FPRI Post – The Coup That Wasn’t Tweeted – Looking Back At Egypt’s Social Media Revolution

Today, FPRI again gave me the opportunity to guest blog on one of my favorite topics in recent years – the implications of social media in the Arab Spring and particularly Egypt: The Coup That Wasn’t Tweeted – Looking Back At Egypt’s Social Media Revolution. I’ll post a brief section of the post here, but I also wanted post some of the links to discussions of this topic here at Selected Wisdom and the videos I refer to in the original FPRI post but could not embed in their website.

First, here’s an introduction to the post which is available at this link.

For those that lauded the wonders of social media activism, the coup showed the weaknesses of Facebook revolutions for achieving lasting political change. Social media may have prompted Egyptians to storm the streets in January 2011, but it did not result in Western style democracy. Instead of the more Western and secular elements in Egypt leading change, the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratically elected leaders triumphed at the ballot boxes and further divided the country more than they unified it. Two years later, the failure of Egypt’s “Facebook Revolution” with a return to authoritarian military rule may in fact set democracy in the Middle East back more than it ever progressed it. This brings us to Malcolm Gladwell.

Second, here are some posts related to the progression of Egypt’s social media fueled revolution.
* The Weakness of Twitter Revolts – Jan. 31, 2011
* More Egypt Coverage – Feb. 4, 2011
* Egypt’s Google Dude – Feb. 9, 2011
* Egypt’s Google Dude Illustrates the Weakness of Twitter Revolts – Jan. 18, 2012
* More on Social Media Movement Leaders from ICSR – Jan. 23, 2012

Third, here are the videos from the FPRI post that I could not embed.
* Malcolm Gladwell’s shaky response to the Facebook Revolutions

* Stephen Colbert’s hilarious offer to lead the Occupy Movement

Egypt & Libya Retrospective: Was it an al Qaeda Attack? Where’s the Arab Spring?

Two looks back this morning –

A year and a half back, I got some awesome hate e-mail based on my comments about the “Revolutions” of the Arab Spring where I questioned the level of democracy that would emerge from the wonderful uprisings taking hold in Egypt and Libya. The Morsi regime in Egypt and the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo have made me look back to what I was writing about with regards to Egypt. (See this post “The Weakness of Twitter Revolts“)

I have lots of questions for the Facebook Revolution this morning: Where are you? I thought this was supposed to be about freedom, democracy, taking steps forward with a country oppressed by a dictator. Instead, the social media wave that supposedly brought the revolution in the beginning may in fact be a barrier to progress for pro-democracy groups. Instead of taking to the streets in mass the way the Muslim Brotherhood has, you’ve retreated to the comfort of your computer hoping to tweet a better future. Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Next Revolution Will Not be Tweeted” argument, shunned in the days of the Arab Spring, is starting to look a lot stronger over time. Overall, I’m still more hopeful for Libya – that fought for and won will be cherished and defended.

As Geoff Porter pointed out in my earlier post this morning, one of the groups potentially responsible for the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi is called “Ansar al Sharia”. Ahh, a familiar name. So was the attack on the U.S. Ambassador an “al Qaeda” attack?

For those that missed the debate a couple months back, I will re-post the question this morning “Who should we call al Qaeda?” (See below) Feel free to cast your vote and you should be able to see the results after you vote. For the summary of the first round of voting see this post and for the resulting discussion just a few weeks back see this post. Here’s the question for those that haven’t seen it several weeks back.

update as of 0900:
I’ve already gotten some confused comments about my stance in the post. My conclusion is this, I’m a fan of the Arab Spring and believe democracy in the Middle East is a good thing. But can the West have the stomach to see it through? Can the U.S. identify and seek its real national security interests in each of the weak democracies while remaining true to its values? I only say this as I believe it will be weak democracies, not failed states, that will present us the most troubling terrorist threats in the near future. Mali, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia will struggle with terrorist groups and unlike in places like Somalia, the U.S. will not have the latitude to directly intervene.

“In the hypothetical scenario described below, would you call the following group “al Qaeda” or an “al Qaeda affiliate”?  A simple yes or no answer.  After you vote, you’ll see the results of everyone that chimed in.
Would you consider the following hypothetical group of armed men to be “al Qaeda?”

