Egypt: what the autocrats didn’t quite get

Yesterday saw a significant moment in the rolling changes brought about by digital communications. An entire country, which until that moment had cheerfully embraced satellite TV, mobile phones and the world wide web, was cut off from the internet by the authorities in Egypt. Today, they followed that by shutting mobile phone networks.

It isn’t possible to predict what will happen: the state may get the streets and opposition under control, it may lose its nerve or the army may tip the balance for or against change. As I write, hackers all over the planet are sending advice to Egypt about how to get round the shutdown.

But one forecast can be made. The autocrats in charge in Cairo may buy themselves some breathing space by shutting communications networks, but they cannot turn the clock back to the pre-digital age. They will eventually discover that they have to deal with a wired society as it is. That wiring offers them plenty of opportunities for manipulation and control, but no way back to the era of terrestrial television, typewriters and printed news.

It’s worth underlining again why this issue is so particularly important in the Arab world. What is cracking apart is the paternalist assumption that governments should shape what people know. This belief runs across both monarchies and republics and is put in practice in varied ways in different states. But what it has produced in almost every country in the Middle East and Maghreb (bar Israel) is a two-tier knowledge system.

In the formal tier, the state or its proxies sanction, licence or control television, radio and newspapers. Gradually the lack of independence made the output less credible, less believed and less consumed. The deferential delicacy of journalism conducted to make the powerful look good has to be seen to be believed.

Often unaware of the consequences of what they were setting in train, these states also allowed satellite television to flourish. They they allowed internet service providers to operate and many did not worry much that bloggers said what newspaper journalists could not say. They were happy to boast of the rapid takeup of smartphones and iPads. Secret policemen may even have welcomed these developments: the networks were incredibly easy to monitor, at least in the early days.

But this second tier of information exchanged on social networks created a whole separate segment of civil society. The two public spheres of formal and informal media hardly talked to eachother or exchanged much information. Social networks developed their own “news media”, their own interlocking communities and they sent their own versions of news out to satellite broadcasters who then sent it back in, massively amplifying its effect. This seems to have had important results in the early days of the Tunisian demos. Read US diplomats reporting these developments in Egypt here and here.

The worse the state-dominated media is, the more marked are the differences between the two worlds of information inside one country. Egypt, where mainstream journalists often have little idea what is going on in the “other” information world, is the key example. Satellite television, blogs, Facebook with the more attractive and trusted information they carry have hollowed out the credibility of established print and broadcast media. I spoke last year at a conference organised by what remains Egypt’s best-known newspaper, Al-Ahram. Some of its older editors spoke as if the paper was the natural vehicle of goverment policy. Others talked about the management of news in language reminiscent of British toffs of a century ago who were careful not to leave newspapers lying around lest they give the servants subversive ideas.

In these states where old assumptions were dissolving, the changes weren’t exactly invisible. Satellite television channels proliferated. Bloggers were arrested from time to time. Newspaper circulations fell. Websites improved (Al-Ahram’s English website was given a makeover, for example). But because the formation of a two-tier knowledge system took time and because the authorities lulled themselves into a sense of false security with adulatory media, few people saw how far this process had gone and how fast. People in authority living in one tier of the system can’t any longer figure out what’s going on in the other.

Until events, relayed by social networks, mobilise people. In Egypt, the authorities now know. As Clay Shirky tweeted this morning, “the best reason to believe digital media improves public coordination is that autocrats believe that.”


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