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Behind the scenes of Egypt's revolution

HDN | 2/27/2011 12:00:00 AM | CAN ERİMTAN

What roles did Wael Ghonim and Asmaa Mahfouz really play in Egypt’s revolution?

Ever since Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, Egypt has been ruled by Hosni Mubarak, who has been acting like a latter-day Pharaoh for the past 30 years. During his firm rule Mubarak brought “stability” to Egypt, primarily benefiting the ruling classes and not the man and woman on the street. Now, after “Eighteen Days That Shook the Middle East,” to quote the Associated Press in a reference to John Reed’s book on the Russian Revolution, Mubarak has left the scene in the wake of 300 dead Egyptians.

The army is in charge now, and has even vowed to lead the way to democratic elections in six months’ time, suspending the constitution in the meantime. But, how did this wave of public dismay suddenly erupt across North Africa and the Middle East? Can it be true that the Internet and various social media have emboldened younger generations to such an extent that they have now literally taken to the streets? Or is there more than meets the eye?

The veteran critic of U.S. interventionism Tariq Ali, for instance, has called the events in Egypt a “genuine, popular upheaval,” adding, “I think the mass movement in Egypt is a movement for national independence, [an] end to neo-colonialism and for democracy.” Speaking on the Russian state-sponsored international broadcaster RT, he even compared the events in Egypt and the wider Middle East to the European revolutions of 1848.

Following the breakup of the Soviet Empire, the proliferation of color revolutions throughout former Communist countries also appeared spontaneous and driven by the popular will. In hindsight, however, it has come to light that their organization and planning was funded by the West. Rather than spontaneous and popular, nowadays these “revolutions” have often been called “orchestrated.” The people of Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan were manipulated by U.S. intelligence agencies and NGOs like Freedom House and the Albert Einstein Institution to overthrow their pro-Russian leadership.

So, what about the recent events in Egypt? Is the Middle East now being remade in the shadow of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “arc of crisis”? In this context, Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution appear crucial. Sharp, also known as the “Machiavelli of nonviolence” or the “Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare,” has written a great many books on “Civilian-Based Defense” and democracy that can serve as blueprints for popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes. On the institution’s website many books, such as “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” are available for free download in many languages, including Arabic. The protestors in Tahrir Square time and again stressed the peaceful nature of their actions, only to be violently disrupted by pro-Mubarak or “pro-stability” activists on horseback and mounted on camels one day, leading to significant casualties and fatalities.

But, quite apart from NGOs and their encouragements of non-violent protest in favor of regime-change more amenable to NATO and U.S. interests, WikiLeaks has revealed something altogether much more sinister. The broadcaster RT reports that the “U.S. government had been planning to topple the Egyptian president for the past three years – that’s according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks. The files show Washington had been secretly backing leading figures behind the uprising.”

A cable dated Dec. 30, 2008, indicates that a leader of the April 6 Youth Movement – a Facebook-driven opposition group – informed U.S. officials that opposition groups had come up with a plan to topple Hosni Mubarak before scheduled elections in September 2011. The cables also indicate that the U.S. authorities helped an April 6 leader to attend an “Alliance of Youth Movements” summit at Columbia University in New York on Dec. 3-5, 2008. In November 2008, the U.S. government promoted this event as an occasion bringing together “Facebook, Google, YouTube, MTV, Howcast, Columbia Law School and the U.S. Department of State . . . to Find Best Ways to Use Digital Media to Promote Freedom and Justice, Counter Violence, Extremism and Oppression.”

The participating youth leaders were expected to “produce a field manual for youth empowerment,” adding that this document “will stand in stark contrast to the al-Qaeda manual on the basics of terrorism, found by Coalition Forces in Iraq.”

Matthew Waxman, a Columbia associate professor of law, said: “We at Columbia are excited about helping, designing, and studying innovative public-private partnerships that leverage new technologies to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges. This summit is a great opportunity to do this.”

In this way, using fashionable buzzwords and jargon, Dr. Waxman tacitly provided academic credibility to this summit so clearly aimed at furthering America’s cause across the world. The summit was also attended by such luminaries as Whoopi Goldberg, actress and host of ABC’s “The View,” Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Facebook and James K. Glassman, undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, U.S. Department of State.

On Jan. 27, the Egyptian authorities arrested Google’s head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, Wael Ghonim. Ghonim is also a prominent member of the already-mentioned April 6 movement. He was released from jail on Monday, Feb. 7. While he was in prison, April 6 named him their official spokesman. As a result, it seems likely that Ghonim was the anonymous activist flown to New York two years ago. Far from being a spontaneous popular rising, the earlier groundwork behind the scenes allowed Egyptians to take to the streets in an organized and peaceful fashion. America’s preparations have apparently come to fruition as the world was watching. Can it really be the case that a video message (or vlog) posted on a Facebook profile by a young Egyptian, Asmaa Mahfouz, was the impetus needed for the protests on Tahrir Square to explode? According to Asmaa’s virtual friend Iyad El-Baghdadi, her vlog, recorded on Jan. 18 was “so powerful and so popular that it drove Egyptians by the thousands into Tahrir Square, and drove the Egyptian government to block Facebook.”

What roles did Ghonim and Mahfouz really play in Egypt’s Revolution? Did the U.S. State Department under George W. Bush play a part in promoting the Albert Einstein Institution’s agenda of encouraging peaceful popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes by means of new media, social networks and viral marketing?

*Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in Istanbul, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the wider Middle East. His publications include the book “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles.

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