Egypt, Gladwell and the Social Revolution

Why Gladwell is wrong about the recent revolts in the Middle East from Iran to Egypt.

The Egypt Protests Part 2
Protesters take part in an anti-Mubarak protest at Tahrir square in Cairo February 1, 2011. At least one million Egyptians took to the streets on Tuesday in scenes never before seen in the Arab nation's modern history, roaring in unison for President Hosni Mubarak and his new government to quit. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem
The Egypt Protests Part 2
58. Protesters hold a banner during a demonstration in Cairo January 30, 2011. Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei told thousands of protesters in central Cairo on Sunday that an uprising against Hosni Mubarak's rule cannot go back. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

I’d bet my bottom dollar that somewhere in Tahrir Square today they’re blasting Bob Marley’s revolutionary lyrics while chanting down Babylon. We’re going to chase those crazy baldheads out of town–Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights–Rebel Music–Burnin’ and lootin’–almost every one of his songs yields a line of sheer rebellion and his music is all-pervasive. As @kristainchicago said on Twitter today: Universal truth: no matter what country you’re in, there’s a bar somewhere playing No Woman, No Cry.

Clovis, Sunday Observer, February 6, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell has been shooting off his mouth insistently about whether or not social media played a role in the latest set of insurrections in the Middle East. His thesis is that revolutions took place before Facebook and Twitter from which he concludes that the recent uprisings had nothing to do with social media and even if they did, this is ultimately fundamentally unimportant compared to the reasons for the respective revolts.

People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.

A respondent to Gladwell, AliaThabit, succinctly pointed out the flaws in his thesis:

I just got back from Egypt last night. If the internet were of no consequence, the govt would not have shut it down–along w/ the mobile network in Cairo, and FB and the SMS network over the whole country, which is how most people there communicate–everyone has a mobile, and sms are free (calls are not). I spent most of the first week of the revolution in Aswan with a hotel full of Cairo students who were on holiday–we (and the whole town) were all glued to the television, and they were also glued to their phones. Information raced around the country. The French may not have had Twitter, but they would have used it if they had. There are twenty million people in Cairo alone. How many lived in Paris?

There is a crucial point that the prolific Gladwell (whose mother is Jamaican) is missing. The celebrated revolutions of yesteryear all had heroic leaders around whom sustained acts of dissent, rebellion and revolt were mobilized. What is noteworthy about the recent wave of popular uprisings everywhere from Iran to Tunisia to Egypt is that they have been ‘leaderless revolutions’. This marked change in modus operandi between traditional revolution and its contemporary counterpart is worth studying; the reasons for the shift are attributed to the speed with which information is collected and disseminated by groups of people using the new social networks. The era of the charismatic leader may be over.

I’m indebted to Nicholas Mirzoeff and his new blog For the Right to Look for these insights:

Whether or not the revolutions will have been fully successful–and no-one has really defined that success–there is a palpable and electric sense of change, not just in North Africa but globally. The events have revealed that there is already a network for change and how it has worked. One tweet widely circulating from Egypt outlined the method: “Facebook used to set the date, Twitter used to share logistics, YouTube to show the world, all to connect people.” The dispersed co-ordination shows that the network has learned from Iran that social networking can also be used by the police to track down activists. Mubarak tried to cut off all Internet access, hoping that this would quell the street actions. Facebook went first, followed by Twitter, then all connections. It was a revolution watched on social networks, but acted in the streets.

…The result has been the now-characteristic “leaderless” revolutions, as the Western media have depicted them, as if expecting new Castros and Lenins to materialize. Unable to comprehend networked change, those working in hierarchical companies are already writing banal opinion pieces predicting the collapse of the revolutions for lack of the very kind of leadership that provoked the uprisings. Should the revolutions fail, it will be following the combination of local state violence and globalized governmental and corporate hostility. Israel and Saudi Arabia found an unusual point of agreement in opposing the Egyptian revolution, while stock markets plunged on January 29 as it became clear that the revolution was not going to be crushed. Oil prices hit $100 a barrel on January 31, the usual profiteering from democracy. Israel has begun leading a movement to support Mubarak for fear of the unknown.

Cairo Graffiti

On his blog The Pharaohs of My Egypt Ernesto Morales Licea writes:

Tunisia exploded first, and a domino effect spills over multiple countries. Yemen, Algeria, Jordan. And now Egypt, cradle of humanity, that threatens to remove the Mubarak cancer by the force of the protesters…

…I wonder: why not Cuba? As I watch TV, listen to the demands of the volatile Egyptians. Listen, for example: “We got tired of lies, misery. For decades we endured the dictator Mubarak who has ruined this country.” We hear Egyptian scholars say:” I am a lawyer and live like a beggar. I earn $60 a month, and my rent alone is $75.” And we can not avoid the immediate association with our island.

I’ve heard all the arguments of the Egyptians. And I do not think there is one, I repeat — not one — which does not apply to my country. The same hunger and hopelessness, the same distaste for an inept government; the very low wages that don’t stretch even to survive, the underground corruption; the warning, just look at the living standards of the ruling class; and now, ironically, Cuba is also added to the list of countries with high unemployment.

And then there arises, inevitably, the pointed question: Why not Cuba?

If I had to respond I would start by pointing out a subtle reality: The control of information in my tranquilized country is, aberrantly, more fierce than in countries such as those that have just exploded. For those who don’t believe information has such an important role, I suggest they ask themselves: Why has the opening act of every classic dictatorship in History been to seize the methods of communication?

So this is what Gladwell glibly elides–how messages of revolution are transmitted is crucial–this is why as Licea observes dictators and powerbrokers have always tried to control the media, whether these were the drums of the enslaved signaling revolt on Caribbean plantations or more contemporary forms of broadcasting which now include Twitter and Facebook. Sorry Malcolm you can’t just blink this one away…

Author: Annie Paul

writer, editor and avid tweeter anniepaulose@gmail.com

8 thoughts on “Egypt, Gladwell and the Social Revolution”

  1. Annie, I am happy to see you pointing out the inherent flaws among english-speaking journalists such as Gladwell and his ilk…not to mention those who would dare to challenge the inherent wisdom of the masses. Surely 15 million people on T…witter can’t be wrong …Justin Beiber knows this and now, so does Pharoah.

    That said, please do not encourage the Egyptians to play Bab Morley without first checking for clearance with the Bab Morley foundation as that would be flagrant copyright violation ..not a nice thought on this the birthday of perhaps the greatest musical Mulatto that ever walked the earth.

  2. Hail Annie Paul,

    So…eeeem, di bredda (Gladbag) di a drink when im write im thesis. I don’t use twitter and I don’t have a facebook account (mi too smart fi dat…too many posers) and I use youtube sparingly but I think it is ludicrous to even suggest what Gladbag to underplay the significance of social network sites in activating and sustaining “movements” (of any people).

    Ferrda more, mek di gyptian dem play any mount a Bob dem want. Jah neva run nuh wire fence. Besides di music free already…branding is what di I dem need fi tackle. Mek dem play di music free den sell dem whole heap a Bob Marley shirt, bong, lighter and so on and so forth…made in china.

    By the way wha happen to Mugabe? Im nuh dead yet? Musi true seh dem nuh have not even light a Zimbabwe much less internet connectivity. maybe im prostate will save di people dem the trouble.

    Di bredda dat said why not Cuba…I check seh im did a go seh why not JAMAICA.

    Peace and love, Stero

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