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How Cyber-Pragmatism Brought Down Mubarak

Sam Graham-Felsen, The Nation
What caused the uprising in Egypt that swiftly brought down Mubarak’s thirty-year-old regime? Depending on whom you’re listening to, the Internet had either everything or nothing to do with it.

On one extreme are the so-called “Cyber-Utopians,” who hail Egypt’s revolt as the “Facebook Revolution” and emphasize the role Internet tools played in sparking it over offline organizing by activists. On the other extreme are Malcolm Gladwell, Jon Stewart, Frank Rich and other media figures, whose eagerness to dismiss the Internet’s role has been equally unsubtle. Focusing almost entirely on social conditions in Egypt, these critics have treated the uprising as the inevitable consequence of poverty and human rights abuses.

… Oppressive social conditions do stoke a common hunger for change; however, a movement isn’t born until a core group of extraordinarily brave activists take that extra step, translating their outrage into public action. The reality is that social movements arise from a combination of conditions and courage.

What’s been missing in these arguments is a consideration of those early movers. How did they summon the courage to first step into Tahrir Square—and did the Internet embolden them?

In recent days, a young Google employee from Cairo named Wael Ghonim has emerged as the hero of the protest movement. Ghonim—who was arrested on January 28 and secretly detained until February 7—was the then-anonymous founder of the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page that initially called for and organized the January 25 protest. The page, which honors a 28-year-old from Alexandria who was pulled out of an Internet café and beaten to death by police who suspected him of releasing videos of police corruption online, was launched over six months ago. What started as a campaign against police brutality grew into an online hub for young Egyptians to share their frustrations over the abuses of the Mubarak regime.

… Over time, hundreds of thousands joined the “We Are All Khaled Said” page, sharing stories of police abuse and posting inspirational YouTube videos and photos, while core organizers pushed them to attend a series of nonviolent “silent stand” protests in public. None of these protests, which took place in June and August of 2010, drew more than a few thousand people.

But in the wake of the Tunisia uprising—when activists saw that the nonviolent tactics of King and Gandhi had succeeded in a nearby country—Ghonim and his fellow organizers seized on the collective hope. Calling a protest on January 25, activists quickly began distributing downloadable flyers and detailed instruction manuals that included advice on how to counteract tear gas. To ensure greater numbers, organizers promised one another that they would each bring at least ten non-connected people they knew to the protests. They even agreed on messaging tactics in advance. In order to better succeed at recruiting poorer, less-educated Egyptians to join them, they focused on economic issues as a rallying cry, not torture. “We spoke their language,” said Dalia, “not our language as Internet users.”

“The fact that everything was very organized from the beginning made people feel safe and more willing to participate.
(12 February 2011)

Another Step Toward Mainstreaming Nonviolence

Ken Butigan, Waging Nonviolence
The movement that ended President Hosni Mubarak’s thirty year autocratic rule not only has created a spectacular breakthrough for Egyptian democracy, it has bequeathed a priceless gift to the rest of us in every part of the planet.

… Faced with a corrupt and dictatorial police state, such a movement might have been tempted to wage armed struggle. Instead, they reached for, experimented with, and remained largely steadfast about another way: nonviolent people power.

Hence the tactics they chose: Massive demonstrations, brazen and ubiquitous use of social media, befriending the army, work stoppages, and eventually the call for a general strike.

Nonviolent people power operates on the assumption that systems of violence and injustice are not absolute and implacable. Rather, they are kept in place by pillars of support. These props include the police and army; the media; economic forces; cultural and ideological structures; and the general population. The job of a nonviolent resistance movement is to remove this support. Key to this process is alerting, educating, and mobilizing a growing number of people throughout the nation or society to withdraw their consent – and to overcome their fear of the consequences for doing so.

… As each of these supports gave way, the Mubarak presidency, despite its hubris and long-time projection of invincibility, was rendered powerless.

The gift that the Egyptian people have placed in each of our hands is the crystal clear example of the power of ordinary people to unleash seismic social change. It is the latest in an increasingly long line of such examples—from the labor movement and the struggle for women’s suffrage, to the Indian Independence movement and the US Civil Rights movement, to the string of breath-taking nonviolent people-power movements that have toppled dictatorial regimes, including in the Philippines, Chile, the Soviet Union, Indonesia, Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Tunisia.

Each of these prior cases has been incalculably important. What makes the accomplishment in Egypt especially valuable to the rest of the world at this time, however, is that (given the determination of the demonstrators, the stubbornness of the regime, and the ubiquity of social media and other technological innovations) many of us were able to follow this struggle step by step in real time and to therefore see in minute detail how this kind of monumental change happens.
(12 February 2011)

How to Build a Progressive Tea Party

Johann Hari, The Nation
British liberals’ protests have been ignored for years. So why did a campaign against the country’s biggest tax dodgers suddenly gain traction?

Imagine a parallel universe where the Great Crash of 2008 was followed by a Tea Party of a very different kind. Enraged citizens gather in every city, week after week—to demand the government finally regulate the behavior of corporations and the superrich, and force them to start paying taxes. The protesters shut down the shops and offices of the companies that have most aggressively ripped off the country. The swelling movement is made up of everyone from teenagers to pensioners. They surround branches of the banks that caused this crash and force them to close, with banners saying, You Caused This Crisis. Now YOU Pay.

