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Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt

NEW YORK – Revolutions happen for a reason. In the case of Egypt, there are several reasons: more than 30 years of one-man rule; Hosni Mubarak’s plans to pass the presidency on to his son; widespread corruption, patronage, and nepotism; and economic reform that did not benefit most Egyptians, but that nonetheless contrasted sharply with the almost complete absence of political change.

The net result was that many Egyptians felt not just alienated, but also humiliated. Humiliation is a powerful motivator. Egypt was ripe for revolution; dramatic change would have come at some point in the next few years, even absent the spark of Tunisia or the existence of social media.

Indeed, social media are a significant factor, but their role has been exaggerated. It is hardly the first disruptive technology to come along: the printing press, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and cassettes all posed challenges to the existing order of their day. And like these earlier technologies, social media are not decisive: they can be repressed by governments as well as employed by governments to motivate their supporters. 

Timing counts for a lot in politics. Mubarak’s announcement that he would not seek re-election would likely have averted a crisis had he issued it in December. But, by the time he did say it, the mood of the street had evolved to the point that he could no longer placate it.