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.


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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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Al Qaeda’s Breakup in Pakistan, Part 1

The Guardian published an interesting piece on Christmas (I guess they didn’t want most Westerners to read it) entitled “al-Qaida leadership almost wiped out in Pakistan, British officials believe.”  The discussion of AQ Central’s demise in Pakistan has become old news.  But the more interesting parts discussed the movement of North African AQ members out of Pakistan.  Here’s the first section that caught my eye:

However, well-informed sources outside government and close to Islamist groups in north Africa said at least two relatively senior al-Qaida figures have already made their way to Libya, with others intercepted en route, raising fears that north Africa could become a new “theatre of jihad” in coming months or years.

“A group of very experienced figures from north Africa left camps in Afghanistan‘s [north-eastern] Kunar province where they have been based for several years and travelled back across the Middle East,” one source said. “Some got stopped but a few got through.”

It is unclear whether the moves from west Asia to north Africa are prompted by a desire for greater security – which seems unlikely as Nato forces begin to withdraw from Afghanistan – or part of a strategic attempt to exploit the aftermath of the Arab spring. They may even be trying to shift the centre of gravity of al-Qaida’s effort back to the homelands of the vast majority of its members.

Two things caught my attention.  First, the source seemed odd, “well-informed sources outside government and close to Islamist groups in north Africa“.  Who exactly is that?  I have no idea who these sources are but wonder what their motivation is to report on AQ operative migrations.

Second, the assumption of this article leans towards the belief that AQ Central is deliberately planning and executing a global strategy which includes infiltration of Arab revolutions.  This may be true, but there may be three general reasons for North African members to return home:

  1. Dedicated Strategy – The common argument advanced in news articles and CT analysis states that AQ has began dispatching operatives from its Pakistan safe haven recognizing the need to join Arab revolutions and gain operational space.  Zawahiri’s already shifted his narrative to more directly address the Arab Spring and the Syrian uprising.  So this theory makes sense, if you believe AQ continues functioning as a collective organization with loyalty amongst its members (a depleted crew).
  2. Defection – Another argument could be that some remaining AQ members based in Pakistan have lost faith.  Zawahiri may not be the unifying force needed in times of desperation.  Plus, a veteran AQ member might be able to join a new revolt in their old neighborhood.  So why stay and die with yesterday’s crew when you could start your own outfit at home?
  3. Retirement – A common myth reiterated in terrorism analysis is once a recruit starts participating in jihad they never stop participating in jihad.  This is not true.  Many of the original Afghan mujahideen returned to their home countries and retired from their jihadi activities.  Later, some became informal supporters of AQ and other jihadi groups.  Regardless of the outcome, some that initially set out for jihad lose interest and move on to other things while tacitly supporting the recruitment of other jihadis.  See the chart (Figure 2) on page 4 at this link for a hypothetical distribution of what foreign fighter options might look like.  So maybe some of AQ Central’s remaining operatives have had enough?

I’m sure AQ is trying to re-emerge in Libya and Egypt.  But, maybe some of those making their way back to North Africa are migrating for their own reasons more than AQ’s.

Al Qaeda 2012: Will it be resurgence or defeat?

Al Qaeda is not dead yet, but it’s not nearly as strong as it was one year ago.  Al Qaeda encountered its worst year ever in 2011 losing countless key leaders in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.  Meanwhile a host of Arab revolutions unseated  dictators long labelled by al Qaeda as apostate tools of the West.  Al Qaeda played no part in these 2011 uprisings and gained a host of Islamist group competitors in the aftermath of these revolutions.

Thus, 2012 will constitute al Qaeda’s sink or swim year.  Al Qaeda must transform and reinvigorate its base of support or will likely be crowded out by the advances of alternative Islamist groups taking control of Arab governments.

