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The Failures of the Facebook Generation in the Arab Spring

In the upcoming Egyptian elections the country is choosing between Islamists and old Mubarak supporters. Francis Fukuyama on how the Facebook revolution of the Arab Spring has failed to deliver lasting political change. Join Fukuyama for a live chat on this Tuesday, May 22 at 11:30 AM EDT.

Mahmud Hams, AFP / Getty Images

It is hard to know whom to root for in Wednesday’s presidential election in Egypt. Two of the leading candidates, Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq, were officials in the former Mubarak regime and are suspected of having ties to the military. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is a self-proclaimed liberal Islamist who was expelled from the Muslim Brotherhood, but who is for some reason being endorsed by the ultra-conservative Salafis. Lagging behind these three is Mohamed Morsi, candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that came out of the starting blocks showing a moderate face but which has recently given out disturbing signals of a more conservative religious agenda. What is missing from this lineup of potentially electable candidates is a genuine liberal, that is, a candidate with no taint from the authoritarian past, and who does not advocate an Islamist agenda in some form. The candidate closest to this profile was Mohamed ElBaradei, the Noble Peace Prize-winning former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose sputtering campaign ended last January.

How did we come to this pass, where the two most powerful forces in the new Egypt either represent its authoritarian past, or else are Islamists of suspect liberal credentials? The Tahrir Square revolution of early last year was powered by angry young, middle-class Egyptians who used social media like Facebook and Twitter to organize their protests, spread word of regime atrocities, and build support for a democratic Egypt. At the time, there was much talk about how technology was empowering democracy and forcing open a closed society that could not prevent the flow of information.

And yet, this group of young activists, which can still be mobilized for street protests like the recent demonstrations in front of the Defense Ministry, has failed to turn itself into a meaningful player in post-Mubarak electoral politics. Granted, this group did not represent the vast bulk of Egyptians, who remain less educated, socially conservative, and rural. But surely a liberal, modernizing leader could have appealed to the hopes of many Egyptians for economic growth and political freedom, and placed at least within the top four presidential candidates?

We will have to await more information and analysis about the election, including the degree to which it was manipulated, before we can fully answer this question. It seems clear in retrospect that Mubarak’s ouster constituted much less of a revolution than met the eye; the military still remains a powerful institution unwilling to give up substantial power.

But part of the blame lies with Egypt’s liberals themselves. They could organize protests and demonstrations, and act with often reckless courage to challenge the old regime. But they could not go on to rally around a single candidate, and then engage in the slow, dull, grinding work of organizing a political party that could contest an election, district by district. Political parties exist in order to institutionalize political participation; those who were best at organizing, like the Muslim Brotherhood, have walked off with most of the marbles. Facebook, it seems, produces a sharp, blinding flash in the pan, but it does not generate enough heat over an extended period to warm the house.

The failure to organize a coherent political party has been the failing of liberal groups in many of the would-be democratic transitions of the last two decades. Boris Yeltsin helped bring down the former Soviet Union in the 1990s and was supported by many Russian liberals, but he never saw the need to create a political party and hoped to survive on his own charisma. Existing liberal groups squabbled among themselves and failed to form a single, durable party. Similarly, the young idealists in Ukraine who supported Viktor Yushchenko during Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution did not go on to create a cohesive political party, and the Orange coalition itself fell apart amidst infighting between Yushchenko and prime minister Iulia Timoshenko.

By contrast, Islamist parties throughout the Middle East have survived over the years despite severe repression because they understand how to organize. This was not just a matter of selecting cadres and promoting an ideology; they also lived among the poor and would often provide social services directly to constituents. Political parties prosper because they stand for something: not just opposition to dictatorship, but a positive program for economic growth, social assistance, or help for farmers. If you were to ask a typical liberal Egyptian activist what their plan for economic development was, I’m not sure you’d get a coherent answer.

The scenario that has unfolded in Egypt is thus a very familiar one. The political scientist Samuel Huntington in his 1968 book Political Order in Changing Societies noted that revolutions are never made by the poor; they are made by upwardly mobile, urban middle class activists whose hopes and expectations are thwarted by the existing political system. Students invariably play a key role in such uprisings.

He went on to say, however, that this type of middle class individual almost never finishes the revolution, unless he or she is successful in connecting with the rural masses. Students know how to demonstrate and riot, but they generally can’t organize their way out of a paper bag (my words, not his). Both Lenin and Mao were master organizers, and succeeded in making the connection to the countryside. This is something that has eluded many young liberal activists both in the period Huntington was describing, and at the present moment.

Facebook, which went public last week, has been credited with helping to build democracy internationally. It is true that it and other social media have democratized access to information, and have made collaboration easier. These media have also helped promote short-term mobilization of crowds and demonstrators. But networking is not organization-building. For that, we need a different and more durable platform.