What’s Fueling Mideast Protests? It’s More Than Twitter
[Updated at bottom, 7:15 p.m. EDT, with fresh info from Cairo on communications clampdowns.]
Don’t call it a Twitter revolution just yet. Sure, protesters in the Middle East are using the short-messaging service — and other social media tools — to organize. And yes, there are sporadic reports coming out of Egypt that the Mubarak regime has shut off internet access — despite Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s call “not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including social media.”
But don’t confuse tools with root causes, or means with ends. The protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen are against dictators who’ve held power — and clamped down on their people — for decades. That’s the fuel for the engine of dissent. The dozen or more protesters that self-immolated in Egypt didn’t do it for the tweets.
“It’s about years of repression and dictatorship. Revolutions existed before Twitter and Facebook,” Issandr el-Amrani, a Cairo writer and activist, said in a telephone interview from Tunisia. “It’s really not much more complicated than this.”
Only about a quarter of the Egyptian populace is online, el-Amrani estimated. So street protests have grown the old-fashioned way: by leaflets and spontaneous amalgamation.
“I’ve seen a lot of small groups of people wandering the streets and people spontaneously joining them. At every house, they would yell, ‘Come down,’” said an expert on Middle Eastern censorship in an interview from Cairo.
The source, who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution, added: “This is much, much bigger than Twitter and Facebook.”
Still, it’s no secret that Facebook and Twitter are playing a role. But technology has always been involved in modern revolutions.
“In the last two decades or so, most of the political upheavals had some distinct link to communications technology,” political scientist Alex Magno of the University of the Philippines said in a 2002 interview.
Text-messaging helped spawn a revolution a decade ago in the Philippines. After television broadcasts of President Estrada being acquitted of corruption, residents took to their mobile phones texting their outrage. The streets of Manila quickly filled, forcing the president to resign.
The 1979 Iranian revolution was “closely linked” to the audiocassette, Magno said. Tiananmen was called the “Fax Revolution” because “the rest of the world was better informed than the rest of the neighborhood, because of the fax machine.”
Now, there’s Twitter and Facebook. Clearly, those tools have aided this year’s uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen — despite access to them being limited or suppressed.
Consider that at least 80,000 people confirmed on a Facebook page they would show for a Friday protest in Egypt.
“Twitter and Facebook helped, but people here were not discovering a new reality through social media,” el-Amrani said. “Maybe the rest of the world has.”
[Update, 7:15 p.m. EST]
Spencer Ackerman here. I just spoke with Freedom House’s Sherif Mansour, who’s been in constant contact with Egyptian sources over the last few days. That’s about to come to an end, he said, as the Egyptian government has shut down the internet, blocking SMS and is clamping down on cellphone coverage. All that is to disrupt the anticipated protests tomorrow.
“People are scared,” Mansour said. While reports have circulated that Egyptian protesters were finding ways to get to blocked sites like Facebook or Twitter and setting up Tor protocols, “a lot of the circumvention tools and resources people have been developing were dependent on having some sort of internet exposure.” Mansour hears that sporadic cellphone outages have been spreading from protest-prone areas of Cairo and may go nationwide imminently. “The only way for transferring information is through Bluetooth,” he said.
Maybe we’ll still be able to get information live from the protests, but Mansour isn’t so optimistic. “Not before tomorrow afternoon can we expect the internet to come back,” he said, “unless people here in the U.S. are able to pressure the government to do something different.” Hear that, President Obama and Secretary Clinton? Twitter alone may not be fueling these protests. But if internet access is (even partially) taken down, it’s going to be a lot harder for the rest of the world to find out how they’re unfolding.
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Monday, January 31, 2011
What’s Fueling Mideast Protests? It’s More Than Twitter | Danger Room | Wired.com