  • A group of heavily armed men occupy a remote area in an African/Middle Eastern/South Asian country.
  • 95% or more of the groups’ members are local people from the country where the terror group resides.
  • The group publicly states their intent to institute governance by Sharia law.
  • 2-3% of the group’s members served as foreign fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2001 fighting in coordination with al Qaeda, the Taliban or al Qaeda in Iraq.
  • The group calls itself “Ansar al (fill in the blank)” or “Lashkar e (fill in the blank)” but don’t mention al Qaeda in their name.
  • Some of the groups’ spokesmen, at some point in the past, have publicly praised Osama Bin Laden.
  • It is completely unclear whether any of the group’s members have publicly declared bay’a (allegiance) to Ayman al-Zawahiri.
  • The group records videos of its attacks.  At times, these videos show up on jihadi web forums.  At times, these videos randomly show up on YouTube.
  • The group’s funding streams remain unclear.  News reports of unknown reliability claim the group gets some funding from kidnapping & local extortion and some from Persian Gulf donations.


Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

More on Social Media Movement Leaders from ICSR

Ryan Evans at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) extended the discussion on Wael Ghonim and the challenge of leadership amongst the Arab Spring’s Twitter Uprisings with a new post entitled “No Matter what he says, Wael Ghonim is a Leader.”  Last week, I remarked that the inability of Egypt’s Facebook/Twitter uprisings to move from the virtual to the physical world has led to those initiating the revolt seeking little fruit as those organized both virtually and physically (e.g. The Muslim Brotherhood) seized the opportunity to exploit the political vacuum after Mubarak’s fall.

Ryan takes the discussion one step further noting that Wael Ghonim is a social movement leader whether he likes it or not.  He says:

“Whether or not Ghonim wants to acknowledge it, he is a leader, although he was a more important one than he is now, having been overcome by the superior “organizational weapon” of the Muslim Brotherhood political machine and others who are not so shy about their status as leaders.

Things that social movement leaders do:

•    Inspire commitment
•    Mobilize resources
•    Create and recognize opportunities
•    Devise strategies
•    Frame demands
•    Influence outcomes

Although he seems happy to take a backseat now (like his former patron, Mohammad El Baradei), Ghonim did all of these things.”

Ryan’s points are right on target.  While I admire Ghonim’s courage and initiative, I hope he and his social network recognize the need for some form of leadership to advance their objectives.

Egypt’s Google Dude Illustrates the Weakness of Twitter Revolts

For those interested in all things related to the Arab Spring and particularly the uprising in Egypt, Wael Ghonim, Egypt’s Google dude, responded to questions related to his new book Revolution 2.0 during a recent NPR interview.  Ghonim’s interview and likely his book echo many of my concerns from last year (here and here) and reinforce many of assertions of Malcolm Gladwell’s arguments for why the next revolution won’t be retweeted.  A more appropriate title for his book is probably “Uprising 2.0” as the Facebook/Twitter enabled inspirational uprisings initiating the Arab Spring have proven uneven in their revolutionary results – especially in Egypt.

Ghonim, a business and marketing major in college, wasted no time in churning out his book.  However, Ghonim has not proven to be what many had hoped: a viable, young leader bringing democratic change to Egypt. I admire Ghonim’s efforts in leading the Facebook uprising, but even he admits that good virtual leaders don’t necessarily correlate into great physical leaders of rebellion.  Ghonim reads a passage from his book noting:

 “I’m not a people person, I’d rather communicate with people online…in short, I’m a real life introvert and yet an Internet extravert.”

I really like this discussion and admire Ghonim for admitting his own limitations.

Ghonim also illustrated two of the crucial weakness of the Twitter uprisings seen across the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movements.  First, the reluctance by the Facebook generation to collaboratively and physically discuss, compete and compromise as a organization around a central agenda and stated long-run objectives.  Twitter and Facebook were excellent in achieving the immediate objective of an uprising – a critical first step in a revolution.  Consistent with crowdsourcing theories, Ghonim and his compatriots used Twitter and Facebook to solve a coordination problem: show up at this location, for this reason and do this act.  However, this uprising fell flat after the fall of Mubarak as the Facebook revolutionaries failed to organize collectively and physically to devise a longer run strategy with deliberate objectives.  The Facebook revolutionaries could have done this, but chose to return to their laptops and cellphones in hopes the change they wanted would materialize through their Internet connections.

