The past several days have been hard ones for those who cheered the fall of Hosni Mubarak less than a year ago. More than 30 people have been killed protesting the continued rule of the military council, and the Egyptian cabinet has tendered its resignation. Tahrir Square, once a symbol of the possibilities for a new Egypt, has now become a stage for the revolution's unraveling. These developments (and others since last February) have provoked a simple thought: What if the combination of social media and mobile devices does make revolutions more likely, but do not in turn make republican governing any more possible? What then?The conclusion is that social networks and media can only take you so far:
Revolution is a completely different thing than state building. Revolutions may be fed by social media's power to fuel emotional response and organizing, but state-building does not require a fervor. It requires smart decision-making, leadership, and perhaps even idealism and vision, things no tool in the world can provide.If social media really does make revolution more likely, it didn't quite fulfill that expectation during the protests in Iran back in 2009.
But even if we assume that social media's contribution to revolutions is emotional and organizational support, let's take a step back--social media after all has no constraints. Thus, in February an Egyptian student wrote that Twitter was used to exaggerate the turnout at protests:
For two weeks calls were made using new social media tools for a mass demonstration on the 25th of January. Observers dismissed those calls as another virtual activism that would not result in anything. Other calls in the past had resulted in very small public support and the demonstrations were limited to the familiar faces of political activists numbering in the hundreds. As the day progressed, the observers seemed to be correct in their skepticism. While the demonstrations were certainly larger than previous ones, numbering perhaps 15,000 in Cairo, they were nothing worrisome for the regime. They were certainly much smaller than the ones in 2003 against the Iraq War. The police force was largely tolerating and when they decided to empty Tahrir Square, where the demonstrators had camped for the night, it took them less than 5 minutes to do so.Also from February, the Wall Street Journal notes that Mohamed ElBarade was convinced to enter Egyptian politics because of Facebook:
But beneath that, things were very different. The social media tools had given people something that they had lacked previously, an independent means of communication and propaganda. Hundreds of thousands of young Egyptians in a matter of minutes were seeing the demonstration videos being uploaded on youtube. For an apolitical generation that had never shown interest in such events the demonstration was unprecedented. More remarkable they were tremendously exaggerated. At a moment when no more than 500 demonstrators had started gathering in that early morning, an Egyptian opposition leader could confidently tweet that he was leading 100,000 in Tahrir Square. And it stuck.
Mr. ElBaradei's emergence as an opposition figure is especially surprising given that when he stepped down in November 2009 after a dozen years heading the U.N'.s International Atomic Energy Agency, he expressed no interest in becoming involved in Egyptian politics. "When people were first approaching him saying, 'Will you run for president of Egypt in 2011?' he was very dismissive of it," says Laban Coblentz, Mr. ElBaradei's longtime speechwriter, who recently helped him write a memoir slated to be published in April.ElBaradei now has 456,500 fans on Facebook.
But ex-colleagues say Mr. ElBaradei, whose international profile soared after he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the IAEA in 2005, experienced a change of heart after teaching himself how to use social-networking sites on the Internet to monitor Egyptian events from afar.
Among other things, he discovered Facebook "fan" pages with thousands of followers urging him to run for president this year. His own Facebook page, which is frequently updated, currently has more than 314,000 admirers.
Back in 2009, Peggy Noonan wrote about Twitter as it applied to the Iranian protests against the fraudulent election. Noonan ponders what effect social media could have on revolutions in the long term:
The interesting question is what technology would have done after the Revolution, during the Terror. What would word of the demonic violence, the tumbrels and nonstop guillotines unleashed circa 1790-95 have done to French support for the Revolution, and world support? Would Thomas Jefferson have been able to continue his blithe indifference if reports of France grimly murdering France had been Twittered out each day?Looking at the Arab Spring in general and the upcoming election in Egypt in particular, it does not seem that either Twitter or Facebook have done much to put a dent in the image of the Muslim Brotherhood. It's history of murder and violence does not seem to have effected it's prospects in the election at all.
When you come right down to it, Twitter and Facebook is no more magical for revolutions than it is for businesses.
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