Miracles in the Making:
Information Technology and Middle East Populism
Amid all the chaos, it is difficult to pinpoint the precise motivation for the political rebellions throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Perhaps it’s the usual Americentric egotism at work, but in the US speculation has centered on the ubiquitous appeal for democracy. In other words, throughout North Africa and the Middle East, people have finally gotten sick of tyranny and, in the finest spirit of democratic populism, have surged into the streets to send the despots packing.
One can only hope that the tyrants will get the message and yield to this new political wave gracefully–or, at least, will respond with as little vengeance as possible. When the jig is up, it’s time to move on. In that regard, hopefully, Hosni Mubarak will serve as an example for the rest.
Certainly, I am not suggesting that Hosni Mubarak is a hero. Far from it. Had he been able to crush the uprising in Tahrir Square and remain Egypt’s dictator-for-life, I’m sure he would have. However, the rebels in Tahrir Square proved uncrushable. Indeed, Mubarak did his best to intimidate the protestors into acquiescence. After all, such tactics had proven effective for the past three decades, so, like any Machiavellian thug worth his salt, he figured the same approach would snuff the rebel fervor in the winter of 2011. Except this time it didn’t work. So, why the change?
The new wrinkle that has helped protestors outflank Mubarak and other dictators is ubiquitous access to information technology. Three decades ago it was possible to crush political rebellions with merciless swiftness. So long as an uprising remained localized and the vicious tactics used to smash the revolt remained undocumented, tyrants could get away with murder. However, times have changed.
If he had his druthers, Mubarak would have obliterated the Tahrir Square protestors with the well-practiced malevolence that had served so well in the past. Unfortunately for Mubarak and other dictators, in the information age, every tactical decision they make can be instantly broadcast, via the magic of personal digital technology, to the entire world. In the end, Mubarak was undone by people-power and the Internet. He may have hoped to annihilate the Tahrir Square protestors with a Tianamen Square-style military blitz, but, because the eyes of the world were upon him, a scene of such extraordinary carnage was simply untenable. What’s a 21st century autocrat to do?
Just as it is nigh on impossible in the information age to conceal acts of political repression, so too has it proven impossible to localize popular political agitation. Thus, in decades past, what would surely have been an isolated December 2010 uprising in Tunisia has steadily transformed North Africa and the Middle East into the most widespread scene of political activism that the world has seen in a century.
For those who love populism, it is clear that information technology has conferred a new form of power upon the people. However, fashioning a stable, populist future out of the current state of political upheaval will take more than power, it will also require wisdom. It remains to be seen if, in addition to inspiring higher levels of connectivity and activism, information technology can also inspire a higher level of collective wisdom.
Hope springs eternal. Heck, a few weeks ago, no one would have guessed that Mubarak would be out on his keister. If miracles like that can happen, then there’s good reason to hope that a few more miracles might be in the offing.
About the Author
Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University - Pueblo.
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