Al Jazeera and a 21st Century Revolution

I love this photo, which was posted on the February 4th version of the al Jazeera website blog.  If you can’t follow al Jazeera live video streaming, their blog gives some of the best up to date information.   Just go to their website: http://english.aljazeera.net/, click blogs and go to the day’s blog (Egyptian time — it’s seven hours later than EST).

Most cable companies and satellite providers don’t offer al jazeera English language, which is too bad because without a doubt they are providing the best and most comprehensive coverage of the Egyptian revolution than any other English language television network.    The reason we can’t watch is because during the Iraq war the US considered al-Jazeera a propaganda voice for anti-Americanism.   Despite the fact that they were simply reporting what was really happening on the ground, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld accused them of being dishonest and trying to undercut the US effort to stabilize Iraq.   The US even bombed al Jazeera’s headquarters, killing one reporter.

There is now an effort underway to demand that al jazeera English be added as an option on cable and satellite providers, and one person who should endorse this is President Bush.   President Bush had a few things right about the Mideast.   He got one thing very wrong, however.  He thought US power and military force could push the region in the right direction.   It turns out that the key ingredients may be media information and the force of youth.

President Bush noted that the governments in the Arab world were repressive and undemocratic.  That, Bush and others in his administration argued, is the core of the problem.   With most of the population under 22, these regimes are unsustainable and anachronistic.    If they hold on to power, the youth will see no alternative but to join extremists in trying to create a new order, one that might embrace ideals of Islamic fundamentalism and anti-western extremism.

They hoped that if they could install a democracy in Iraq that would be a model of stability and prosperity for the region, they could bring change.   The US would be positioned to help end dictatorships, spreading democracy and markets in the Arab world, undercutting terrorism and ushering in a new era.

Well, that didn’t happen.   People don’t like the world’s superpower coming in and trying to force change, and instead were outraged by the death, destruction and apparent arrogance of US policy.   For a brief time al qaeda and the radicals were emboldened, as the US suffered humiliation after humiliation.  President Bush’s vision appeared fatally flawed, and he now is looked upon as having had a failed Presidency.

That judgment is too harsh.  He was wrong about using military power as a means to bring positive change, but I suspect that was a lesson the US was doomed to learn the hard way.   Much of what President Bush saw as the core problems in the Mideast was right.   The regimes there cannot persist, they are anachronistic or, as the poster notes, “Mubarak is so 80’s!”

As the population boom starts to come of age (Egypt had 45 million people when Mubarak came to power, now they have 83 million), they are also getting news about the corruption and repression practiced by Arab governments.   The Qatar station, originally launched in 1996, has democratized information, undercutting the propaganda from state sponsored media.   Young people in the region have become better informed, and thanks to the internet and social media like facebook and twitter, able to organize political action effectively and spontaneously.

The leaders of Mubarak’s generation, as well as most foreign policy makers in the US, are slow to see the impact of the information revolution on politics.  They don’t understand the dynamics — or how this may be the tip of an iceberg that will affect not just the Arab world, but the entire planet.

Instead of the US trying to use it’s waning global power to force people to change, people are making the choice on their own, thanks in large part to the news station the US government so despised in 2003.  Al Jazeera is succeeding where President Bush failed, but in so doing, at least vindicating the motives behind the Bush Administration’s policies.  They had the ends right, but chose the wrong means.

Moreover, while choosing war to try to force change had the short term impact of helping al qaeda recruit and increasing Islamic extremism in the region, al jazeera is promoting modernism.    Today they showed video of Coptic Christians surrounding Muslims at prayer time, so the Muslims could pray without fear of being assaulted by pro-Mubarak demonstrators.   Average Muslims also came to the aid of Christians last Christmas, when Islamic extremists attacked.

The power of al jazeera, social media and the youth revolution is also one reason to expect that the cynics are wrong when they predict a well organized and disciplined Islamic extremist organization like Muslim Brotherhood will come out on top and create an Islamic state that despises Israel and wants to somehow spread its fundamentalist vision across the region.   That’s simply not what the youth want.   That’s not the way this new generation in the Arab world thinks.  They want to forge their own modern identity, not mimicking the West, but not going back to the pre-modern Arab world groups like al qaeda desire.

Hand wringing cynics point to the French revolution or the Russian revolution, and argue that history says this is likely to turn out very bad.   And, of course, it might.    But this looks more like the revolt against Communism in 1989 when people rejected a whole system of government and chose to expand freedom and reject control.   Such crowds could easily rise up against an Islamic extremist government (and it’s hard imaging in the Egyptian military tolerating a theocratic regime anyway).

History has not been written on the Egyptian revolution, but it appears to be the first real 21st Century revolution, spurred by the information revolution, new media, and the capacity of organizations like al jazeera to circumvent official sources and propaganda.    At this point in time the 20th Century seems a distant memory.

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