Monday, March 28, 2011

Egypt's facebook revolution 2.0 is real democracy, versus the fake democracy imposed by Western powers?

Earlier this year Egypt had a revolution and overthrew their dictator of 30+ years, Mubarak. Remember that? I know this nuclear reactor thing kinda got our attention, but this wave of revolution sweeping the Middle East is pretty cool. It's a lot more real than the fake democracies the U.S. has imposed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recently the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco held a panel discussion called "Egypt and the Middle East: Revolutions 2.0" to talk about this wave of revolution, focusing on the online social network aspect.

It's simply amazing what happened in Egypt but there was one night in the middle of it where I watched Democracy Now and Rachel Maddow and was so certain I'd wake up the next day to hear of a massive massacre. It could have been really bad had different decisions been made.

The discussion (see the audio player further down) covered a wide range of ground around non-violent revolutions, democracy, the multiplier effect of social networks, but there's a thought I want to start with.

In the 1990's the Neocons (Project for a New American Century) was preaching the possibility of flipping the Middle East by installing "moderate democracies". They saw the Middle East as largely antagonistic to the West, without recognizing our own role in creating that antagonism as a result of the decades of meddling in their internal affairs. In any case they thought that by overthrowing the government of Iraq and installing a moderate democracy, that it would inspire a wave of change throughout the Middle East. After the quick overthrow of Iraq, which the Iraqi's would accept with open arms, they would move on to either Iran or Syria, topple those governments, and install moderate democracies there as well. (see the following for some background information written years ago An utter and abysmal failure and Background Material and Review: Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War and Review: Farenheit 9/11)

Those were the plans in the 1990's and when GW Bush came to office in 2001 he brought all the neocon's into power with him (Rumsfield, Wolfowitz, etc) and they proceeded to implement the plans they'd been cooking up during the 1990's. The Iraq war gave them the pretense to go about installing moderate democracy.

At the time I thought - that's crazy, how can you install democracy by pointing guns at people? You can't, it's that simple. The way democracy comes about is by a natural upwelling of the people, and that's what we have going on right now in the Middle East and perhaps in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

The people on the panel did make some similar points but not to the extent I just did. I'm sorry, but that set of ideas has been bottled up inside me for a long time. The people of the U.S. allowed this ridiculous adventure in Iraq to happen, this ridiculous idea that you can install democracy by forcing people to change. But I want to get back to the panel discussion.

Several times the speakers said this revolution wasn't caused by Facebook. Peoples have done revolutions before Facebook existed. However Facebook and Twitter acted as a multiplier.

The fact of life in these repressive Middle East countries is that freedom of speech is squashed. One factoid I learned from this is that before the Egypt Revolution, people could not talk to foreigners unless they had a tourism license. Only those people licensed to be tour operators could speak with foreigners. However, the restrictions on speech did not exist on Facebook and the people could use it to talk freely.

Facebook launched their Arabic version in early 2009 and by 2011 there were five million Arabic speakers. Many on mobile phones. Thousands of Arabic groups were formed on Facebook, and the group used to inspire the revolution had over 300,000 members.

The "April 6" movement, a precursor to the 2011 revolution, was itself organized via Facebook.

People will find a way to communicate. In the past they had to use pamphlets or cassette tapes, now it's Facebook.

One can imagine that with tightly controlled public discourse the freedom they had to talk freely on Facebook must have made the restrictions in the physical world all the more maddening.

The panelists described the post-revolution phase as "taking three steps forward and two steps back". As amazing as that revolution was, today it's not so amazing. The military is in control and the history of Military Junta's does not suggest they're likely to easily give up power. Further, there is sectarian violence happening at some rate. Further, today the people are not so united but each group has their own set of demands. Egypt is going through a period of soul searching that's probably a necessary national debate for them to truly form real democracy.

As it stands they've thrown the bum out, and now as a nation they need to work out what it is they want.

I read a book some time ago discussing iterative change versus revolution. With iterative you change a bit of the system at a time hoping to get to a satisfying end goal. With revolution you erase everything and start over. The writer of that book pushed revolution as the best route, but I'm not so certain. The panelists discussed how currently there are 8 (or so) proposals to tweak the Constitution. That's a form of iterative change, but is that what Egypt needs or do they need sweeping change?

For example the Middle East has a long history of repressing their women. As a westerner I find that repugnant, and the panelists suggested that's one of the changes which should occur in order for Egypt to become a proper representational democracy. But it would be a radical change for a culture with thousands of years of female suppression behind it.

They discussed more - that's just the summary I came away with.

What do you think? Please leave your ideas in the comment box below.

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