The Failures of the Facebook Generation in the Arab Spring
The following excerpt was taken from The Daily Beast. Click here to read more.
It is hard to know whom to root for in Wednesday’s presidential election in Egypt. Two of the leading candidates, Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq, were officials in the former Mubarak regime and are suspected of having ties to the military. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is a self-proclaimed liberal Islamist who was expelled from the Muslim Brotherhood, but who is for some reason being endorsed by the ultra-conservative Salafis. Lagging behind these three is Mohamed Morsi, candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that came out of the starting blocks showing a moderate face but which has recently given out disturbing signals of a more conservative religious agenda. What is missing from this lineup of potentially electable candidates is a genuine liberal, that is, a candidate with no taint from the authoritarian past, and who does not advocate an Islamist agenda in some form. The candidate closest to this profile was Mohamed ElBaradei, the Noble Peace Prize-winning former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose sputtering campaign ended last January.
How did we come to this pass, where the two most powerful forces in the new Egypt either represent its authoritarian past, or else are Islamists of suspect liberal credentials? The Tahrir Square revolution of early last year was powered by angry young, middle-class Egyptians who used social media like Facebook and Twitter to organize their protests, spread word of regime atrocities, and build support for a democratic Egypt. At the time, there was much talk about how technology was empowering democracy and forcing open a closed society that could not prevent the flow of information.
And yet, this group of young activists, which can still be mobilized for street protests like the recent demonstrations in front of the Defense Ministry, has failed to turn itself into a meaningful player in post-Mubarak electoral politics. Granted, this group did not represent the vast bulk of Egyptians, who remain less educated, socially conservative, and rural. But surely a liberal, modernizing leader could have appealed to the hopes of many Egyptians for economic growth and political freedom, and placed at least within the top four presidential candidates?
We will have to await more information and analysis about the election, including the degree to which it was manipulated, before we can fully answer this question. It seems clear in retrospect that Mubarak’s ouster constituted much less of a revolution than met the eye; the military still remains a powerful institution unwilling to give up substantial power.
But part of the blame lies with Egypt’s liberals themselves. They could organize protests and demonstrations, and act with often reckless courage to challenge the old regime. But they could not go on to rally around a single candidate, and then engage in the slow, dull, grinding work of organizing a political party that could contest an election, district by district. Political parties exist in order to institutionalize political participation; those who were best at organizing, like the Muslim Brotherhood, have walked off with most of the marbles. Facebook, it seems, produces a sharp, blinding flash in the pan, but it does not generate enough heat over an extended period to warm the house.
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