Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt, Democracy and Facebook

"The struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of the apparent overwhelming power of those who seem invincible in their determination to hold on to it. That apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable to human qualities less measurable than bombs and dollars: moral fervor, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, patience." ~Howard Zinn

We are constantly swimming in a sea of information, sometimes too much information. Intelligence agencies are continuously monitoring the activities of both governments and individuals, appearing to know everything about everyone. How remarkable, then, that major social upheavals can still take us completely by surprise. Tiananmen Square. The Berlin Wall. And now Egypt. Largely non-violent, these revolutionary events have changed the face of the globe, and nobody saw them coming. Even though the initial protests were quelled, Tiananmen Square proved a pivot point in China’s journey towards embracing capitalism and greater openness. The fall of the Berlin Wall cast its ripples throughout the Warsaw Pact nations, leading to the demise of the Soviet Union.

What sort of ripples will a newly democratic Egypt spread through the entire Arab world? It is much too soon to say, but it would be betting against history to underestimate its impact. I suspect that many other heads of state in the region are beginning to ponder Plan B. What millions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost in warfare could not accomplish in the Middle East has now been achieved by young Egyptians with dreams of freedom and self-determination, walking with candles rather than marching with weapons.

American democracy in our time is at best a messy affair (as each election season reminds us) where special interest groups with deep pockets wield far too much influence. Democracy is an imperfect and dangerously vulnerable system of government. The only thing you can say it its favor is that the other systems are far worse. We take the best in democracy for granted and likely exaggerate its flaws. Our first response to what Egypt has accomplished should be one of deep gratitude for the blessing of democracy. The second should be renewed determination to make American democracy worthy of imitation by those who hunger for this blessing (we have some work to do on that one).

It is interesting to reflect on the role of communications technology in these dramatic social upheavals; faxes and emails in the first two, and social media in Egypt. It appears that the entire Egyptian revolution began with a single Facebook page. The free exchange of ideas and information has always been the most formidable enemy of dictatorship, and we have now reached the technological threshold where even the most sophisticated government censors cannot seal their borders from the world. The next time I find myself griping about the pointless frivolity of Facebook I will remind myself of its very real power and potential as a force for freedom and justice. Were I in charge of American foreign policy and military power, I would build fewer tanks and make more Facebook “friends.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Winston Churchill made the same observation about the failings of democracy, but noted that all other forms of government are far worse.

Your observation stands in good company!