#Jan25: 10 years Later

The despair now is real, but so was the hope.

Just like that, it’s already the 10th anniversary of January 25th—the uprising in Cairo, Egypt that shook the country, and then the region and the world. It came on the heels of the one in Tunisia, itself an important event but it wasn’t clear then whether the first one was a big deal, or a one-off. It was followed by years of turbulence, and it has—so far—ended in tragedy and despair.

The world had brushed it off at first—troubles in a small country. I first heard about it from my friends on social media, not the news media. In the New York Times, the first mention of Tunisian protests appeared on January 4, 2011, many weeks after the protests had started on 17th of December, in 2010. A few kids on Twitter and some bloggers, it felt like.

Eventually, it would be dubbed the “Arab Spring” after the “Springtime of the People’s” of the wave of uprisings and revolutions that swept Europe in 1848. There is a lot of intellectual analysis left to be done, a lot of understanding. It was an important turning point for understanding technology and society in particular, and movements and countermovements.

But it wasn’t just that, and that’s what gives this anniversary a crushing weight as well. It was a time of immense hope. Millions of people poured out into the streets—brimming with expectation and ambition for the future of their own making. Country after country filled to the brim with hope that the region had lacked for so long. It’s really difficult to explain how it was, to go from places where people spoke of politics and change only in hushed tones, if that, among their dearest to places where it seemed that everyone had an opinion and an idea for a better future. 

It was with that grief I read the 10th anniversary posting by Zeinobia, a “citizen journalist” (yes, that’s same name as mine, but with an Egyptian/Arabic version) who put it in such stark terms in her anniversary post:

We opened for real the Pandora box in the world and it devoured us.

She can still keep blogging because she’s pseudonymous—and has been since 2004. Many of my friends from that era—a year I spent traveling the region, visiting many countries, making new friends and doing a lot of research—are in dire straits. Exiled. Jailed. Gone quiet, in countries where they are not safe. Some—from Syria, especially—no longer with us. Sometimes, I’m not even sure of their fate. Sometimes, after many years, they pop up as refugees somewhere. Sometimes, I never learn.

A generation destroyed, crushed and murdered. The loss is deep.

The 1848 revolutions weren’t all great either, at least in the short term outcomes. The outpouring and the insurrection was soon met with dictatorship and war across the continent. It would take another century—and two more devastating global wars—before things stabilized in Europe, for the better. 

The 1848, wave, too, was linked to technological change. An excerpt from my book:

Indeed, the wave of protests and revolution that shook Europe in 1848—and were dubbed the People’s Spring, the inspiration for referring to the 2011 Arab uprisings as the “Arab Spring”— were linked not just to the emergence of newspaper and telegraphs, but also to the railways that increasingly crisscrossed the continent, carrying not just people who spread ideas, but also newspapers, pamphlets, and manifestos. 

During the Arab Spring, there was a terrible tendency in media to ask a stupid question: “Was it the technology or was it the people”? This made no moral sense, of course—when millions were pouring into the streets and risking so much. But it also made no philosophical sense, as if the technology did not factor into the conditions under which these uprisings were taking place—just like it had in 1848.

In 1848, railroads (which are, indeed, communication technologies as well, as are all technologies that compress space and time by bringing us closer) and telegraph had changed the actual topology of how people and information were connected, which in turn changes the fabric of society. Faster and more are, indeed, different. This time, it was the internet, social media, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, cell phones with cameras. But it was, as it always has been, the people.

As we live through the pandemic, I keep going back in my mind to something I wrote a few years ago, in an article titled “How Social Media Took Us From Tahrir Square to Trump” for MIT Technology Review on how social media has furthered tribalization and acts as a decentralizing force, and how that has affected our trajectory:

The fourth lesson has to do with the much-touted issue of filter bubbles or echo chambers—the claim that online, we encounter only views similar to our own. This isn’t completely true. While algorithms will often feed people some of what they already want to hear, research shows that we probably encounter a wider variety of opinions online than we do offline, or than we did before the advent of digital tools.

Rather, the problem is that when we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s not like reading them in a newspaper while sitting alone. It’s like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one. In sociology terms, we strengthen our feeling of “in-group” belonging by increasing our distance from and tension with the “out-group”—us versus them. Our cognitive universe isn’t an echo chamber, but our social one is. This is why the various projects for fact-checking claims in the news, while valuable, don’t convince people. Belonging is stronger than facts.

A similar dynamic played a role in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The revolutionaries were caught up in infighting on social media as they broke into ever smaller groups, while at the same time authoritarians were mobilizing their own supporters to attack the dissidents, defining them as traitors or foreigners. Such “patriotic” trolling and harassment is probably more common, and a bigger threat to dissidents, than attacks orchestrated by governments.

It’s hard to have lived through the last year of COVID-19 and not feel this pull of tribalization: a combination of human tendencies and the business models which thrive on “engagement”. And very little is more engaging than tribalism, and, indeed, belonging is stronger than facts. That’s the puzzle that awaits us. How do we create centralizing institutions to counter the new decentralizing ones? How do we align belonging with facts?

Whatever happens, though, it’s hard to have lived through that year and not be transformed deeply in a personal way. A few years later, when Gezi Park protests erupted, I had a lot more research, experience and analysis under my belt. I was already wary and cautious. 

But not in 2011. Not in Tahrir Square. 

2011 was a time of change and time of hope. You’d walk the streets of Cairo and it would be 3 am and people would be out there, talking about a better tomorrow. It felt like nobody wanted to sleep, lest they missed the latest.  The energy was everywhere; it was palpable and positive. I can barely find the words to describe it, except to say you had to live through it to understand.

It was a people’s springtime, just like 1848. It’s been called naive or idealistic to say this, but I don’t think so. The optimism wasn’t the only thing that was real—the repression, the polarization, the crushing of nations, the wars that followed were all real, too. But so was the hope. It’s still real.