The Limits of Cyber-Revolutions

Illustration by Jacob Thomas

Revolutions remain a tricky business. Even as social-­networking sites have changed the way insurrections are built, the daily headlines from the Middle East are a reminder that a robust Twitter following and a widely followed Facebook group are only half the battle. At some point, an uprising, to truly be one, needs a physical staging ground. And what’s gone underappreciated this Arab Spring is just how much hangs on what happens as protests make the jump from virtual to actual, old-fashioned public spaces.

The Internet is great at facilitating bonds among compatriots who wouldn’t otherwise feel comfortable communicating openly and assembling a critical mass. But this concentration of like-minded people still exists in a silo, and the uninitiated might never find the hyperlink that leads them in. It takes physical space to connect revolutionary passions with daily life and, more important, the broader population. When citizens unite in a square, a park, or along a scenic beachfront to demand reform, it creates an impossible-to-ignore spectacle that draws the attention of anyone nearby, not to mention those watching at home. Rather than containing them within its geographical boundaries, the patch of land where the protesters come together becomes the spot from which their passions radiate out to the country at large.

In Egypt, that of course happened at Tahrir Square. When Ismail the Magnificent ordered the redesign of Cairo in the second half of the nineteenth century, he created broad boulevards and public squares inspired by Haussmann’s Paris, where he’d received his education—a layout that had the benefit of allowing the military to move swiftly through the city to stamp out unrest, per Haussmann’s intent. In more recent decades, Hosni Mubarak’s emergency laws proved sufficient in squelching dissent on their own, turning Tahrir and squares like it across the country into what urbanists sometimes call “dominated space.” So when Egyptian dissidents, following extensive online preparations, began to reclaim Tahrir for the public on January 25—and then ignored the curfews and the commands to return to work—their actions were much more than symbolic. Without the ability to control space, Mubarak suddenly could not govern.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad no doubt took note of the events in Cairo; more brutally than Mubarak would dare (or at least more brutally than the Egyptian Army would go along with), he has enforced his country’s emergency laws, his troops arresting protesters to try to clear the public spaces surrounding Umayyad Mosque in Damascus—and, elsewhere, firing into peaceful crowds—and send that country’s nascent rebellion back to its computers. In Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has gone so far as to bulldoze the 300-foot monument at the center of Manama’s Pearl Square, hoping that might defuse the revolutionary yearnings of the young people encamped around it. Libya’s rebels, meanwhile, have their strip of shoreline in Benghazi, spared for now from Qaddafi’s forces by coalition airstrikes. But they’ve said they have no desire to make that city a confederate capital. Victory will come only when they can safely mass in Tripoli’s Green Square.

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The Limits of Cyber-Revolutions