The second glaring weakness of the Twitter uprisings comes from the Facebook revolutionaries outright aversion to developing, appointing and following leaders.  Ghonim states in the NPR interview:

“This revolution has no leader, has no face to it, and the collective effort of all the Egyptians is what matters at the end of the day”

I assume living under an oppressive dictatorship would make one loath leadership in general.  However, both the Occupy Movement and in many cases the Arab Spring have rejected the notion of leaders to their own demise.  Notions of leaderless movements are the rage on social media platforms and corporate America loves talking about flat organizations.  But, those structures work well only in certain situations where motivations and values are shared equally amongst the organization’s members and objectives are clearly defined.  Revolutions are conflicts and during the fog of war, sustaining the organization’s values, the motivation of the troops and keeping actions in line with objectives requires leadership.  In the security vacuum created by Egypt’s horizontally organized Facebook uprising, physical-vertically structured organizations (e.g. Muslim Brotherhood) seized the initiative to pursue and achieve their collectively determined objectives.

I still hold hope and see value in the Facebook/Twitter uprisings of 2011.  But Wael Ghonim and his leaderless non-organization may have to change their approach if they want to realize the change they so relentlessly tweet about.

For the Ghonim’s audio interview, which is a good listen, click here.

And for a funny take on the leadership vacuum of the Occupy Movement, I highly recommend this Stephen Colbert clip.

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Gladwell’s Story of Military Innovation & Drone Reference

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest TED Talk tells the story of the Norden bomb sight.   Gladwell paints a fascinating portrait of military technology innovation and acquisition before and through World War II.  This same story could easily describe any of a number of military acquisitions in U.S. history. He masterfully transitions this story into parallel discussions on SCUD hunting in Iraq and drone operations in today’s counterterrorism campaigns.

Gladwell’s ability to turn a boring topic into an intriguing story endures. Likewise, his ability to string concepts together and simplify complex dynamics results in overstated conclusions.  Five things came to mind as I listened to his presentation:

  1. The most expensive acquisitions rarely turn out to be the most useful – Gladwell notes that the $1.5 billion Norden bomb sight (cost in 1940 $) failed to achieve its promise.  The rapid development and issuing of the MRAP vehicle in Iraq shows how sometimes a lower cost, more simple technology solution trumps the expensive, ‘advanced’ system constructed over decades.  As a commander in the Army’s first Stryker brigade in 2000, I recall being mandated to go watch the first drone aircraft assigned to an infantry brigade slowly fly in a circle around the airfield.  Turns out the big, slow and noisy remote control airplane quickly became the most valuable weapon platform in the miltiary.
  2. Intelligence remains the key for successful drone operations – Gladwell accurately points out that drones are incredibly accurate at hitting their target, but the real challenge is identifying the right target.  Intelligence operations remain the key to successful implementation of drones in warfare.  U.S. intelligence continues to improve but will never be perfect.  No matter how accurate a weapon system might be the risk of collateral damage will never be fully mitigated.
  3. Gladwell strongly overstates/oversimplifies his “drones lead to increased violence” correlation – Gladwell concludes that more drone strikes have brought more violence against the U.S.  This is horribly simplified in my opinion.  In less than five seconds I could name five other reasons there has been a spike in suicide bombings, IEDs and overall attacks on Americans in Afghanistan.  I could probably identify many more reasons.  Unfortunately, Gladwell’s leap to link his excellent story into a relevant point misleads the audience.  He undermines his drone narrative by taking it just one step too far.
  4. Gladwell may have taken a slight jab at his critics – In his discussion of gadgets (at minute 10:12), Gladwell references people “making websites that will allow people to be free”.  I’m guessing this is a reference to his critics who hammered him during the Arab Spring for his “Small Change” article and criticism of twitter revolts.  I love it!  Nice subtle jab embedded in a story – “Blink” and you’ll miss it, or will you?
  5. Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” – This guy sure has an audience.  I watched the video at lunch and there were 358 views of this video.  By the time I write this, it’s over 58,000!  Incredible bounce for Gladwell videos and I wonder when he hit his “Tipping Point” as an author and speaker.

Despite the overstatement on drones and not addressing that the Atom bomb may have saved more lives in the long run than it took in the short run, Gladwell provides another excellent presentation and I’m sure I’ll buy his next book.

Here’s the video.