On Populist Revolt and Social Media
It is clear that we are witnessing epochal change in the strategic Persian Gulf region, and it is occurring at blinding speed. The Internet and social media have changed the way those who wish to build a mass movement communicate and facilitate organization. To appreciate the magnitude of this development, we need only consider the way mass mobilization was accomplished in the past. When Frederick Douglass was inciting Americans to rise up and abolish slavery through a mass movement, he was working with very different tools. As any craftsman knows, one’s skills are enhanced by the tools one uses.
Men like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison – who provoked a bloody Civil War that eradicated African slavery and transformed the nation – were confined to the written word and public oratory. They had no mechanized printing presses or broadcast facilities. After all, electricity had not been harnessed. Thus they often composed their propaganda screeds by candlelight, writing with goose quill pens. Then they had to set each letter in type on the printing board, swab it down with ink, and churn the broadsheets out by hand…one by one.
After this clumsy and time consuming process they bundled the papers up and delivered some to local subscribers by horse and carriage; and mailed them in bunches to churches and abolitionists organizations to be distributed to readers around the country. By the time of the Russian Communist Revolution in 1917, things had changed but little, although they had the wireless telegraph and telephones. Communications were not much improved for the Chinese Communist, who organized the greatest mass transformative movement in history. Although broadcasting and electric printing presses that could turn out large numbers of papers were available during the Chinese Revolution, as well as telephones, they were unavailable to guerillas hiding in the hinterland and mountains.
Mao Tse Tung, the brilliant theoretician that guided the revolution, described the movement as the moment when “the Chinese people stood up!” But it took the Communist revolutionaries 30 years to get them to do it. Today revolutionaries armed with the new media can send out a tweet, or post an instruction on Facebook, and speak to millions of people instantly! This development represents a quantum leap in the ability of skilled organizers to mobilize masses of aggrieved people looking for a way to actively express their grievances. It is proving to be an irresistible force.
Although the princes and potentates who rule the Persian Gulf despotisms may try to disconnect from the internet, there is no guarantee that they shall succeed. The Egyptian government managed to shut down the internet by disabling the computers that route Egyptian users to the World Wide Web; but they had to restore use after a few days because it was wreaking havoc on the Egyptian economy. It is estimated that Egyptian businesses lost millions of dollars during the five day shutdown. In the aftermath computer engineers in Egypt have been analyzing every aspect of what happened, and they are looking for ways to prevent it from happening again.
There are many ways to access the World Wide Web, and legions of brilliant guerilla hackers will readily come to their aid in getting around government attempts to block access. Only the Chinese seems have the means to block the internet at will, by erecting an insurmountable firewall. That’s why the desperate despots in the Gulf are doing a macabre dance in the dark trying to figure their next move. As my grandfather would say: “Them boys don’t know whether to shit or go blind!” And neither does the US government; who was caught off guard by these mass populist revolts just like their allies in the Gulf Shiekdoms.
On top of all the other mess he inherited from his predecessor, which includes two full scale wars in the region, President Obama is now confronted with the possibility that the entire American empire in the Middle East could crumble while he can do nothing but watch! This Mid-East mess might well prove to be his undoing as well as the Arab despots; who are the lynch pin of American policy in the region. Already we can see the scenario unfolding by which this could happen, as right wing verbal arsonists on WABC radio and FOX Television spew out lunatic conspiracy theories which place President Obama in league with the Islamic Jihadists plotting to destroy America.
As absurd as such accusations are – Frankly, I think they are an abuse of the right of free speech and border on treason – there are millions of ignorant racist whites who believe every word of these scurrilous lies. Even the Republican pollster Frank Luntz was shocked, when half a room of Republicans he recently surveyed said they believed President Obama is a secret Muslim, and that it determines his foreign policy choices in the Middle East. What is even more disturbing is that the percentage of people in the survey group who believe this dangerous nonsense reflects the opinion of Republicans nationally.
As disappointing as the response of rank and file Republicans are, the real scandal in all this was pointed out by former General Colin Powell. “So what if the President is a Muslim?” he asks. He then pointed out that a trip to military cemeteries’ will reveal the names of Muslim/Americans who have fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan – which are obviously Muslim countries. Hence to argue that to be a Muslim implies disloyalty to the US is a slap in the face of all Muslims fighting in the US military. Especially since this is a sacrifice that many of the so-called Tea Party “patriots,” who are driving the Republican agenda, have not seen fit to make in spite of their jingoistic rhetoric.
