Tunisia, Egypt, and Beyond

Similar to millions of people around the world, I have been captivated by the historic events currently taking place in Egypt. Demonstrators poured into the streets of Cairo in late January and demanded nothing less than the end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year autocratic rule. Millions of Egyptians rejoiced as Mubarak signed his resignation on February 11, unable to withstand the pressure of Egyptian revolutionary forces.

The uprisings in Egypt are not an isolated event, however. They followed a trend set by Tunisian demonstrators who ousted their autocratic President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in early January.  Passionate voices from Tunisia, transmitted instantaneously to all parts of the world with the help of such social media websites as Facebook and Twitter, inspired Egyptian anti-government organizers to take direct action in the streets. As the news from the frontline of Egyptian Revolution spread across the Internet, millions of people around the globe, using social media as a primary source of information, received up-to-the-minute developments of events in Tahrir Square. 

President Mubarak, threatened by the viral spread of anti-government protests, shut down the Internet, in effect limiting freedom of speech. While the ban on the Internet was eventually lifted, the implications were profound.  Not only did this decision show Mubarak’s vulnerability, it also drew sharp criticism from the world’s leaders, including President Barack Obama. Most importantly, shutting down Internet in the midst of anti-government demonstrations highlighted the true power of social media. Mubarak’s authoriatarian government banned Internet because it realized that it gives people the power of social networking, as well as tools for collaborating and organizing.  

Recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt truly belong to the people, and crediting social media with the success of the anti-government movements would be shortsighted. However, it is important to note that social media has accelerated the spread of youth revolts by allowing activists to communicate with each other faster than ever before. Social media, unlike traditional news sources, is unfiltered and “by the people”; it has the power to motivate and empower those with similar aspirations.

The growing unrest that is now spreading across North Africa and Middle East serves as the evidence of the power of people when they have the opportunity to connect and unite. As I am writing this blog, protesters are out on the street of Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, and Morocco. 

Although it is unclear how events will unfold from here, I know for certain that I will be using social networks to follow new developments in real time.

Activism on the Brink of Forever

“We’re on the brink of Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever,” Patton Oswalt claims in his article, Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die. Within it, he argues that pop culture is nearing etewaf—that the Internet, in its boundless and eternal state—made this inevitable. The consequence of this, he writes, is that we are now a culture populated by “sated consumers” who don’t strive to create anything new. Rather, we simply rediscover the old and appropriate it endlessly.

In a blog about new media and activism, I’ll admit it’s odd to start off with something seemingly so removed from the topic at hand. Pop culture, geekdom, and wonky theories on the evolution of the Internet aren’t exactly the expected musings. However, when people talk about activism, social change, and the ‘power of the internet’, they focus primarily on the diffusion of space. Missing from this is an attempt to contemplate the Internet’s deconstruction of time.

Yes, we know that social and digital media is able to bring people together faster than ever before. We know that it has diffused power and authority structures by creating an anonymous, amorphous collection of individuals. We’re also able to witness events across the world instantly, and not only hear the words of whatever authority figure is commenting on it, but the words of citizens on the street and commentators in their bedrooms. But because this phenomenon is so new, we haven’t yet conceptualized it as an ongoing, eternalized process.

There are advantages to this, numerous ones actually. For one, we’ve never before been able to Google ways to begin a new social movement and then choose from dozens of models from different times and places (oversimplified, of course). But the advantages bring disadvantages as well. Is it too far fetched to think that the “sated consumer” could be the “sated activist” as well?

Rather than thinking in terms of pop culture regurgitated endlessly, maybe information overload would force us to filter new societal problems into lenses that we’ve already seen through. Maybe this is the end of new ideas for social change and we’ll simply take these old models and tinker with them endlessly but never innovate or spontaneously create as we used to.

Or maybe the etewaf will strike differently. We’ll come up with new models to deal with problems, but we’ll be so caught up with the problems we already see today– problems we’ve seen for decades or more, that we only tackle the ones that exist. We’ll become part of a generation of hyper-connected individuals with immeasurable amounts of information but constricted by enhanced tunnel vision. We’ll be focused on a single point and devour everything about it (but only it).

Or perhaps this won’t be the case. But the point is that there is a different dimension to new media than simply the destruction of spatial constraints, and that should be something we take into account. If we’re to contemplate the effects of new media on activism and civic engagement, then we should take into account all of its properties. Not only do new media outlets create space, they enshrine it. We’ll always have memorabilia of the recent Egyptian revolution a few clicks away. We’ll also have the failed Iranian protests of 2009 as well. All past, present and future successes and failures will be visible forever, for better or for worse, and we’ll have to live with it.


How we’ll live with it is the question.

Brian Paragas is a Second Year Colin Powell Fellow (’11) and is studying political science and anthropology.

Activism on the Brink of Forever

“We’re on the brink of Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever,” Patton Oswalt claims in his article, Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die. Within it, he argues that pop culture is nearing etewaf—that the Internet, in its boundless and eternal state—made this inevitable. The consequence of this, he writes, is that we are now a culture populated by “sated consumers” who don’t strive to create anything new. Rather, we simply rediscover the old and appropriate it endlessly.

