Manuel Castells on internet-led and facilitated change in the Arab World

The first part is excerpted from an interview of Manuel Castells for the Open University of Catalonia. In the second part, the internet blackout in Egypt is seen as a true tipping point in the revolution, it’s what drove people to the streets to protest what they saw as inacceptable. The third part is a video interview of Ghonim by CBS. The key message by Ghonim is clear: without the internet, this revolution would not have happened.

Part One: Interview with Manuel Castells

Q:” The spontaneous social movements in Tunisia and Egypt have caught political analysts on the hop. As a sociologist and communication expert, were you surprised by the ability of the network society in these two countries to mobilise itself?

Manuel Castells: No, not really. In my book Communication Power, I devote a large part to explaining, on an empirical basis, how changes to communication technologies create new possibilities for the self-organisation and self-mobilisation of society, by-passing the barriers of censorship and repression imposed by the state. The issue clearly isn’t dependent on technology. Internet is a necessary but not sufficient condition. The roots of rebellion lie in exploitation, oppression and humiliation. However, the possibility of rebelling without being quashed immediately depends on the density and speed of mobilisation and that depends on the ability created by the technologies which I have classified as mass self-communication.

Could we consider these popular uprisings as a new turning point in the history and evolution of the internet or should we analyse them as a logical, albeit extremely important, consequence of the implementation of the Net in the world?

MC: These popular insurrections in the Arab world constitute a turning point in the social and political history of humanity. And perhaps the most important of the internet-led and facilitated changes in all aspects of life, society, the economy and culture. And this is just the start. The movement is picking up speed, despite Internet being an old technology, and deployed for the first time in 1969.

Young Egyptians have played a key role in the popular uprisings, thanks to the use of new technology. However, according to the calculations of Issandr El Amrani, an independent political analyst in Cairo, only a quarter of Egyptians have internet access. Do you feel that this situation may – in his words, create a divide in these countries between those with access and those without access – one that is even greater than that in developed countries?

This figure is already out-of-date. Around 40% of Egyptians over 16 have internet access, if we consider not just private homes but also cybercafés and places of study, according to a recent 2010 study by the information company Ovum. And this figure rises to around 70% among young urban dwellers. Also, according to recent figures, 80% of the urban adult population has internet access via their mobile. And, in any case, in a country of some 80 million, even a quarter, which is double among young city dwellers, according to the oldest sources, this means millions of people on the streets. Not all of Egypt has demonstrated, but enough have to create a sense of unity and bring down the dictator. The story of the digital divide regarding access is old, untrue today and boring because it’s based on an ideological predisposition, among intellectuals, of minimising the importance of the internet. There are 2,000 million internet users on the planet and 4,800 million mobile subscribers. Poor people also have mobiles and, although fewer, they have forms of internet access. The real difference lies in broadband and connection quality, and not in access which is spreading faster than any other technology in history.

It would be naive to think that, given the events of recent weeks, those unlawfully holding the reins of power will just stand by with their arms crossed. Nicholas Thompson, social media expert, wrote in The New Yorker that “in Iran, the government was clearly successful to a certain point in using the internet to slow the passage of the green revolution. In Tunisia, the government hacked into the password of almost all the country’s Facebook users. If Ben Ali had not fallen so quickly, that information would have been very useful”. To what extent does power have the necessary tools to quash uprisings started on the Net?

It doesn’t. In Egypt, they even tried to disconnect the whole net but they couldn’t manage it. There were thousands of ways, including telephone land line connections to numbers abroad which automatically converted the messages into twitters and fax messages in Egypt. And the financial cost and functional effort involved in disconnecting the internet is so much that the connection had to be restored extremely quickly. A power cut on the net is like an electricity power cut today. Ben Ali didn’t go that quickly, there was a month of demonstrations and massacres. And in Iran, the internet couldn’t be shut down, with information about the demonstrations and videos of them on You Tube. The difference is that over there, politically speaking, the regime had the power to brutally repress things without causing divisions in the army. However, the seeds of rebellion are there and young Iranians (70% of the population) are now massively against the regime. It’s a question of time.

