Egypt Forum I: People Power in the Middle East

The Columbia Political Review is participating in an Alliance of College Editors forum on the recent Egyptian protests. Here is the first in a series of thoughts and responses from collegiate political writers across the nation. Check back every two days for a new forum response, including responses from students right here at Columbia University.

Authoritarian regimes across the Middle East are atremble as popular revolution threatens to engulf a second country in the space of two months. Following the fall of the Ben Ali government in Tunisia, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have converged on major cities such as Cairo and Alexandria to protest a longstanding list of political and economic grievances that include an entrenched police state, one-party rule, endemic unemployment, and rising food inflation. Though current President Hosni Mubarak has been in control for nearly 30 years, at the head of a formidable security apparatus and with backing from the West, he, today, announced that he would not seek re-election in September—though it is doubtful his concession will placate the millions who oppose his rule.

The surprisingly rapidity with which revolution has swept the Arab world can be attributed, in part, to a revolution in social media. Starting in Tunisia and spreading to Egypt, protests are now appearing in Yemen, Jordan, and Syria, organized and publicized by individuals though Facebook, Twitter, and SMS, reminiscent of the abortive Green Revolution in Iran. While technology alone cannot cause the fall of a government, it can help catalyze idealistic students, disaffected intellectuals, and an angry, oppressed population into action by allowing them to organize and exchange ideas online. The relative ubiquity and accessibility of social media also acts as a constraint on government action, forcing them to put on a balancing act when deploying force against largely unarmed civilians. Even Iran, a reviled pariah state, resorted to plainclothes basij to intimidate protestors during the summer of 2009, aware that the eyes of the world were watching.

However, while new social media certainly has a role to play in keeping governments accountable to the people, one must keep in mind its weaknesses. While its spread has been pervasive amongst the youthful Generation Y, many older people have yet to overcome the digital divide. This gap also exists between countries; while Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan have relatively broad middle classes who have access to the Internet and cell phones, poorer countries like Yemen remain relatively isolated from the Information Revolution. In other cases, the government can strangle the flow of information in and out of the country; Mubarak’s government shut down Internet and cell phone service in an attempt to undermine protestors, while countries like Iran, Syria, and most famously, China, censor and control what goes on online.

The role of traditional, conventional media cannot be overlooked either. Qatar-based Al-Jazeera has received widespread acclaim for its 24/7 coverage of the events in Egypt, broadcasting scenes of “protestors bowing their heads against the water cannons; bearded young men in T-shirts and old women in head scarves holding the same signs, hours of silence preceding Tuesday's mass demonstrations, the Egyptian national anthem rising in the dark from Cairo and Alexandria as millions sat and stood and refused to leave until their president stepped down,” even as the government raced to suppress these images.

While it would be overstatement to say that social media single-handedly provided protestors with the tools necessary to organize a revolution, it did provide a very real, tangible way for people to communicate with each other, and the outside world.

As the winds of change begin to blow through the Middle East, the United States and its allies must reassess their relationship with the region. Pro-Western states like Jordan and Saudi Arabia might not be so stable if Hosni Mubarak, and his vaunted grip on the police and military, is giving way to popular revolution. Meanwhile, they must also deal with the aftermath of Tunisia and Egypt. The new government in Tunis has yet to consolidate its legitimacy or restore order to the country while Mohamed El-Baradei is only just emerging as the frontrunner to succeed Mr. Mubarak.