In a blog about new media and activism, I’ll admit it’s odd to start off with something seemingly so removed from the topic at hand. Pop culture, geekdom, and wonky theories on the evolution of the Internet aren’t exactly the expected musings. However, when people talk about activism, social change, and the ‘power of the internet’, they focus primarily on the diffusion of space. Missing from this is an attempt to contemplate the Internet’s deconstruction of time.

Yes, we know that social and digital media is able to bring people together faster than ever before. We know that it has diffused power and authority structures by creating an anonymous, amorphous collection of individuals. We’re also able to witness events across the world instantly, and not only hear the words of whatever authority figure is commenting on it, but the words of citizens on the street and commentators in their bedrooms. But because this phenomenon is so new, we haven’t yet conceptualized it as an ongoing, eternalized process.

There are advantages to this, numerous ones actually. For one, we’ve never before been able to Google ways to begin a new social movement and then choose from dozens of models from different times and places (oversimplified, of course). But the advantages bring disadvantages as well. Is it too far fetched to think that the “sated consumer” could be the “sated activist” as well?

Rather than thinking in terms of pop culture regurgitated endlessly, maybe information overload would force us to filter new societal problems into lenses that we’ve already seen through. Maybe this is the end of new ideas for social change and we’ll simply take these old models and tinker with them endlessly but never innovate or spontaneously create as we used to.

Or maybe the etewaf will strike differently. We’ll come up with new models to deal with problems, but we’ll be so caught up with the problems we already see today– problems we’ve seen for decades or more, that we only tackle the ones that exist. We’ll become part of a generation of hyper-connected individuals with immeasurable amounts of information but constricted by enhanced tunnel vision. We’ll be focused on a single point and devour everything about it (but only it).

Or perhaps this won’t be the case. But the point is that there is a different dimension to new media than simply the destruction of spatial constraints, and that should be something we take into account. If we’re to contemplate the effects of new media on activism and civic engagement, then we should take into account all of its properties. Not only do new media outlets create space, they enshrine it. We’ll always have memorabilia of the recent Egyptian revolution a few clicks away. We’ll also have the failed Iranian protests of 2009 as well. All past, present and future successes and failures will be visible forever, for better or for worse, and we’ll have to live with it.

How we’ll live with it is the question.

Brian Paragas is a Second Year Colin Powell Fellow (’11) and is studying political science and anthropology.

Originally posted at the Powell Symposium blog

The Demise of the Last Pharoah

Congratulations to the Egyptians for gaining their deserved freedom from the tyrant, Hosni Mubarak “the last Pharaoh” and finally liberating the state from the authoritarian regime. What a spectacular way for them to end this authoritarian regime. This demonstrates the great power that existed within the Egyptian society in taking things into their own hands. Who would have thought that tools like Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet in general could be such a catalyst in mobilizing the Egyptian people for bringing an end to tyranny in their land, from the heart of Liberation Square (Tahrir Square).

There are numerous lessons that humanity can learn from these peaceful protests in Egypt, which brought an end to the three decades of authoritarian rule. Three points come to mind about this historic January 25 revolution in the land of pyramids. The first lesson is that there is nothing that ordinary people cannot do when they come together to bring about real change even if this means facing the tanks and the brutality of the state police.

The second lesson is that the actions of authoritarian regimes against their own people are unacceptable, the world over, and no matter how long these systems exist they will end. The Egyptian regime, in attempting to stay in power as long as it could, utilized all the state mechanisms to suppress its people, jailing all dissidents and increasing the police in the streets to keep things under control. Since these actions were not built on the will of the people (the governed), they failed miserably. The most important thing in the twenty first century is accountability to your own people as a state, and since the Egyptian government has never been in touch with the poor people and never answered their demands, the result was that the very people it tried to suppress brought it down. Therefore, it meant injustice might last for a while, but not forever. The events in Egypt have shown the world that nothing is impossible if people try hard enough to gain their freedom and civil rights. No matter how long they stay in power, their citizens would always find ways of expressing their opinions.

This leads me to my third point, which is the issue of legitimacy, accountability, and the social contract between the people and the state or in other words the relationship between a government and the governed. According to John Locke, the great social scientist, people in a social contract give up their rights to the state willingly on the condition that the state protects their lives, assets, and organizes their day-to-day affairs. What has become clear from watching the protests in Egypt over the past three weeks is that this contract between the government and the people has not been respected by the authoritarian regime, which over the course of thirty years of existence committed many human rights violations, and crimes against its own people. Once this trust between the government and the governed elapsed, it became impossible for the Egyptians to live under this regime and hence they took to the streets to demand their rights.

A clear message has been sent to authoritarian rulers the world over that they can no longer do business as usual with their citizens. Long live the power of the people.
Hashim Hassan is a former Colin Powell Fellow (’10) and a graduate of the City College of New York.

