Egypt, social media and Wikileaks: a World War of Words

By Alex Katsomitros

It was Winston Churchill who once remarked that ‘a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on’. Today, we can claim that exactly the opposite is true. Truth gets halfway around the world through online media, before a well orchestrated campaign of lies covers everything.

The role that social media and Wikileaks have played in the ongoing unrest in Tunisia and Egypt is a message too powerful to be ignored. Perhaps it is a harbinger of a new world to come, more democratic and hopefully less corrupted. Its first signs can be seen on the streets of Cairo, but sooner or later they will be equally evident in the West.

First and foremost, this is a time of miracles and wonders for the Arab world. People take on the streets, protesting against regimes which have condemned them to endless poverty. In Tunisia, President Ben Ali fled the country after 23 years of almost unmolested reign. Egypt, which has been governed by Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime for three decades, seems to be on the same track, even if the two cases can be hardly compared.

Egypt is by far the most important country in the region, the one with the largest population, the most well-respected intellectual life and the most influential media, apart from the ubiquitous Al Jazeera. It is also the cradle of political Islam; the notorious Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928. In a few words, if Egypt falls, everything is possible. Syria, Jordan, and even that bastion of conservative autocracy, Saudi Arabia, could be next. If not now, then in the years to come.

It is almost impossible to believe that everything started when Bouazizi Mohamed, a young salesman who is already a Jan Palach-like martyr for the Arab world, set himself on fire as a sign of protest against the absurd use of violence by Tunisian authorities. What would have been a minor incident a few years ago sparked a chain reaction of uprisings.

In a few days the little man entered politics corner in several Arab states, abruptly and not from the backdoor, as occasionally happens in Western politics. Incisive commentators such as the Catalan Juan Goytisolo saw early on that only a spark was needed to set ablaze the current status quo in the region, most notably in Egypt.

As in the case of Iran, which was shaken by protests almost two years ago, Egypt is a country of suffocating youth; two thirds of the population is under 30, underfed and unemployed. However, a part of the middle class is educated and cannot be easily controlled. In any case, Egyptians are increasingly exposed to Western culture. Even a much stricter regime such as the Saudi Arabian one has not been able yet to undercut that secret weapon of American imperialism, Desperate Housewives.

The much-celebrated notion of cultural globalisation has reached the hearts and minds of young Egyptians, as they have been able to explore foreign cultures, morals and politics. When they reflexively compare distant standards of life with their own one, they realise that something is wrong when a single politician has been running their country for the last 30 years.

As always, socio-economic factors have a crucial role to play here. The fact that 40% of the population subsists today with less than two dollars a day speaks volumes about the sight of police stations set on fire by infuriated Egyptians.  Nevertheless, rising food prices might not be irrelevant to the riots, but they are not unprecedented either. Why does unrest of such a scale and outreach unfold now?

What facilitated enormously the insurrection was direct coordination through social media, along with the leak of classified documents by Wikileaks, revealing the scale of corruption in several countries in the region. In the case of the Arab world, online communications have accelerated history in an unprecedented way, disclosing what people were always suspecting about their leaders. Apart from corruption, it was shocking for them to find out that regimes such as the Yemeni one were paying lip service to United States, even if they fiercely opposed its policies in public.

In a way, Wikileaks and social media have sparked a world war of words that can only have one winner, democracy. More specifically, they have undercut the authority of elites which had hitherto monopolised power through the restriction of access to information. Until now the term ‘classified’ had been legitimising their power in the name of national security. However, with the advent of ‘Web 2.0′ this is not attainable any more. Information is literally global, flying faster than ever, and Churchill’s ‘halfway around the world’ quip sounds today like an understatement.

No wonder why the mainstream media have not been able to grasp the full extent of that change. Many commentators are mulling over the outcome of the riots, pointing towards the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. What had started as a grassroots revolution, bringing together socialists, anti-American moderates and Islamists against the Shah, eventually established an authoritarian regime that even strangled some of its most enlightened figures.

That could happen in Egypt as well, they argue, given that Egypt hosts a significant Muslim movement, spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood. The repercussions for the Middle East and particularly for Israel would be horrendous.

However, such an analysis disregards the most recent events within Iran itself. The revolution established a much-hated regime, which the predominantly young Iranian population will sooner than later overthrow. As Olivier Roy points in his groundbreaking book Globalised Islam, most states in the Middle East and the Arab world have already been secularised to a certain extent.

Accordingly, Islamist extremism is a counter-reaction against the ongoing securalisation and nationalisation of these states, aspiring to reestablish an imaginary global Ummah. But that is also a movement that has been globalised itself. ‘Al Qaeda’ for example is a loose network of extremists from various countries.

The governing elites of the Arab world are not able themselves to read between the lines. Thus, the Mubarak regime literally pulled the plug on online communications, making Egypt the first country in history – apart from North Korea perhaps – that has been cut off from the rest of the world. It would have been a funny reaction, had it not tragic consequences for the Egyptian people. In a way, it was the modern equivalent of the Red Khmers’ attempt to isolate Cambodia in order to bring the country back to an imaginary idyllic past.

Of course, in the case of Egypt the measures taken were not quite successful. If Mubarak wanted to prevent global media from covering the unrest, it has achieved exactly the opposite. Not without a reason and in an equally surreal move, another regime that venerates silence removed the name ‘Egypt’ from the list of keywords that local search engines can spot.

As it happens, autocrats are always keen to control the media, given that it can cause more trouble than guns. The Iranian revolution for instance was partly instigated by the widespread use of audio tapes with Khomeini’s fiery speeches. But that was the typical medium that only allowed one-direction communication and not interaction.

Today, interactive networks have made isolation impossible. Not only do we live in a ‘global village’, but we are also able to make sense out of its politics. No longer can a few people make all the decisions for the many: social media such as Facebook and Twitter give everyone a good chance to take part in public affairs, because they have created a public space of their own.

If that is possible in Middle East, it is more than possible in Europe and North America. In a way, most certainly a crazy conservative one, this is also what the Tea Party is about: a call for greater participation in American politics, and an active defiance of an ineffective decision-making system perpetually dominated by lobbyists and big business. Its authoritarian equivalent is currently challenged in Northern Africa and the Middle East, where most governments face domestic pressure for democratic reforms.

For Western observers, even for liberal ones, it is something that almost shouldn’t happen, as it opposes all conventional stereotypes about Arabs. They are supposed to be ‘passive’, ‘they never had democracy’, ‘they are not ready yet’. In short, Cairo is not Paris. People do not take to the streets, preparing makeshift barracks and clashing with police. But, firstly, Paris is not what it used to be, as students in Sorbonne today do not protest for more freedom – they have too much of that already – but for more jobs. Most of all, though, Cairo is not alone anymore: it’s everywhere.


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