Resilient autocrats, networked movements and the digital beachheads of enduring activism
In previous blog posts I argued that both the recent global outbreaks of mass dissent as well as the historical universalism of the triggers of such movements (the “why”) warrant more attention of the technological catalysts (the “how”) of an increasingly accelerating pace of global social and political change. That is, the reasons why people protest, organize and rally to challenge authoritarianism, oppression and injustice have undergone much less change compared to the ways by which they go about staging such acts of rebellion. Considering how the technologies in question can be used for both well-intentioned and nefarious ends – by both individuals or governments – an important question to pose becomes: How effective is the use of networked technologies for challenging oppression in contexts where authoritarianism is deeply rooted and state violence is continuously deployed to silence dissent? In other words, can technologically-savvy social movements play the ‘long game’ against established structures of control and hierarchies of power?
Looking at the Egyptian political arena can yield some insights, but it is too early to be certain of anything seeing how the scene in post-Mubarak Egypt has been one of chaotic and often violent contention since January 2011. The somberness of the national mood is matched by a strong sense of pessimism in academic predictions about the sociopolitical trajectories the country is taking. All indicators seem to evince is that the popular drive for a genuine democratic transformation in Egypt has returned to square one: a reproduction of the authoritarian structures of the past several decades. I argue that this view, while accurate when only considering readily observable givens, is based on notions of contentious politics that are undergoing immense and rapid changes.
Online organizing and citizen innovations
Most of the dismal analyses on Egypt is based on ‘classical’ understandings of power and politics, and as such often seem to miss several subtleties that reveal how resistance to cyclical authoritarianism still thrives in the country, even in the wake of a rapid succession of disappointments. The revolutionary struggle in Egypt is far from dormant. With unrelenting commitment to dispelling the notion of false options Egyptians have been presented with for many decades, networked movements continue to find innovative ways to negotiate and contest power in battlegrounds of political, gender and social rights. Campaigns and groups likeMosireen, HarassMap and Masmou3, among others, mesh online tools with offline organizing to create new breeds of enduring activism, pump new life into the collective drive for change, and create digital ‘beachheads’ of sure-footed resistance against injustice.
Beyond Egypt, many (if not most) of the episodes of large-scale collective action around the world in the past three years demonstrated that it is not beyond reason to say that these ripples of technologically-accelerated change will not only affect how citizens everywhere go about claiming their rights and engaging their governments, but – from a long-term perspective and by consequence – it will also shift how structures of governance, authority and participation are constructed.