The easiest Egyptian revolutionaries for a non-Arabic speaking American to find are the young bloggers, wielders of camera-phones, YouTube uploaders, and social-network activists—”shabab al-Facebook,” as they are sometimes known, the Facebook youth credited with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. They are tech-savvy, cosmopolitan, often from elite origins, well-educated, and tend to speak excellent English—learned sometimes at school, sometimes from watching subtitled movies over the Internet.
One of the best-known bloggers in Egypt today is Mahmoud Salem, twenty-seven, who for several years blogged anonymously under the heading “Rantings of a Sandmonkey” and had accumulated 35,000 Twitter followers by February of 2011. He transmitted in English, partly to avoid the gaze of the security forces. He describes himself on Twitter as “Micro-celebrity, Blogger, activist, New Media douchebag, Pain in the ass!” His story illustrates how a young, educated elite lost confidence in Hosni Mubarak; how technological adeptness evolved into political dissent; and how dictatorial heavy-handedness backfired.
It’s beyond my competence, probably beyond anyone’s competence, to assemble fragmentary stories into a gestalt account, a description, either thick or thin, of the Egyptian uprising in its totality. There is such a thing as the fog of insurgency. It is especially thick in a society where estimates of illiteracy range from 28 percent upward.
Even in well-documented societies, decades after the events, doubt may remain about who did what, and in what sequence, during pivotal periods. In the case of the Chicago streets during the Democratic convention of August 1968, for example, the role of agents provocateurs remains opaque. In Egypt, one intriguing element involves bloggers who several years ago made contact with nonviolent activists in Belgrade—veterans of the student movement that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic—and through them made use of the highly sophisticated how-to-do-it manual written by a veteran American activist, Gene Sharp.
Still, judging from my limited experience, the least one can say is that the story of Mahmoud Salem is part of the story of what happened in Egypt, and it is not unique.
Toward the end of March, I met Salem in a Cairo bar. He is heavyset, talks fast, a storyteller, often unrestrained and ebullient. He was just back from Brussels, where he had gone to lobby for European pressure to compel an early trial for Mubarak and his family. His smartphone clamored every few minutes as he told me his story.
He graduated from Northeastern University in Boston, where he studied business (“of course,” he adds, the alternatives being medicine and engineering). After graduating, he returned to Egypt, worked in investment banking and marketing, and, at twenty-three, started to blog. Why? “It was all about, ‘Someone on the Internet is wrong, and I must correct it.’” He laughed. “I guess I had a reverse culture shock by how closed the entire society was,” he said more earnestly. “You know, there was no freedom, conformity was everywhere. And people spouted truisms as if they were true. There was no argument.” This was, he said, “the natural conclusion to an educational system based on memorization and not critical thinking. I wanted to confront some truisms that were existing in the Egyptian mind.”
I asked for an example, and he offered what he called “the three-statement test.” (It is not for nothing that Sandmonkey has worked in marketing.) “There are three statements that somehow manage to coexist in the mind of an uneducated Arab. The first statement is, ‘The Holocaust never happened.’ The second statement is, ‘Hitler was good for killing the Jews, even though the Holocaust never happened.’ The third statement is, ‘Whoever is running Israel is as bad as Hitler, who was good for killing the Jews, even though the Holocaust never happened.’”
AT THE same time, Salem grew disillusioned with his social circle, the kind of people who go to the American University of Cairo. “You hang out with people for whom the biggest problem is that the Egyptian pound is not that strong vis-à-vis the euro, which prevents them from doing more shopping in Europe. So you start realizing that those people, their brains are not there. You know? They have sold out their minds.”
Several middle-class Egyptians I met told variants of the same story. They did not inherit an interest in insurgent politics. Salem developed a political interest: to oppose Hosni Mubarak’s New Democratic Party. This was, he says, “very uncomfortable, because at the time my mother was a Member of Parliament for the NDP, and appointed by Mubarak.” Keeping his identity secret was important for two reasons: he not only didn’t want his blog used against her, he didn’t want her to nag him about it. If he had blogged in Arabic, he would have come under the jurisdiction of the state security services. Blogging in English, he fell under the less stringent intelligence services. Another reason for blogging in English was to reach the elite. “At the time,” he said, “mistakenly, I thought if any change should happen, you’ve gotta start with the higher-educated classes, and then somehow it will trickle down. Very stupid of me.”
In 2005, he recalls, “The blogosphere was divided between three kinds of bloggers. There’s the blogger that became a kind of activist, the activist who became a blogger, and the blogger who stayed a blogger. And I was the first kind. I was the blogger who became an activist. And the reason why I became an activist was, there was a number of things that were happening that were extremely horrible, horrifying and edifying.” On July 23, 2005, suicide bombings in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, on the Red Sea, killed eighty-eight people, mainly tourists. Anti-terrorist demonstrations promptly took place. At one of them, government thugs attacked women and tore off their clothes. In a patriarchal society, men’s failure to protect women was a very bad signal.
