Are new forms of communication inherently revolutionary? Do technologies that enable greater interaction among people necessarily subvert traditional norms and political regimes? When more people can speak, do more rulers fall?
For many, the Arab Spring provided the latest and most compelling answer to this line of questioning. Without Facebook, Twitter, and cellphones, we have been told, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Muammar al-Qaddafi would still be safely ensconced in their palaces, and Bashar al-Assad would not be clinging to power by his fingernails.
The man who has come to personify this argument is Wael Ghonim, the “Facebook Freedom Fighter,” an Egyptian Google executive whose social media activism is often portrayed as the spark that lit the fire in Tahrir Square. The very title of Ghonim’s new book recounting his participation in the rebellion, Revolution 2.0, suggests that the Internet determined the nature of the upheavals in the Middle East, creating a fundamentally new political phenomenon in the process. According to Ghonim, the Internet is “a new force” in the history of social change, destined to “change politics.” Thanks to modern technology, he writes, “the world is less hospitable to authoritarian regimes” and “the weapons of mass oppression are becoming extinct.” But the long relationship between communication technology and politics—as well as the recent history of the Middle East—suggest that the Internet itself and Ghonim’s celebrated use of it are less revolutionary than the unseemly, politically unconscious ways in which most people in the region are using the new forms of communication.
There is little doubt that most of the communication facilitating the Egyptian uprising passed through the channels of the Internet, or that Ghonim’s Facebook page was a hub for activists. Ghonim created the page in June 2010 after seeing a photograph of the corpse of a young man named Khaled Said who had been beaten to death by police in Alexandria. Called “We Are All Khaled Said,” the Arabic-language page grew from 300 members in its first two minutes to 36,000 by the end of its first day. Within six months, Ghonim’s relentless postings calling for reform of the police and the State Security Investigations Service attracted more than 300,000 new members.
The political demands were simple and unremarkable. “Together,” Ghonim writes, “we wanted justice for Khaled Said and we wanted to put an end to torture.” But to Ghonim, the page represented something entirely new. It showed that modern communication could make revolution easy. “Social networking offered us an easy means to meet as the proactive, critical youth that we were,” he says. “It also enabled us to defy the fears associated with voicing opposition. The virtual world seemed further from the oppressive reach of the regime, and therefore many were encouraged to speak up.”
Emboldened by the success of street demonstrations in Tunisia that began in December 2010, on the following January 14 Ghonim posted a call for mass demonstrations in Egypt—a “Revolution Against Torture, Poverty, Corruption, and Unemployment”—to be held on January 25, the country’s National Police Day. Added to his page’s list of demands were an increase in the minimum wage, benefits for unemployed university graduates, and the removal of the Mubarak government. By the day of the demonstrations, the page had grown to more than half a million members, and other Facebook pages were forwarding the call to protest to hundreds of thousands of Internet activists. “This would be no ordinary demonstration,” Ghonim says in his book.
The series of demonstrations that followed, in which hundreds of thousands filled Tahrir Square and faced down tanks, rubber bullets, water hoses, tear gas, and truncheons, helping to ultimately oust Mubarak, were certainly extraordinary in recent Middle Eastern history, but they were not outliers in the history of popular rebellions. Although facilitated through lightning-fast communication technologies available to much of the population, the demonstrations were no more popular or successful than thousands of other uprisings that have been facilitated through leaflets, land-line phone calls, smoke signals, or whispers. The Internet did not make the Arab Spring inevitable.
Communication technology does not speak for itself. It is just as likely to be used for conservative purposes as it is to upset the status quo. The printing press democratized access to information but was first used mostly to print Bibles and reactionary religious texts. Later, the British, French, and Russian monarchies employed it just as vigorously as did the Patriots, the Jacobins, and the Bolsheviks. After Thomas Edison invented the motion picture projector, he used it to show movies that promoted U.S. imperialism and traditional “American” values. In the first three decades of its existence, television was largely a vehicle through which the white, middle-class, antiseptic nuclear family was upheld as the model of virtue.
As novel as the means might be, Egypt’s Facebook revolution is also an example of the limitations of traditional political discourse. The messages sent out by Ghonim and his comrades were restricted to discussions of government institutions and economics. In his book, he disparages “trivial matters like soccer” in comparison to “real issues” and does not mention that Egyptians have mostly used new communication tools to read, write, watch, and hear what he considers to be a waste of time.
Ghonim might be a political revolutionary, but like so many of his kind he is a cultural conservative. His memoir is painfully earnest; we learn little about his life other than his devotion to work, God, family, and country. He tells of 16-hour workdays at Google and his first job as founder of Islamway.com, a site containing audio recordings of religious sermons, lectures, and recitals of the Koran. His self-description presents a man who has spent most of his adult life on the Internet but who has never visited a site that was not political or religious. This would place Ghonim within a tiny, perhaps even nonexistent portion of Internet users.
Ghonim’s cultural conservatism causes him to ignore a concurrent people’s revolution different from his own, one that has taken place for decades across the Middle East and is far larger and more thoroughgoing than the Arab Spring. That revolution began with satellite dishes streaming in images of Western luxuries and sexy pop stars, making Tunisians, Egyptians, and Yemenis desire more than poverty, chafe at efforts to censor, and turn their backs on the atavistic laws of Islam.
