Digital Activism in the Age of Revolution
Remarks I’ll deliver tonight at a conference on the Egyptian Revolution at St. Mark’s Cathedral:
I wanted to make a few remarks on the impact that the Egyptian Revolution will have on relations with Israel, and on Israel’s internal political dynamics, along with some thoughts on how this may impact the U.S. role in the Israeli-Arab peace process. As a blogger, I also want to focus on the role of social networks, blogs and other forms of digital communication on these political developments.
Creating a non-violent political revolution in the age of the internet takes two forms. In the pre-revolution period, activists are mostly in defensive mode. You’re often trying to prevent the worst from happening. You’re protecting democracy from the depredations of state intelligence, police and military forces. You’re fending off attacks on free speech and the work of vital human rights NGOs. You’re fighting what often seems like a hopeless, rear guard action.
To do this you use all the modes of digital communication available: YouTube, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, blogs, Instant Messaging and chats among activists. You tell and show the injustices to as many as you can, hoping the message will resonate, and begin provoking questions and changing minds.
The beauty of these technologies is that they allow you to a greater or lesser degree to circumvent the strictures of the security state. They allow you to cross borders to link individuals in the next block, neighborhood, city or nation.
Think about the beauty of Wael Ghonim, employee of a U.S. technology company for whom he worked in Dubai, playing an instrumental role in creating the Egyptian Revolution. Or that the ideas of Gene Sharp, an 83 year-old American non-violent activist living in a working class neighborhood of Boston, inspired Egyptian youth to topple a dictator. There are no borders, at least as far as technology and political change is concerned.
Returning to the specific modes of communication, what makes these especially powerful isn’t just the technology itself, but the substance of the communication, the message, the value you’re conveying.
Intelligence agencies and national security states have access to these tools in the same way activists do. And they try, in their mostly feeble ways to exploit them to advance the interests of the state. But the narrative they offer doesn’t sell. The national security state, whether it be Mubarak’s Egypt, Ahmadinejad’s Iran or Bibi’s Israel, represents secrecy, fear and ignorance. It sells security at the expense of all those values held dear by activists and common citizens alike: freedom, liberty, speech.
It secretly arrested the 16-year-old Israeli Palestinian, Ashraf al-Baladi and put him in Jalameh prison outside Haifa under Shabak “interrogation” (i.e. torture). It tied him to a chair, kicked over the chair, busted his head open, broke a rib and punctured his lungs. It refused to send him to the hospital since he was under secret detention. It killed him. And no one in Israel knows except the source who told me and hoped I could spread the word.
Think of this, aside from my source, readers of my blog, and the Shabak, you are the only people in the world who know this happened. Think of what this means.
Make no mistake, there is little difference between Egypt’s Mukhabarat and Israel’s Shabak or Mossad. They are the flip side of the same coin. One speaks with an Arabic accent, the other Hebrew. But they say roughly the same things both to their victims and their fellow citizens. They operate in darkness, thrive in secrecy, and die in the light.
To prove my point let’s compare: Egypt offered the world the Facebook Revolution, Iran in 2009 offered the Twitter Revolution. What has Israel offered? The Stuxnet Revolution? Israel uses technology as it did in the case of the viruses which penetrated the personal computers of Mahmoud al-Mabouh and the Iranian nuclear scientists, to kill. ‘Nuff said.
What impact might the Egyptian Revolution have for Israel-Egypt relations? Of course, Bibi Netanyahu, the Israeli right and their advocates here have been raising the specter of a radical Muslim takeover. Of Iran on the Nile. When the actual evidence of what happened in Egypt completely contradicts such expectations. The movement that brought down Mubarak wasn’t especially Islamic. It was a national political movement, not a religious one. Of course, there are religious elements in Egyptian politics and the Brotherhood will play a role in any future government. But they will not control such a government and could not even if they wanted to.
What Israel really fears is yet another independent Arab state on its borders, one that doesn’t take orders from Tel Aviv or Washington. Israel relies on military power and its alliance with the U.S. to dominate the region and impose its will and agenda on its neighbors. It sees what has happened with a moderate Islamist state like Turkey turning hostile toward its agenda and now foresees something like this happening in Cairo. And the thought terrifies Israel’s military-intelligence strategists.
