The Social (Media) Revolution We Just Saw In Egypt

Democracy may have broken out in Egypt today.

Only time will tell how the Egyptian military and establishment negotiates with the bold participant who thrust itself into power this morning: the Egyptian people.

I’ve read about the spreading uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Syria and Yemen, and it reminds me of the heady days back in the early 1990s when, starting with Poland, the eastern block of nations overthrew totalitarian Communist governments peacefully.

A great song of the day said: “right here, right now—watching the world wake up from history.”

What’s amazing about Egypt is the role social media and mobile communications have played in getting this peaceful revolution started and holding it together for the several weeks it took to convince Hosni Mubarak to resign.

Over the past 30 years Egypt built an enormous bureaucracy and an equally dominant business establishment that have made almost impossible for a person under 30 years of age to get a job.  While Egypt continued to send sons and daughters to universities, there were no jobs available for them when they graduated, not even menial entry-level jobs.    University PhD’s ended up driving cabs.

The establishment guarded its power carefully, and Mubarak used the police and a group of paid thugs to keep dissent silent.

Then came Facebook and Twitter.

This educated, unemployed class of under-30 intelligencia had access to computers, and like other people under 30 they communicated through social media, texting and e-mail.  It was in these social forums and discussions that they vented their growing anger about the injustice of the Mubarak regime.

When the protests began three weeks ago in Cairo quickly more and more of these young people demonstrated. When a huge critical mass of protesters had gathered, they ensured that the military and the police could not fire on them.  This then gave courage to older Egyptians, and they joined the protest.

I was struck over these past 18 days watching the crowds in Freedom Square in Cairo—because there were no speakers.

No one got up on a podium to voice their grievances.   No group carried bullhorns to organize the protests.  People talked and yelled and chanted spontaneously. The crowd was the message.

Each day the news of what the government had done in reaction would spread through this new viral network of social and mobile communications.  Yesterday when Mubarak gave an incoherent speech on Egyptian television that said but / didn’t say he was resigning, the people’s anger overflowed.

Instead of being mollified, the crowd was enraged at how Mubarak had spoken to them like they were children.  They had had enough, and crowd swelled even larger.

At some point late last night the Egyptian military—well respected for their professionalism, and frankly the only institution of organized power left in the country—went to Mubarak and told him it was time to go.

Now Hosni Mubarak has turned power over to the Military Council and resigned office.  The military have pledged to provide an orderly transition to representative democracy.  God willing, if this happens, Egypt will become the first sovereign democracy in the Arab world.   And this democracy will be in the largest Arab nation on Earth, and the government will rule from the largest Arab city.  The totalitarian governments in Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia should be very, very concerned–Iran’s as well.

The Internet has established itself now as a central–if not the central–conduit of popular political action.  You could argue that the fall of the eastern block in the 1990s was the first time the Internet began to flex its muscles, because those revolutions succeeded because the total control the state held over the media was usurped.  People in East Germany could see how people in West Germany were living, and how they were participating in their government.   And they really wanted that.

Barack Obama, whose speech in Cairo last year may have helped nudge this revolution along, owes his election to the Internet.  He raised more than $300 million through the Internet and without that money, let alone the tens of thousands of volunteers it generated, Barack Obama would not be President of the United States.

I’m looking at CNN right now and they’re showing images of the crowds in Cairo, now at night, celebrating.  People are hugging each other and breaking into chants.  There’s still no podium, no one stirring up the crowd.

Just a bunch of people screaming in joy, and texting like mad to their friends that Mubarak is gone.  They’ve done it.

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About Rohn Jay Miller

I'm a strategic designer who works with clients who are transforming their business models because of change brought on by the Internet. Solving disruption is often a problem and an opportunity at the same time. Previously I was a founding partner of Ikonic/USWeb in San Francisco, and Senior Vice President--Product & Technology for Knight Ridder in San Jose.

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