I started writing this last Monday, but I couldn't finish it. A type of awe built inside me as I watched the events in Egypt unfold. They speak for themselves and any effort to interpret or encapsulate them feels inappropriate. At the same time, all of us who are activists anywhere in the world need to ask, "What can we learn from their example?" The people of North Africa have created an opportunity for activists all over the world, by showing that change in a progressive direction is possible. The Egyptians forced the United States government to change its allegiance. And that in itself is just a humongous accomplishment. We have an obligation to them, as well as to ourselves, to look for a way to capitalize on it.
Some local activists respond by doing the same things they always do, stubbornly insisting that there's no magic bullet, that it's just a matter of doing it over and over again. Jeff Mackler, from Socialist Action and the new United National Action Committee, said that on KPFA's Morning Mix the other day. ANSWER has embodied that belief by calling solidarity demonstrations fastly and furiously, or perhaps by putting their name and their signs in front of demonstrations that were going to happen anyway. San Francisco Women In Black, my group, did it by holding our regular monthly vigil and adding a few signs about solidarity with Egyptian women.
Other activists of my generation and older have seized on the media analysis of these revolutions by saying "We have to use Facebook and Twitter." I can save them the trouble. I use Facebook and Twitter and it gets me nowhere. No one signs up for my events, no one retweets my tweets. It's hard not to take it personally, but I don't really think it's a reflection on the wisdom or relevance of my posts (though I could sure be wrong). It's that most of my friends are not spending much time logged into Facebook, and they won't log in just to sign up for my events. Only a few of them are on Twitter, and if they know how to follow me, they might read my tweets now and then but they don't retweet. Neither do I. I follow about 20 people, fewer than follow me (and let me apologize to anyone who does follow me because they don't get much, I generally remember to tweet every two months or so), but I have never once retweeted any post, however profound (and it's hard to be profound in 140 characters).
Last Saturday, my friend Preeti and I were on the way to UN Plaza for the demonstration in solidarity with the Egyptian uprising. She mentioned that all her friends said they were going, and commented, "If this were about some local issue, none of them would be going." We were just on time, and there were a lot of people in the plaza already. Some people said 5,000 or more. I am not good at crowds so I won't even try to estimate, but I know that the largest demonstrations I attended last year demanding single payer health care, or even the more moderate call for a public option, had about 200 people at them. I repeated Preeti's comment to some of my friends. They all said the same thing: "Well, but there wouldn't be a million people out there."
I said, "Well, the only reason there are a million people in Tahrir Square is because everyone came."
That seemed a truism to me, but the people I said it to apparently hadn't thought of it. Some of them looked confused.
A couple days later on Democracy Now!, I heard the video created by social media activist and April 6 Movement member Asmaa Mahfouz. This is the video callout that has been credited with kicking off the Egyptian uprising, although doubtless it was only one strand of the social braid that converged on the square. But the line in Mahfouz's video that especially caught my attention was this one:
"Whoever says it is not worth it because there will only be a handful of people, I want to tell him, 'You are the reason behind this, and you are a traitor, just like the president or any security cop who beats us in the streets.' Your presence with us will make a difference, a big difference."
Okay, you may say, but really she knew that they would not just be a handful of people. She was just responding to the type of thing people usually say.
You'd be wrong.
Earlier in the video she tells this tale, "Four Egyptians have set themselves on fire thinking maybe we can have a revolution like Tunisia, maybe we can have freedom, justice, honor and human dignity. Today, one of these four has died, and I saw people commenting and saying, 'May God forgive him. He committed a sin and killed himself for nothing.' … I posted that I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and I will stand alone. And I'll hold up a banner. Perhaps people will show some honor. I even wrote my number so maybe people will come down with me. No one came except three guys—three guys and three armored cars of riot police."
No one came except three guys. That was on January 18. So what changed between that day and January 25? In another video she posted on the 24th, this is what she said.
"Tomorrow is the 25th, the day we've been waiting for, the day we all worked so hard for. The most beautiful thing about it is that those who worked on this were not politicians at all. It was all of us, all Egyptians. We worked hard. Children no older than 14, they printed the poster and started distributing it after prayers. Old people in their sixties and seventies helped, as well. People distributed it everywhere they could—in taxis, at the metro, in the street, in schools, universities, companies, government agencies. All of Egypt awaits tomorrow."
Asmaa didn't say anything about Facebook or Twitter. It's not that they didn't use it. It's been well documented that they did. But those media were supplemental to the old face-to-face ways of organizing. They are great for mobilizing the wired generation, the ones who never go more than a few seconds without checking their iPhones or Blackberries. But the key was the handing it out after prayers, in taxis, at the metro, in schools. That's the piece that we seem to have forgotten. Many actions these days are organized without even a paper flier. Email blasts have replaced phone trees. Admittedly, some actions organized exclusively online work out better than those where we try to use all the methods we know. Our actions for single payer in 2008 are an example – we did phone calls, we did fliering, we had trainings, and ultimately, we had the same 200 people that we can usually get. I can't explain why exactly. Some combination of people not having belief that it would do any good and not feeling the issue was a priority.
And the fact that their friends were not doing it. I know this for a fact. More than any other factor, what makes people decide to participate in something or not is whether or not their community – friends, family, church groups, whatever – is doing it. That's what Facebook is great for among those who use it for their social as well as their political networking. (Remember, it is a "social network.") It lets people know that they won't be showing up alone, it makes it a happening thing among a crowd of friends. But even virtual friendship is not something you can fake. Lots of people have "friends" on Facebook who are not their friends in the world, and those people are not going to follow them to a protest or other activity unless they're famous. Most of my Facebook friends seem to wait until they see who else has responded that they're coming to something to make their own decisions. Which is of course part of the problem. In a sheep society, the shepherd has all the power, and with apologies to those of you who have been trying in vain to lead a mass movement for oh, so many years, we have no shepherds that many people want to follow.
We can't copy the Egyptians or the Tunisians. We certainly don't want anyone copying them by lighting themselves on fire. We should not cynically invoke their struggle every time we are trying to get anyone to do anything, hoping to bathe ourselves in their reflected glory. We need to look carefully at their situation and our own, and discuss the differences and the similarities. And then we need to act on them, and not let this moment – like so many others – pass us by.