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Egypt: The First Twitter Revolution?

Egypt, Mubarak and the Power of Social Media


We may be witnessing the first revolution that started out with a Twitter hashtag: #jan25.

If it succeeds, it will be in no small part due to a public relations failure by Hosni Mubarak, ruler of Egypt since 1981.

Protestors upset about Mubarak's control of the country, and a lack of free and fair elections, were inspired by a successful revolt in Tunisia that tossed that nation's dictator.

The protests in Egypt quickly inspired similar demonstrations in Yemen.

Organizers used Twitter and other social media to start protests on January 25, despite the fact that such protests are not allowed in Egypt, which has been under martial law since 1967.

This is an amazing event to witness, and it brings up issues on both sides.

What messages are the protestors sending -- to each other, to the government of Mubarak, to the outside world and to the army, which is popular and may be the deciding factor?

What messages should Mubarak send to those same audiences?

There are key lessons to be learned here:

1) You Can't Control All Information

In the old days, if a regime had a tight grip on television, newspapers, radio and the flow of information, they could keep people in the dark about events and effectively squash protests, because how would you know something was happening in a different city?

You can't communicate with a nation in this kind of situation with TV advertising campaigns, censorship or propaganda. You have to maintain a dialogue with citizens. With the public.

If the state already controls the media by outright ownership or censorship, citizens won't see the media as credible, and that makes your job of communicating with citizens even tougher.

When the government saw that protestors weren't backing down, the state shut off the internet entirely, along with cell phone service.

Police also arrested reporters.

Yet the protests continued. In fact, reports kept flowing to the outside world, and footage from protests showed too many people have cell phones that can take video now, and those videos are still leaking out.

Huffington Post reported a number of ways that Egyptian protesters managed to connect to the internet and the outside world, including ham radio hookups to Twitter using Morse code. Here's one of those tweets:

#Hamradio activists receiving signals in morse code frm #Egypt. Countries block web, we evolve. http://werebuild.eu/wiki/Egypt/Ham_radio

Censorship is no longer a smart strategy. Maybe it was in 1950, or 1980. Not in the age of cell phones and the internet.  You can't shut down the internet and cell phones forever, because any modern economy relies so heavily on the web and mobile phones, and a nation that cut off the internet and cell phones forever would be committing economic suicide.

2) Respond Quickly

Mubarak waited too long to give a speech to the nation.

By the time he appeared on national television, the protestors no longer feared the regime. They defied his nightly curfews with impunity. Police in Cairo had already ran from stations around the city, sometimes while members of the army stood by.  

Mubarak's peace offering to the people was to sack his cabinet. This was weak tea and a public relations disaster. President Barack Obama of the United States immediately held a press conference where he said he'd spoken with Mubarak after that speech, and Obama gave support to the notions of free speech, peaceable assembly and the right of all people, anywhere in the world, to decide their destiny.

If Mubarak had promised fair elections, with international monitoring, maybe that would take some of the life from the protests. Instead, his national address backfired, and only seemed to embolden protestors.

3) Symbols matter

Key images from the protests are already famous.

*A man standing in front of an armored police tank,  blocking it in a scene quite like the famous image of the man holding shopping bags and blocking the tank from Tiananmen Square.

* Empty tear-gas containers that said, "Made in the USA."

*Protestors marching across the Kasr al-Nil bridge to Tahi Square actually made police and their armored tanks back up in retreat.

The old saying that "perception is reality" is also applicable here. The protestors seem to be in control of the streets and people started talking about Mubarak in the past tense.

Censorship didn't work to prevent people from seeing these symbolic images. People saw them on CNN or BBC, heard about it through word of mouth or poked their head out the window and saw it with their own eyes.

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