Egypt’s and Tunisia’s leaderless rebels have given us some very serious love By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO | Thursday, February 17 2011 at 10:44
Something exciting just happened in Tunisia and Egypt. As we also saw, in their millions the people revolted and ousted Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had been dictator in Tunisia for 23 years, and more spectacularly Hosni Mubarak, who had been modern Pharaoh of Egypt for 30 years.
The technophiles have proclaimed these the “social media” revolutions because they were organised, in part at least, through Facebook and Twitter.
On the other hand, there are people who think all this stuff about Facebook and Twitter galvanising revolution in North Africa is hot air.
The truth seems to be somewhere in the middle. In Egypt, for example, it's generally agreed that one of the things that sparked the January 25 revolution was a Facebook page created in honour of Khaled Said, a young man who was beaten and killed by the police.
This page became a rallying part around which about 500,000 “fans” quickly organised their action against Mubarak. It’s fair, therefore, to say that social media was an important catalyst for the revolts. However, they didn’t give them the courage to confront the police, nor the will to continue.
That said, the evidence that social media played a role, ironically, comes from the “revolution’s” main failing. When Mubarak fell, there was no leader of the protest to take over.
Thus the army, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Mubarak regime, took over because, on this occasion, it stood aside and didn’t attack the protesters. Indeed, in the last days of Mubarak, it made several noises suggesting that it was on the people’s side.
Part of the appeal of Facebook and Twitter for societies that are ripe for revolution is that they are highly democratic, even anarchic. There are no leaders. There are friends on Facebook. On Twitter, you follow people. But you also have followers.
This is a total reverse of, especially, African politics where we follow the leaders and in return, they slap us in the face. The interesting issue to commentators should be why Facebook or Twitter is a catalyst for a political uprising today. One reason, I think, is because we are moving to a “leaderless” world.
Many more people are knowledgeable, with the Internet enabling the distribution of information in ways that were considered impossible just about 25 years ago. In addition, with the increasing value of “innovation”, as opposed to “learning”, power and leadership as we know them today are terribly old-fashioned.
Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs dropped out of college. If the world were still one where learning trumped everything, they would be clerks in Wal-Mart. But they had lots of something that does not need a lot of class work (in fact too much class work kills it) — they were innovative.
You can predict and establish a pecking order based on how knowledgeable one is, but you can’t predict or put hierarchy on innovation — precisely because it is uncertain and disruptive.
And the masses of the world (not grey-haired men in dark suits sitting in a boardroom) decide democratically which innovation succeeds. Thus 600 million of them choose to be on Facebook, not MySpace — which is struggling.
In addition, and perhaps the more amazing story for me from Tahrir Square, is that the “revolutionaries” never went hungry. The contribution of many people, especially the mothers at home, to the rebellion against Mubarak was that of providing food to the “revolutionaries”.
It must have been touching for young people protesting because they don’t have jobs, and can’t afford two square meals a day. But it also said something about the way we will have to live our lives in the future.
I am a free market fundamentalist and near-dogmatic individualist, but even I now accept that with diminishing resources and increasing costs of housing, the fact that the growing population of educated and young people all over the world will not have many of the fat-cheque jobs that have been in vogue in recent years means the human race will have to re-invent lives.
Perhaps creatively re-invent our old communal society and be a new age version of our grandparents in their villages, where the labour of the village was put to some common production, and the village raised its children.
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