Just like many people around the world (here I'm taking a very Western-centric view of "the world"), I've been glued to the live broadcast by Al Jazeera English - online - ever since I woke up this morning. Then I also got on Twitter... and never left. The events in Egypt are unfolding by the minute - it seems - and so it is very difficult to make sense of them all, or especially, to provide any serious analysis or evaluation of any sorts.
Nonetheless, there are several things to be observed.
The Role of Social Media.
Wow. Here's a note from an Egyptian blogger, sent out on Global Voices yesterday, as the country was bracing for the Friday events:
"I just wanted to note that tomorrow is a big day in Cairo, and the government is already getting ready..Twitter, Facebook, and SMSing services .. already all blocked..There is strong rumors that tomorrow the Internet and Blackberry services will be down..Also by kidnapping journalists, and media people, I believe they are most probably planning to isolate the country from the world..Currently, I am trying to check updates through proxies, but internet is TERRIBLY slow!"
Surely, not only did the government block all social networking sites (rather - attempt to block them), but it actually brought down the Internet in the country. Many called it "unprecedented in the history of the Internet", yet here is a report referring to similar examples by Nepal and Burma when they were experiencing similar events in the recent past. Nevertheless, these are all "extreme examples", and obviously, not very successful, at least in achieving their objective of total information blackout and complete isolation from the outside world.
That is far from being the case, especially in Egypt (God bless Al Jazeera?!).
Graph showing the Internet use in Egypt. From the Huffington Post (you can see more discussion and background there, too.)
Facebook, YouTube, and especially Twitter have been invaluable resources of information, despite the fact that the actual protesters from Egypt could not make it there. The word about protests in front of the White House and the Egyptian Embassy in DC (today, 1/28 and tomorrow, 1/29), for example, went out through Facebook, while information sharing and commentary on Twitter was simply amazing. #Egypt, #jan25 (referring to the first day of the massive protests in Egypt), #Mubarak and #Cairo (among many other related ones) have become trending topics on the social networking site, while 140-character-tweets are sent, retweeted, discussed, and... archived by the Library of Congress. (Side note: obviously, there is a ton of research to do for future historians..!)
What is more, the events are (or at least, were) unfolding so fast, that hardly any traditional media would be able to keep up with it all, unless they provided continuous live coverage (which some did). Even the information on Twitter could have been regarded as "outdated", as pointed out by the Managing Editor of the Foreign Policy Magazine:
"Beware of old retweets. The situation is changing rapidly and what's true an hour ago probably isn't true now. #Jan25"
So, why is such media important when the people themselves are not the ones actually tweeting? Well, unlike the case of Iran's "Green Revolution", Western governments - particularly the U.S. - have been close allies and strong supporters of the regime that these protests are trying to bring down (and rightly so, some would argue). Although the U.S. administration is still ambivalent about its stance on the matter, it still has to be responsive to its public opinion, and hence, it would have to take some action to address these "trending" issues in its pubic sphere.
Perhaps one of the most telling images of the day. The protesters praying on the October 6th Bridge, while the police fire water cannon on them. From TwitPic via @OllyWainwright.
Thus, although the Egyptians themselves did not live-tweet throughout the "heat" of the events, they made good use of all the various social media to get inspired (thanks to the events in Tunisia last week), organize in advance (or rather, spread the word about the planned protests within the country), and get the word out there, to the rest of the world, so as to be heard by those who can matter - even if indirectly. In short, social networking helped to gain global attention and mobilize an army of supporters - internationally - who have advanced the cause of the Egyptian people. Whether it all will have an actual impact, however, is still a matter of question.
Other noteworthy points:
- Twitter, although somewhat shaky at certain points throughout the day, somehow managed not to crash despite all the traffic. There was also a statement on Twitter's official blog, "Tweets Must Flow", by the co-founder Biz Sone. There he states:
"Our goal is to instantly connect people everywhere to what is most meaningful to them. For this to happen, freedom of expression is essential. Some Tweets may facilitate positive change in a repressed country, some make us laugh, some make us think, some downright anger a vast majority of users. […]
Discussion on topics from geopolitical events to wardrobe malfunctions make Twitter both important and fun. Providing the tools that foster these discussions and following the policies that keep them alive is meaningful work for us."
I'm sure the fact that this statement appeared today, is not just a matter of pure coincidence.
- Funnily enough (and yet, not surprisingly?!), the mock profiles by @HosniMobarak and @MuammarLGaddafi quickly gained prominence among the tweet-o-discussions. The mock Mubarak, for example, used this "modern" and "democratic" space to make very important annoucenements, which included the need to replace "the current people of #Egypt", the creation of new jobs by building "the Great Pyramid of Mobarak", and the return of the Internet, albeit "read-only".
