By Dibussi Tande
Since the mass protests that led to the toppling of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, there has been lots of conjecture and discussion about the probability of similar protest movements spreading to sub-Saharan Africa.
(c) everyday ritual
There has also been a lot of hand-wringing over the fact that it may be difficult for these protest movement to catch on in this region with its fair share of sclerotic regimes that have long gone past their expiration date.
In the end, the February 23 protests produced nothing but whimper to the dismay of activists who could not understand why their calls for mobilization on social media sites largely went unheeded to, and did not translate into mass mobilization on the ground in Cameroon. As one blogger lamented,
We Cameroonians should feel like lethargic, droopy junk. Yes, we should feel like a flesh-folded fat man watching his ripped younger brother prepare for a triathlon. Believe it or not, one has to presuppose that the triumph or failure of the revolution in many of these countries depends unreservedly on how ordinary people are ready to die in order to gain their self-determination.
Here in Cameroon, the majority of us can’t be bothered to surrender a bottle of beer and head to the streets at least for once after 28 painful years in bondage by the CPDM regime of President Paul Biya. Yeah, right! Even with the heightened attention of the international community.
The expectation of Cameroonian activists that social media could, on its own, unleash mass protests on the ground that would result in the overthrow of the Biya regime stemmed from a misreading of events in North Africa. This expectation was based on the belief that (1) the protests in North Africa were “spontaneous revolutions” against the status quo, rather than the culmination of sustained campaigns against these regimes which began months, if not years before, and (2) that these spontaneous protests, were indeed pure “Web 2.0 revolutions”, that is, virtual events remotely organized, managed and led to fruition solely from social media sites with little interaction with active forces on the ground.
No “Spontaneous” Revolutions!
The idea that Facebook can on its own lead to instant revolution and that all it needs is a month or 18 days (as in Egypt) to overthrow a dictator is very far from reality. As Egyptian blogger Hani Morsi has aptly pointed out:
The assumption that social media’s largest influence was during or shortly before the 18 days in which Mubarak’s regime was brought down is very naive. This has been simmering under the surface of the Egyptian political scene for a while, particularly since the Presidential “elections” of 2005. The boiling point was reached on January 25th 2011. What I refer to here as the virtualization of dissent is what happened when the popular desire for change was shifted from real space, where it was in long somnolence, and cultivated it in a space that the Patriarchs do not understand: virtual space.
Egypt, which has a long history and well established tradition of internet activism , has been described as the “home to the most vibrant blogger-activist community” in North Africa and the Middle East.
Examples abound of Egyptians using social media over the years to promote a vast array of political and non political causes or to protest against the ills in Egyptian society, from police corruption to violence against women. In fact, in 2008, the Mubarak regime mulled over the idea of banning Facebook in Egypt after activists used a Facebook group called April 6 which had about 66,000 members at the time, to call for a general strike “to protest low wages and rising food prices in Egypt, as well as to make a more general show of disapproval of the Egyptian government, led by Hosni Mubarak”. These strikes which brutally crushed by security forces, particularly at the textile factory in Mahalla al-Kubra, but they set the ball rolling. It is significant that one report at the time described unsuccesful strike as a “dress rehearsal” for bigger events in the future rather than as a failure...
[Side note: On February 3, during the January uprising, Amal Sharaf one of the core members of the April 6 movement was arrested alongside 4 other members in Cairo – another example of the merging of online activism and offline engagement which is at the core of the success of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions – but more on that later...]
Talking specifically about "We Are All Khaled Said", the Facebook page created by Wael Ghonim, which is credited with initiating the January 25 the protest movement in Egypt, it is worth stressing that this page was not created in January 2011 as many believe, but some six months earlier, after Khaled Said was murdered by Egyptian police on June 6, 2010 for posting a video on Youtube showing Egyptian police in a drug deal. The death of Said instantly became a cause célèbre for Egyptian activists and human rights groups after pictures of his disfigured and mutilated body were posted on Internet. Within weeks, the Facebook page had over 200,000 users (it now has over one million members, and the English version, over 100,000 members).
It should be noted that – and this is key for would-be digital activists – We Are All Khaled Said was not just a motley collection of individuals whose “activism” ended with their joining the page, but consisted of members who used it to share information and ideas, develop strategies and actions – a veritable virtual public sphere. Although it started out with modest ambitions to campaign against police brutality, We are All Khaled Said quickly became a veritable online community which was able to transform its online engagement into offline mobilization, with small demonstrations at Tahrir Square in Cairo that were quickly and violently squashed by police, protests in the UK and US, and “flash mobs” in Alexandria to draw attention to their cause while circumventing Egypt’s emergency laws.
And, unlike some earlier campaigns that did not venture far beyond cyberspace, this one has spilled out onto the Egyptian streets. In addition to the hundreds who attended Said's funeral, "flash mobs" have organised a number of successful protests. One of the most poignant was when thousands of people stood in a long chain along Alexandria's seafront – spaced five metres apart, in part to get around Egypt's draconian emergency law, which bans mass public assemblies – and stood silently or read their Qur'ans and Bibles. [The Guardian]
"If speaking up only brings more violence, then silence will have to articulate our grief." (c) We Are All Said Facebook page
We are all Khaled Said also served as a platform for crowd-sourcing information on the rigged legislative elections of November 2010.
