• Thomas Godfrey

Learn from Egypt. Social Media 'Revolution' can never work.


In most people’s minds, Hosni Mubarak is a distant memory. The brutal and repressive president of Egypt ruled the African nation for 30 years from 1981.

His undoing was to be just 18 days of continuous protest and unrest in Cairo’s Taihir Square, organised in part by the growing power of social media.

Spiteful of their leader for increasingly harsh crackdowns on freedom, the trigger of the revolution that kickstarted the Arab Spring was to be the death of Khaleed Saeed; killed by the police after an officer used a chokehold. Hauled from the inside of an Alexandria Internet Cafe, Said was then tortured extensively by the Sidi Gabar police. In the words of the Cafe Owner, “They dragged him to the adjacent building and banged his head against an iron door, the steps of the staircase and walls of the building... They continued to beat him even when he was dead”.

The police’s verdict? He choked on cannabis.

But how did the death of one man kickstart a revolution? Saeed’s brother, identifying what’s was left of his brother’s battered face, took a photo of his dismembered body. It showed the 28 year old’s jaw crumpled, nose twisted and skull fractured, with Human Rights Watch referring to him as “deformed”, and displaying a “numerous other signs of trauma".

Suddenly, Saeed became the “face that launched a revolution”. The Facebook page of Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim - “We are all Khaled Saeed” - spread the grim, photographic reality of Saeed’s final moments throughout the world. Within 10 days, 130,000 users were active on Ghonim’s page in support of Saeed. This was no longer an arms bust gone wrong, and neither the police nor Mubarak could hide behind flimsy excuses and suppress the people in to accepting lies or risk losing everything for the truth, just as Saeed had. After all, his possession of evidence the police were involved in a drug deal was a de facto death sentence of which the ripple effect became immeasurable; a feat unachievable without the emergence of social media and the empowerment of the people to share content from peer to peer.

In the Egyptian Revolution, half of the battle was for information and crucially, the truth. Facebook, Twitter and Youtube liberated information, allowing the people of Egypt to liberate themselves. Within eight months, Mubarak was gone, arrested and his party dissolved.

This should have been Egypt’s fresh slate, their new shot at democracy, freedom and rights. A chance for the repressed opponents, censored press and the impoverished of the North African nation to rebuild the ruins of Mubarak’s premiership into a flourishing nation again.

This should have been confirmed by the lifting of the 31 year state of emergency and the guarantee of democratic elections in September 2011.

But yet, just two years later, crowds were back in Taihir Square, and another leader was gone.

Movements founded in social media fail not because of their speed, popularity or lack of leadership, but because they simple don’t know what to do next. When the masses ousted Mubarak, there wasn’t a consensus on who should step in. There wasn’t an opposition leader, no imprisoned Mandela or opposition Walsea. For the Egyptian revolution, it’s biggest strength eventually spiralled into its biggest failure.

As the number of voices, heightening the shouts of “We are Khaled Saeed” increased, the individual power of each one declined.

The great myth of social media revolution was exposed in the harshest way possible. It took two million people to oust one man and yet nobody lead the crowds in Taihir Square. Whilst the internet began to tear itself apart deciding what should happen next, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi - arch rival of Mubarak’s NDP - won the democratic elections.

This sudden, radical shift in ideology began to create unease with the same groups who helped oust Mubarak. Piece by piece, the fragments needed to spark a revolution began to re-emerge.

The revolution, communicated and popularised through social media, had become transfixed with its one aim, ousting the President, that it had missed the danger lurking in the shadows.

Morsi’s governance had begun to resemble that of the very man he replaced. Corruption was once again widespread, with Morsi giving himself widespread authoritarian powers under a hastily devised ‘constitution’.

By June 2013, protests had once again reached a boiling point. The tool of social media was once again at the disposal of the protestors, with 500,000 flooding Taihir Square to chant “The people want the fall of the regime!” and "Down, down with the rule of the Morshed”.

But this time, what would happen next was out of the internet’s control. The military, disillusioned with the state of the government, had begun their own coup plans. On July 1, the military told the government to “meet the demands of the people”. They didn’t, and on July 3 the military took action to the delight of the protestors.

Morsi was arrested and his constitution revoked. By the end of 2013, his party were declared a terrorist group.

Despite the spreadability of Social Media, even as early as 2011, it rarely presents a unifying solution to any issues. This has come to light again in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. The video of ex-police officer Derek Chauvain’s knee pressed into the neck of a stricken Floyd makes a sickening watch. But will Floyd really become America’s Saeed? In the wake of his death, cries for revolution have grown louder and louder. Seattle’s Capitol Hill has been declared an “Autonomous Zone”, under the name ‘CHAZ’.

President Trump, characterised as the “possibly the first 'social media' president” by Van Jones, has also used Twitter to directly communicate with his 80 Million followers. Trump’s use of terms such as the “deep state” and “the swamp” portray the President as a dissident rebel fighting the very machine he was elected to lead.

Suddenly, a proxy war of words between the Government and the Black Lives Matter movement has begun. Through the prism of Twitter, both sides of protests have become a characature painted by the other. It’s looting “thugs” versus the “racist” president. But, from Egypt’s torrid social media revolution, we know that protests against Trump will probably never succeed. But if it does - in the same way that Mubarak’s toppling caused a power vacuum for Islamists, it could unleash something far worse.

However divisive he may be, at least the American government has a leader.

© 2020 Thomas Godfrey

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