'NGOs are dead', the young Brazilian hacker says, and the roomful of people, mostly researchers and representatives of non-governmental organisations, laughs rather uncertainly. In this context, they represent the bourgeoisie, and he is here to give them a thrill. So, journalism is dead too, and the media industry as a whole – all killed by the internet that's given Pedro Markun a purpose in life. 'Being a "citizen" was really boring a few years ago', he says, 'because we had no power. Now I understand how I can change things. Hackers want to understand political systems very deeply. Sharing and collaboration are primary values for us. With a hundred like-minded people, we could bring down a government.'
Some people in the room smile at him like proud parents. The idea clearly has a certain appeal – none of that fuss and bother of storming the Winter Palace, or the huge cost in lives and armaments of taking six months to advance on Tripoli. We’re at a conference in the Hague, organised by Hivos, under the title 'The Changing Face of Citizen Action: A Knowledge Exploration', and Pedro Markun speaks in the opening session. There is, as someone notes, a certain euphoric assumption that new social media have indeed changed the face of citizen action; this assumption is complicated over the next two days by the voice of citizen activists, which leads people to caution against ‘fetishising’ Facebook and Twitter et al.
Mohamed Elagati, executive director of the Arab Forum for Alternatives, says that social media were indeed very important for the Egyptian revolution. But, he said, the revolution only gained momentum 'when the people using Facebook went out to the streets and started working with people on the ground'. He describes years of courageous mobilising before January 2011. He says that in 2004, a friend of his organised a demonstration of 50 people, who were all arrested. Elagati said to him, 'Are you crazy? To get yourself arrested for a small demonstration like this?' The friend told him, 'We are preparing for demonstrations of a million'. After Mubarak resigned on February 11, says Elagati, ‘I went to my friend and apologised’. He says one of the key factors in Egypt was the politics of the ‘sofa party’ – people who’d been sitting at home watching events on television and weeping patriotically whenever Mubarak addressed them. But, he says, when Mubarak unleashed camels and armed thugs on the people in Tahrir Square on February 2, the sofa party joined the revolution. A million more people came out, he says, and they came out ready to die.
Is ‘citizen action’ anything other than the struggle of people to right what they perceive as wrongs and limit the power of the cruel and the unjust? Participants noted the common assumption in the room that 'citizen action' would inevitably lead to more advancement of values the room shared – more democracy, more social justice, more respect for universal rights. But in some parts of the world, 'citizen action' is mobilising fiercely against abortion, against LGBT rights, against other sects and ethnicities. It's these 'messy' politics that several academics at the conference were calling 'unruly politics' – some described this as a 'refusal to speak the language the state recognises as politics'. Though it's clearly not just the state that has this problem; one contributor spoke about the kind of political action that 'makes the old left uncomfortable'. Does that mean the ‘old left’ is wrong? This wasn’t the forum for that discussion. Joanna Wheeler from the Institute of Development Studies in the UK, one of the organisations sponsoring the conference, asked if it was automatically the case that poor people want to engage as citizens. The UK riots, she said, seemed to express a disconnection from society – ‘how do we make sense of how the rioters behaved?’
Kees Stad, a veteran of the Dutch squatters’ movement, evoked a contemporary European political world characterised, he said, by the ‘atomisation’ of movements, in fact by the absence of anything calling itself a movement at all, replaced by ‘activist individuals’ who move from one issue to another with no sense of any need to build solid structures. This, he said, ‘is being sold to us as being “progressive” – everything always has to be new’. Where, he said, was there evidence of solidarity in Europe with the Arab Spring? ‘Nobody is even trying to organise a solidarity movement’, he said He spoke about the excitement and fun of anti-globalisation organising in the 1990s, which was undogmatic and horizontal and allowed a lot of freedom and experimentation. But such open networks were, and are, he said, ‘very vulnerable to manipulation by those in power…Can you McDonaldise the Arab Spring?’
Just days before we sat down in The Hague, Human Rights Watch had reported that nearly 12,000 civilians in Egypt had been brought before military tribunals since Mubarak resigned – six times more in these seven months than in the entire 30 years of Mubarak’s rule. Among those sentenced to prison were two young men found guilty of chanting slogans ‘insulting to the military establishment’. Asmaa Mahfouz, the young woman whose video speeches helped ignite the January/February revolution, was arrested in August for a Tweet that criticised the justice system, and only released after a national and international outcry.
Joanna Wheeler said the aim of the conference was to discuss what the ‘next questions are – where do we go from here?’ But Evelina Dagnino, a political science lecturer from Brazil, said that for her the problem was that the ‘old questions’ still hadn’t been solved. For instance, the issue of clientilism – poor people giving their vote to politicians on the promise of services. ‘For decades in Brazil we saw clientilism as the incarnation of evil’, she said. ‘But then we realised that housing activists were sitting on local government housing committees’; people had decided clientilism was more effective than rights-based ‘citizen action’.
Maybe it’s in the nature of an event billed as a ‘knowledge exchange’ to be diffuse. Lisa VeneKlasen, executive director of JASS, said at the start of the second morning that the first day had given her the sensation of ‘opening a lot of websites and then walking away – I didn’t hear the threads’, though she went on to talk powerfully about the need to analyse how power operates both inside and outside new forms of digital activism, and to develop a hybrid between new and old forms of organising. Arthur Larok, director of programmes at the Uganda National NGO Forum, said he’d heard a lot about the fascination with new social media, but he hadn’t heard much about the cost. He’d decided to leave Facebook because it was distracting him. But when he walks into his office in the morning, he sees all his young colleagues still busy tending their Facebook pages – ‘entertaining themselves’, he said rather sternly. Social media break personal relationships, particularly in Africa, where information is passed verbally - hence the joke: ‘If you want to hide information from Africans, put it in writing’. The key technology in Uganda is the mobile phone – during the last election, president Museveni used the networks to send an SMS to every citizen with a phone. Why is the equivalent of the Arab Spring not happening in sub-Saharan Africa? Partly because the Arab Spring is making most African governments dig in deeper – they are buying more weapons, and arming more militias. ‘We talk about what we want’, said Larok, ‘but we don’t enter into the minds of the governments we want to get rid of.’ Change is always the result of courageous people standing up to those in power – ‘unless we have courageous people, social media will have nothing to talk about’.
Lisa VeneKlasen commented that ‘old style organising depended on having an analysis of power at all times. You have to understand power – you can’t think of government as monolithic. You have to be thinking all the time about how to maximise collective power, and how to minimise risk. Because power is so unpredictable’.
So we arrived at the perception that the unruliest politics of all were those conducted by the people in power. Maybe the discussion over the two days was diffuse because it hoped to be definite about something that’s still too new to assess – ‘too soon to tell’, as Chinese premier Zhou En Lai said in 1971 (apparently about the 1968 French uprising, not about the 1789 French Revolution). But Arthur Larok’s ‘courageous people’ – they’re on the streets and in the prison cells of Syria, Bahrein, Yemen, Egypt, Palestine, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Uganda, Iran, Burma, Eritrea, China... Without them, as he said, nothing changes.
The conference 'The Changing Face of Citizen Action: A Knowledge Exploration' was organised by Hivos, The Centre for Internet and Society, The Institute of Development Studies and International Institute of Social Studies