The fewer flunkies there are leading Arab nations, the more Israel may be forced to face the cold, hard facts of its brutal Occupation. Hosni Mubarak was willing to enforce Israel’s siege on Gaza with a blockade from the Egyptian side. But a future democratic government will likely not serve as Israel’s Arab enforcer against Hamas. Mubarak was Israel’s bulwark against Islamic radicalism in Gaza. Henceforward? Not so much.
If things develop apace as they have in Tunisia, Egypt, now Bahrain, and possibly Yemen and Libya, then you may have the terribly awkward possibility of Arab nations that are freer and more democratic than Israel itself. Then what happens to the brand: the Only Democracy in the Middle East?
Do you remember the image from Tahrir Square of an Egyptian Copt holding a cross and a Muslim holding the Koran, each of them carried aloft together? If Arab nations transform themselves into tolerant, open societies in which basic freedoms of religion, assembly, speech and the press are guaranteed, imagine what impact this may have inside Israel? There you have a dominant Jewish majority whose religion, ethnicity, language, culture, traditions and political power subordinate a Palestinian minority. Palestinians represent where Egyptians were before the Revolution. But when Palestinians see that their brothers and sisters in Cairo enjoy freedoms and opportunities they can only imagine, think of the message this will convey.
There could be fierce pressure on Israel to reform itself. To become what Azmi Bishara called a “national of all its citizens.”
And this is where I wanted to talk about the offensive mode of bringing political change. I talked earlier of activists mostly on the defensive, attempting to fend off the worst that the state has to offer.
But we’ve seen that events can bring change in the blink of an eye. One moment you’re running from the police and dodging bullets, the next you’re surrounded by millions cheering your victory. So my message to Israel is that you’re riding a tiger and there’s very little difference between being on his back one moment and inside his mouth the next. Things change just that fast in this day and age.
Yes, we’ve had an Occupation since 1967. Yes Palestinians suffered a Nakba in 1948 from which they’ve never recovered. Injustices can last decades. But they can be swept aside in the blink of an eye. If a dictator can fall after 30 years in power in Cairo, there’s hope for the end to the Occupation regime in Israel. For any detractors out there, note I did not say the’ end of Israel,’ which is not at all what I meant.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the title of the Leonard Cohen song, Democracy is Coming to the USA. I think it’s coming to Israel too, and Bahrain and Libya, and Yemen, and Saudi Arabia and Iran and Syria. As for Israel’s transformation, it won’t be to the partial democracy enjoyed mostly by Israeli Jews and suffered by Israeli Palestinians, but the full-throated democracy of Egypt on February 11th.
Now, a word about U.S. policy. Despite the hope many of us placed in Barack Obama to bring change to the region, he’s mainly been a bystander. His approach to the Egyptian Revolution, which teetered on the brink of irrelevancy thanks to the pressure and blandishments of Saudi Arabia and Israel, finally came down on the right side of history. But just barely.
Basically, we just don’t get it. Things changed on February 11th. And they’ll never be the same. But we want them to go back to the way we were. How else can you explain the U.S.’ unseemly bullying of the PA to withdraw its motion in the Security Council denouncing the settlements? Imagine the U.S. threatening to veto such a resolution, which is totally consonant by the way with U.S. policy, if the Palestinians won’t withdraw it. Who cares about the U.S. threat of a veto? Let them veto a resolution that agrees with their own stated policy. Imagine the egg that’ll be on their faces after they do that.
And we claim we want to be honest brokers. We’re neither honest, nor brokers. We’re carrying water for the old power brokers in Riyadh and Tel Aviv. We’re preserving the status quo. But how long can that last? Especially in the aftermath of February 11th.
2 thoughts on “Digital Activism in the Age of Revolution – Tikun Olam תיקון עולם إصلاح العالم”
Comments are published at the sole discretion of the owner.
So, Richard, what would it take for the people in the U.S. and Europe to take massively to the streets and demand of their governments to take a strong stand on the Palestinian issue? Or do you think the change will rather come under pressure from the liberated nations of the Middle East?
I don’t think people outside Israel will take to the streets demanding a resolution of the conflict unless Israel does something massively brutal & heinous like Rwanda or Serbia, which seems unlikely. I think pressure from many sides will all combine to bring change. The problem is that Israel will not have the kind of Revolutions we’re now seeing in the Middle East. There is just enough democracy there that citizens are satisfied enough so as not to rise up. But Israel is vulnerable in ways that other Middle East countries aren’t quite. Israel cannot exist without American support & it also needs at least the tacit support of other nations like those in Europe. That’s where the choke point is if there is one.