Despite recent setbacks, al Qaeda does have some potential avenues for re-emerging in 2012.  Overall, if al Qaeda does regain its footing, I’m guessing it will be in a largely new form, in parallel rather than in coordination with its traditional senior leadership.  I’ll focus on this more in two upcoming posts.  But for now, here are the al Qaeda hotspots (outside of Pakistan) still warranting concern.  I placed them in order based on most concerning to least concerning based on my weighted ranking of each group’s operational freedom, estimated resource support, and relative talent level.  (This is a quick swag similar to this method from a few months back)

  1. al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – The loss of Awlaki and other key propagandists reduced the Yemen AQ affiliate’s global outreach and international operations.  However, AQAP’s insurgency against the Yemeni state continues and they’ve been able to hold territory for sometime.  Given a relatively stable safe haven, AQAP retains a base of talent which will likely allow them to project attacks outside the region in the future.
  2. al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – AQIM appears to have picked up its attacks regionally in the past year and likely gained some weapons and recruits in the fallout of the Libyan revolution.  As seen by their reliance on kidnapping operations, AQIM remains starved for resources.  While the Sahel provides them a safe haven, it’s also a long way from targets and difficult to survive in.  New partnerships between Sahel countries like Mali and Algeria suggest a renewed CT focus on this node which may inhibit their growth in 2012.
  3. Re-emerging al Qaeda in Syria/Anbar, Iraq –  While its still too early to tell, Syria may be the most concerning opportunity for AQ’s re-emergence – a perfect opportunity really.  Syria is a bloody fight against a declared apostate regime combined with a renewed base of support in Western Iraq where Sunnis may be contemplating a civil war with a Shia majority central government.  AQ has lessons learned from jihadi participation in the Syrian of 1976-1982 (See “The Vanguard and Muslim Brotherhood Operations in Syria” section from Harmony and Disharmony by Joe Felter, Jacob Shapiro, Brian Fishman and Jeff Bramlett) and a network of support left from shipping foreign fighters into Iraq.  Likewise, donations in men and money should be easy to come by for fighting in Syria and/or Iraq.
  4. al Shabaab in Somalia – I’m not sure what it is, but Shabaab always seems to get derailed by local politics that trump bigger al Qaeda goals.  Shabaab will continue to pose a threat in the Horn of Africa but the interventions of Kenya, Ethiopia and the U.S. indirectly, combined with constant resource constraints, appear likely to check Shabaab’s growth.  It’ll be interesting to see how the Kenyan incursion into Somalia plays out in 2012.
  5. al Qaeda in Libya – With the dust settling after the fall of the Qadhafi regime, veteran Libyan AQ fighters may be slipping into eastern Libya and joining old remnants of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and the militias of Darnah.  I’m still not convinced this will emerge as a serious AQ threat as resources will likely be limited to the group. Likewise, there are competing tribes that may be willing to take on AQ affiliated militants if coaxed a bit.  Only time will tell, but there appears some reason to believe AQ will grow here.
  6. al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula – A new potential group emerging in the vacuum of the Egyptian revolution is al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula.  This is a smart bet for AQ as the Palestinian-Israeli issue may be the remaining valid AQ ideological tenet for fighting the West.  Many of AQ’s remaining leaders come from Egypt and courting anti-Israel popular support might be a way for AQ to infiltrate an Egyptian revolution they missed.  However, Egypt’s newly elected Islamists may frown on a violent group drawing attention from the West.

Poll Results: Democracy in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia

A little over a month ago, I posted a quick poll asking readers’ opinions on the prospects for democracy in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.  I tallied the results and aggregated them based on:

  1. Current profession- Academic, Private Sector, Government
  2. Experience in North Africa- for those who have resided in these countries for 30 or more consecutive days

Here are the results broken down into these two aggregations for each country.

All voters appear overwhelmingly certain of future democracy in Tunisia.  I hardly even hear about Tunisia in light of all the Libya, Yemen and Egypt coverage.

Surprisingly, voters appeared less certain about future Egyptian democracy.  I also have my doubts about Egypt at times and will write more extensively on this later.

Libya polling results were the most interesting.  I posted the poll mid-March (pre-NFZ) and voters were extremely pessimistic.  However, I monitored the votes as they came in and the institution of an NFZ prompted an almost immediate switch in favor of more democracy. I imagine if some voted today, they would again be pessimistic.

Overall, I think Tunisia shows significant promise.  However, I think it’s too early to tell for Egypt and Libya.

