Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

People Power in the Arab World

Is political freedom contagious? Just as Tunisia ignited Egypt, how far will their example go in the wider Arab world, where many join in celebration of Mubarak's overthrow? Could Iran be next?

A parallel comes to mind from half a century ago. Just as social media played a big role in this month's events, TV in its infancy enabled the civil rights movement in the U.S.

The young protesters in Cairo, with no formal organization, attained critical mass and become a force through their Internet connections just as the oppression of segregation was brought into living rooms by Martin Luther King, a minister in his twenties, who orchestrated scenes for the nightly news to create a force out of black people in urban ghettos and rural backwaters who had been invisible to most Americans and one another.

Without TV, there would have been no Civil Rights Act of 1964. Without the Internet, Mubarak would still be ruling Egypt.

The history of media changing the world goes back to the Great Depression when radio amplified the voice of FDR, a man in a wheelchair, with Fireside Chats and speeches to overcome national despair and, in World War II, when Winston Churchill rallied the British to resist the Nazis.

Oppression always works best in darkness. As more and more information lights up the world, anything seems possible, even in the benighted Middle East.

While stirring up populations becomes easier, however, it will take better and better political skills to make those expectations lead to something real. History says that they can, but nothing will come easily.

"There's no script," says a Middle East correspondent, "no research on a leaderless revolution taking on an oligarch protected by a military establishment supported by an entrenched elite."

One will have to be written.

Update: Algeria gets the message and shuts down Internet providers and Facebook, but it's a case of shutting the barn door too late as crowds protest in the streets. Who's next?

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