- Social media were important in the U.S. administration's response, too. From President Obama's Q&A on YouTube, to the Tweet-o-diplomacy by State Department's "social media guru" Alec Ross and Spokesman P.J. Crowley, it seems the U.S. administration made every effort to put its message out there, in an attempt to reach the... world (essentially, since the audience was truly global).
Yet, @EvgenyMorozov, in his ever-cynical tone, remarked:
"The Internet-savvy Obama administration is prepared to use all social media outlets available to stay silent on Egypt."
Not that they were silent. The problem is: the message was not what the people really wanted to hear. (But more on this later.)
The Role of Al Jazeera
In a sense, today might have been the day for Al Jazeera, which not only demonstrated that all the talk about the "death of journalism" is untrue, but also proved resilient to the multiple attempts by authorities - Egyptian, as well as by other states in the region - to disrupt their broadcasts. They kept changing their channel frequencies (can't explain the details. sorry!) and somehow managed to keep reporting live from the very heat of the events.
More importantly, they provided (and still do) live coverage, online, all through the day, for free, in English, which, unlike that by Al Arabiya or BBC Arabic, reached a much wider audience around the world. (Kudos, by the way, for pulling it off without having the website down.) Excellent reporting, great commentary, various perspectives, and certainly, invaluable footage.
Here, I cannot but think of Gilboa's "Nonstate Transnational Model" for public diplomacy and his "Telediplomacy" paradigm: after all, Al Jazeera, a non-state actor, has taken up a cause that the U.S. itself had been so avidly promoting (i.e. human rights and Internet freedom), to advocate on behalf of the Egyptian people through real time news coverage. And it certainly did reach the global public.
Although no one denies the sources of Al Jazeera's funding, the channel clearly represents the voice of the Arab people, closely following all the minute developments in the region ever since the first outbreaks of protests in Tunisia and Algeria in December. Not only has it ensured a thorough coverage of all various aspects involved in all the related stories, but it has also provided a channel for expression for all those repressed voices (be it due to blocked social media platforms, restricted Internet, or outright media censorship).
For more examples from "social media" see Al Jazeera's special page on Egyptian Protests.
That Al Jazeera has its own, separate, non-state agenda is only reinforced by the release of the "Palestine Papers", which, although a different subject, still demonstrates the network's defiance of all Arab leaders. (with the one exception that needs mentioning - Qatar. Yet, its keeps emphasizing its independence.) And not only Arab. Al Jazeera challenged - outright - the message put out by the U.S. government (I think, rightly so), indirectly calling for it to live up to its own standards and keep to its promises.
Implications for U.S. Public Diplomacy
As a tweet from @MatthewStoller read:
"If there's one lesson we can take from Egypt, it's that the story is all about us."
Seem like it's very much so. After all, the promotion of democracy, human rights, as well as Internet freedom have been at the forefront of the Obama administration's foreign policy agenda. But when it comes to countries like Egypt (or Tunisia, for that matter), the U.S. simply cannot afford applying the same standards. I mean, not just "in talk", but in deed. After all, Egypt is of huge geopolitical interest (if only illustrated by the amount of American foreign aid it gets every year). Yet, as it is now evident, the U.S. has become entangled in its own strategy.
The reaction from the administration was slow and insufficient, especially at first. In a sense, it was even more disastrous when Joe Biden announced that he did not consider Mubarak a "dictator". Although everything else he said was very much in line with the message the administration stuck to all along, that one statement and the seemingly proud claim that he knows the Egypt's President well, certainly undercut America's public diplomacy effort on the issue.
Over time, it seemed like they managed to figure out a somewhat coherent response, with various statements and announcements by Secretary of State Clinton, WH Press Secretary Gibbs, and President Obama himself (although he waited for Mobarak to appear on TV, first). Yet, under the circumstances and given the context, it seems like there has been permanent damage done to U.S. public diplomacy, especially in the Middle East.
There have been several good pieces, throughout the day, on this subject, and I think it's worthwhile highlighting some excerpts.
Andrew Albertson wrote in Huffington Post:
"In addition to expressing support for universal principles and refusing to offer unquestioned support for scrambling authoritarians, the Obama administration has done three more things right.
First, it hasn't leaped to take credit for democratic uprisings, in the way that characterized the high times of the Bush administration freedom agenda, preferring instead to stay out of the spotlight in Tunisia's inspiring national drama. As Tunisians work to build a new, more democratic national narrative, they are rightly proud to note that they did it on their own.
Second, the administration seems to be smartly concentrating on regime violence. If there's anything the U.S. is well-placed to do, it may be preventing a violent reprisal of the Tiananmen disaster by an allied government like Egypt - particularly with weapons financed by US aid money. […]
Finally, it appears ready and willing to translate the present instability into increased pressure for reforms.
