“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is do you, Mr. Jones?”
— Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”
History is “just one damn thing after another,” according to philosopher Jerry Fodor. This may be true, but it doesn’t stop us from trying to make some sense of each “damn thing.” There are some principles of history we may glean from events. One of these principles is that open information access — sunshine — is increasingly becoming a force for change.
Change is generally incremental. Yet there are certain times and events that can fairly be highlighted as transformational rather than incremental. The recent events in North Africa and the Middle East are transformational.
It is risky to attempt macro-level analysis this close in time to these events, but it is possible to identify key trends and make some qualified conclusions about what has happened and what is likely to continue happening. I was initially very suspicious of breathless accounts of Facebook and Twitter being key to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt because they seemed so self-serving to us in the United States who created these social media tools. However, as I’ve learned more, it seems that these early accounts were not entirely inaccurate.
Tunisia had 1.2 million Facebook users at the time of its coup in January — out of a population of about 10 million. There were about 5 million Facebook users in Egypt during the revolution, out of a population of 80 million. One of the key leaders in the Egyptian revolution, Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing executive for the Middle East, created the Facebook page that served as a rallying cry for many protesters, before his detention for 12 days by authorities. It was Ghonim’s Facebook page and other electronic channels that allowed such wide dissemination of highly disturbing images of the body of Khalid Said, an Egyptian businessman apparently killed by police in a rather horrific manner in 2010 — a stark example of the failures of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Ghonim described his reactions to Said’s death and his Facebook activities in some detail in a recent 60 Minutes interview.
So what’s new in these developments? The Internet is not new, even for North Africans. E-mail is not new. TV is not new. The radio is certainly not new. Newspapers are not new. These are all long-established means for information dissemination. Social media sites are, instead, evolutionary changes in the broader trend of increased information availability.
What is new are the numbers of people now using the Internet, whether or not they’re on Facebook or Twitter. Mobile information access is also a new phenomenon, with more and more people using mobile phones or laptops to access information any time.
Surely, good old-fashioned word of mouth was the most important tool for Tunisian and Egyptian protesters — particularly as governments shut down social media sites and the Internet more generally. Yet social media sites, when operational, provided an easy way to receive information about meeting places, planned protests and a shared narrative of events as they unfolded. It’s important to keep in mind that these recent revolutions were the result of many decades of injustice, not movements that magically sprang up in a matter of days or weeks.
The information revolution is now leading to real revolution around the world. And this is because the cliché is true: sunshine is the best disinfectant. Information plus injustice equals the Sunshine Revolution. This is the long-term trend that is leading to transformational change around the world. The accelerating pace of information access through various new tools is the broader transformation going on at this time.
It’s helpful to contrast the generally nonviolent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt with other recent regime changes. But first, we must realize that the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions were successful only because the military in each nation was persuaded to switch allegiance. If the militaries had not switched allegiance, Ben Ali and Mubarak would most likely still be in power. What led to these bloodless military coups (which, we must hope, will lead to real democracies before too long)?
My view is that the Sunshine Revolution affected the military leaders as much as it affected the average protester in these countries. They were fed up with corruption and they saw a better way. Information plus injustice equals the Sunshine Revolution. Or maybe military leaders simply saw personal opportunity in toppling leaders who had clearly lost the support of the people. These things are ultimately unknowable but this shouldn’t stop us from trying to make sense of events.
I wrote in 2009 about the follies of President Barack Obama’s “Bush-lite” approach to foreign policy. Obama even fooled the Nobel Peace Prize committee with his rhetoric, while pursuing the time-honored tradition of massive military force in his actions. Obama significantly ramped up the war in Afghanistan and expanded it to Pakistan, and has expanded military budgets even in a time of record-breaking deficits. It should be abundantly clear by now that there is no military solution to these problem areas. The last thing Afghans and Pakistanis need is more U.S. bombs raining down on them.
Democratic transformation has occurred in many nations over the last few years, in various “color revolutions.” The “Jasmine Revolution” of Tunisia and “Lotus Revolution” of Egypt are just the latest and most dramatic examples. The color revolutions (named for a color or a plant) are defined by their nonviolence.
The list is growing long: the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia toppled Eduard Shevardnadze; the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine led to the annulment of a bogus election; the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan followed a highly disputed national election; the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon led to the peaceful withdrawal of Syria from its occupation of Lebanon; the 2005 Blue Revolution in Kuwait led to women being able to vote for the first time in 2007 and protests have revived in 2011 after the Egyptian revolution; the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran failed in its immediate objectives but protests have revived in 2011 and it is not entirely unlikely that real change will result.
We are now witnessing generally peaceful protest movements spring up in earnest in Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain, the Palestinian territories and other places. The movement may even spread to Saudi Arabia, which is by far the most important U.S. Arab ally because it is the world’s largest exporter of oil.
Would Iraq’s Saddam Hussein have succumbed to a color revolution by now if the United States hadn’t illegally invaded in 2003? We can’t know, but recent events are highly suggestive. It is undeniable, however, that massive violence has massive spinoff effects because of the inevitable bluntness of our weapons of war. “Smart bombs” are still pretty dumb. And unmanned drones, while marvels of technology, are stooges as tools of foreign policy when each drone attack leads to the creation of two, three or 10 new sworn enemies of the United States.
It is, instead, the Sunshine Revolution, created in substantial part by U.S. technology, including the Internet itself, and modern social media, that will be the long-term force for beneficial change. When we combine these ever-improving information and organizational channels with the U.S./European ideals of personal freedom and democracy, sunshine can indeed disinfect unjust regimes around the world — without the massive blowback that the use of indiscriminate U.S. military power will always engender.
— Tam Hunt is a Santa Barbara attorney. Click here for his blog, Thought, Spirit, Politik.