Resilient autocrats, networked movements and the digital beachheads of enduring activism

Hani MorsiHani Morsi photo mini

This blog post previously appeared on ‘The Side Room’, a blog written by PhD students currently studying and researching at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS).

In a previous blog post, I cautioned against the perils of rushing to conclusions about the implications of the political use of networks in recent global outbreaks of mass dissent, especially the Arab uprisings. Not only because we are just beginning to untangle the new complexities of political engagement in a hyper-connected world, but for a much more fundamental reason.

Before thinking about the implications of the new technological tools, platforms and networks appropriated by individuals, social movements as well as governments for political ends, a key fact should be contemplated: There is nothing new about the ‘why’ of activism. That is, the historical universalism of the triggers of such movements warrants more attention to the technological catalysts, or the “how”, of an increasingly accelerating pace of global social and political change. To explain further, the reasons why people protest, organize and rally to challenge authoritarianism, oppression and injustice have undergone much less change – if at all – compared to the ways by which they go about staging such acts of rebellion. While this might seem like a rather elementary observation, I do believe it is central to understanding complex dynamics at the intersection of power, citizen participation and emerging communication technologies.  Considering how the technologies in question can be used for both well-intentioned and nefarious ends (by both individuals or governments) an important question to pose becomes: How effective is the use of networked technologies for challenging oppression in contexts where authoritarianism is deeply rooted and state violence is continuously deployed to silence dissent? Can technologically-savvy social movements play the ‘long game’ against deeply entrenched structures of control and hierarchies of power?

Grafitti in Cairo

Revolution-inspired street art in downtown Cairo. Picture taken by the author in late 2012.

Looking at Egypt
Looking at the Egyptian political arena can yield some insights, but it is too early to be certain of anything seeing how the scene in post-Mubarak Egypt has been one of chaotic and often violent contention since January 2011. The somberness of the national mood is matched by a strong sense of pessimism in predictions about the sociopolitical trajectories the country is taking, notwithstanding analytical errors about several facets of the current power struggle by many western observers (See Mariz Tardos’ blog post from July 2013 for more on this). All indicators seem to evince is that the popular drive for a genuine democratic transformation in Egypt has all but returned to square one: a reproduction of the authoritarian structures of the past several decades.

Resistance still thrives
Yet most of the dismal analyses on Egypt is based on ‘classical’ understandings of power and politics, and as such often seem to miss several subtleties that reveal how resistance to cyclical authoritarianism still thrives in the country, even in the wake of a rapid succession of disappointments. Revolutionary resistance in Egypt is far from dormant. With unrelenting commitment to dispelling the notion of false options Egyptians have been presented with for many decades, networked movements continue to find innovative ways to negotiate and contest power in battlegrounds of political, gender and social rights. Campaigns and groups like MosireenHarassMap and Masmou3, among others, mesh online tools with offline organizing to create new breeds of enduring activism, pump new life into the collective drive for change, and create digital ‘beachheads’ of sure-footed resistance against injustice.

Beyond Egypt, many (if not most) of the episodes of large-scale collective action around the world in the past three years have demonstrated that it is not beyond reason to say that these ripples of technologically-accelerated change will not only affect how citizens everywhere go about claiming their rights and engaging their governments, but – from a long-term perspective and by consequence – they will also shift how structures of governance and authority are constructed. The period of metamorphosis that comes between challenging political orthodoxy and the creation of new modalities of participation comes with its own risks, as evident in chaotic transformation processes witnessed beyond the Arab citizen uprisings, largely due to vacuums in the political arenas appropriated by new hegemonic projects. Yet such messy transitions do not come as a surprise, being the direct result of long-standing political exclusion and stifled freedoms.

What will be indeed surprising, to end with a bold prediction, is how quickly established political systems will lose their self-evidence and fail to maintain a non-contested legitimacy, faced with a persevering and technologically-empowered popular drives for change that creatively remain one step ahead of renewed authoritarian aspirations.

Hani Morsi is a PhD candidate within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read previous blogs by Hani Morsi:

  • Digital activism in post-revolution Egypt: How relevant is online dissidence in the marathon for democracy?

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