Commentary Essays / In The News

Reuters: How Digital Media Enabled the Protests in Egypt and Tunisia

(This originally appeared as “How Digital Media Enabled the Protests in Egypt and Tunisia” on the Reuters Commentary Wire.)

It’s time for the State Department to stop backing individual leaders in the Middle East. Instead, the State Department needs to back networks.

The cascading impact of social protest in Tunisia and Egypt, triggered by desperate citizens and enabled by digital media, needs a new kind of response from the State Department. Not the State Department 1.0 version that exists today, which was woefully short on features when Bush left office. Secretary Clinton, her Innovation Czar Alec Ross and her Special Representative Farah Pandith have been working hard on a State Department 2.0. Now is the opportunity to roll it out.

It is not just that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube that have been used by tech-savvy activists to out-maneuver entrenched political elites headed by strong leaders with 20+ years of unchallenged rule. Ben Ali, Mubarak and Saleh are of a generation where political power is made by embedding family networks in the organizations of state power. The men and women, young and old, who have faced bullets, truncheons and tear gas in Tunis, Cairo, and Sana’a have their own networks.

The State Department 1.0 strategy for dealing with in-country crises, developed from Carter through to W., was to deliberate on which sub-national political leaders to back. Supporting a strongman meant keeping quiet during rigged elections and regime crackdowns, supplying weapons to keep Islamists and communists at bay and supporting a few national industries so the local economy could keep the leader’s networks of family and friends formally employed. And for most of that period, Washington has backed these three tough rulers.

But over the last few weeks, we have seen that the protesters in these Arab streets aren’t nationalists, communists, or Islamists. They don’t have radical mullahs or upstart generals as leaders.

These civic networks have no single leader, but the U.S. must nevertheless find ways to structurally support them. In the abstract, this means recognizing that there are multiple nodes and mandatory points of passage for information. Networks are made up of sub-networks. Key nodes in these networks do not appear to be the radical Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. Rather, they are urban entrepreneurs tired of government graft, and eloquent students eager for job opportunities.

This means, practically, that all the hard work the State Department has put into developing networks of civil society leaders in the Gulf region can now pay off. A good State Department 2.0 strategy for this contemporary crisis can lead with two confident statements from Washington:

  • Don’t help Ben Ali. Help bring him to justice, and finance civic actors in Tunisia so they have an active voice in the formation of a new government and the drafting of a new constitution. The current prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, is a prominent node in Tunisia’s civic network. Express confidence in him.
  • Don’t help Mubarak, except to help him untangle his family’s tentacles from the riches and power of state. Finance Egypt’s smart and sophisticated civic leaders, and back Mohammed El Baradei, one of the most prominent nodes in Egypt’s civic network. He does not have Mubarak’s political deviousness and centralized authority — but that’s the point.

The protests in Tunisia were digitally enabled and successful. The protests in Egypt have drawn out the largest crowds in 50 years, and the crisis is not over. Let’s have a savvy State Department strategy based on what we know from the abstractions of network theory and the practical experience with the power of digital networks. The State Department 2.0 strategy needs to bet on networks of citizens and civic groups in Tunis and Cairo.

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