The revolution will be misunderstood

February 1, 2011

culture / politics

Like many others, I’ve been following Egypt’s revolution the past several days, and Tunisia’s before it. Al Jazeera and The Daily Dish have been especially meaningful, as have the tweets and videos they have shared from other sites. Many have been excited that this is finally the “Twitter revolution” that we thought was happening in Iran last year.

Others, of course, have just been worried about the interests of the United States in all this. Questions of whether Egypt’s new government will favor us, what it will think about Israel, concerns that Islamists will win the day, and criticisms of the Obama administration from both sides have abounded. I don’t have any interest in these U.S.-centric questions. This is not about us, and we do Egyptians an injustice by pretending that it is.

But the questions around the importance of social media, Al Jazeera, and other such things are important to me. I’ve had great respect for Al Jazeera ever since watching them cover an attempted peace talk with Joseph Kony in Uganda a couple of years ago, and obviously have various opinions about social media as a cultural phenomenon, and about social media sites as specific things.

Within all of this, something became clear to me the other day: this revolution, just like every other one we look at from the outside, is being misunderstood. We should no longer say “the revolution will (not) be televised,” or “the revolution will be tweeted,” or whatever — we probably never should have. Doing this makes us look as though we are incapable of holding multiple ideas in tension, and belies our sense of how intelligent we are. We should instead say “the revolution will be misunderstood.”

This became clear to me when reading this post from Peter-Paul Koch, in which he points out the overwhelmingly higher percentage of Egyptians that have cell phones compared to those who are online, indicating that it is this that has played a more important role. He then says this:

Fortunately it seems the Egyptian government actually believed the blogosphere’s self-satisfied description of the Tunisian revolution as Twitter- and Facebook-driven, and concentrated on the Internet first, while leaving open the mobile net for a while more (meanwhile voice is up again, but SMS is still down), and not doing much about Al-Jazeera, which is closed down only now.

And this is where we in the West have the same problem that Mubarak has — we want to make this about one thing. Whatever our own favorite thing (or least favorite thing, depending on our ideology) might be, it is that which is causing Egypt to revolt. If we didn’t have that, it wouldn’t be happening.

Do you see how silly this is? Very few things in this world can be boiled down to one factor. Much less something as complex and large as a revolt against a 30 year old dictatorship. Most of us are okay with complex arguments if they fits our own biases (discussions often go this way among people who agree with each other and want to attack a strawman, for example), but it’s time we allowed ourselves to recognize nuance, even when we don’t like it.

Grace and peace to Egypt, in all of its beauty and complexity.