The Mechanism behind the Egyptian ICT Revolution and Its Connotations
Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for 30 years, was forced to step down in a surprising turn of events that no one could have foreseen. He succumbed to the antigovernment protests that suddenly erupted in response to calls via the Internet. Mubarak’s resignation proved to the world that ordinary citizens have the power to overturn a governance structure that had been considered absolute.
The protagonists of the recent revolution were netizens, or citizens embodying the Internet. New information and communication technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet came into widespread use in Arab countries from around 2000. Today, particularly in urban areas, the medium of the Internet has become a natural part of everyday life for Egyptian youths, who comprise more than half of the nation’s population. Thus emerged Arab netizens.
In the backdrop is the government’s zealous policy of ICT development. Over the past 10-plus years, Arab countries have earnestly engaged in ICT development in the hopes of plucking the economic fruits of globalization. Egypt, in particular, which has prided itself as the center of the Arab world, has actively promoted ICT development with the aim of remaining in that position.
Be that as it may, these are countries that have maintained control over traditional media, such as television, radio, and newspapers. By no means have they been indifferent to the possibility that the new medium of the Internet may shake the foundations of the existing regime.
Arab countries have attempted to regulate the Internet by putting up a “net of control” over domestic Internet services. While Egypt did not build a system that enabled as strong a level of control as those of other countries in the region, it did set up a department within the secret police dedicated to monitoring the Internet and kept a close watch on trends in Internet use by citizens. It also maintained infrastructure of the sort by which it could easily implement strong controls or shut down Internet access altogether whenever the need arose.
In the early days of Internet use in Egypt, these controls appeared to be functioning effectively. It goes without saying that there was no end of citizens attempting to bypass governmental controls by various means. But the structure of the struggle taking place over the Internet between the government and citizens demonstrated a clear advantage on the part of the former.
The tide turned from around the time that social networking services, represented by Facebook, gained popularity on the Internet. Naturally, Arab netizens were quick to jump on the new services.
SNSs allow users to easily connect with “friends” and “friends of friends.” They are characterized by interpersonal networks that grow in a self-propagating manner, although the connections are loose.
Among the Arab netizens, there emerged those who hit on the idea of using SNSs as a tool for anti-establishment movements. By drawing on the network of innumerable individuals loosely linked in cyberspace, they reasoned, they may be able to convert that aggregate into antigovernment protests in the real world.
These ambitions became reality in Egypt in 2008, amid heightened popular discontent due to soaring food prices and other factors. Numerous youths responded to calls made through Facebook, and a major antigovernment protest came about. Despite the absence of a clear leader, people converged on the site of the protest as if everything had been previously arranged.
Crowds such as this are known as smart mobs. Smart mobs present a headache to rulers in that they are prone to lead to another phenomenon called emergence. Once an emergence occurs, “What had been locally restricted actions or events trigger a movement or formation of a new order on an unforeseen scale.”
What we recently witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt were none other than the “power of the people” that resulted from smart mobs triggering the emergence phenomenon. Ironically, the ICT development efforts that were zealously promoted by these governments had prepared the ground, imperceptibly but steadily, for “people’s revolutions” utilizing ICT.
Existing systems of government-initiated Internet control are unlikely to prove effective in thwarting moves of this kind. Blocking entire SNS sites is one of the few measures that could be taken. In fact, Syria, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates actually took steps to block Facebook for a time, but they later withdrew the measures in the face of public backlash. The upshots of all this were the political upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt.
Similar situations exist in other Arab countries as well. Today every country in the region has its share of Arab netizens, and the grounds have been laid both for the appearance of smart mobs and for their setting off an emergence.
Loose connections between individuals alone are not sufficient to bring about political change. But when these loose connections synchronize with the surging waves of popular discontent and tie in with strong passion or sympathy—as happened with the video of a Tunisian youth who burned himself to death—those waves have the potential to exceed the threshold and precipitate an emergence.
In that respect, the “ICT revolutions” of Tunisia and Egypt should be seen as being no more than a beginning. After all, both the structures that generate popular discontent and the mechanisms that triggered the revolutions remain intact without having reached a fundamental solution.
The author received a Sylff scholarship in 2001 during his studies at the Keio University Shonan Fujisawa Campus.