Egypt’s Facebook revolution

Upheavals in Middle East show power of Internet and social media

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the unfolding events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East is the extent to which they have been fostered and nurtured by the Internet and social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and secondarily by satellite television and cellular telephony.

The match that lit the fire in Tunisia, where the revolts began, was apparently Wikileaks’ Internet release of American diplomatic cables in which State Department officials discussed and worried about the ruling family’s obscenely extravagant and corrupt lifestyle while the rest of the country languished in poverty. Furious, people took to the streets.

In Egypt, early efforts to use the events in Tunisia—seen via Al Jazeera satellite TV—as catalyst to overthrow the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak were spread via Facebook and Twitter postings. That’s how so many people knew to come to the massive demonstrations in cities throughout the country. When authorities shut down the Internet, people used smart phones to get the word out.

It’s a new viral reality, and the Obama administration is struggling to adjust. Historically, the United States has made devil’s deals with the dictators in the region, propping them up in return for stability, access to oil and—in Egypt’s case—support for Israel. The challenge now is to support these emerging democracies without trying to dictate the form they ultimately will take—and to prepare for the others that are likely to appear elsewhere in the Middle East as the Internet works its magic.

For more on this topic, see Sifter.