The role of technology in revolution is overestimated. You would think that innovative technology could grease the wheels of progressive political change. That was not the result of the Arab Spring in Egypt.
Change looked so promising last year. Revolution was in the air when Egyptians took to the streets in January 2011. In those heady days, protesters occupied Tahrir Square armed with cellphones and social media. More than 125,000 revolution-minded Egyptian tweeters demanded the downfall of the dictatorship. Hope grew with Facebook numbers that ballooned to 36 million and Twitter accounts to 650,000 in the Arab world.
While the old dictatorship fell and democratic elections took place, it wasn’t the revolution occupiers had hoped for. The new government looks as repressive as ever.
Nina Burleigh, a reporter for Discover science magazine, traveled to Egypt to see for herself. She spoke to Heba Zkaria, 32, the voice of Egypt’s new government. As media spokesperson, Zkaria patiently explained Muslim Brotherhood’s conservative values. “Deep down, all women want a man to take care of them. Don’t you agree?” she said.
Western observers assumed that the natural outcome of media-connected demonstrations would be an open and liberal government. Technologies such as Twitter and Facebook seem to have that effect.
What few Western observers failed to notice was just who was using that social media. It turned out that most of the users were from the wealthy, deeply-conservative countries of Bahrain and Kuwait.
To the disappointment of revolutionaries, Egypt’s elections produced overwhelming support for hard-line Islamist parties, with 71 per cent of the country’s Parliamentary seats, as well as the presidency, going to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Liberal-minded Egyptians are not giving up. They are taking to the streets again, this time to protest the actions of President Mohamed Morsi for shutting down the judiciary and hastily writing an Egyptian constitution based on conservative religious values.
The lesson is that innovation does not equate to social change. The misunderstanding comes through confusion about revolutionary technology and revolutionary politics. Facebook and Twitter are innovative technologies but they are not inherently political. Like the telephone, social media are commercial enterprises and are only political when it affects business. Technology can facilitate change by streamlining the organization of events but it is the users of technology and power structures that drive the outcomes.
As we discovered in Egypt, things can go either way. If users of technology want to turn back the clock on women’s rights and set up repressive governments, that’s what social media produces. Use of social media to organize street demonstrations and occupation of public spaces has become the standard model for progressive social change.
Now that the dust has settled, I wonder how useful technology is as a catalyst for change.
David Charbonneau is the owner of Thompson Studio. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.