ACE Forum, Allegiance of College Editors — February 4, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Egypt Forum II: People Power in the Middle East–Strategies for Success

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Hinh’s post hits on most of the key issues related to the role of media, new and old, in the ongoing crisis in Egypt. But events Tuesday have made clear some of the limits of those vectors for change.

Starting late Tuesday in Alexandria, reports of pro-Mubarak forces attacking the pro-democracy protesters began to surface. Just who these forces are remains not entirely clear. In all likelihood they are plainclothes police, paid militia, etc… Goons deployed by the regime to attack the protesters. This seems evidenced from the weaponry, organization, and CAVALRY they’ve had since their first appearances. But to be fair, Al Jazeera still insists on calling them pro-Mubarak protesters, and that may yet turn out to be the case. On Wednesday morning, their presence spread dramatically to Tahrir Square in Cairo, where they fought violent battles with the protesters.

Amidst this show of violence and the accelerating anarchy consuming Cairo, the media is losing its effectiveness. Violence on the streets is increasingly directed towards journalists and Al Jazeera in particular. Anyone who’s been watching coverage of the events has seen the drastic change in reporting, as staff on the ground can no longer work as openly. Social network output is increasingly being used by regime and protester alike, with tweets being put out urging people to go home and abandon the movement. Hinh makes the comparison to the failed Green Revolution in Iran, and these points add to that comparison. Egypt has its own Basiji now and is abusing journalists and social networks as Tehran did.

Indeed, the limits of social network revolutioning were evident even before all this began. Earlier in the week, the so-called “million man march” aimed to lead masses of protesters from Tahrir to the Presidential Palace. Instead, the march remained in the square as a mass demonstration, as organizing forces struggled against the anarchy that SMS, Twitter and other new media platforms encourage.

Since the arrival of the goons, the protesters have done better by making use of some more traditional tactics. They have set up barricades to keep their opponents out of Tahrir, they have been returning stones and Molotovs at the Pro-Mubarak forces, and they have been tactically securing additional territory to reinforce their position. This is the kind of action that the Egyptian protestors may need to win the day. In contrast, the crescendo of Tunisia happened so quickly that such behavior never became necessary.

On Friday, the protesters plan a “Day of Departure,” hoping to make a final push to force out Mubarak, with mass protests to follow Friday prayers. I suspect that if they are to be successful, they will need to keep up these more classically revolutionary behaviors. They will need not just to gather in Tahrir. They will have to go back on the offensive, as they did earlier. But that isn’t to say that the media has no role: Such an offensive is almost certain to elicit a more forceful state reaction, and the watchful eye of the world is essential to making sure that Cairo 2011 does not become Hama 1982.

Much rides on what happens in Egypt in the coming days. A successful revolution on the Nile would reverberate across the board, especially in countries such as Sudan, Yemen and Algeria, where governments are already preparing themselves. It is unlikely to spread to the oil-drenched states of the Gulf, or Saudi Arabia itself, where social and economic systems differ wildly from those in Egypt and Tunisia. The successful marriage of new media and old revolutionary tactics could radically transform the region. If Mubarak survives, then this may all come to naught, and Ben Ali may come to be known in the same manner as Louis Phillipe was in the 1850s: the man who fled too soon.

Or, maybe I’m wrong, and the social media model will bring change on its own. I’d love to be wrong.

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