In Egypt, popular mobilisation via the digital media has created cyber heroes such as Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive. Leaders of uprisings historically led political and social movements from the grass roots, which would then play a key role in the political future, such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit in France or Lech Walesa in Poland, just to give a couple of examples. However, we now have people with important technological knowledge, but often little political baggage. What role do you think these new leaders will play in the future of these countries?

The important thing to remember about wiki-revolutions (self-generating and self-organising ones), is that leadership doesn’t count, they are just symbols. However, these symbols don’t have any power, nobody obeys them and neither would they try. Perhaps later on, when the revolution has become institutionalised, some of these people may be co-opted to be a symbol for change, although I very much doubt that Ghonim wants to be a politician. Cohn-Bendit was just the same, a symbol, not a leader. He was a student and friend of mine in ’68 and was a true anarchist, rejecting leaders’ decisions and using his charisma (the first to be repressed) to help spontaneous mobilisation. Walesa was different, a union Vaticanist, which is why he became a politician so quickly. Cohn-Bendit took a lot longer and even so is still a green at heart who although now elderly, maintains values of respect towards the origins of social movements.”

Part Two: The Egyptian Internet Blackout of January 28 as Tipping Point of the Uprising

FOR a segment of the young people of Egypt, the date to remember is not when Egyptians first took to the streets to shake off the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak.

As reported by Noam Cohen in the NYT:

“It is three days later — Jan. 28, 2011 — the day the Internet died, or more precisely, was put to sleep by the Mubarak government.

That was when some of them discovered a couple of polar but compatible truths. One, the streets still had the power to act as Twitter was unplugged. And two, the Internet had become so integral to society that it wasn’t unreasonable to consider a constitutional guarantee of free access to it.

“It felt exactly like going back in time, but in today’s world,” Ahmed Gabr, a medical student and the editor of the technology blog, wrote in an e-mail.

Mr. Gabr included his detailed timeline of interruptions in communications services during the protests: when service at Facebook and Twitter first became spotty, when text-messaging was interrupted.

His description for Jan. 28: “Egypt is now officially offline.”

In interviews by telephone and e-mail young Egyptians like Mr. Gabr — tech-savvy but not necessarily political — were hardly Internet utopians. They had, after all, seen firsthand how shutting down the Internet had failed to stop the momentum of the protests. But they did make a case that the Internet was an irreplaceable part of Egyptian life, especially for the young. Nothing more and nothing less.

The removal of the Internet by their government, they said, was a reminder that they were not free; not truly part of the wider world that they know so well thanks to technologies like the Web.

“Frankly, I didn’t participate in Jan. 25 protests, but the Web sites’ blockade and communications blackout on Jan. 28 was one of the main reasons I, and many others, were pushed to the streets,” wrote Ramez Mohamed, a 26-year-old computer science graduate who works in telecommunications.

“It was the first time for me to feel digitally disabled,” he wrote. “Imagine sitting at your home, having no single connection with the outer world. I took the decision, ‘this is nonsense, we are not sheep in their herd,’ I went down and joined the protests.”

For Mr. Mohamed, as for Mr. Gabr, it was like going back in time. “During the five days of the Internet blackout, I was at Tahrir Square for almost every day,” he recalled, referring to the hive of the Cairo protests. “Tell you what, I didn’t miss Twitter, I can confidently say that Tahrir was a street Twitter. Almost everyone sharing in a political discussion, trying to announce something or circulate news, even if they are rumors, simply retweets.”

The article also stresses how important communication with the outside world was felt to be by the protesters, so that they kept records of events, to report on the internet, as soon as it would be back online:

“The protesters, she recalled, realized that in the time of darkness, it was particularly important to document what happened. They knew, she said, that at some point the Internet would be back, and people would want to know about the interim.

Ahmad Balal, a radiologist at Cairo University Hospitals who was a medical student during the Wikipedia conference in 2008, was one such chronicler. Mr. Balal wrote in an e-mail that his Facebook wall was the best way to relive what he experienced during the protests.

He had joined the protests at the start, on Jan. 25, but there is an eerie gap on his Facebook wall when the Internet was down, and friends from outside Egypt asked how he was but received no reply. “

Part Three: Ghonim Interview by CBS

Apologies for advertising at the start:

See also the documentary from PBS, “Revolution in Cairo”, here.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.