In the Middle East, this is not a Facebook revolution

From Tunisia to Iran, Bahrain to Egypt anti-government demonstrators are taking to the streets with varying degrees of success. (Feb. 18)
By Jeffrey Ghannam
Friday, February 18, 2011; 3:00 PM

For decades, armed soldiers have guarded the Egyptian Radio and Television Union building in downtown Cairo, apparently to protect the country's formidable broadcast assets from being commandeered in an attempted revolution.

But Hosni Mubarak's departure from power earlier this month after three decades of rule showed that the power of social media sites and mobile phone technology proved a far bigger threat to the former Egyptian president.

Now with protests spreading from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria and Libya, the catchy notion of a "Twitter Revolution" or a "Facebook Revolution" is being debated - and tweeted, of course - from Washington to Cairo and beyond.

Coincidentally, I had spent several months before the protests studying the role of social media in the Arab world - a subject that seemed of interest mainly to my colleagues in international media development until it suddenly became part of the biggest story on the planet.

But how essential is social media in these uprisings? Is all you need to topple an entrenched autocratic regime a collection of Facebook updates, YouTube videos and Twitter hashtags?

To listen to 30-year-old Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim - one of the heroes of the protest movement in Tahrir Square - the Egyptian revolution was born on Facebook.

"This revolution started . . . in June 2010 when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians started collaborating content," he told CNN on Feb. 11 . "We would post a video on Facebook that would be shared by 60,000 people on their walls within a few hours. I've always said that if you want to liberate a society, just give them the Internet."

Ghonim was formerly the anonymous administrator of a Facebook page called "We are all Khaled Said," named after a 28-year-old man who was fatally beaten by police after he posted video online showing police divvying up seized contraband. Once the protests in Egypt began last month, Ghonim was arrested and held for 12 days blindfolded. After his release, he was hailed as a hero of the protest movement for his online efforts.

As a Google executive, Ghonim clearly grasps the power of social media. Speaking last December at a Google event in Cairo, he said that more than 100 million Arabs - out of 351 million region-wide - are expected to be using the Internet by 2015. Ghonim also told the conference that 24 hours of video were being uploaded to YouTube every minute from the region, this well before the revolutions.

Few can deny that social media has enabled the most significant advance in freedom of expression and association in contemporary Arab history. During the protests, social media aggregated, disseminated and accelerated vital news and information. But in the end, Facebook and YouTube are tools - and tools alone cannot bring about the changes the world has witnessed in recent weeks.

Deep-seated social ills - repression from the top and political and economic frustrations from below - are at the core of protests sweeping the Arab world, much as they have been in revolutions throughout history.

The success of today's largely peaceful revolutions in the Arab world is beginning to change perceptions of the region and of the determination of its citizens to seek democracy on their own terms. In part through social media, the Arab people are rewriting their own narratives, individually and collectively, and announcing their ability to peacefully foment change and demand universal rights.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company