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Revolution by Facebook

Having spent four days in Cairo in August during Ramadan, and having visited the pyramids, the Sahara Desert, and Tahrir Square (where I was almost run over a dozen times simply trying to cross the street), I consider myself a minor expert on Egyptian politics, and the revolution that has just swept the country.

OK then, would you believe, (like Maxwell Smart might say), that I’m an enlightened amateur with a secret crush on CBC reporter Nahlah Ayed, who covered much of the story?

Alright then, would you believe I was just a tourist, who out of principle, played Steve Martin’s King Tut and the Lawrence of Arabia soundtrack on my iPod while galloping way too fast around the pyramids on a camel? (All I could think of was Yosemite Sam’s famous line: “Whoa camel! Whoa camel! When I says whoa — I means whoa!”)

In any event, it’s hard not to be fascinated by the events that happened during late January and early February in a city with more people than Australia and in a nation that built the pyramids (albeit 4,000 years ago).

It’s also fascinating to have been there a few short months before the revolution, and to have sensed why hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of people would forsake their measly low-paying dead-end jobs (if they had jobs at all), to protest in the streets against a government that was held in contempt by millions of its citizens, and where corruption of public officials was rampant; the brutality of the regime endemic.

“What did you do to those people to make them so angry?” an old friend of mine e-mailed me a few weeks ago when I was in Palm Desert, oblivious to the TV reports about the crisis because I was in California for sun and tennis. Not for TV. So I immediately switched on CNN, and saw a familiar building in Cairo. On fire.

From my limited personal experience in Cairo (some of it actually on a camel, and some of it dodging the cars in Tahrir Square), I can tell you that when the police demand a tip so you can cross the street, there’s something rotten in the state of Egypt.

It comes down to the rule of law and the foundations of civil society, doesn’t it? If those who are entrusted to enforce the law expect a bribe for simply doing their jobs, what’s the point of complying with the law at all? Just pay off the policeman. And if you can pay off the policemen in Cairo, you can probably pay off anyone in authority. No wonder the people were so angry.

So I wasn’t surprised when one day during the revolt, the police just didn’t show up for work. There were no bribes to be made in that crowd.

But there are the police, and then there are members of Egypt’s hated state security service, who are accused of imprisoning and torturing far too many Egyptians, including people like 9-11 mastermind Mohamed Atta, who may well have been radicalized by the experience.

So it’s not surprising that a mere 24 hours after president Hosni Mubarak went on TV to promise reforms in light of the demonstrations (and to placate the Americans), he sent members of the security service and hundreds of paid thugs armed with machetes and rocks into the relatively peaceful crowd in Tahrir Square.

Shortly afterwards, western journalists were rounded up and held in prison for a day, without harm, but some of their Egyptian guides and drivers were tortured in nearby rooms. How do we know this? The western journalists (some who could understand Arabic) could hear the screams of their colleagues and the taunts of their captors.

Google marketing executive for North Africa Wael Ghonim was jailed for 11 days just because he set up a memorial Facebook page called “We are all Khaled Said,” named after a man beaten to death by Egyptian security services in June. This “dissident” Facebook page became a catalyst during the very early days of the revolution.

When the demonstrations got larger, Egypt shut the Internet off and revoked Al Jazeera’s broadcast rights. But it couldn’t stop the use of cellphones, texting, and Twitter to expand the scope and power of the revolution. And it couldn’t stop the people — almost 400 of whom died bringing change to Egypt.

Although the Egyptian leadership blamed the demonstrations on “foreign elements and infiltrators,” they were really a product of a corrupt police state that failed to deliver anything of value to its citizens, a government that stayed in office far too long, and rigged elections with unbelievable majorities. That, and torture.

So in such circumstances, how else do you get real political change? You can’t vote for change like we can here. That’s why democracy works so well. It lets us blow off steam and vote the bastards out every few years instead of having to risk death on the streets every 30 years in bloody revolutions.

Our guide in Cairo, a well-spoken westernized fellow, hinted to us that things were going to get “interesting” soon, and obliquely criticized the emergency laws the country had been subject to for 30 years. (Imagine the War Measures Act operational 30 years after the October Crisis and you’ll get what I mean.) He foreshadowed, almost to the day, when things were going to boil over. “You watch what happens in six months,” I remember him saying while we drove past the Canadian embassy. He was wrong. It took five.

He mentioned, as circumspectly and as diplomatically as he could, that Egyptians were upset that Mubarak’s son, Gamal, had been groomed to become president, much like Hafez al-Assad’s son Bashar and Kim Il-Sung’s son Kim Jong-il became the leaders of Syria and North Korea simply because they were members of what I’d called the “lucky sperm club.” Egyptians, he suggested (oh so cryptically,) weren’t keen on dynastic monarchies. Been there, done that, I guess.

Then he returned to touristy things.

All I could think of was that quote by King Farouk, who was deposed as king of Egypt in 1948: “The whole world is in revolt,” he said. Soon there will be only five kings left — the King of England, the king of spades, the king of clubs, the king of hearts, and the king of diamonds.”

Unlike other revolutions in history, in Egypt the revolutionaries used Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms to organize their protests, so the friends and followers of people like Ghonim got their friends and followers to take to the streets. And they got their friends and followers to mobilize too. After two weeks, it was unstoppable. You can bet that all revolutions from now on will be Facebook, Twitter, and social media revolutions. Facebook and Twitter, unleashed from the genie’s lamp, can’t easily be put back, can they?

So you can also bet the leaders of other Arab and Asian thugocracies are shaking in their jackboots this month realizing that their citizens now have the wherewithal, the motivation, the example, and the technology to overthrow the existing authorities.

Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, Libya, Bahrain, Iran, and Yemen are dealing with revolts and other countries will boil over in the next few weeks. The death of more than a thousand Libyan demonstrators machine-gunned in the streets by the Libyan army since Feb. 18 hasn’t dampened the resolve of the Libyan demonstrators, who, at the time of writing, had captured the city of Benghazi and other eastern towns. Civil war seems likely.

Democracy, said Winston Churchill, is the worst system in the world, except for all the others. It may not be the best system for choosing leaders, but when they become tyrants, it’s sure the best system for getting rid of them.

Middle Eastern leaders may be discovering this a little too late this year.

Tony Wilson is a Vancouver franchising and intellectual property lawyer. His book on social media, Manage Your Online Reputation, was published in December 2010.