By the time We Are All Khaled Said began sending out the call for the January 25, 2011 protests, the page, which now had close to 400,000 members, had already become a solid online community with six months of intense on-the-ground activism under its belt; dozens of protest actions across Egypt and elsewhere, a solid understanding and familiarity with the tactics of the Egyptian security forces, and links with other online groups and grassroots movements in the country – a formidable coalition of the virtual and the real ready to take on the Mubarak regime – the result of months of sustained and coordinated actions.
Online Activism in Tunisia
Like Egypt, Tunisia also has a longstanding tradition of online activism along with one of the most vibrant cyber-communities in Africa and the Middle East. This community was the target of some of the most extreme and vicious censorship tactics during the Ben Ali years. This censorship campaign reached its peak during the December 2010-January 2011 protests when the regime engaged in a merciless cyber-war with activists, including launching sophisticated phishing schemes to access, take over, disable or delete their email accounts and Facebook pages.
Over the years, Tunisian digital activists used innovative censorship circumvention tactics to counter the censorship techniques of the Ben Ali regime. One of the first major campaigns to circumvent the regime’s online censorship was the 2008 “geo-bombing” of the presidential palace in Carthage after the government blocked the videosharinig site DailyMotion.com because it hosted video testimonies of Tunisian political prisoners. The activist embedded the banned testimonies into Google earth and when anyone visited the Tunisian presidential palace, it was covered with the videos that had been banned on daily motion.
Like their Egyptian counterparts, Tunisian activists quickly realized that online activism alone was not enough and made efforts to translate their online activism into offline engagement. One notable case being the planned May 22, 2010 protest against censorship. After the organizers of the event – Yassine Ayari and blogger Slim Amamou – were arrested and forced to cancel the demonstrations, activists resorted to the use of flash mobs to make their point – Another side note: Amanou’s arrest at the height of the protests on January 6, 2011 (which the world became aware of thanks to his ingenious use of social media ) was another watershed moment that helped give international visibility to the Tunisian uprising. Upon his release was appointed minister of Youth and sports in the post Ben Ali regime.
Again, just as in Egypt, by the time Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, there was already a core group of online activists who had honed in their skills, and in the process built a solid community extending from the virtual to the real world, and all that was needed was a spark. The death of Mohamed Bouazizi provided just such a spark and within a month, Ben Ali was history…
Social Media: Tool for Incremental Change Rather than Spontaneous Uprising
Social Media’s supposed power to foment revolution on its own is largely exaggerated, if not inaccurate. Its true power is in its ability to make information reach a critical mass in a very short time and at little or no cost, to build communities that span different geographies ,and also to shift discourse from a restrictive public space controlled by authoritarian regimes to an open virtual public sphere which these regimes neither control nor master. To borrow from Global Voices Online article, “Rather than looking at [social media] as a cathartic outlet for the oppressed”, its real value is “in making an otherwise impossible popular political discourse possible” – discourse that can lead to an offline mobilization to press for political reform or outright revolution.
From this perspective, those Cameroonian activists, many of whom are fairly new to digital activism, had and still have rather unrealistic expectations about their ability to change the status quo in Cameroon via their keyboards, and are committing that cardinal sin of confusing social media tools (notably Facebook and Twitter) with their strategy and/or the goal (i.e., political reform and institutional change in Cameroon). The widespread demobilization that occurred within Cameroonian activist circles after February 23 is a clear indication of this – many of the Biya Must Go pages have gone silent; they have become virtual ghost towns inhabited by dejected netizens disillusioned by what they believe was a massive failure.
Nothing Comes Overnight!
Revolutions are rarely clean cut events or precise surgical actions. In fact, they are almost often messy businesses that begin as a trickle before developing into a gush that sweeps away the status quo – sometimes they even go dormant for years only to be revived by an unanticipated event or an unforeseen opportunity.
In this context, the February 23, 2011 protest movement in Cameroon, which received more international press than the flash mobs did in Egypt eight months ago, will ultimately be considered a failure by history if and only if activists view this event as an end in itself rather than as the first salvo in a long and sustained campaign that may go on for months or even years. Even if a million Cameroonians had poured into the streets on Feb. 23, Biya would still have been in power the next day... Lest we forget, the 1991 civil disobedience campaign that paralyzed Cameroon for nearly six months and posed an existential threat to the Biya regime at the time was in the making for at least a year before it officially began. So digital activists, if they are serious, should maintain the momentum while waiting for the next opportunity to go into action.
The Digital Disconnect
In any case, understanding the strength and limitations of social media and incorporating these into any strategy is the easy part. The real challenge to digital activists in Cameroon and most of sub-Saharan Africa with low Internet penetration rates is what I describe as the “digital disconnect”, i.e., the fact that the digital civil society in Africa is operating in a largely unwired continent, and that the bulk of Africa’s digital activists live out of Africa and do not share the same geographical space as the people they are representing or trying to influence.
That will be the focus of Part II…