There have been literally thousands of magazine articles, news reports, scholarly journals, and all manner of other examinations of the recent uprising in Egypt, and the role of Facebook and social networking in the events surrounding the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It has been posited, in fact, that it was the advent of social networking that made the overthrow possible, after decades of Mubarak maintaining rule despite strong and ongoing opposition. Following is a brief examination of some of the news reports and scholarly journals that were written about the Egyptian uprising and the significance, if any, of Facebook’s role in the ousting of Mubarak.
In the February 21st, 2011 edition of Newsweek, author Mike Giglio wrote a piece called “The Facebook Freedom Fighter.” In this article, he profiled Wael Ghonim, who helped to organize the anti-Mubarak demonstrations that eventually led to his ouster. At one point, Ghonim seemed to disappear, losing contact with Google, as well as friends and family. As it turned out, the Egyptian leadership, having targeted him as a lightning rod for the uprising, had “detained” him for several days; eventually, bowing to international pressure, he was released, and given a hero’s welcome by the supporters of the revolution.
Written just days before Mubarak stepped down, the January 2001 edition of London’s Independent published an article highlighting a few of the members of the opposition, in an effort to personalize the effort to rid Egypt of their totalitarian President. Many of the reports that were coming out of Egypt during the demonstrations were authored anonymously, for obvious reasons. One such article appeared in an online publication called Informationweek; the article discusses how the Egyptian government managed to shut down nearly the entire nation’s access to the internet for a period of several days. According to the article, such a move would be nearly impossible in the United States, because of the vast array of companies and systems that provide access. Egypt, on the other hand, has few Internet Service Providers, thus making it relatively easy for the government to shut it down. It seemed the threat of the telecommunication companies to pull out of the country –and the ensuing damage to the economy- caused the leadership to reconsider, and they reactivated the internet within days.
In another online publication, Nature News, author Declan Butler wrote a piece entitled “Egypt’s Youth Key to Revival.” This theory seems practically self-evident, considering the median age of the demonstrators who filled the streets day after day to protest the rule of Mubarak. It is this youthful demographic, with their comfort with the latest social networking technology, that was easily able to organize the protest strategies on short notice, using Facebook to hold virtual meetings; meetings that simply would not have been possible a decade ago.
In a recent issue of Newsweek, former National Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, wrote an editorial entitled “Egypt is seething.” Brzezinski discussed the uprising in Tunisia, noting the similarities to what was happening in Egypt, and predicting (correctly, as it turned out) that Mubarak could not survive politically, given the nature of the uprising and protests.
Interestingly, in 2008, author Lily Huang wrote an article entitled “A Tool Of Revolution,” wherein she asserts that Facebook was not technologically ready to be used as a means of organizing an effective political uprising. It would appear that Huang may have misinterpreted the facts; it was not that Facebook was unprepared to act as the platform for revolution, but simply that Facebook users had not yet figured out how to use the platform effectively.
Similarly, the New York Times published an article in 2009 asking the question “Can social networking turn disaffected young Egyptians into a force for democratic change?” Taking a more positive view than the article by Huang, the New York Times article predicted that Facebook would indeed grow into a force to be reckoned with. The Times piece gets right what Huang’s piece missed: it’s the users who make the platform either work or not work; it’s simply a forum for those users to do with it what they will.
In the online journal New World Order, author Michael Petrou writes a piece entitled “The age of authoritarian strongmen suppressing a population is over. Why the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia are just the beginning.” Petrou predicts that it was not George W. Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive warfare that would bring about a domino-like progression of social change, but rather the internet, and the unstoppable interconnectivity of youth movements across the globe.
In a second article, entitled “Portrait of a Tyrant,” Petrou examines the awkward position in which the United States found itself during the Egyptian uprising. President Mubarak, despite his reputation as a ruthless tyrant, had long been an ally to the United States in the so-called “War On Terror.” From allowing military operations to be based in Egypt to accepting for “rendition” captives that were eligible for “enhanced interrogation,” Mubarak was considered to be someone with whom we could work to achieve our goals in the Middle East. As opposition to his rule grew, the U.S. found itself in an increasingly untenable position of having to move from defending Mubarak to calling for his ouster.