Revolution in Egypt is the story of the week. Over the past seven days, ordinary Egyptians have come together to oppose the 30 year rule of Hosni Mubarak. The protests are a wonder of civil disobedience, technological coordination, and bottom-up action. But what are the origins, chances, the potential outcomes, and options for US policy?
Revolution is like a fire. All the necessary ingredients can exist independently for years, only bursting into a self-sustaining conflagration under the proper conditions. Fires require fuel, oxygen, and heat to burn. Fire-fighting strategies rely on eliminating one side of the triangle. Wildfires are fought by separating the fire from more fuel, while conventional fires use water to reduce the amount of heat available. The social analogs to fuel, oxygen, and heat are grievances, the public sphere, and emotional intensity.
Grievances are the raw fuel of revolution. In the case of Egypt, three decades of misrule, oppression, torture, and the stifling of economic and political freedom have left the population with an endless stock of grievances. Except for a small class of Mubarak's cronies, few people have benefited from his rule, and a society that was once integrated has become divided into an urban poor, and an exurban elite. The demands of the protestors have become unified into one simple message: Mubarak out.
The public sphere is vital for any protest to organize and gather moment. This includes both the conventional public sphere of streets and squares, and the public sphere of information. From the first, revolutionaries have used the latest in information and communication technology. Printing presses during the American Revolution, tape decks in the Iranian Revolution. The CIA smuggled Xerox machines in the Soviet Union to spread samizdat, the individual distribution of banned books and magazines, while the protestors in Tienanmen Square used fax machines to communicate with the world. More recently of the modern ICTs, text messaging helped bring down the Philipino President Jose Estrada, and social media like Twitter and Facebook has been central in the current Egyptian revolution, the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, and protests in Iran and the Ukraine.
Conventional counter-protest tactics involve squeezing out the public sphere. Physically, riot police and tanks can occupy strategic areas, with curfews for normal traffic. In the modern era, totalitarian regimes have attacked cyberspace as well. Egypt shut down the internet entirely for a day, while Iran slowed external access to a crawl during its crisis. And China is notorious both for a totalitarian system of internet traffic monitoring and censoring, and also for shutting down telecoms service during riots in Tibet and Xinjiang. While shutting down the public sphere is effective in stopping protests, it is risky, requiring the use of mass violence which might further inflame the opposition, and if continued for too long, can cause economic damage.
But don't be confuse the utility of social networking with the necessity for it. As compared to other forms of ICT, social media plays into the third requirement for revolution; emotion. This is the non-quantifiable element which makes people dare to stand against power, to face batons and teargas and bullets in the name of liberty. Emotion is personal, internal, idiosyncratic, and social networking is about broadcasting your feelings, more than any specific information. A robust internet community can transmit and amplify anger and the demand for change. The sparks of rage can spread from city to city with incredibly rapidity. And once enough sparks have landed, and the crowds have gathered, the revolution becomes self sustaining. Optimism is counter by fear, the longstanding fear of the regime, and fear of future chaos and repercussions. In Egypt, the successful revolution in Tunisia provided the impetuous of hope to counter three decades of oppression. Mubarak has tried to instill fear in the population, by agent provocateurs and the threat of military force, but has so far proven unsuccessful. If the heat of the revolutionaries can outlast the resolve of the military, they will win.
The flame of revolution, kindled in Tunisia, is spreading through-out the Middle East. The authoritarian regimes are like a forest which has not burned for years, with piles of dead leaves and trees lying about. What happens next is impossible to predict, but sparks are jumping, governments falling, and a brave new world may be at hand.