Colin Powell Fellows host “Civic Engagement in the Era of New Media” Symposium

The Colin Powell Fellows in Leadership and Public Service are proud to announce our upcoming symposium, “Civic Engagement in the Era of New Media,” that we have been planning since November 2010 with Farai Chideya, New York Life Leader-in-Residence at the Colin Powell Center. Civic engagement in the era of new media is a relatively unexplored topic with a variety of potential consequences, both positive and negative, for the social fabric of communities and the policies that affect them. This symposium will address the simultaneous potential for greater collective action, community building and organization as well as the diffusion of power and sources of information that come with the rise of new media.  We hope this symposium will facilitate direct dialogue among civil society, academia, policy makers and media representatives to construct a vision for a new civically engaged generation. Please check this website regularly for new posts regarding new media and civic engagement.  Looking forward to seeing you there!    – Colin Powell Fellows

Beyond Cairo: Prospects for Revolution South of the Sahara

 

Protesters in the Ivory Coast – REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

I am sure most of you are following events in Egypt with particular interest, especially those of us that are interested in Middle Eastern history and politics. We saw the downfall of Tunisia’s long time dictator, Zine Abidine Ben Ali after almost three decades in power. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was ousted amidst waves of protests that captivated audiences across the world. As these events continue to reverberate in the media, I cannot help but think about the possibilities of something similar happening in many countries in sub Saharan Africa. I came across a few articles alluding to this, and I thought I should share some of them with you all.

But before going further, the most important question to ask is whether it is feasible, even remotely that an Egypt/Tunisia styled revolution can occur in Africa, south of the Sahara. The answer to this I do not know, but thinking about it raised more questions in my mind, especially as the political situation in the Ivory Coast continues to deteriorate. Protests to get rid of their dictator who refuses to leave power even after losing an internationally certified election have all but grounded to a halt. Yes, I know the circumstances that led to these protests are different, but their respective populations suffer similar prospects, i.e. massive unemployment, economic stagnation, high food prices, and long time dictators refusing to leave power.

Here are some questions for you all to think about: What is the difference between the “revolutions” in North Africa, and the political crisis in the Ivory Coast (Some might argue that the situation in the Ivory Coast is not a revolution)? Why has the Ivorian “revolution” fizzled, resulting in the current stalemate? Does the ruthlessness of the dictator in power matter (i.e. Zimbabwe, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Angola etc)? How about the political awareness of the people? Are Africans making things worse by appeasing dictators with power sharing deals that never seem to resolve the structural and economic problems some of these countries face (i.e. Zimbabwe, Kenya)?

What is interesting though is that I am not the only one who feels this way. John Campbell, a Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations tries to answer some of these questions, and suggests why revolutions in Sub-Saharan Africa might not work. According to Campbell:

Sub-Saharan African leaders, particularly those with less than stellar records of accountable governance, are certainly wary of the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt. Some governments are all too willing to fire into crowds, and a weak national identity means people are not ready to die for their country. In other places, government is so weak, ineffective, or irrelevant to most people that they prefer to rely on their social networks as the state withers away…….

In an editorial from the popular Nigerian daily, NEXT, the editor went on……….

 The Ivorian military stands ready to kill its own citizens; the Tunisian army refused to shoot its own people. Many African leaders seem to have discovered this path to political eternity, by remaining in power only by stamping the lives of their subjects with poverty and misery.

However, is this always the case? In Guinea for example, the military gave up a bid to impose itself on the people after relentless pro democratic protests drove them to organize elections (though hundreds of civilians were massacred in the process). For those of you who are interested in sub Saharan African politics, I would really like to know what you think.

Mohamed Jallow is a former Colin Powell fellow. He graduated with a BA in International Studies in 2008, and currently pursuing and MPA at City College. He is a program associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Social media and the Egyptian revolt

I’ve been paralyzed for the past few days following the historic events unfolding in Egypt.  I studied in Egypt in 2009, and I spent a year researching the April 6th Youth Movement (A6YM), an Egyptian political opposition group that played a significant role in organizing the initial protests that have since morphed into a national uprising.  There are a few things that my research on social media in Egyptian opposition movements can add to the understanding of what’s happening in Egypt.

Obvious as it may seem, this didn’t “just happen.”

Clearly, the unrest in Egypt was sparked by the apparent successful uprising in Tunisia.  And it is generally understood that economic, political, and social conditions in Egypt have deteriorated over the past thirty years.  Still, one cannot simply draw a straight line from the events in Tunisia to what is happening in Egypt.  An underlying fabric of opposition has existed for years in Egypt, growing larger and more efficient with the aid of social media tools, and it is this existing opposition which made possible the protests that snowballed into open revolt.

Continue reading “Social media and the Egyptian revolt”

Powell Center Launches Blog

General Colin L. Powell and Powell FellowsWelcome to the Powell Network Blog!  The Powell Network is made up of current and former Colin Powell Fellows at The City College of New York.  The Powell Network Blog is a space for Powell Network members to engage in public debate about issues involving community and economic development, education, international development and global security, health, and the environment.    Powell Network members come from a range of disciplines at CCNY, and bring a wide variety of perspectives to the most pressing public issues of the day.  Check back regularly for new posts; we encourage comments, feedback and rigorous debate.