As people see their fellow citizens acting in self-defense, these tax-the-rich protests spread to even the most conservative parts of the country. It becomes the most-discussed subject on Twitter. Even right-wing media outlets, sensing a startling effect on the public mood, begin to praise the uprising, and dig up damning facts on the tax dodgers.

Instead of the fake populism of the Tea Party, there is a movement based on real populism. It shows that there is an alternative to making the poor and the middle class pay for a crisis caused by the rich. It shifts the national conversation. Instead of letting the government cut our services and increase our taxes, the people demand that it cut the endless and lavish aid for the rich and make them pay the massive sums they dodge in taxes.

This may sound like a fantasy—but it has all happened. The name of this parallel universe is Britain. As recently as this past fall, people here were asking the same questions liberal Americans have been glumly contemplating: Why is everyone being so passive? Why are we letting ourselves be ripped off? Why are people staying in their homes watching their flat-screens while our politicians strip away services so they can fatten the superrich even more?

And then twelve ordinary citizens—a nurse, a firefighter, a student, a TV researcher and others—met in a pub in London one night and realized they were asking the wrong questions. “We had spent all this energy asking why it wasn’t happening,” says Tom Philips, a 23-year-old nurse who was there that night, “and then we suddenly said, That’s what everybody else is saying too. Why don’t we just do it? Why don’t we just start? If we do it, maybe everybody will stop asking why it isn’t happening and join in. It’s a bit like that Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams. We thought, If you build it, they will come.” … [More]

Johann Hari is a columnist for the Independent in London and a contributing writer for Slate.
(21 February 2011 issue)

A Ten-Step Guide to Launching US Uncut

Johann Hari, The Nation
1. Get some friends you trust and respect, and identify a tax dodger to target.

2. Find the company’s flagship store in your neighborhood. Scout it out. Determine the best way to shut it down.

3. Pick a meeting point and time. Ask some high-profile people to tweet a link explaining what you are doing and why. Ask Michael Moore, Naomi Klein, Glenn Greenwald—anybody who can reach thousands of people quickly.

4. Send the call out to as many active networks as possible. For example, the Coffee Party got a huge number of followers on Facebook but hasn’t done much—why not turn it into a network to organize this?

5. Pick a Twitter hashtag so people can follow the action as you shut down the target.

6. As soon as you’ve done this, put a call out for people to copy you, wherever they are around the country, on a certain day.

7. Set up a website to list all the actions being planned, all the information on the targets and all the resources people will need. Use a Google map to show where all the actions are planned.

8. Choose a few carefully crafted key messages and repeat them over and over again to the media. Explain that if X company paid its taxes, Y budget cut or tax increase wouldn’t have to happen.

9. Call days of action. Aim to have shutdowns arranged in as many cities as possible.

10. Pick a new target and do it again. Do it bigger.

Johann Hari is a columnist for the Independent in London and a contributing writer for Slate.
(21 February 2011 issue)

Wendell Berry Joins Retired Coal Miners and Residents in Kentucky Capitol Sit-in

Jeff Biggers, Huffington Post
More than six years after Kentucky became the first state in the nation to introduce a bill that would halt the dumping of toxic coal mining wastes into headwater streams and effectively rein in the devastating fall-out of mountaintop removal operations, a group of affected coalfield residents, retired coal miners and bestselling authors have launched a sit-in in the office of Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear this morning.

… UPDATE: The Kentucky Rising blog is now online, and includes a statement from Wendell Berry. An excerpt is here:

We are relieved this morning by an accumulation of evidence that the first goal of our protest has been achieved. State government’s official silence on the grave issues of surface mining has been broken. Those issues have now entered the public conversation as they never have before. Obviously, we are determined to stop the abuses of the coal industry, and to that end we are determined also to keep this conversation going. We look forward to continuing our discussion with the Governor, and with anybody else who may want to talk with us.

We wish to say further–and this is extremely important to us–that our protest is against methods of mining that are abusive. We do not oppose mining per se. Our purpose is to protect our land and water. And we most certainly bear no ill will against those who work in mines.

Why Kentucky Can’t Wait. Will this historic sit-in serve as a catalyst to end the 40-year ravages of mountaintop removal mining?
… UPDATE: With a toothbrush in his inner jacket pocket, in case of a night in jail, Wendell Berry commented on the meeting with Gov. Beshear:

“I feel good about our conversation with governor because he made our difference very plain and clean cut. He thinks that all we have on our side are our own personal opinions, and that he evidently has on his side established governmental policy. And he thinks that surface mining can be done without harm to the land or streams or the people. It’s very plain to me that nobody on our side thinks that it is true because they’ve seen the results with their eyes or experienced the results in their own families and homes. I would say moreover that the idea here that two sides can legitimately disagree is simply wrong. I don’t think there can be a legitimate disagreement about the destruction of ecosystems and watersheds.”
(11 February 2011)