First internet revolution?

Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad

This is what PM Najib should fear when he chose not to take heed of the over 220,000 social media protestors in Facebook on the 100-story Warisan Merdeka Tower. In typical Umno’s demeanor smacks of utter arrogance again, the oblivious DPM actually told PNB to ignore those who are jealous  and to go ahead with it.

This is an abhorrence for the extravaganza or the megalomania as much as it the revulsion for the unabating impunity – endemic corruption, unbridled usurpation of power, subversion of democracy and its critical institution…the list is a longer one. It might not be as long as in Egypt, not as yet both qauntitatively and qualitatively though, but it surely has the propensity to degenerate into that faster than you and i could imagine. Will the patience of the netizens be stressed to breaking point?

Rather than being wary and unnecessarily fearful of what social media could do to you PM Najib, why don’t you take heed and reform. That is the surest way of putting internet revolution at bay!

By Anne Alexander University of Cambridge

A few days after the fall of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, a Jordanian newspaper printed a joke apparently doing the rounds in Egypt: “Why do the Tunisian youth ‘demonstrate’ in the streets, don’t they have Facebook?”

Only six days later, protests across Egypt co-ordinated by a loose coalition of opposition groups – many of which are very largely organised through Facebook – seemed to prove this cynicism wrong.

Certainly, the Egyptian government reacted quickly: blocking social media sites and mobile phone networks before pulling the plug on Egypt’s access to the internet.

This act of censorship was spectacularly unsuccessful.

Friday 28 January saw literally millions take control of the streets in an epic “Day of Rage”. Nor did the blackout cut off news of the demonstrations and stop protesters communicating with each other.

Protest leaders had already agreed to call for demonstrations starting from key mosques, and marchers rallied at Friday prayers before heading for the city centres and key government buildings.

Satellite channels – particularly al-Jazeera – broadcast live coverage all day, constantly updated by telephone reports filed from landlines by its network of correspondents across Egypt.

Broad spectrum

The events of 28 January are particularly important, because they contain crucial clues to understanding the broader relationship between the media – both “new” and “old” – and the mass movement for change which has developed in Egypt over the past few weeks.

Firstly, the fact that an internet and mobile phone blockade failed shows clearly that this movement is not based on the web. In fact, the movement which erupted on 25 January has brought together many groups who have taken to the streets over the past 10 years.

A shop in Tahrir Square is spray painted with the word Twitter after the government shut off internet access on 4 February
Protesters have been using a range of different media – including Twitter – for communication

They are varied socially and politically, ranging from workers to bloggers and democracy campaigners, to senior judges, to members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Coptic Christians.

This is the first time they have all demonstrated together, and the first time they have been joined by millions of their fellow citizens. But it is important to understand that this movement builds on a legacy of protest by many different activist networks, most of which are not primarily organised online.

Secondly, it is clear that the protesters use a range of different media to communicate with each other and to get their message across.

I was in Tahrir Square on Sunday: everywhere you look there are mobile phones, hand-written placards, messages picked out in stones and plastic tea cups, graffiti, newspapers and leaflets, not to mention al-Jazeera’s TV cameras which broadcast hours of live footage from the square everyday. When one channel of communication is blocked, people try another.

Every mass movement needs spaces where political alternatives can be debated and organisation can take place.

In the 1940s, the last time that Egypt saw mass protests on a similar scale, radical bookshops, underground newspapers and illegal trade union meetings played this role.

For the current generation some of these spaces have been online.

I asked Ahmed, a socialist activist in Tahrir Square, what role he thought the internet was playing in mobilising protest.

“Online organising is very important because activists have been able to discuss and take decisions without having to organise a meeting which could be broken up by the police,” he said.

‘Offline’ political action

Online networks are only relatively “safer” from repression: Khaled Said was dragged out of an internet cafe and beaten to death by policemen last summer.