Setting Egypt on fire

Crane Brinton (a saint among historians) tells us that dictators are human: they cite "plots," "conspiracies" and "unprincipled schemers" to excuse their tyranny. So it is that Louis XVI blamed the devious Duc D’Orleans for the Bastille’s fall, George III railed against an obstinate "clique" of deluded tavern keepers, and Nicholas II attributed his forced retirement to unscrupulous freemasons. Yet, while we moderns chuckle at these foolish explanations, they remain attractive among those who view the current contretemps in Cairo (and elsewhere) with suspicion.

In truth, not much has changed since the cart carrying "Citizen Capet" rolled towards the guillotine–except for our language. Now, instead of blaming devious dukes, deluded tavern keepers and crafty (so to speak) freemasons, we have a new trinity of conspirators: Wikileaks, the "social media" and al-Jazeera. They are the new "outside agitators," the "unwanted foreign elements" in our happy, happy midst. So it is that Hillary Clinton called the Wikileaks revelations an "attack" on US "foreign policy interests", Egypt Today suggested banning Facebook and Omar Suleiman blamed "unfriendly TV stations" (not Egypt Today, presumably) for "inciting youth against us."

In the midst of our tut-tut-tutting over such silly statements, it might be useful to reflect on our complicity in repeating them. American network anchors seem unaware that words betray emotions–and political preferences. Hence, while State Department and White House officials "strategize", the Muslim Brotherhood "plots", while CBS and CNN "report", al-Jazeera "blares", while Mr. Mubarak and Co. go about the business of "managing Egypt’s challenges," Google and Facebook and Twitter "find ways to exploit" Egypt’s "reservoir of popular discontent". Even the most sober among us (a Middle East scholar soporifically intoned) "is forced to admit," that "while the social media and al-Jazeera did not cause this unrest, it’s hard to imagine all this happening without them." That seems true, if trivial. Think of it: without that damned Guttenberg, there’d have been no Thomas Paine.

This is not to say that Wikileaks, the social media and al-Jazeera are not important. They are. They may even be revolutions in themselves: Wikileaks provides a more accessible means of publishing secrets, the social media a faster way of accelerating political protest and al-Jazeera a new way of viewing it–allowing, as television does, a camera to tell the story. Then too, the "cyberactivists" of Egypt’s demonstrations mastered (as Maryam Ishani writes) "new-media tools to report events, alert participants about security situations, and provide legal assistance to those rounded up by state security forces." This is an important observation, if simply confirmation that today’s media is the equivalent of America’s "committees of correspondence", France’s "committees of public safety", and Russia’s "peasants and workers soviets".

Thankfully, all the chatter about how Egypt’s revolution would not have been possible without the (quick intake of breath) "new media", has been dampened by those who know it best. "Tunisians took to the streets due to decades of frustration, not in reaction to a WikiLeaks cable, a denial-of-service attack, or a Facebook update," Ethan Zuckerman wrote in Foreign Policy in mid-January. "This is not a Facebook revolution, and not an Internet revolution," one Egyptian protester insisted. "This is not about the Internet, this is about the needs and demands of the Egyptian people."

This seems more than just an opinion: "Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen have a combined total of 14,642 Twitter users," one political blogger notes. So why all the fuss? "The Western media’s focus on so-called Twitter Revolutions," he goes on to note, "may tell less" about revolutions "and more about the preoccupations of the American journalists who cover them."

These views simply (though not merely) confirm what historians and political observers have long known: that while our means of communicating has certainly been transformed, what’s being communicated has not. The causes that sent people into the streets of Boston, Paris and Petrograd in 1776, 1789 and 1917 are the same as those that sent them into the streets of Cairo in 2011: a greedy king, a squalid court, a botched government–a ruthless regime.

Fifteen years–fifteen years!–before the Bastille was stormed, France’s future (and Louie’s) was foretold by a lonely figure on a Paris stage: "Because you are a great lord, you think you are a great genius," Beaumarchais has Figaro say, ". . . nobility, fortune, rank, appointments, all this makes a man so proud! But what have you done to deserve so many good things? You took the trouble to get born." Hmmm: perhaps Louis Capet should have closed the theatres. Which is to argue that the fires of all revolutions, including the one in Cairo, are not kindled by pamphlets, broadsides, or even internet sites but (as James Billington notes) are set alight by "ideas in the minds of men".