Belmont Club

The Egyptian Tea Party

Sandmonkey lays out his vision of the way forward in Egypt in his newest post. According to him, the best way forward is to adopt a strategy of getting the Internet-connected youth to take over existing parties and movements from online strongholds. Whether the strategy is workable or not, it is certainly innovative; it represents one of the first actual attempts to exploit the role of modern connectivity in a revolutionary process.

“One of the first” and not “the first” because that honor probably belongs to Tea Party USA, which has used online organizing tools to try and take over the Republican Party. Like Sandmonkey’s vision of a leaderless popular revolution, the Tea Party is an example of a political movement that has no rigid organizational structure, no big office building in a great metropolitan area, no television stations. Nancy Pelosi kept looking for the funders of the “Astroturf,” and yet there were none to be found.  She could not believe that a real grassroots movement could actually exist. Yet as the events of November 2010 showed her, the Tea Party really does exist. The question is whether a similar kind of force can operate within the Egyptian revolution. First of all, let’s see what Sandmonkey actually proposes.

First of all, he lays out with dismay the conventional alternative: keep on the current course and accept dwindling street protests or enter negotiations with Mubarak’s rear guard through conventional opposition authority figures. He has no appetite for either, probably because events either way will eventually be co-opted by the mustache Petes of the underground or the fixers in their Saville Row suits.  The Egyptian revolution will die and revert to the same old, same old.

the status quo just won’t die. This lack of action and organization will be used against us (the protesters) in every way possible. The participants will start complaining about the lack of direction or movement leaders. The government will start complaining that the protesters haven’t offered a single person to represent them and negotiate with the government for them, and that the protesters don’t know what they want. Mind you, this is utter rubbish: It’s not that the protesters don’t know what they want (you can read about their demands everywhere), it’s that their demands are so nonnegotiable for them, that it makes no sense for them to engage in negotiations until a number of those demands get realized. Thus, Gridlock!

Gridlock! This is eerily reminiscent of the despair generated by the financial crisis of 2008. The conventional political operators believed that the discontent was doomed to be co-option within either the Republican or Democratic Parties. Whichever way it went, the discontent would be channeled, beaten down, and dissipated. The same old, same old would win in the end.

Political pundits failed to realize that online tools made it possible for memes and databases to persist online without necessarily having to create union or underground style networks. And that in turn made it possible for organizations like the Tea Party to viably exist and mount challenges through political primaries which would alter the character of the 2010 elections. As we’ll explore after the page break, Sandmonkey has a strangely similar concept: to break the gridlock by going online.

This excerpt from Sandmonkey’s post is of medium length, but I have highlighted the key passages:

So here are my two cents: next time when you head to Tahrir, alongside blankets and food and medicine, please get some foldable tables, chairs, papers, pens, a laptop and a USB connection. Set up a bunch of tables and start registering the protesters. Get their names, ages, addresses & districts. Based on location, start organizing them into committees, and then have those committees elect leaders or representatives. Do the same in Alex, In Mansoura, in Suez, in every major Egyptian city in which the Protesters braved police suppression and came out in the thousands. Protect the Data with your life. Get encryption programs to ensure the security of the data. Use web-based tools like Google documents to input the data in, thus ensuring that even if your laptops get confiscated by State Security Goons, they won’t find anything on your harddrives. Have people outside of Egypt back-up your data daily on secure servers. Then, start building the structure.

You see, with such Proper citizen organization and segmentation, we’ll have the contact information and location of all the protesters that showed up, and that could be transformed into voting blocks in parliamentary districts: i.e. a foundation for an Egyptian Unity party. That Egyptian Unity Party will be an Umbrella party that promotes equality, democracy & accountability, without any ideological slants. It should be centrist, because we don’t want any boring Left vs. Right squabbling at that stage. Once you institute the structure, start educating the members on their rights and their obligations as citizens. Convince them to bring their friends and relatives into meeting. Establish voters’ critical mass , all under that party.

The Egyptian Unity Party, however, will not be a permanent structure, but rather a transitional entity with a clear and direct purpose: create the grassroots organization to take back the parliament and presidency in the next elections. Once sufficient votes and seats have been obtained, the party will amend the constitution to promote civil liberties, plurality, and truly democratic elections. Once that constitution is in place, the party can disband, and its elected members can start forming their own parties and collations, based on their personal beliefs and ideologies, or they can join any of the existing parties, and breathe some life into their decaying carcasses. We will end up with an actual political process and representative political parties that will actually discuss policy and have to represent those who voted for them so that they can get re-elected. Democracy in action. An old but brilliant concept. A way to ensure that no matter what, we will have a huge influence on who becomes the next Egyptian President come election day in September.

I am extremely hopeful we can do this. So far we have proved all the critics and the haters wrong. It’s time to do that again!

Sandmonkey’s “Egyptian Unity Party” would be to Egypt what the Tea Party has been to the U.S. political process — an agent to change other parties.  His program as articulated correctly emphasizes registering members [getting addresses and contact details] and connecting them to each other over the Internet, where they can assort themselves by reputation. As a concept it isn’t bad, but it way underestimates the difficulty involved in such a task. If Sandmonkey’s program comes to fruition it will be a near miracle. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t got a real chance. There is nothing wrong with the core idea; it is in fact the same idea behind the primary challenge process, interstate compacts, and even the Constitutional amendment process. In all of these, the Internet plays a major part. The U.S. Tea Party, for example, lives on Facebook. Because form follows function, the Internet is going to play a major role in any subsequent Egyptian shakeup — unless we leave it to the moustache Petes.

The principal difference is that Tea Party USA can move between the online and real worlds seamlessly. There are no  secret police with whips mounted on camels on Main Street, no dark torture chambers or thugs wearing cheap suits awaiting Tea Party USA members down at the local convention center. Egypt is different. Nevertheless, without getting too wild-eyed about the prospects of Sandmonkey’s program, common sense says that something ought to be done to nurture and assist the spontaneous component of the Egyptian revolution that sprang from activity online. Online is where young and largely secular youth live, much more than the mosque, and it would be remiss not to recognize it.

Two things in particular would help the Egyptians greatly.

  1. First, one can lobby the U.S. government to tell Egypt not to shut down the Internet again;
  2. U.S.-based developers should create applications which will help online Egyptian groups organize themselves. Mobile apps, new features to FB, Twitter, etc, data conforming algorithms. These are the most obvious.

Besides, online tools have already played a major role in the Egyptian drama, as they did to a lesser extent in the Iranian unrest against the ayatollahs. That is an historical fact.  To assume online tools are a fad is as dangerous as battleship admirals thinking airplanes are a fad.  The balance of probability is that online tools will play a bigger, not a smaller, prospective role. Far from being a fluke, the role of self-organization in Egypt may simply be a harbinger of things to come throughout the region.

And fortunately for America, this action is happening in the one place where the USA is still unquestionably the champion of the world; the one place where access to actual participants is possible, though on a distributed basis. If there is one single thing that the American political and developer community can do to affect the course, not only of the Egyptian revolution but of changes in the Third World to come, it will be to act in this sphere. What’s to be lost in trying? If anyone has any concrete ideas in this respect, don’t hesitate to post in comments or email me.

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