Of a revolution

by Brian Clarey

How exciting it is to watch a revolution from afar, as I have been doing since 30-year incumbent Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak faced revolt from his own people last week.

The tear gas and concussion grenades began to fly last Tuesday, right around the time our own president, in the spirit of optimism, gave a reassuring assessment of the unprecedented peace and unity the world currently enjoys. That’s what I got out of it, anyway — others heard it as a clarion call for socialism, or a move against capitalism. Or some such thing.

As the situation in Egypt clearly attests, the official version of events can be leagues apart from the word on the street. And sorting through the passions and lies in Egypt is a task fit for the thousand or so reporters on the ground, as opposed to one sitting at a desk some 6,000 miles away, and with no particular knowledge of the region or its culture beyond a childhood fascination with pyramids.

The dispatches thundered through Twitter like a stampeding herd on Jan. 25, until the Egyptian government disabled the service — all of the internet, in fact, in a feeble attempt to stanch the voices of the people.

It was Facebook that started this revolution — if you believe the hype. And I do. I sensed Facebook’s power shortly after creating my page a few years ago, recognized its potential for galvanizing discontent into orderly subversion even as I softened my own brain by taking inane quizzes and scanning party photos. Regardless of the message, the medium is a juggernaut, capable of turning bored housewives into farmers and virtual mob hit men, yes, but also of sowing the seeds for insurrection.

An oppressive government must control the means of communication, or at least keep it throttled in a stranglehold. That one’s as old as the hills — is, in fact, one of the secondary reasons that people got so pissed about the Stamp Act in the years leading up to our own government overthrow, the first sticking point being that pesky taxation without representation issue. And it’s one of the reasons we have a First Amendment.

In our country the press operates independently of the government, though you might be surprised at how many people don’t understand or believe that basic tenet of the profession. Any Americans who think our media is controlled by the state should get a good look at North Korean newspaper Minju Joson, which reported that leader Kim Jong Il invented the hamburger as a nutritious food for university students and that, in 1994 Jong Il shot 38 under par his first time on a regulation golf course, due in large part to his fives holes in one.

So state-owned Egyptian media regurgitates the president’s response to the protests — basically a reassembling of his cabinet — or ignoring the story, like newspaper Al Ahram did this weekend when it devoted the front page, above the fold, to a piece on political demonstrations in… Lebanon… while Egyptian police beat a reporter from the Guardian and Information Minister Anas El Fiqi shut down Al-Jazeera’s Cairo bureau.

When an oppressive government faces revolt, it must squeeze these open channels of communication, suffocating the message until it dies a stillborn death or countering it with disinformation that sullies its meaning.

Ten years ago it would have worked. But you cannot control the media when, essentially, everyone is the media and it moves in real time.

Egypt has disabled the country’s handful of internet service providers, because the open, unfiltered internet is more dangerous to Egypt right now than a thousand men with guns. And they blocked cell phone service — or at least gave it an honest shot — because everyone with a cell phone holds a portable publishing device with instant global reach. But even in Egypt, which has existed under a militaristic faux democracy for the last 30 years, the Man has got to understand that, these days, at least a few thousand of those under his boot know their way around a virtual blockade.

They’re using dial-up modems and fax machines and… good god… ham radio to get the word out of Egypt. It will not be stopped.

Along with the reports of rubber bullets being fired into crowds, looting and thuggery, demonstrations 50,000 strong comes other stories of hope. Like reports of a protesting crowd lifting a military captain on their shoulders and marching through a public square, or the dissident group who surrounded the national museum to protect it from looters.

President Mubarak is learning the hard way that information wants to be free, just like the people who right now are crowdsourcing a revolution, one tweet and status update at a time.