He had the cops buying drugs on camera. Two plainclothes officers yanked Khaled Said from an Internet café in broad daylight. They dragged him into a dingy apartment lobby and smashed his head against an iron door, the stairs, and the wall. They left him there to die and thought that was that.
Khaled Said’s fate was sadly nothing new. His was simply the most recent and graphic in a long line of Egyptian police atrocities. But then something unusual happened. The grief went viral.
Five days after the murder, a Human Rights worker set up a We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page. He posted pictures of Said’s butchered corpse juxtaposed with Youtube videos of Said’s joyous life. Friends and neighbors trickled in. They extended their sympathies, groused about Egypt’s crooked police. Then their friends chimed in. Then their friends.
And then the grief mobilized. Users posted meeting places, security weak-points. Tunisians relayed the news from their own front-line. It became a war-room of sorts. 130,000 users liked the page within weeks. It is 662,000 now, and soaring. “We would post a video on Facebook and it would be shared by 50,000 people on their walls in hours,” Google-marketing-executive-turned-Egyptian-revolutionary Wael Ghonim recalled.
Cartoonists used Khaled Said’s likeness to rally the uprising. In memoriam, he morphed into a clarion call for young Egyptians fed up with the same old. He became the emblematic fallen soldier for a younger, tech-savvier army
Bloggers and students were the foot-soldiers of this revolution. The troops did not shoot. They tweeted. They stormed Tahrir Square but went no further. Five days into the uprising, Mubarak countered with shock and awe: he pulled the plug on Egypt’s Internet. But reinforcements arrived, courtesy of Google. The company’s engineers improvised with Twitter coders to construct Speak To Tweet, an Internet-less walkie-talkie of sorts. When Egyptians dialed +16504194196, they could leave voicemails that were automatically transcribed to Twitter with the hashtag #egypt for all to see. In a technological development that should chill governments from Algiers to Tehran to Beijing, protesters can now coordinate massive rallies without even the Internet. Mubarak capitulated, flipping the Internet back on the next day. He resigned on Day 18.
We have been warned not to be mesmerized by social media’s role in the revolution. “People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented,” author Malcolm Gladwell sneered. “They did it before the Internet came along.” Columnist Frank Rich chided Americans for comforting themselves in believing their Silicon Valley gizmos liberated the Middle East.
True. Social media meant nothing without the audacity of regular, every day Tunisians and Egyptians to stand up. But once they did, the courage rattled around in cyberspace. It was a digital perfect storm. Mark Zuckerberg proved the enabler. Julian Assange, the instigator. Zuckerberg built Facebook, the pixilated forum for Arabs to finally talk back to their autocratic leaders. Assange kindled the flames with WikiLeaks, leaking more cables about the corrupt ways of the besieged leader of the moment. And Al Jazeera played the sympathizer, streaming the riots into stunned TV rooms across the Middle East.
Governments have never had to reckon with a force like this before. Zuckerberg brings the people together. Assange brings governments down to the people. They accidentally formed a virtual good cop-bad cop duo that lets the people police their leaders. And even if Facebook and WikiLeaks are shuttered, they have already won. Because Mark Zuckerberg and Julian Assange will not be the end. The next wave of younger, prodigy coders will simply take their place.
We want to believe Cairo ’11 is a Berlin ’89 moment. It is not. Tunisia and Egypt were the humanizing tales of the army standing by but not intervening. Soldiers looked into the eyes of the protesters not as foes but countrymen. Fellow brothers and sisters who languished together for far too long under the same cruel patriarch.
The region will be freer but not free. Algeria may be the next to fall. Or perhaps Bahrain. But the Arab world is still too fractured. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard, too barbaric. And the oil-rich Saudi Arabia monarchy, still too lavishly wealthy.
But Tahrir Square irrevocably changed the region forever. It stripped away the mystique and aura from the Middle East’s reigning dynasties. And what has ensued is the most sweeping movement in over thirty years. Tunisia set off a powder keg of latent Arabic anger across the Middle East. The revolutions are not Shiite versus Sunni but oppressors versus the oppressed. It is the stirring for a pan-Arabic identity led by students who know simply there must be a better life.
Now ruling families across the Middle East scramble to avoid a similar fate. King Abdullah of Jordan sacked the government and granted soldiers a $30/month raise. Yemen’s leader vowed not to run again. Kuwait gave its citizens $3,500 as a “gift”. And Syria lifted its ban on YouTube and Facebook last Tuesday. But this is not enough. They are mere concessions delaying the inevitable.
George W. Bush apologists smirk that he was right after all. The uprisings vindicate his “freedom agenda”. President Obama supporters retort it was the president’s quiet but firm endorsement of the protesters that nudged Mubarak to resign.
But the truth lies with neither, and this is why Middle Eastern leaders are so skittish. Because this is a democracy not minted in Washington. Unlike in Iraq, America did not impose this change of government. The people chose it themselves. To them, democracy is no longer a nebulous idea tinged with Abu Ghraib and other stains of American imperialism. This democracy is stamped Made In Cairo with young heroes all its own.
Roughly 60% of the Arab world population is under the age 25. They were born after the fall of the Shah of Iran but just in time for friend requests. Tahrir Square emblazoned the generation with its own moment. And so they will be more committed to make it last. They no longer have to listen to their grandfathers recount their revolutions. They have their own martyrs now in Khaled Said. And they can share their status with all the world.
Armed with status updates, tweets, and WikiLeak cables, they dig in knowing right makes might, not the other way around. Middle Eastern governments must accept a new, more transparent world order. A world order where anything they say can and will be used against them.