You’ve probably read something about Egypt in the newspapers over the course of the last two weeks, unless you’ve been on Mars (in which case I’m totally jealous). There’s been a lot of great reporting on a lot of great stories about the people of a nation demanding reform. There’s also been a lot of analysis of underlying causes. Mubarak’s self-serving policies and institutions are certainly reason enough for a civilian population to cry out for reform. Egypt’s lack of oil, political scientists and foreign policy commentators have noted, makes revolution more likely than in the petro-dictatorships of nearby totalitarian regimes. Roger Cohen of the New York times tells an interesting story involving cultural shifts and improvements in priorities. But there’s an unsung hero in all of this, without which all the cultural shifts and petro-politics and oppressive policies would amount to business as usual. And that hero is: social media and telecommunications technology.
That’s right. Technology many Americans (especially parents) find intrusive and annoying is making possible a populist revolution half a world away. This revolution is a story which, by some accounts, began with a facebook page. Organizers certainly have efficaciously leveraged the power of social media to coalesce their movement in ways that would have been impossible a mere decade ago. While the recent eruptions may have been somewhat sudden, the momentum has been building for years, as tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of like-minded people have been finding allies in their quest for change, preparing for this moment.
It’s hard to underestimate the impact of this connectivity within a restless population. When people with feelings of discontentment are alone and isolated, they do nothing. When assembling can be dangerous, the required motivation is often prohibitively high. When communication is difficult, efforts are slowed, stopped, or never started. But communications technology has been a game-changer. It’s easy to find like-minded people; it’s easy to have free discussions; it’s easy to be connected and to feel connected. It’s easy to have safe meetings; it’s easy to stay in touch; it’s easy to coordinate efforts; and it’s easy to see the numbers, and in them the strength, of a movement.
The Egyptian government is aware of the changing face of revolutionary forces. It’s no coincidence that they basically kidnapped a Google executive (then lied about it, and eventually–under pressure–released him). It’s no coincidence that the government attacked the telecommunications access of 80 million people in their efforts to fight back. And it’s no coincidence that the most heartfelt voices of the Egyptian people are not being first relayed in the form of letters and interviews, but rather, in all kinds of tweets.
The Egyptians have a powerful ally in technology, and its power only increases with time. The voice of the people is easier to hear today than it was yesterday, and it is growing ever louder. Unless leaders learn to listen better, I can promise that Egypt is only the beginning.