Egypt: From the Iron Rule of Tyranny to the Iron Law of Oligarchy: Can ICT Change the Rules?

Posted on February 23, 2011


There are current disputes within the blogisariat about the role and significance of social media and other technologies in animating, enabling, and empowering the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.  This discussion, which moves back and forth between techno-philes and techno-skeptics, techno-optimists and techno-pessimists is however, mainly of interest to those who are interested, that is the blogisariat and their followers.

It may be more useful however, to look forward rather than back; to identify what, from the experience of these revolutions and interwoven as they were (to a greater or lesser degree) by social media and information technology, might be of value as these countries go forward.  What have they learned from their recent experiences that can be applied as respond to the very real social and economic issues—youth and adult unemployment, poor quality and limited access to public services, rising food costs, lack of opportunities for democratic participation—which ultimately provided the motivation for the masses whose commitment to the movement ensured its success.

Once the dust settles, and perhaps even before, Egypt and Tunisia and whichever other countries achieve a degree of regime change, will suffer an invasion of think tankers, foundation funded consultants, World Bank and IMF analysts and so on all offering “solutions” to the country’s problems.  These offers will be presented without irony even though it was the formulations of these same consultants, analysts etc. etc. who, reporting to the previous regimes, in many cases bear primary responsibility for creating the problems which brought so many out onto the streets.

It was they who were advising the “progressive” elements in those regimes as they individually strove to find a World Economic Forum-acceptable means to “manage” their transition into the 21st century, or to put it another way, were carrying forward the message from their Western clients on how these countries should move themselves from the hard tyranny of the gun to the soft tyranny of the market (cf. the very interesting discussion in Al Jazeera on this issue ). Not incidentally, many of the issues and particularly those confronting young people and those with university qualifications are directly parallel to the issues being confronted currently by young people in Europe and elsewhere who are currently demonstrating in the streets of their own capitals in among others the UK, France, Greece, and Ireland and most recently Wisconsin in the US.

Pivatized public services, financial starvation of the public sector, radically skewed taxation practices favoring the rich, conventionally centralized (and thus highly stratified) approaches to education and health care, World Bank fueled opening of markets to foreign competition and so on can be seen as the partial causes of the problems to which the Egyptian and Tunisian masses (and particularly the youth) were responding. The revolts in Egypt and Tunis (in contrast to those in the Former Soviet Union) are as much renunciations of the neo-liberal solutions which underpinned the rapacious crony capitalism of the regimes, as they are renunciations of the tyrants who rather passively oversaw the implementation of these policies by their western elite educated sons and their similarly western educated and ideologically imbibed cronies.

The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia will have very great challenges in finding alternative paths to replace the discredited ideologies (the “capitalism” side of “crony capitalism”) in order to satisfy the large but not unreasonable expectations of their populations for decent health care, decent education, employment for skilled and trained young people and living wages for working people. Repatriating the wealth of embezzlers from the national purse will provide some short term resources but there will be a need for longer term solutions. Given the evident bankruptcy of the existing solutions and those sibling solutions that will almost certainly be put on offer, the need for the social movement to find ways to address the outstanding national issues will mean that they will need to look inward to themselves for the resources and the approaches that can provide the basis for moving forward.

In this, I think that the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have access to skills and resources which were unavailable to earlier movements that is—the Internet, social networking, mobile telephony and perhaps most important, the experience and knowledge of how to use these in support of collective social ends.

Earlier and similar social movements, in attempting to translate their experience and practice into processes of social and economic rebuilding, have come afoul of the simple mechanics of maintaining the spirit and the structures of the forces that they have unleashed–difficulties in communication over long distances leading to misunderstanding and mistrust and the need to introduce and exert discipline; difficulties in managing diversity of response to local conditions (and thus being unable to continue to be truly bottom up movements); difficulties in balancing the need to make decisions with the desire to maintain structures of spontaneity and equality; and overall the challenge of ensuring that power is not simply transferred from one tyrant to another or to an authoritarian structure or party but rather is founded in effective on-going and responsive democratic, transparent and accountable processes.

Each of these challenges were overcome on the fly during the few short days as the movement evolved on the street and ultimately conquered.  Ways will now need to be found for translating this hard won knowledge into the practices of governance in a manner as effective and with as broad a base of legitimacy as they were able to achieve in the practice of revolt.

The use of the technologies—cell phones, Facebook, twitter, the Internet—all made a contribution to the success of the movements although the amount of contribution is the subject of considerable dispute. Certain lessons were no doubt learned from this. The challenge is to take those lessons and apply them to the much more intransigent but equally important issues of rebuilding Egypt with a success similar to that achieved in the removal of the despot.