Salem and others resolved to hold another demonstration in Sharm el-Sheikh. “They told us you can’t do that, you have to get permission, and I went and got permission and everything, and it became a big deal, and then the night before I got a phone call from state security warning me that they might have to shut down the demonstration because it might turn into an anti-Mubarak demonstration, and we can’t have that.” How an anti-terrorism demonstration could turn into an anti-Mubarak demonstration bewildered him. “You know, that was the moment I decided that they were too stupid to continue to govern us.”
After the demonstration in Sharm el-Sheikh, he went on, “I had more of a connection with the streets, more with a whole new group of friends, a new group of allies, and a whole new group of enemies, if you will.” Through the blogosphere—some twenty or thirty blogs, secular, left, and right, “discussing all the issues that the regular media were not discussing, I started to see how this country functions. We started reporting on things that the media weren’t reporting on—things like the sexual harassment of women, and torture. That forced the media to report on them.”
Soon Salem was using Facebook and Twitter. “It became quickly obvious,” he said, ”that Facebook is a fantastic way to share information or post links or organize events. Because if you can use it to organize a birthday party then you can use it to organize a demonstration.” He adheres to what Internet guru Ethan Zuckerman calls the “cute cat” theory. It says that any technology that can be used to share pictures of cute cats can be used to bring down dictatorships. When he learned that his blog was being monitored, he discontinued it for three months, then resumed it.
His reputation for analysis and bluntness grew. His politics evolved, too. “At first,” says a journalist who has known him for years, “he was something of a neocon.”
Eventually came the January 25 outpouring in Cairo, summoned through the Internet and vastly bigger than anyone expected. On February 3, Mubarak thugs came galloping into Tahrir Square on camels and horses to disperse demonstrators. The next day, Salem was trying to get medical supplies into the square. As he parked nearby, “I got attacked by Mubarak goons. I found policemen, I stopped them and asked them for protection, and they realized that we were with the protesters so they took away our car keys and our phones, and then told the crowds gathering around us that we’re not Egyptians, that we’re American-Israeli agents and we’re the people setting everything on fire and doing bad things. What followed was a fantastic re-enactment of a zombie movie for forty-five minutes. We’re hiding in the car, they’re trying to flip the car over with us in it, jumping on top of the roof, throwing rocks at us, bringing a rope and telling us that they’re gonna lynch us. So I got beat up and arrested by the police.” Actually, “they were trying to save our lives” from the mob.
When the police answered his cell phone, they heard threats from his father and “two other very important people.” He was released a few hours later. It was at this point that he went public. His mother found out he was Sandmonkey. And “she joined the revolution.”
So was this (as some media, hard-pressed for a bumper-sticker slogan, like to say) a Facebook revolution? Strictly speaking, no. It’s true that the Facebook group “We Are All Khaled Said,” named for the young Alexandria businessman beaten to death by police, amounted to a conspiracy so large as to warrant being called a pact. But it took more than that to shake the foundations of the regime. The percentage of Egyptians on Facebook was, and remains, in the single digits. Raw courage and ingenuity were obviously essential, as always, not only to outfox the secret police but to split the ruling elite. (In Bahrain, Libya, and Syria, as I write, those human qualities have not sufficed to shatter elite consensus and topple dictators.) As Juan Cole and Mona El-Ghobashy have insisted, Egypt’s extended labor uprisings were crucial in turning the army against the police. No more in Egypt in 2011 than in the Paris or Berkeley of 1968 were student and post-student radicals strategically placed or numerous enough to overthrow a government.
Egyptians like Mahmoud Salem are highly unlikely to build the political parties that will come to the fore in the next—electoral—phase of the Egyptian revolution. This is not their ambition. The online activists have no interest in ruling. Rather, many will stay busy on the social-movement front—campaigning for human rights and equality, helping to institutionalize the civil society that is a prerequisite (though not a guarantor) for democratic developments. Thus, in April, the now-famous Google executive Wael Ghonim, who in June 2010 started the Facebook group “We Are All Khaled Said,”announced that he is taking a leave from Google to start an NGO to employ technology to fight poverty. Whether the online activists can make firm connections with the unions, no one can tell. But they will surely resist any attempt to impose a harsh version of Sharia law on Egypt. They are not going away.
By contrast to Egypt, Arab nations like Libya and Syria, lacking much that qualifies as civil society, face immense obstacles in the way of peaceful change. No plausible scenario works for them. But in Egypt, the online activists and the other revolutionists of Tahrir Square put the lie to the notion that “the Arabs” (as if they constituted a single bloc) must choose between surrender to dictators, on the one hand, and Islamist terror, on the other. These freedom-loving activists will not always agree among themselves, but neither will they be easily beaten back. From here on out, they form part of the infrastructure of democratic potential.
Todd Gitlin‘s latest book is the novel Undying. In March, he was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the American University of Cairo. Thanks to Lynn Berger for transcribing the interview. For Internet references cited, write to email@example.com