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Uprisings possible without the Internet

It is not immediately obvious, but nearly all street protests involve only a minuscule proportion of a country’s population. None of the high-profile protests in recent memory, whether in Bahrain, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Iran or Moldova, have involved even 1 percent of the people.

The 300,000 Egyptians, for instance, who descended on Tahrir Square in Cairo represent just 0.4 per cent of the country’s 83 million people. Many other revolts involve even fewer.

That makes the 1979 Iran Revolution particularly noteworthy. The number of Iranians who gathered to voice their anger with the Shah was estimated at between six million and nine million ― more than 10 percent of Iran’s population then. Looking at it some three decades later, it seems particularly impressive that such a widespread movement was put together without the Internet.

Iranian activists then did not have a Facebook page, did not send out any Twitter message and did not have Google. This makes one wonder: How much credit can social media take for the revolutions unfolding now in North Africa and the Middle East?

One way to answer that question would be to ask: Would the protests that we are seeing now have happened without social media?

There is no doubt that the Egyptian protests could have occurred offline. The protests continued, even intensified, after the country was cut off from the Web. But what if there had never been Internet in the first place?

There is no shortage of examples of large-scale protests around the world that had nothing to do with cyberspace: Among others, the eastern European protests of 1988 through the early 1990s, the Indonesian reformasi movement of the late 1990s and the Philippine protest that unseated then President Joseph Estrada in 2001. In each case, demonstrators used offline tools to organize.

In the Philippines, activists wrote a simple SMS message that was forwarded numerous times that day: ‘Go to EDSA. Wear Black.’ (EDSA is the acronym for Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, a highway that connects Manila to five other cities.)

In the case of Iran in 1978, the exiled Ayatollah Khamenei communicated with activists back home through cassettes that were smuggled into the country. Elsewhere, everything from radio transmitters to fliers and payphones have been the revolutionary tools of choice.

Granted, it is hard to guess if the lack of Twitter might have been a reason why people did not come out against oppressive governments elsewhere. But what these examples show is that there are certain commonalities among revolutions. They do not require online tools as such, but all protests need to be organized and protesters need communication tools.

It just so happens that the Internet is perfect for this job. It is fast, wide-reaching, and relatively resilient against government action. It is harder to break up activists meeting online compared with those sitting in a coffee shop. But as many of these previous protests show, when there is no Internet, activists can just use a different, if less perfect, tool.

Perhaps it would be more instructive to figure out if the Internet can actually be the tipping point in a given protest. Can Facebook and Twitter or YouTube actually cause a revolution?

In recent history, economic pressure has proved to be a common trigger of unrest in Southeast Asia. The 2007 protests in Burma were largely caused by the junta’s decision to suddenly remove fuel subsidies. The 1998 protests that heralded the fall of Suharto in Indonesia can be attributed to the economic crisis that hit the country hard. Elsewhere, violent death is a frequent flashpoint.

Oxford historian Mark Almond, writing for the BBC, noted that the most common catalyst for radicalising discontent over the past 30 years has been violent death. The Tunisian revolution, for instance, was triggered by the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. He set himself on fire on Dec. 17 last year to protest against the confiscation of his goods and subsequent harassment.

Similar self-immolation incidents took place in Egypt last month, though some point to another death six months earlier ― that of Khaled Mohamed Saeed last June. Khaled, aged 28, is believed to have been beaten to death by Egyptian police.

What is interesting here is that the Internet was integral to him becoming a martyr. Outrage was at its most intense after photos of him badly disfigured made the rounds online. A Facebook page set up in his honor attracted more than 900,000 members.

On the face of it, this seems like pretty solid evidence that the Egyptian revolution might not have happened without the Internet. Yet, it should be pointed out that news of the deaths in the 1978 Cinema Rex fire that aggravated the situation in Iran managed to make the rounds without the Internet.

What the Egyptian example shows us is simply the power of the Internet to mobilize and to do so quickly. There is no denying the resourcefulness of a determined, even if unplugged, activist, but it is clear that the rapid spread of unrest in the Arab world today can largely be attributed to the Internet’s power.

It has been just two months since Tunisia’s revolution and already it has influenced events in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and, most recently, Morocco.

In contrast, the 1979 Iranian revolution began almost two years before it actually hit its peak. The Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989 took about as long to gestate.

And maybe that’s just it: The Internet’s single greatest gift to revolutionaries is speed. The lack of the Internet doesn’t completely stall a revolution ― it just slows it down.

By Jeremy Au Yong 

(The Straits Times)

(Asia News Network)