Monday, February 14, 2011

Egypt and the revolutionaries with MBA degrees

Like many of you we have been glued at times to the TV screens these last days. Seeing the masses assembling on Tahrir Square in Cairo asking for a peaceful transition to democracy in one of the biggest Arab nations is something of a watershed. For too long we in the West were just used to taking for granted that, well, if it comes to politics, the Arab world is a wholly different story. And the botched attempts to parachute ‘democracy’ into Afghanistan and Iraq seemed to underline this notion.

But now, the chips on the table seem to be mixed for a whole new round. This being a business ethics blog, lets first work through some of those issues with regard to recent developments in Egypt. Let’s look at the upshot. The current revolution would not have been possible without new media –or social networking companies. Twitter, Google, Facebook were instrumental in coordinating, organizing and network the protest movement. All of which, of course, are private companies.

We think it’s a good time to give Google some credit – especially as we have taken them to task in some of or our earlier blogs every now and then. One of their executives actually became a leader in the movement, which so far has shown little signs of a coordinated effort. Google – symbolically represented by Wael Ghonim, their marketing executive for the Middle East, has become a pivotal player in the ‘revolution’ in Egypt. The support of social media has been vital – even after the Egyptian government closed down internet communication. It was then when Twitter opened the ‘SayNow’ feature, allowing sending messages via telephone. As Ghonim pointed out himself in an interview with ABC's 60 Minutes program, much of the pressure to free him from his 12 days in solitary confinement by the Egyptian police came from his employer Google itself. All in all then, we have seen private businesses ‘enabling’ civil and political rights, much along the lines of one our most cited papers.

In a similar vein, some companies have also collected some shame. Vodafone’s network was used by the existing Egyptian authorities to send compulsory messages to their users in support of the system. Vodafone’s explanations do not sound very convincing. When has a major multinational accepted an abuse of their assets lately? Looking at the way Vodafone has managed its business so far, not at least the vociferous determination it applied to their takeover of Mannesmann in Germany years ago, their complicity in this approach sounds less than convincing. Framing themselves as a helpless victim just doesn’t wash.

Leaning back and comparing the current uprising in Egypt (and other Arab countries) to, say the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe 20 years ago, there are some remarkable differences now. Apart from such accidental leaders like Wael Ghonim – who does not intend to play a bigger role in Egyptian politics and just wants to go back to work – it really was a ‘leaderless rebellion’. No particular persons, organisations, ideologies or religious groups can be identified to have fuelled the process. Ghonim told ABC’s 60 Minutes program that ‘we don’t understand politics’. He is not a trade unionist (like Poland’s Lech Walesa), nor a writer or artist (such as the Czech Vaclav Havel), but a marketing executive with an MBA from the American University in Cairo. The MBA as a degree which provides skills for being a revolutionary? – who would have thought!

The success of the movement seems to lie in a combination of people agreeing on a minimal demand (to get rid of Mubarak) and a new set of very efficient tools (social media) to coordinate this effort. Internet and mobile communication played a pivotal role, not at least also because it allowed considerable exchange of knowledge and experience among a global group of activists in Tunisia, Serbia and the US. Pragmatism and access to new forms of information sharing seem to be the two crucial ingredients of this latest revolution.

This said, some big questions however are yet to be answered. First, will this movement spread? Today’s news from Iran, Yemen, Bahrain seem to point in this direction, but it appears that those regimes tend to be more ready and unequivocal in their resort to using force against the protesters. The second question of course points to – however spectacular the fall of Mubarak by peaceful means may be – what will succeed these regimes? To build democracy will take time and allowing people elections is just a first step. Signs are that the new Egyptian politics stays on its pragmatic course: Where else have we ever seen the revolutionaries coming back to their square of victory and, after their job of toppling the regime was done, cleaning up with broom and shovel the garbage left behind by peaceful protest?

Photo by Ahmad Hammoud. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence



  2. Anonymous,
    you have a point here. To claim that social media kind of tipped the revolution would be a bit overstated. However, as much as we admire Gladwell, he is missing the point a bit.
    As a German, i witnessed first hand the last 'revolution', the overthrow of communism 20 years ago. And one must be blind to not see that the intellectual fabric of what happend in Egypt, as opposed to prior 'revolutions' is fundamentally different. 'Ideology', 'Religion' or whatever other intellectual clay was needed to bind together a revolutionary movement, is blatantly absent here. That 'clay' has clearly been replaced by technology. Rather than creating a network of people who trust each other, exchange information with each other and are will to work with each other - by dint of common convictions (i.e. being member of the same school of thought) Egypt shows that these things can be achieved just by people joining a variety of social network sites. We think that is new. And remarkable. Gladwell is right: what fuelled the uprise are century old injustices. But what made it emerge and ferment into an overthrow of the regime - is fundamentally new. The TOOLS are new - but as Gladwell rightly points out, not the underlying CAUSES.

  3. Peter Beaumont has written a smart piece in The Guardian today that offers a nuanced assessment of the role of social media in the Middle East uprisings. Definitely worth a read.


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