Gladwell, Social Media & Revolution

The Gladwell “Does Social Media Matter” debate rolls on.  This week Giovanni Rodriguez weighs in on why Gladwell continues to defend his assertion that social media does not bring about revolutions.  Rodriguez does an excellent analysis of Gladwell’s shortcomings in the area of social media analysis explaining why Gladwell has taken “the people matter” argument over “social media is changing the world” story.  Rodriguez notes Gladwell’s argument:

the absence of a tool does not prevent people from getting together to do things, a line of argument that Gladwell repeated in his spot on CNN.  He then goes on to show that two of the then-most talked about social media-assisted movements — the uprisings in Moldova and Iran — had little to do with social media at all. That’s a tougher argument — that social media, so far, has not played a big role in social movements.

I’ve written about this debate before concerning my skepticism of the popular argument that large numbers of terrorists are recruited via social media.  I also noted my skepticism about the long-run effectiveness of “Twitter Revolts” as a mechanisms for change. I’m still doing some thinking and writing but I wanted to do a quick post with these two stories and links.

And leave with a question, was the American Civil Rights Movement and the protests against the Vietnam War primarily the result of increased media coverage transmitted via television?

I imagine many thought this at the time, and I remember during college reading about the increased use of television coverage and its effect on support for the Vietnam War.  However, today, I rarely if ever hear anyone say that television, another form of media, brought about a revolution in America.  My gut tells me that in time, the story of social media bringing about current revolts in North Africa and the Middle East will fade as researchers begin examining and identifying other stronger correlates for today’s uprisings.  More to come……

Porter’s Translation in the NYT

‘Knowledge Ninja’ Dr. Geoff Porter recently guest posted at this blog anticipating the fate of Libya.  Today, Porter translated Alaa al Aswany and Matteo Pericoli’s Window on the World post entitled “The Unvanquished”, which appeared in the The New York Times. For those interested in Cairo street views, check out Porter’s translation from the original Arabic.

Continuing Cascade: Libya, Yemen, Syria

The cascading calls for revolution continue.  Waq al Waq noted the third consecutive day of major resignations of Yemeni political and military officials shifting support to the opposition.   Syria aggressively quashed protests today.

Yemen and Syria appear to be a natural evolution of events initiated in Tunisia.  However, most specialists of Syria and Yemen suggest that these revolutions, while inspired by previous North African uprisings, have progressed in parallel based on their own unique path.

I posit an alternative hypothesis.  Protests continue spreading as a result of positive momentum and key tipping points achieved in each successful uprising thus far.

For Tunisia, protests began from a young vendor setting himself on fire and spread locally during the first few days.  The tipping point occurred when news of this vendor’s plight spread via social media inspiring many Tunisians to revolt.

For Egypt, protests carried on for days with the Egyptian military swaying in the balance.  Mubarak’s initial defiance to remain in power dealt a huge blow to opposition protesters.  However, a key tipping point occurred when the Egyptian government released the Google dude who then gave a passionate television interview and public speech.  The next day protesters returned to the streets in mass and with vigor.

For Libya, protests have led to violent conflict.  Rebel groups initially shocked the ruling regime only to be squelched when Gaddafi doubled down with air power and mercenaries.  On the brink of collapse, the West institutes and enforces a No Fly Zone stopping the Libyan military march on the outside of Benghazi allowing opposition rebels to regroup.  Will this be the tipping point that leads to Gaddafi’s fall and yet another wave of upstart protests?

Absent a No Fly Zone in Libya, one would assume the absolute defeat of the rebels within days.  Bahrain’s opposition appears to have been crushed.  So, while I respect that events in Yemen and Syria maintain their own unique dynamics, I do wonder if the Western implementation of a No Fly Zone didn’t guarantee another round of revolution for which the West must now negotiate.  If uprisings in Libya and Bahrain failed, would we see such vigorous protesting in Yemen and Syria today?

Policy makers must wonder if every time they support a democratic uprising they are only inspiring additional rapid uprisings requiring attention.  Eventually, the West and especially the U.S. will get uprising fatigue (and BTW, there is Japanese Earthquake, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, economic stimulus, all going on at the same time).  So a quick poll for those interested:

[poll id=”10″]

[poll id=”11″]