Lessons from two Egyptian revolutions compared

The Egyptian revolution of 1919 helped bring about independence, whilst that of 2011 may well bring about democracy. Events of 2011 took place with heavy use of the internet, yet those of 1919 took place before the electronic computer had even had its début. So is talk of the internet’s role in 2011 over-hyped?

One reason for scepticism is that half-way point that Egypt is even now still at. A dictator may have been ousted, but it was as much military coup as popular uprising, for it was the army’s initial unwillingness to try to stop the protests and then its decision that time was up for the President that was central to events. Largely unnoticed outside Egypt after the ousting was the banning of trade unions and progress since to democracy is both uneven and uncertain.

However incomplete the democratic nature of the changes may be so far, the widespread protests certainly helped bring about that change – even if much of their success came not from their direct impact but from persuading the military that it should intervene.

That brings out a strong parallel with the 1919 revolution which, in its own immediate terms, failed. But it was a success in persuading the British that it was time to give the country its independence. Though the subsequent 1923 constitution kept some security and military matters in British hands, it otherwise created an independent Parliamentary democracy. As in 2011, protests succeeded through the medium of persuading those in charge of military power.

As in 2011 too, protests had their impact because they managed to overcome the two classic questions that otherwise hold people back: ‘will enough other people also protest to make it have a chance of success?’ and ‘will enough other people protest so that I don’t get singled out for repression?’.

Inspiration from abroad via rolling TV and the internet had its role in 2011. Technology in the form of the telegram and print played the equivalent role in 1919, distributing widely around the world US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech which inspired claims to national self-determination and suggested that the post-Great War world would seen colonial powers more willing to listen to the demands of their subjects. The pace of technology may have been slower but the spreading of hope from events outside Egypt was the same.

In both cases the technology required a message to convey. Telegrams without the Wilson speech or rolling news without the footage from Tunisia would have not had the impact they do. As so often with the internet, the technology may be important – but there has to be a  message to go with it.

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