For anyone who still doubts (Malcolm Gladwell) the role of informal communication, aka social media, in bringing about monumental change before the whole world's very eyes in Egypt, see today's lead story (headlined in print version) of NY Times, "A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History."
Excellent, detailed, and insightful reporting lays out the sequence by which, the online subhead reads*: "Two-year collaboration of dissidents gave birth to a new force — a pan-Arab youth movement dedicated to spreading democracy in a region without it."
I've been pondering this post for nearly two hours, trying to figure out a way to summarize the low-tech/high-tech amalgam that so fundamentally reshapes the chemistry of the future. I can't do better than to quote the first few paragraphs, though the whole thing is definitely click-worthy. In fact, I just read a bundle of grafs from one of the jump pages (there are two) to a traveling family member. It's remarkable, friends, right down to the people in Cairo (perhaps elsewhere) protecting themselves with "body armor," if you can call it that, made of "cardboard or plastic bottles...worn under their clothes to protect against riot police bullets."
Here's the beginning of David Kirpatrick and David Sanger's remarkable journalism:
"CAIRO — As protesters in Tahrir Square faced off against pro-government forces, they drew a lesson from their counterparts in Tunisia: 'Advice to the youth of Egypt: Put vinegar or onion under your scarf for tear gas.'
"The exchange on Facebook was part of a remarkable two-year collaboration that has given birth to a new force in the Arab world — a pan-Arab youth movement dedicated to spreading democracy in a region without it. Young Egyptian and Tunisian activists brainstormed on the use of technology to evade surveillance, commiserated about torture and traded practical tips on how to stand up to rubber bullets and organize barricades.
"They fused their secular expertise in social networks with a discipline culled from religious movements and combined the energy of soccer fans with the sophistication of surgeons. Breaking free from older veterans of the Arab political opposition, they relied on tactics of nonviolent resistance channeled from an American scholar through a Serbian youth brigade — but also on marketing tactics borrowed from Silicon Valley."
These are big claims for a lede article in the paper of record. The reporters go on to substantiate the assertions in the next section, headlined "Bloggers Lead the Way:"
"The Egyptian revolt was years in the making. Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old civil engineer and a leading organizer of the April 6 Youth Movement, first became engaged in a political movement known as Kefaya, or Enough, in about 2005. Mr. Maher and others organized their own brigade, Youth for Change. But they could not muster enough followers; arrests decimated their leadership ranks, and many of those left became mired in the timid, legally recognized opposition parties. “What destroyed the movement was the old parties,” said Mr. Maher, who has since been arrested four times.
"By 2008, many of the young organizers had retreated to their computer keyboards and turned into bloggers, attempting to raise support for a wave of isolated labor strikes set off by government privatizations and runaway inflation.
"After a strike that March in the city of Malhalla, Egypt, Mr. Maher and his friends called for a nationwide general strike for April 6. To promote it, they set up a Facebook group that became the nexus of their movement, which they were determined to keep independent from any of the established political groups...
"Just a few months later, after a strike in the Tunisian city of Hawd el-Mongamy, a group of young online organizers followed the same model, setting up what became the Progressive Youth of Tunisia. The organizers in both countries began exchanging their experiences over Facebook. The Tunisians faced a more pervasive police state than the Egyptians, with less latitude for blogging or press freedom, but their trade unions were stronger and more independent. 'We shared our experience with strikes and blogging,' Mr. Maher recalled."
And on it goes. I could continue excerpting but it's better for you to read it yourself. It is more than evident that those responsible for this miraculous transformation in the geopolitical scene simply used the tools of their time, just as the Committees of Correspondence used a nascent postal service to refine their strategy and tactics among a million or so people in a troublesome land that became the US of A.
Which brings me back to the title of this post: The naysayers around the importance of new media also disparage those who have had the courage to keep at it. Again, it's people who made the difference here. Thank heavens they had such powerful tools with which to communicate.
Last thing: the Times article says the protestors have been strongly influenced by "an American political thinker, Gene Sharp." I've never heard of him. Start following the links from here, which include the Serbian youth movement, Optor!'s, which helped bring down Milosevic.
And when you lose faith again that dictators can be deposed and retreat to thinking that the future looks terribly bleak even in places where there are no dictators, only zealots, turn your attention to the next generation. Perhaps one day "they" could become ideologues too but the best part of this story is that there is no monolithic "they" this time. Just a loosely structured network of energized activists whose architecture of revolution--and tools--are barely understood.
Also, see Nicholas Kristof's "What Egypt Can Teach America" in yesterday's NY Times.
* I never realized before how different the print and online heads are in NYT articles - subtle but different.