In this opinion piece, an Egyptian diplomat looks at the recent events in her country in the context of the sweep of her nation’s history and its contributions to civilization. In her view the Facebook Revolution is but the latest in a continuum of revolutionary changes throughout history.–Ed.
Throughout more than seven thousand years Egyptian history has marked key milestones during the development of western civilization. Once more, following long decades of dormancy, Egypt plays a central role — this time in the history of the information revolution, by preparing the cradle of the first successful political revolution based on the social media.
It is important in this context to look back to the great revolutions that have marked world history, the first and most widespread being the agricultural revolution. Egypt’s greatest gift to the ancient world was the transformation of human life from nomadic insecurity into settled productivity by creating irrigation systems to harness the nurturing potential of the Nile. This was by its nature a popular revolution, with rights and duties clearly delineated: the rulers secured the water for the farmers, and the farmers in turn produced food and dependent products.
After several centuries of building on the agriculture revolution, Europe gave birth to the Industrial revolution. This revolution, passing through several developments and variations, has complicated features. The main difference between the agriculture and industrial revolutions has been the extent to which the benefits of the former reached greater numbers than the latter, which is the reason there have been counter-revolutions to the industrial revolution. This brings us to the competing ideologies of Capitalism and Marxism as a proposed solution to benefit workers in society. This debate has emphasized the role of class as a basic unit of analysis.
Ultimately industrial development required the trade revolution to profitably sell its increasing products. With the great advancement of transportation, trade became the slogan of economics globalization (e.g. “Trade not Aid” for the development of countries, etc). The trade revolution reached its peak by successfully establishing — after half a century of consistent failure — the Geneva-based World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995.
However, this revolution, like its predecessor, has no popular support. It also emphasized “new” classes, this time composed of mega-businessmen and multinational corporations. Thus, the impact on different groups of unequal distribution of wealth has been exacerbated heavily. The negative effects of this revolution have given voice to supporters of workers’ rights and environmental protection.
The next revolution is the current one of “information technology”. Driven by such developments as the invention of the Internet and social media, the information revolution created the “world village” sense of proximity by linking its inhabitants through cyber-space. Thus the “knowledge-based society” has become the world’s culture and primary tool of communications. Technological progress has continually made the social networks easier to use.
Unlike the previous two revolutions ( the industrial and trade ones) this one was again a popular revolution with no distinction between classes. Information technology has become literal “smart power” in the hands of disadvantaged and deprived persons in all segments of society (economically, politically, etc.). Therefore this revolution has affected all aspects of society’s activities. In diplomacy, for example, it has yielded public diplomacy approaches that take into account the influence of public attitudes on the formation and execution of foreign policies.
As Marko Papic and Sean Noonan argue in their recent article (see http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20110202-social-media-tool-protest) the role of social media in protests and revolutions has garnered considerable media attention in recent years. Current conventional wisdom has it that social networks have made regime change easier to organize and execute. An underlying assumption is that social media is making it more difficult to sustain an authoritarian regime which could usher in a new wave of democratization around the globe. In a Jan. 27 YouTube interview, U.S. President Barack Obama went as far as to compare social networking to universal liberties such as freedom of speech.
This article represents the academic view of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Government of Egypt.