Lessons Learned From the Arab Spring Revolutions
The first presentation I attended at SXSW was an analysis of the Arab spring revolutions by panelists Azmat Khan, Habib Haddad, Katherine Maher, Russell Dubner, Susannah Vila, and Vadim Lavrusik. They focused primarily on the Egyptian revolution. I learned several things I had not picked up from news reports at the time, the most important being that these protests were not as spontaneous as US news coverage led me to believe.
The protests had been planned well in advance by seasoned and well-known activists trained in non-violent protest techniques by veterans of the Serbian conflict in the late 1990s. They used Facebook to organize and promote their activities, as well as using a variety of communication tools during the protests to provide intelligence and security information to the protestors in Tahrir Square.
The panelists explained how the Muslim Brotherhood provided intelligence and planned entry and exit routes using Google Earth maps. This provided common reference points to the protestors so they could safely enter and exit the square, as well as rally when it became necessary to defend the square.
As protestors gathered in Tahrir Square, mobile phone cameras, video, SMS and Twitter were used to organize and document the protests. Panelists stressed how important it was to have bi-lingual English/Arabic speakers on the internet to translate the Arabic messages into English and collect them so the non-Arabic-speaking media could use the information to guide their coverage.
Once the Egyptian government began blocking internet access, activists in Egypt and other countries quickly provided tools for the Egyptian activists to circumvent IP and domain blocking, and to continue sending messages via voice-to-text translation tools. Eventually the Egyptian government realized there was no alternative to a complete shutdown of internet connectivity. After this, only foreign journalists with satellite phones had any access.
Blocking internet access did not prevent the activists from documenting the revolution, it merely delayed the dissemination of that information. The timeline of events remained intact, and as soon as internet access returned, a flood of coverage spilled out to provide a very complete record of the events. YouTube had to increase their server capacity to handle the amount of video coming out of Egypt.
The panelists emphasized the importance of independent media outlets, such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, who provided coverage of the events independent from Egyptian state television. An Al Jazeera employee in the audience confirmed the network saw a 2,500 percent increase in viewers from the United States during their coverage of the Egyptian revolution. Al Jazeera also released their video under a Creative Commons license, which allowed their content to be freely shared as long as the Al Jazeera watermark remained.
In the aftermath, Egyptians continue to use internet collaboration and social media tools to provide transparency as they begin to re-structure their government. They are also using these tools to document the abuses of the Mubarak regime, and begin a truth and reconciliation process. It will be interesting to watch their progress, and to see what role new communication tools have during the next few months and years.
During the summary, the panelists all agreed the most important lesson they learned was to assume all communications are being monitored. They emphasized the use of SSL connections to websites, encrypted messaging, and the need to maintain information privacy and anonymity.
Here’s my take: While it is a stretch to say this was a Twitter or Facebook revolution, the impact of modern communication tools on these events cannot be discounted. Like the revolutions of 1848, communication technology allowed people far apart to find common ground, and do it more quickly than governments could respond. Elites in these countries have had access to the internet and other modern communications for many years, but these movements did not reach critical mass until the communication technology was widely available. Combine this with a generally disenfranchised population, and you have the makings of revolution. Further, governments will be quicker to use the big red switch in the future, so activists must develop alternative communication infrastructure that can be easily deployed when the authorities decide to pull the plug. Those in power should learn from this event that even a total shutdown eventually has to end, and there will be a flood of information when it does. The same surveillance tools used to monitor protestors can also be used to monitor those in power. Once the door opens, it can never be completely closed again.