x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The winners in a revolution won't be Facebook friends

Egyptian activists are getting increasingly irritated with "Facebook generation" label.

It is three months since the funeral of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian vegetable seller whose self-immolation set off the wave of Arab revolutions. So much has happened so fast only a fool would make predictions. But some clues to the future of the Arab world can be gleaned from the experience of the young digital activists of the so-called "Facebook generation" who helped to mobilise the Egyptian revolution.

The BBC Arabic service invited several of these young activists to London to talk about "Protest, Technology and the End of Fear". Normally such an event would attract a few dozen geeks and policy wonks. This time there were hundreds desperate to bathe in the activists' glory.

It was clear from the start that the gulf of misunderstanding between Arabs and the English-speaking world is still great. The panellists were sick and tired of being asked how the Facebook generation overthrew Mubarak.

They reeled off a long list of far more important factors: Egypt's long but widely suppressed history of political activism, the burning resentment produced by decades of police brutality, the free trade union movement which marks its third anniversary this month, and the revolution in communications in the old media - especially Al Jazeera's non-stop coverage of the Tunisian uprising.

Alaa Abd el Fattah, a computer programmer and prominent blogger, wearily explained that a revolution cannot be ascribed to one technical innovation. "We used Facebook and Twitter. We used sticks and stones when we came under attack. And in Sinai the revolution needed guns." As for "the end of fear", there was no mystery: once people saw they were joining a movement that could achieve something, as in Tunisia, there was no stopping them.

Another panellist pointed out that the Mubarak regime blocked the Al Jazeera satellite feed and closed down the internet. This had the perverse effect of forcing people to go out on the street and fight for their freedoms, not sit at home and watch. So actually it was about live bodies occupying Tahrir Square.

Clearly the activists thought that all foreign journalists were too dim to keep more than one idea in their head at a time. Salma Said, a young blogger and member of the Kifaya movement on the panel, issued this despairing tweet after the experience: "Please stop inviting us to anything with these two phrases: digital democratisation and democratic digitalisation."

The activists are too inexperienced with the media to realise that no journalist is going to gain the attention of readers in Kansas with a report on the Egyptian struggle for trade union rights. The headline has to be simple and have some connection to the reader's own life. In this case it became: "It's all about Facebook".

About the future, the activists were not so certain. They could not understand the western fascination with the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood. For them the Brotherhood was just one of many organisations which worked together to bring down the Pharaoh. There were many worries about the role of the army, the secret police and the old guard in general. Questions about who would lead Egypt in the future were met with the calm assertion that, just as the people had risen up, so leaders of a new generation would emerge from the people.

They had clearly been through a life-changing experience, one of those rare moments when people feel they are marching in step with history. But it sounded naive to believe this moment would last. One member of the audience (actually the father of the Anglo-Egyptian actor and documentary maker Khalid Abdalla) questioned whether his son and other progressive forces should not be occupying the political space themselves before someone else stepped in.

The first stage of the Egyptian revolution is over. The forces that combined to make people power a reality are now dissipating in various directions. Without any obvious leader for the digital activists, the field is open to more ruthless operators to take over.

The Russian revolution of 1917 is a case in point. When the Tsar was overthrown, the British press reported (no doubt to give their readers something they could understand, like Facebook today) that a "Tolstoyan revolution" was underway - after the Christian anarchist-pacifist teachings of the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. In fact, it was Lenin's Bolsheviks who smashed the starry-eyed activists and seized power.

At this stage there are more questions than answers. The wave of strikes is certainly testing the strength of the current government. Perhaps the most likely outcome will be that the military rule - begun in 1952 with the Free Officers coup - will continue, though in some attenuated form.

Does that mean that all the sacrifices will have been in vain? The confidence of the young people that something has changed forever is inspiring, and I hope they are right. If people power is too much to hope for, then at least the result should be that the elites cannot go back to pillaging the public treasury as they did in the past.

What unites Tunisia and Egypt is that both were modernising their economies. This unleashed some new energies, but the privatisation process was subverted to enrich the first family and its cronies, most glaringly in Tunisia. This clear injustice was as big a spur to the revolution as any other.

The hopes of the Egyptians for a dignified life for all cannot be met in the short term. Creating decently paid jobs is hard, and especially so in a country which has such a long way to catch up.

But Egypt has a better chance than other countries. It has no great ethnic or tribal divisions, and it is a country with thousands of years of history and a 200-year tradition of reform and modernisation. It is not Libya, kept undeveloped by the Italian fascists and then hollowed out by Colonel Qaddafi and his clan, nor is it Ivory Coast.

In Egypt the new newspapers, the new parties, the plethora of television channels, the trade union movement and the digital networks will all have a role to play in keeping the elites more honest than they have been. This is not "democracy in a box" - as the Americans like to say - but it should right a glaring injustice in the economic system. This is not as catchy a message as "it's all about Facebook" but there is a glimmer of hope there.