Powell Network Blog

February 18, 2011

Man sets himself on fire in Senegal – Is the Tunisia/Egypt syndrome spreading?

Following my blog entry about the prospects for revolutions south of the Sahara, there were reports this morning of a man setting himself on fire, right in front of the presidential palace in Dakar, Senegal. According to AFP, citing police and witnesses, the man poured liquid on himself, then lit himself with a lighter.

While self-immolation is not common in West Africa, Senegal, like many countries in the region is plagued by rampant corruption, grinding poverty, and a stagnant economy making the daily lives of ordinary people more difficult and unbearable. The man who set himself on fire, according to other witnesses was a former soldier whose pension has not been paid by the government for years.

Nevertheless, Senegal might not be the first country on my list for places in need of change, but the country’s leadership, under President Abdoulai Wade has grown increasingly autocratic, despite a history of peaceful transfers of power. There are  rumors of the president grooming his son to succeed him. Stay tuned for a detailed analysis of this,  and other developments across Africa, including the month long protests in Gabon against President Ali Bongo.

February 15, 2011

January 31, 2011

Social media and the Egyptian revolt

I’ve been paralyzed for the past few days following the historic events unfolding in Egypt.  I studied in Egypt in 2009, and I spent a year researching the April 6th Youth Movement (A6YM), an Egyptian political opposition group that played a significant role in organizing the initial protests that have since morphed into a national uprising.  There are a few things that my research on social media in Egyptian opposition movements can add to the understanding of what’s happening in Egypt.

Obvious as it may seem, this didn’t “just happen.”

Clearly, the unrest in Egypt was sparked by the apparent successful uprising in Tunisia.  And it is generally understood that economic, political, and social conditions in Egypt have deteriorated over the past thirty years.  Still, one cannot simply draw a straight line from the events in Tunisia to what is happening in Egypt.  An underlying fabric of opposition has existed for years in Egypt, growing larger and more efficient with the aid of social media tools, and it is this existing opposition which made possible the protests that snowballed into open revolt.

So far as opposition politics are concerned, the Muslim Brotherhood tends to draw the most attention in Egypt.  As has been reported though, they were not involved in organizing the initial protest on January 25, but have since joined in.  Instead, it was the Kefaya movement (Arabic for Enough!), and particularly the digitally connected April 6th Youth Movement (A6YM) that pushed for the January 25 protest and got the word out.   You can read about the origins of A6YM and the challenges they face in opposing the Egyptian state here (Wired, 2008) and here (New York Times Magazine, 2009).

Looking back on some of my notes on A6YM, in interviews with its leadership, I was told repeatedly that they are frustrated by the media’s attempts to pigeonhole their movement as merely an internet phenomenon (see “Slacktivism”).  A6YM made it clear that using social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc. were extensions and intensifiers of traditional forms of social interactions, not replacements for them.  The bulk of their work is done on the streets, organizing protests through traditional means (flyers, posters, SMS, word of mouth), campaigning at universities, and engaging with neighborhood leaders.  Buzz terms like “Twitter Revolution” steal attention and trend well, but rob the activists of their role in generating street action.

Still, leaders in A6YM understand the important role social media can play in social movements and opposition politics.  The group gets its name from a strike they organized on April 6, 2008.  The Facebook group they created quickly grew to over 70,000 members (today it is over 87,000).  The success of this first strike and the buzz generated provided the group with a pool of people who identified with the aims of A6YM by joining the Facebook group.  On the group’s page are links to its website and Twitter account,  and the email addresses and mobile numbers of local leaders.  A6YM’s social media presence makes it easy for someone who wants to get involved with the group to find the right person to talk to.

Since their founding, A6YM has struggled to duplicate the success they had in generating attention in 2008.  This has less to do with the supposed pitfalls of online organizing (as Malcom Gladwell recently wrote about in the New Yorker, perhaps regrettably) and more to do with the strength of the Egyptian state security apparatus.  Egypt’s emergency law, which has been in effect since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, provides security forces with immense powers, including the ability to arrest and jail without trial, and banning gatherings greater than five people.  Given these powers, small protests and periodic disruptions were simple matters for Egyptian state security.  The open revolt that Egypt now faces changes the calculus that Egyptian security considers when in conflict with opposition.  Put simply, they can’t arrest everyone.

To sum up, social media played a key role and continues to play a key role in organizing opposition.  It is not the opposition, though.  It is both a communication tool and a social relationship intensifier, due to its ability to continue a relationship despite time and distance (think of your Facebook relationship with you aunt in Florida).  Just as businesses and non-profits use social media to sell products and communicate with their constituents, social movements use social media to organize and take action.

And what happens if Mubarak falls?  It seems lots of people want you to believe it will be something like this:

I’m much more optimistic.

Don Gomez is a Colin Powell Fellow alumni.  He graduated from City College with a BA in International Studies in 2010.  He is now attending the School of Oriental and African Studies pursuing an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies.  Twitter: @dongomezjr

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