarians who paid there way through a rigged election, the police officers who rigged these elections, the cronies, and their cronies…
We have a third emerging and major confusion and that is our relationship with the outside world. The regime’s thugs attacked foreigners while the regime itself consulted with foreign governments. The protesters defended their foreign supporters who have been bolstering their cause virtually on the internet or physically by standing in their midst but also condemned America and the foreign policy of the regime that looked towards the west. Television stations have for the past week aired the views of state defenders who claim they have proof that this revolution is sponsored, funded, fueled and manipulated by foreigners…”
Fourth, while the heroic role of Egyptian women in the revolt is laudable (see, Egyptian Women Lay Claim to Revolutionary Role). whether this heroism will be remembered and rewarded in a post-Mubarak Egypt remains to be seen. How one defines “democratic” is more problematic. Western-style democracy is viewed with great suspicion by many in the Middle East as a codex for “American imperialism”. Then there’s the problem of Islamic fundamentalism. As Nina Burleigh at The Huffington Post observes,
“Ninety percent of Egyptian women are genitally mutilated, according to aid worker estimates. Although the practice was officially outlawed in 2007, gynecologists can still legally perform it “for health reasons.” Egyptian women can vote; they are significant part of the workforce and there were women in the recently disbanded Egyptian cabinet. But Egyptian women are not allowed to travel abroad without the permission of their husbands; they have difficulty initiating divorce; and they can’t become judges.
As Egyptians rise up to demonstrate for their civil rights, the world watches with bated breath, wondering what man (for surely it will be a man) will succeed Mubarak, and whether he will be moderate – that is “friendly to Israel and Western ideas and mores” or a fundamentalist, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose strict interpretation of the Koran and anti-Western political and cultural bias would turn the delicate global balance upside down.”
Fifth, Mason’s views that young protesters, armed with their laptops and smartphones using their Facebook, Twitter and Youtube apps to “pick and choose” when and where to fight the Mubarak police state, reinforces Eugene Morozov’s idea of “Slactivism” espoused in his recent book: The Net Delusion (see my previous post here). Again, the idea that political protest is fomented at an internet café over a steaming cup of frappacino is as banal and simplistic as suggesting that the Gladwellian “tipping point” was the killing last June of Khaled Said of Alexandria after the 28 year old posted a video online that seemed to show police officers and drug dealers working together.
Sixth, when Mason cites the Wikipedia definition of memes (“carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures…”), I am reminded of the Allies and resistance fighters during the Second World War scribbling “Kilroy was here” as graffiti to signify solidarity in the cause against Nazism and Fascism. Posting the same message on a Facebook wall just doesn’t seem to reverberate with the same revolutionary amplitude.
Mason may be right when he suggests that “ People just know more than they used to” and that “People have a better understanding of power” but the power of “memes” does not adequately delimit the quality of the information shared among various networks. This also means that knowledge does not translate into power unless the information is objective, verifiable and relevant.
Finally, I leave you with following quote by Guy Kawasaki, a social media revolutionary who captures the essence of the value of social media to political discourse:
“Don’t worry, be crappy. Revolutionary means you ship and then test… Lots of things made the first Mac in 1984 a piece of crap – but it was a revolutionary piece of crap.”
The Egypt Revolution will be televised and digitized. Let’s hope that it will no longer be trivialized.