There is supposed to be something of an Internet revolution going on right now in Egypt, but have you noticed that the Internet isn’t directly involved? Oh there’s plenty of Twittering going-on, but it is all about the demonstrations and civil unrest in Cairo — not from those crowds. The Internet was turned off, you say, along with the mobile phone networks, but that misses my point. I think the Internet component of this social movement is being overblown. While it may be easy for a reporter to say that the Internet or texting or Facebook or Twitter is at the heart of what appears to be a multinational revolutionary juggernaut, I don’t think that’s true. I think it was just ready to happen.
What’s taking place right now is very similar to the Revolution of 1848 and there was no Internet for that one.
Beginning in France, 1848 saw a social revolution sweep across much of Europe, toppling most governments of the time. Monarchies and ministers alike fell with some like Metternich of Austria having been in power as long as Mubarak has been in Egypt. Yet there was no Twitter in Vienna in 1848. No telephone (that was 30 years away), no telegraph (invented in 1844 but not yet deployed in Central Europe), railroads were just beginning to be built, and even Reuters’ carrier pigeons were a dozen years in the future. All communication other than oratory or theater was written in 1848 and went the slow way, by ship, horse, or foot. And yet, in a single year, nearly the entire continent saw revolutionary change.
The simple explanation for 1848 was that people had been unhappy for a long time and were ready for a change. They were angry and the power brokers of the time like Metternich were old, fat, and too used to power. Doesn’t that sound like much of the Middle East today? These nations have old leaders, rigid bureaucracies, and very young populations that don’t really know what they have to gain or lose, but just want something different.
So Tunisia fell and then maybe Egypt. The King of Jordan fired his cabinet, trying to look like part of the solution, not the problem. It will be interesting to see if that works. And did you read Colonel Gaddafi’s lament for the passing of the Tunisian dictator on his flank? I knew Gaddafi in the 70s and his sentiments weren’t for Tunisia but for himself.
The literal old man of the Middle East is Saudi Arabia, where the royal succession is from brother-to-brother — a system that literally can’t continue with the youngest son of the country’s founder, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, now 67 years old. It will be interesting to see if the cousins are able to work that one out. I have my doubts.
Technology will play a role in all this, of course, but revolutions are conducted by people, not electrons, and even Twitter is just a tool.