By Sohair Wastawy
Make no mistake: Access to information, in a country with limited resources, served as the first catalyst for the Egyptian revolution that began January 25 and resulted 18 days later in the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak after almost 30 years in office. The internet, along with Facebook and Twitter, was the Open University that facilitated learning about democracy for Egypt’s young people.Egyptian protester holding sign “Thank you, Facebook.” Credit: Richard Engel/NBC
The revolution had been brewing for the past 10 years or so, increasing by the day as more people acquired mobile devices. The ground in Egypt was ripe for revolution: Corruption was at its peak, information was accessible, self-publishing and editorials had become an acquired right and gave a voice to many, telecommunications provided a platform, and Tunisia offered the spark.
But the erosion of the Mubarak regime began in earnest with the growing popularity of the internet in Egypt.
Images of corruption within the system from clandestine video recordings and snapshots were duplicated at lightning speed around the nation. Many were posted on YouTube, Flickr, and other sites. Police brutality was exposed in great part because of social media. Prior to the protests, when secret documents were leaked it only benefited a few in political circles. Although some opposition leaders were occasionally brave enough to hand sensitive documents to the media, it often resulted in the journalists getting thrown in prison and the newspapers shutting down.
But on the internet, the release of a single document spread like a ferocious fire in seconds, and millions had access to it. In a nation where only one in 700 citizens read the newspapers, young people with some European-language skills were able to translate and share news about the rest of the world with their fellow Egyptians. Those who did not read a foreign language saw the images, which they received through mobile technologies.
It was access to information that built the country’s knowledge base and inspired the Egyptian youth to demonstrate and wave their national flag—a custom alien to Egyptians until they saw online how people around the world did so to profess their patriotism at both soccer matches and demonstrations. That, along with the use of hand-made political signs that Egyptians saw protesters carrying in other countries, lodged in the collective consciousness and resulted in the variety of signs that Egyptians brandished during this revolution. Remember: Most of these protesters were not alive to see the turmoil and mass demonstrations of 1967 and 1973.
Hollywood portrays America as the pinnacle of democracy, but in Egypt the internet buttressed that ideal with real-life events that were not produced by the studios. The 2008 U.S. presidential election was, to my amazement, followed closely in Egypt for a number of reasons. The election of Barack Obama gave us a great deal of hope: We saw a country overcome many of the racial issues of its past.
President Obama’s election helped young people of the middle and lower classes realize that being poor or raised in a broken home—one with no big family name to open doors for you—is no handicap to hope and a bright future. And although conspiracy theories about Americans meddling in the running of Egypt run rampant, Egyptians have always held Obama in high esteem. He embodies hope for those who have lost nearly all hope of owning their country again. His election created for Egyptians a new understanding of how democracy works on a practical level.
Egyptians are always interested in the politics of the rest of the continent. The recent bloody civil wars in many African nations served as strong reminders to Egyptians that violence does not produce peace. Photos from the massacres that took place in Nigeria, Congo, Sierra Leone, and Uganda flooded email boxes whenever another incident took place. These images served as lessons that were never forgotten during the recent protests, where the simple signs of the single Arabic word selmia (“peaceful”) cautioned protesters to pursue a strategy of peace.
This revolution of information was leaderless and came from within—from their hearts and minds and the enduring love Egyptians have for their country, rooted in 5,000 years of recorded history. Most of us who work in education and culture know well that the assessment of learning is never an accurate science. We can never measure the value of information that a person may learn today but use 10 or 20 years later. In the protests, I was utterly surprised to see signs that included Arabic versions of famous quotes such as:
“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” —Mahatma Gandhi
“A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.” —Martin Luther King Jr.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” —Margaret Mead
“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” —Benjamin Franklin
For these reasons, it is incumbent upon those of us who work in libraries and other information disciplines to make facts available and free for all. Margaret Mead once said, “America is the first culture in which the young teach the old.” Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, Egypt’s youth are teaching their elders. The new, connected, Millennial generation has carried the day in Egypt—and this will be the dawn of much more to come.
SOHAIR WASTAWY, dean of university libraries at Illinois State University in Normal, was the first chief librarian of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt, where she served for six years.