[Viewpoint] The mobile revolution

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[Viewpoint] The mobile revolution

Gilles Deleuze, influential French philosopher of the 20th century, once said revolution begins from the periphery rather than the central part of a society. Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution, which ended the 23 year rule of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and set off inflammatory revolutionary fervor across the Arab world, also started from a trifling event in a shanty town in Sidi Bouzid, 190 miles south of the capital Tunis.

Twenty-six-year-old Mohamed Bouaziz, who earned living selling fruit and vegetables from an unlicensed stand on the streets, was stopped by a policewoman one day and had his cart confiscated. He was slapped and spat on by the policewoman. When municipality officials also shunned him, the young man, out of humiliation and helplessness, set himself on fire in front of the provincial headquarters.

The incident sparked public outrage, especially among youth struggling with unemployment, and the scenes of riots as well as the heavy-handed police response quickly spread around the world via instant messages, mobile phones, and Internet-based social networks like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. In a virtual instant, Facebook subscribers rushed to the streets to join the protest. The Tunisian people hadn’t been so outspoken and enraged since their ancient ancestors, the Carthaginians, were conquered by Romans.

The Jasmine revolution, named for the country’s fragrant country flower, has now become a synonym for social-network and mobile-device fuelled uprisings. The appointment of a 33-year-old Tunisian blogger and activist - who was arrested amid the protests and later released - as the transition government’s secretary of state for sport and youth symbolizes the role of the Internet and mobile communication in revolution. A sister of Bouaziz, whose suicide made him an iconic martyr of the democracy movement, told Roger Cohen, columnist for The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, that all Arab countries are waiting for their own Bouaziz.

Egypt did not have to wait long. On Jan. 25, 2011, Facebook subscribers received a plea to follow their courageous Tunisian brothers to unseat their ruler of three decades, President Hosni Mubarak. Persistent campaigning through social media like Facebook and Twitter mustered support from tens of thousands of youth, civilians, middle and upper class people and the intelligentsia. Around 5 million Egyptians own mobile phones and Jan. 25 - National Police Day - was declared by mobile revolutionaries a day of rage, bringing millions to Cairo streets chanting “Mubarak leave!”

The president in his palace, severely out of touch with the people he ruled for 30 years, failed to realize the significance of mobile networks. His police dealt with the angry protestors with traditional weapons - tear gas and batons - which only produced a boomerang effect when the spectacle was immediately spread around through mobile devices. Within weeks, the tenacious 82-year-old tyrant succumbed to public pressure and promised political reforms and free and fair elections in September, saying neither he nor his son would run. It remains to be seen whether those promises will satisfy protesters.

Mubarak so far has been spared the fate of his Tunisian counterpart, but autocrats in the region remain fearful of the mobile revolution lapping at their shores. The ferment has already swept across Jordan, Yemen, Syria, Algeria and Bahrain and may reach the monarchs in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The notoriously authoritarian leadership in North Korea may also be nervy for signs of mobile shockwaves.

Jordan’s king fired his unpopular cabinet and promised various reforms in response to weeks of street protests. Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, after 32 years in office, promised to step down when his term ends in the hope of appeasing people protesting sky-high prices and unemployment. Other despots in the Arab world are also grappling their way through. Egypt is a valuable ally of the United States in Middle East affairs. Washington watered down its support for Mubarak and pledged support for Vice President Omar Suleiman’s leadership in the period until Mubarak’s term ends in September, in fear of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood gaining political strength in the power void.

In a recent contribution to The New York Times, Robert D. Kaplan, a respected American analyst, pointed out that the political upheaval in Tunisia, a relatively well-off and stable country in the Arab world, won’t likely trigger an avalanche of democratic movements in other parts of the region. But such an argument reflects the innate prejudice of Western societies against the peripheral nomadic states of the Middle East.

The United States may succeed in defining the Egyptian revolution as half-baked nonsense to keep its strategic interests in the Arab World. But tech-savvy young nomads will be fearless in their new ability to whittle down their old Islamic traditions one by one.

The mobile revolution is an epoch-making event that cannot be stopped just because of American and European interests. The Iranian revolt in 2009 failed, but the Arab people are better armed - and wiser as well.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Young-hie
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