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By Melissa Tandiwe Myambo


The Montréal Review, January 2012




Many commentators, mostly in the West but a few in the Arab World too, have nicknamed the Egyptian Revolution the Facebook Revolution. To so name this revolution as part of the so-called "Arab Spring" or "Arab Awakening" implies that suddenly Arab youth have decided to use their Facebook apps to have a spring fling with democracy. Even BBC World's recent documentary is called "How Facebook changed the world: the Arab Spring."

But is change made by those who create the program or those who use the program? And what about the millions who took part in the revolution who don't have internet access, much less a Facebook page? Less than a quarter of the Egyptian population uses the internet at all and only 7-9% is on Facebook.

We all know that, worldwide, 800 million people are "on" Facebook but we never seem to mention that 6.2 billion people are not.

(If something is not on Google, does it really exist?)

Actually, what we have really learned this year is that revolutions happen when you're physically "in" a place where you're not supposed to be. Whether it's Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo or Zuccotti Park near Wall Street, New York, it is the collective occupation of a physical space with intent which makes a revolution.

So really, why this insistence on identifying the revolution with Facebook? It's not that Facebook is not part of the story. It certainly is, as are other forms of new and old media. The "We are all Khaled Said" Facebook page that called for the original march on Tuesday 25 January is a fundamental part of the revolution's beginnings. But as one of Tahrir Square's protesters, Motaz Attalla, says, Facebook was not causal but rather "part bulletin-board/meeting point," amongst other modes of interaction. More importantly, he says, prior to that fateful Tuesday "was the growth of democracy and labour movements over the last few years" and of course, Tunisia. When the young vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight in response to police repression on 17 December, 2010, in a small town in Tunisia, he lit a fire which resulted in his own death a few weeks later but whose flames are still smoldering around the globe today from Syria to China.

This fire burned so brightly that when the Egyptian government "turned off" the internet and cell phone communications between Jan 27 and 2 February, they thought they could turn off the revolution. The government also misguidedly thought technology was driving the protests. Of course, those with access to satellite television were kept informed of what was happening in Tahrir Square by Al Jazeera's non-stop coverage, that old-fashioned medium of T.V., but again that was not the majority story. The revolution only strengthened as people did not text, Facebook or tweet each other but courageously came out on to the streets in massive numbers to brave the government forces arrayed against them, trying to prevent them from occupying Tahrir Square.

This mass movement is just that, a movement that encompasses not only the internet-savvy el shabab (the youth) but Egyptians of all social classes and generations. Another myth associated with the revolution, is that it is all young people. Or that it is confined to big cities like Cairo and Alexandria when there were also protests in peri-urban areas and small towns. The Egyptian Revolution successfully ousted Hosni Mubarak on 11 February, 2011, after 31 years of autocratic rule because it is a real example of people power - all types of people.

So why is the Western media so determined to mythologize it as the Facebook Revolution led by young social media savants?

At first, it seems innocuous. Yet, there is something pathological in this mythology. Is it guilt? Mubarak was, in fact, kept in power by the U.S. And now, like Freud's "subconscience," the Americans have bequeathed their great new Facebook to the Arab peoples so that they can free themselves from their U.S.-supported dictators?

Because freedom, like technology, modernity and democracy, are all supposed to be American exports to the Middle East, especially post 9/11.

But not this time. This is a movie not made in Hollywood.

To name something is not merely a descriptive act. It is an ideological deployment: to name means to lay claim to, to determine, to fix, to specify. There are neighborhoods called Mount Pleasant around the world because British colonizers unjustly occupied lands not their own and remade those lands in their own image. Firstly, they gave those places British names. Hence we have "New" York.

The designation of the "Arab Spring" attempts to temporally contain the revolutions to one season as if those revolutions which continue(d) past April are somehow anachronistic; it is also a metaphor typical of paternalistic developmental discourse that the revolution symbolizes the incipient awakening of buds, after the long winter of dictatorship, that will one day develop into democratic trees.

What of "Arab" as adjective? Isn't this another attempt to spatially contain the revolutions to one geographical location?

Far more interesting than the use of Facebook in Egypt has been the use of the internet to foster communication between the worldwide protest movements: Comrades in Cairo can directly communicate with Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and would-be revolutionaries from Moscow to Harare. When OWS began on 17 September in the autumn, it publicly acknowledged that its inspiration was Tahrir Square and Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, named after the country's national flower.

Calling the Egyptian Revolution the Facebook Revolution is not just a reductive appropriation.

It is a virtual occupation.


Melissa Tandiwe Myambo is the author of Jacaranda Journals (Macmillan South Africa, 2004: www.jacarandajournals.com), a collection of short stories set in Zimbabwe. Her work has also been published in Prick of the Spindle, The Journal of African Travel Writing, 34th Parallel and Opening Spaces: an anthology of contemporary African women's writing.


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