Alas, the wise General’s advice fell on the deaf ears of these hard core racists, whose hatred of the President and paranoia about Muslims – many of whom look like they could be the brothers of Barack Hussein Obama – have driven them into a dream state divorced from reality and stuck on stupid! The tragedy of this state of affairs is that this kind of Muslim bashing is a great recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. It proves their claim that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are essentially a clash of religions, a modern crusade by the Anglo-Saxons and their minions. Even Saddam Hussein, an avowed foe of the Islamic Jihadists, said as much:” Our problem is with the Anglo-Saxons.”
These people, whose choice for President, John McCain, bragged about not knowing how to send an E-mail, still don’t fully understand the power and global reach of the Internet. They don’t grasp the fact that the “World Wide Web” brings us all together in a global village where we instantaneously experience events happening on the other side of the world. Hence the slanders and insults that Republicans, and the untutored racist mob that support them, constantly level at Muslims are instantly re-played all over the Islamic world. They are reported on the Muslim satellite television networks like Al Jazzera and Al Arabia and broadcast to every nook and cranny of the Muslim world. Should any Muslim fail to see the continuous broadcast of these buffoons in real time, Al Qaeda will make sure that videos featuring these clueless charlatans find their way to the Internet.
This is also true of the crimes now being committed against the demonstrators by Arab despots who are terrified by the display of people power across the Islamic Mid-East. In Bahrain the conflict is intensified by an age old ethnic struggle as the minority Sunni aristocracy resorts to naked violence against the Shiite majority. This is a situation that may well result in the most widespread violence we have yet seen during the present populist uprising.
As I write the soldiers have fired upon the crowds again in Bahrain, killing and wounding demonstrators and burning the tents they used to camp out at the protests sites. The reason this is possible in Bahrain but not Egypt is instructive. Unlike Egypt, where the army is composed of citizen/soldier conscripts, the Bahrainian army is largely composed of foreigners. Thus while the slogan of the Egyptian protestors is “The army and the people are one,” in Bahrain the army is loyal to the King!
However, as I have observed in an earlier commentary: The dynamics of social movements are such that an increase in government violence against citizens demanding reform converts them into radical movements with revolutionary goals. We need only look at the escalation of demands from the protesters in Bahrain to observe this dynamic in action. In the beginning of the demonstrations a few days ago the protesters were demanding democratic reforms that are taken for granted in every western country. Now, after blood has been shed from assaults by the army and police, they are demanding the overthrow of the monarchy and a rewriting of the Constitution!
Righteous Anger In Yeman!
The rapidly deteriorating situation in Yemen – where President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in office for 32 years, two years longer than Mubarak in Egypt – is no doubt propelled by the growing sense among all the oppressed populations living under Islamic despotisms that their cause is one. The conflict here may soon surpass any violence that may arise in Bahrain, because the government is already fighting a secessionist movement and Al Qaeda cells are rampant in the country.
Thus the clashes between the anti-government demonstrators and pro-government forces presents an opportunity for armed disciplined forces like Al Qaeda and the secessionists to wreak havoc and eventually seize or subvert the leadership of this burgeoning movement. The internet is facilitating this process, extending the power of subversive forces like never before in history.
Despite American paranoia, the primary targets of the Jihadists in Al Qaeda are the leaders of the Islamic countries that are presently in revolt. In their eyes all of these secular leaders are apostates – i.e. heretics – who governments are violating the commandments of Allah – a point I shall elaborate on a a future commentary. The US became a target of the Jihadists because we support these despots – especially the Saudi royal family – for our own reasons: The unimpeded flow of oil at favorable prices and maintaining the naval base at Bahrain, which is critical to strategic US objectives in the region. Since the uprisings began the US has another critical security interests alas: How to protect almost 7,000 American military personal living and their families living there.
Given the massive resources provided by the US to the government 0f Bahrain, it is clear to everyone in the Arab world that the corrupt monarchy could not survive without American backing. Hence when they use violence against unarmed citizens, their actions supply fuel for those who want to set fire to their corrupt regimes and blow up another American city too. The global reach of social media will insure that everybody in the region knows of the King’s crimes in real time. And they will be spurred to action against their own despots in a gesture of soidarity.
There is strength in numbers, and once the people feel their power it is a Herculean task to turn them around. “I Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” was one of the theme songs of the great civil rights movement that transformed American society in the mid-twentieth century from and openly apartheid country based on white supremacy, to a nation that put a black family in the White House! When an entire people adopt this view in earnest, and are willing to fight and die for it, the entire anachronistic power structure of the Middle East could, like humpty dumpty, have a great fall. And all the King’s Horses…and all the King’s Men, won’t be able to put Humpty back together again!
This is the new reality that has every tyrant in the region looking for cover…but there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. And, amazingly, the entire struggle that’s transforming the region is being largely directed on Facebook!
Harlem, New York
February 18, 2011