It is of course, for those directly involved to identify what those lessons might be but perhaps one could anticipate some of those lessons:

  • Enabling solidarity. The technology enabled processes of creating and maintaining solidarity—as a combination of trust, ascribed legitimacy, and a sense of unity and common purpose.  It allowed for solidarity to be developed and maintained over time, to be extended over space and between those who had only very limited or in some cases no physical interaction. Translating this into a sense of common purpose going forward is not a given but however much it can be maintained (the mass clean up of Tahrir Sq. following the departure of Mubarek is an indication that some is at least possible) will allow the movement to avoid the multiple costs and risks of simply assigning the mandate and future of the revolution to a party or to existing administrative structures and elites al la the Russian Revolution or the overthrow of Apartheid in South Africa.
  • Aggregating social action. To accomplish what it did the movements in Tunisia and Egypt had to aggregate and consolidate the actions of multiple individuals and as time went on, the actions of multiple groups with divergent interests towards a common purpose.   How much the Internet or social networking might have contributed to this is still unclear, but parallel processes of group sourcing and open development in a variety of spheres, suggests that these techniques may be carried over into aggregating social actions towards collaborative problem solving at the local level going from local clean-up campaigns to self-help groups for responding to social needs to building local economic processes through self-sufficiency and small enterprise development serving local needs.
  • Global communication – global reach – compared to earlier similar revolutions this one was wired not only internally but externally to the world.  This means that the movement is able to access the world and its range of expertise and knowledge resources.  Equally, the world has the potential for immediate access to certain inner workings and activities and this two way process of knowledge access and transparency for accountability means that many of excesses which so distorted the early days of successful movements in the past may be at least mitigated if not avoided altogether.  Equally, the movement will be in a position to link into whatever external resources it chooses and need not simply follow existing lines or traditional paths out of expediency (as for example those prescribed by party, religion or ethnicity) as it moves forward.
  • Overcoming distance—the need for centralization of decision making and control in a post-revolutionary environment stems from the need to counter the ever-lurking forces of the old regime as well as to prevent stabilization and reversion to pre-regime change norms.  The difficulties of communication and of maintaining solidarity and trust precipitate processes of centralization of decision making, concentration of leadership, and the related formation of hierarchical structures of authority.  The now available capacities for flexible and content intensive two way communication at a distance relieves the necessity for these processes by allowing for alternatives of peer to peer, horizontal and place independent processes.
  • Enabling transparency—the communication media allow for the transparency of operation, of financial transactions, and of decision making from which new forms of accountability and democratic participation may be created.
  • Operational flexibility and immediacy of response—the speed of communications and the facility in establishing and modifying communications and information management structures means that the new institutions which need to be established in post-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia can be structured so as to avoid the rigidification and tendencies towards authoritarianism which traditional processes of institutionalization have almost universally exhibited.
  • Enabling decentralized structures and localized decision making—social media enabled processes within the movement demonstrated the capacity for and the strength of ICT-enabled decentralization and localization of decision making and facilitating of local responses to local conditions.  These community informatics processes could prove extremely useful in designing, developing and maintaining the range of appropriate public services—health, education, small business support and development which will need to be designed and established in the immediate post-movement period in response to the expressed popular demand.  A community approach to enabling and building these services utilizing electronic platforms and leveraging localized social processes will allow for the flexibility, responses to localized conditions, and amplification and leveraging of scarce specialized skills that proved so powerful in the democracy movements. It would facilitate the necessary process of the movement being incorporated into new institutional responses. In this way it will be possible to design and develop structures for deploying the range and quality of services while also creating significant amounts of local employment and allowing for an intensification of service availability and local economic activity rather than the creation of centralized and centralizing structures which contribute little to local employment and development.
  • The robustness, ubiquity and flexibility of mobile communications—enabled the movement to function effectively with tactical rather than institutional leadership.  This inhibited the security forces from easily thwarting the movement by targeting individuals.  This approach can allow for the decentralization of decision making to local communities utilizing local resources for renewal and regeneration rather than relying on scarce, expensive and frequently ill-informed centralized and specialized leadership and program design while still allowing for larger scale regional and even national coordination. The availability and ease of horizontal peer to peer communication should have the additional effect of mitigating the processes of individual aggrandizement and the media’s strong tendency towards the creation of stars/leaders with whom they can interact.

The challenge and the opportunity now is to translate all of this into de-institutionalized institutions, structured decision making without structures, and dynamic frameworks of accountability that work over time and through space while avoiding Robert Michel’s “Iron Law” (of Oligarchy).

As the first revolution of the 21st century, and the first revolution of the Internet age—Egypt and Tunisia and …, lack models to draw from and paths to follow.  This is as much a liberation as it is a disability. We can only hope that the passion, creativity and energy that went in to throwing out the despots will find its way into creating the new forms of organization needed for the resolution of the deep seated social and economic issues that confront all of us and not simply those in these corners of North Africa.  The measured recognition of the value and limitations – opportunities and risks attendant on the new technologies is however, a new and profoundly important resource to support those who must, and very quickly, take on these challenges.