During the Tahrir demonstrations, no Western media outlet reported what is likely the most important single fact about contemporary Egyptian politics: According to a 2006 study conducted by the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, the most popular and “most interesting” person in Egypt wasn’t a political or religious figure but rather Ruby, the “Egyptian Beyoncé,” who sings Arabic lyrics over disco-funk beats while belly-dancing in tight, hip-riding jeans. Ruby’s videos, which often feature the singer in bed with male models, spurred Mubarak’s Egyptian Censorship Committee in 2005 to ban music videos “which feature sexual connotations and females barely dressed.” Several Egyptian bloggers have argued that the crackdown on Ruby’s videos, which were ubiquitous in cafés, shops, and discos, spelled the end of the Mubarak regime. “It was an issue of a cultural revolution,” writes Nahed Barakat, a prominent blogger in Cairo.
Many in the West have feared that the ouster of the anti-Islamist Mubarak would usher in the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations (for which Ghonim expresses sympathy several times in the book). Islamists did win 75 percent of the seats in the Egyptian parliament in January’s elections. But the cultural revolution that Ghonim ignores spells just as much trouble for those attempting to impose Shariah as it does for secular authoritarians.
Protesters on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, and Alexandria were more likely to be wearing jeans, Adidas shoes, baseball caps, hoodies, and Gucci sunglasses than burkas, robes, and skullcaps. Their demand for unrestricted access to the Internet was widely interpreted as a demand only for access to news and social networking sites, but the top 20 most visited websites in Egypt during the Tahrir demonstrations included myegy.com and mazika2day.com, which are free music and video downloading sites whose most popular files in Egypt that month were Rihanna’s “Rude Boy,” Ke$ha’s “Sleazy,” and Lil’ Wayne and Eminem’s “Lean Back.” Another top-visited website in January 2011 was xnxx.com, which offers “100% Free Porn Movies and Sex Content.”
This is not the kind of revolution that sends people into the streets or topples governments overnight. But it is a revolution in everyday life, and it is gradually but surely subverting repressive moral regimes across the Middle East.
No one understands this more clearly than radical Islamists. Grand ayatollahs in Iraq and Iran have issued fatwas against using satellite TV to watch what Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani of Iraq calls “pictures of people with little clothes on, songs, and anything that weakens religious observance or causes intellectual and moral decline.”
Muhammad Imran Attari, chairman of the leading Islamic educational organization in Pakistan, explained in a recent fatwa precisely what is at stake in the cultural war: “Watching TV is an addiction that is hard to get rid of. It destroys morality and modifies your ideas in an imperceptible way to the points of view presented on it. TV is destroying Islam in particular. Anti-Islamic elements are using it to lure Muslims away from the Islamic ideology. As a satanic instrument, it tries to present Islam in a modern way, thus distorting it.”
On this front, the news is not on the mullahs’ side. Since 2000 the number of pan-Arab satellite TV channels has grown from 10 to 600. Of the current 600, only 45 offer religious content.
The desperation among Islamists is evident in their increasingly bloody rhetoric against the purveyors of popular culture. Last year the most senior judge in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Salih Ibn al-Luhaydan, announced that it was permissible to kill the owners of satellite TV channels that broadcast “evil” and “diabolical” programs promoting “debauchery.” Taking matters upon himself, Mohammed Abdel-Al of the terrorist Popular Resistance Committee in Lebanon declared jihad against Madonna and Britney Spears. “If I meet these whores,” he said, “I will have the honor—I repeat, I will have the honor—to be the first one to cut their heads off if they keep spreading their satanic culture against Islam.”
Americans who produce the cultural goods that Ghonim considers trivial should take pride in knowing that they are doing more for peace and freedom than anything foreign aid or the 82nd Airborne could do. Thanks to Wikileaks, we now know that even American diplomats in the Middle East understand that the flow of our lowbrow exports through new communication channels might very well prove decisive in the War on Terror.
In a secret cable revealed in 2010 by Julian Assange’s website, officials in the U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia complained that the al-Hurra news channel, which has received $500 million in U.S. government funding and features interviews with American politicians, is far less popular among Saudis than satellite broadcasts of Desperate Housewives, sexy movies, and celebrity talk shows. The communiqué, titled “David Letterman: Agent of Influence,” argues that American popular culture is doing more to persuade Saudi youth to reject violent jihad than U.S. government propaganda.
“It’s still all about the war of ideas here, and the American programming on MBC [which shows American movies and sitcoms] and Rotana [a channel partly owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation] is winning over ordinary Saudis in a way that al-Hurra and other U.S. propaganda never could,” the cable states. “Saudis are now very interested in the outside world and everybody wants to study in the U.S. if they can. They are fascinated by U.S. culture in a way they never were before.” A Saudi media executive reported to the embassy that U.S. programming on MBC had become the most popular in Saudi Arabia. According to the cable, he “told us that this programming is also very popular in remote, conservative corners of the country, where he said ‘you no longer see Bedouins, but kids in Western dress’ who are now interested in the outside world.”
Satellite television and the Internet certainly provided those Bedouins with a greater ability to see the outside world, but they did not make the kids like what they saw. Many of the political reforms sought by Ghonim and his comrades are undoubtedly popular, and if achieved will limit the power of governments to do harm. But far more people in Egypt and the Middle East are reaching through the new portals for the kinds of pleasures and freedoms that earnest political activists like Ghonim shun and mullahs and dictators rightly fear. This is what’s moving the earth every day, not just days of protests or elections. Call it Revolution 3.0.
Thaddeus Russell is the author of A Renegade History of the United States (Free Press).