[…] During this unstable period, these five elements have had a positive impact: consistent support for universal principles, refusal to take sides, reticence to take the spotlight, focus on regime violence, and a readiness to respond to crisis with calls for reform. One can only hope the administration has the fortitude and farsightedness to stick with this strategy as protests build."
Then, of course, there was Marc Lynch in Foreign Policy:
"Mubarak's regime has been wounded at its core, and even if he survives in the short run the regime will have to make major internal changes to regain any semblance of normality. An Egyptian regime which spends the next years in a state of military lockdown will hardly be a useful ally. It's not like there's an active peace process to compromise. The Islamist scarecrow shouldn't work, given the Muslim Brotherhood's limited role in events (despite the efforts of the Egyptian regime to claim otherwise).
[…] More broadly the costs to the Obama administration with Arab public opinion of being on the wrong side of this issue will be enormous. This isn't about the "magical democracy words" of the past few years -- it's about a moment of flux when real change is possible, whether or not the United States wants it.
Accepting Mubarak's fierce gambit now would put an end to any claim the United States has of promoting democracy and reform for a generation, and alienating the rising youth generation on which the administration has placed so much emphasis. It would also make Cairo the graveyard of Obama's Cairo speech and efforts to rebuild relations with the Muslims of the world.
The United States will be better positioned to push such changes in the right direction if it maintains a strong and principled position today -- regardless of whether Mubarak or someone else ends up in control. The cautious strategy right now is the same as the principled one, whether Mubarak falls or if he survives."
Yet, there doesn't seem to be a good suggestion for the Obama administration in terms of how to respond to this crisis and still come out clean in terms of perceptions by the Arab public (but also, by the entire world!). Yes, everyone points out the need for Egypt to make rapid and substantial internal changes, and yet, I'm still to see someone call for the U.S. to change its foreign policy or, at the very least, it's overall message. After all, in this information age (which America so enthusiastically promotes), there can be no separation of audiences (be it domestic, or foreign), and with trending stories spreading like wildfire through social networking sites, the current public diplomacy will not only fail to achieve its objective, but it might just as well backfire.
Here is a great point by Spencer Ackerman from his piece in the Wired magazine (the entire article is great, but I'll just quote the most relevant excerpt):
"Promoting Internet freedom doesn’t answer that question. Al-Jazeera today quoted an analyst who noted that the Egyptian protesters have “moved from Facebook to… people-book.” Social media, in other words, isn’t enough to topple a government, but it is enough to weaken one. On the flip side, promoting social media while also supporting repressive governments empowers dissidents without giving them any reason to sympathize with U.S. interests. Who are you going to call when you need to launch a drone strike?
So far, the U.S. is trying to have it both ways. Obama’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said Friday that Internet communication is in the “fundamental basket” of freedoms the U.S. supports. Yet after days of silence, Mubarak finally issued a statement on the protests — and indicated he has no intention of stepping down.
It’s recalibration time for the Obama administration. Its posture so far isn’t earning it much goodwill from the people who might take the place of the region’s dictators, no matter how much the U.S. stands up for their right to tweet."
Touché. Credibility and love need to be earned. At an age of Internet, and especially, of Wikileaks, it is obvious that foreign policy - and all its related aspects - is, by default, conducted in public. Therefore, as much as it might be difficult to do (and as much as I hate to admit that there is no easy answer), words have to match the deeds for the U.S. foreign policy to succeed. Success is even more important, because the alternative to it is not just "lack of progress", but further failure (it will result in disillusionment, further distrust, and thus, in many more security risks for the U.S.).
Obama tried to sound unequivocal in his statement, especially when it came to emphasizing that U.S. may reconsider its foreign aid to the country. However, just as Al Jazeera's Ayman Mohyeldin noted in his commentary, the Egyptian people have become immune to the American rhetoric, since despite continuous statements of similar nature, they have seen very little change on the ground. The root causes of "animosity among the people" lies not in what they hear, but what they see in America's support of the Mubarak regime.
"Egyptian student shows Al Arabiya tear gas canister that says 'Made in USA'. 'How can we allow this in Egypt?'" via @SultanAlQassemi. (See CNN, for more)
Whether today's events will be a "revolution" per se, is still a matter of question, especially after Mubarak's defiant speech (OK, he said he will have a new government, but will stay in power himself. So not much of a change). Yet, as has been repeated multiple times throughout the day, "Egypt will never be the same again" after these events. Perhaps, the U.S. foreign policy should follow suit?
P.S. - I do strongly recommend following the coverage of events in blogs on the special section on Global Voices Online. Great insight!