Egypt, revolution and the rise of the digital generation

Despite curfews, military crackdowns, and concessions from President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians continue to demonstrate their resistance with protests on the streets in a revolution born on the internet, writes James Le Grice.

What are we to call this? The press has not designated a title for the ongoing uprising in Egypt. The news media refers to protest in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez. But what is happening right now has escalated into something significantly larger than a protest.

When students took to the streets of London last December to voice anger at tuition hikes, that was a protest. When thousands of Egyptian citizens from all the country’s religious and ethnic groups, of various ages, male and female, call for an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s thirty year reign and defy curfews, riot police, troops, and now tanks, that is a revolution.

The revolutions of the past ten years have been colour-coded. The Ukrainian uprising over a disputed election in the winter of 2004-2005 is known as the Orange Revolution; the colour orange represented Viktor Yuschenko’s election campaign. Similarly there was the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan.

But the people revolting in the streets of Egyptian cities right now are not doing so out of support for a political candidate or party. Neither are they doing so to advance a specific ideology, unlike Iranian revolutionaries fighting for Islamism or Bolsheviks fighting for Communism. Instead, what we are seeing on our TV screens is frustration at rising food prices, unemployment, economic stagnation, and the authoritarianism of the ruling regime.

There does not appear to be a specific leader of this, nor a specific agenda for what should replace  Mubarak’s government, other than a government that embraces the liberty of its citizens. The most appropriate title for this uprising is the Phantom Revolution, given the ambiguity of its leaders and goals, and the role that the Internet and digital media played in its instigation.

The uprising began online. Egyptians with satellite television could see footage of the Tunisian revolt against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from news sources independent of the Mubarak regime’s censorship. But those with internet access could view an even greater range of international media offering every imaginable interpretation of the events.

They could see articles that argued Tunisia’s revolution could spark a domino effect across the Arab world. They could see personal testimonies from people in Tunisia, and watch footage captured on camera phones. Most importantly though, the Internet not only enabled Egyptians to see arguments about the potential spread of democratic uprisings, it enabled them to join in on the conversation.

The internet provides the illusion of anonymity. People will express themselves online in a way that they would be either too afraid or too embarrassed to do in a face-to-face situation. Look at the commentary beneath almost any YouTube video. Regardless of the video’s subject, the commentary nearly always descends into hostile, profanity-laced, sometimes racist, arguing. However, you could safely bet money that the real life identity of ‘Captain_Destroyer666’ is a quiet, polite, and submissive character.

Likewise, a citizen of a dictatorship can feel safe enough in the perceived anonymity of the internet to express opinions of the regime on a blog which they wouldn’t dare say atop a soapbox in a city square. Thus, the seeds of the Phantom Revolution grew on Facebook, Twitter, and various blogs. They grew to the point that dissidents felt safe enough in their numbers to plan real-world ‘Days of Anger’ on the aforementioned websites.

It is debatable, though, whether the planning was as grassroots as it appears. Two names stand out as potential ‘phantoms’ of the Phantom Revolution: Mohamed El Baradei and the Muslim Brotherhood. El Baradei, Nobel peace laureate, activist, and former head of the UN nuclear monitoring agency, returned to his home country from Vienna in order to take part in Friday’s planned uprising in Cairo. He is now joining the calls for President Mubarak to step down and lending a famous voice to the anti-government rhetoric of the revolutionaries.

The Muslim Brotherhood, politically the polar opposite of El Baradei, has also joined in the call for Mubarak’s reign to end. It is the largest opposition group in Egypt, and currently banned by the Mubarak regime. But neither El Baradei nor the Muslim Brotherhood appear to have any control over what is going on. It is more likely that both have merely joined in a naturally occurring uprising, hoping to gain a position of greater importance in a post-Mubarak Egypt.

The phantoms of the Phantom Revolution have become the Internet personae of the angered citizens. It is uncertain whether they will succeed in ending Mubarak’s rule, however. Mr Mubarak has dissolved his government and is reshuffling the cabinet, but the uprising has not dissipated.

Yet whether or not Mubarak abdicates, it can still be said that a revolution has occurred, because the ongoing events in Egypt have sent the message that authoritarian regimes can no longer maintain control in the same ways they could in the 20th century. The spread of information and freedom of honest expression provided by the internet is now the biggest threat to any would-be dictator. This is the rise of the Digital Generation.


*James Le Grice is a regular columnist at  .