Fall 2011

There is a great deal of discussion about the role of social media in the political transformation of the Middle East after decades of stagnation. That leads us to reflect on a broader question in this issue of the Cairo Review: What is the future of the Internet? Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams provide some fascinating answers in The Cairo Review Interview. They spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival 2011 with Walter Isaacson, the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. Isaacson is the author of Steve Jobs, the new biography of the late founder of Apple Inc., which immediately shot to No. 1 on Amazon’s bestseller list. At one point, when Isaacson asked if technologies that enable a freer flow of information inevitably bend the arc of history towards democracy, Williams preferred to hear what Isaacson had to say. “The answer,” Isaacson replied, without missing a beat, “is yes.”

The interview with the “Twitter guys” is part of our Special Report on the Internet, which also features an essay on free speech and censorship in the digital age by writer and activist Jillian C. York. She was spurred to study online expression while living in Morocco after she discovered that the authorities had blocked a favorite Internet site. She went on to work at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and is currently at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. “I really learned about the field from Tunisian activists,” says York. “Some of them have been at the cutting edge.”

Another expert on the subject is Rasha A. Abdulla, an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication here at the American University in Cairo. In “The Revolution Will Be Tweeted,” she offers a detailed account of digital activism in Egypt. She has been researching online communication since 1989, when, as an AUC undergrad, she got hooked on Bitnet, a network that linked universities together. Joining the Tahrir Square demonstrations in January, she got a first-hand look at how Facebook and Twitter played a part. “It was amazing to see the plethora of laptops and mobile phones, sometimes in the midst of a war zone,” she recalls.

We have enjoyed putting together this issue of the Cairo Review and hope it deepens your understanding of the Internet as well as of the Arab transformation. As we witnessed here in Cairo this year, they are two of the important global topics of our times.

Nabil Fahmy
Dean, School of Global Affairs and Public Policy

A New Voice for Israel

A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation. By Jeremy Ben-Ami. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 242 pp.

Jeremy Ben-Ami has written a valuable book that should be read by everyone affected by the Israeli–Palestinian conflict—Israelis, Arabs and especially by Americans. The title may suggest to some that this is another volume of familiar pro-Israel boosterism. The author believes that Israel’s existence is under threat and this is the focus of his effort. Yet, he has written a very different sort of book than we are used to seeing from Israel’s die-hard supporters in America.

Part of A New Voice for Israel is an account of the deep roots of Ben-Ami’s family in Israel. The book also serves as an insider’s guide to J Street, the pro-Israel lobby group that Ben-Ami founded in 2008. In that aspect, he tells the story of a struggle under way for the soul of America’s Jewish community, and J Street’s role in it. At its core, Ben-Ami’s book, like J Street’s work, is a courageous effort to rewrite the Israel-driven narrative of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict that is too unquestioningly accepted and parroted in the West.

This is an impassioned plea for American Jews, U.S. politicians, and Israelis to get on the right side of history in the Middle East. Ben-Ami debunks the mythology about Israel’s founding, embraces the need for a peace settlement that provides dignity and justice to the Palestinians, criticizes Israeli politics for undemocratic tendencies, and blasts Washington’s uncritical support for Israeli policies. “The present path that the State of Israel is on is unsustainable,” he writes. “The occupation of another people and denial of their national aspirations and their rights is not only morally unacceptable, it is a fatal threat to the entire enterprise of the State of Israel.” Elsewhere Ben-Ami writes: “The un-sustainability of the present course seems clear to just about everyone except the present Israeli government and some of the leadership of the American Jewish community.”

The message is not a new one, of course. What makes it meaningful is a messenger who came to deliver it after honest self-reflection. His thinking is well in line with dovish Israelis. Many American Jews agree with him, and some of them have joined or donated to J Street. But in the U.S., few figures in the political mainstream have been as brave as Ben-Ami in expressing strong and valid views critical of Israeli policies and of Israel’s American supporters. We might wager that the boosterish title on the cover, which skirts any reference to the criticism found inside, was given in the hope of deflecting the backlash that books critical of Israel tend to ignite in the U.S. As he notes in the book, opponents of J Street call “my colleagues and me fanatics, anti-Semitic, extremists and self-hating Jews.”

Ben-Ami is hardly any of those things, or even a political lefty. He spent a twenty-five-year career embedded in mainstream Democratic Party politics, starting in his hometown of New York City. He served as deputy domestic policy advisor in the White House during President Bill Clinton’s first term in office.

Giving the author’s critical views great poignancy and standing are Ben-Ami’s deep family connections to the Zionist movement, the Holocaust, and Israel’s war of independence. Both sets of his paternal great-grandparents were among the early Zionist settlers, arriving in Palestine in 1882 and 1891 respectively. His paternal grandparents, Menahem and Sara, were among the sixty-six Jewish families that founded Tel Aviv in 1909—and as a descendent Ben-Ami featured in the city’s centennial celebrations two years ago. The family of Ben-Ami’s mother was in Austria as theAnschluss or German annexation approached. She fled to the United States, but countless relatives who did not escape perished cruelly in Nazi concentration camps.

Ben Ami’s father, Yitshaq, was born in Tel Aviv in 1913, and grew up as the struggle for Palestine, involving Zionists, the Arab population, and the British Mandate authority, turned bloody with the outbreak of anti-Zionist rioting in the 1920s. He became a follower of Vladimir Jabotinsky and went on to play a leading role in the Revisionist Zionism movement. At nineteen, he joined Jabotinsky’s Betar youth group, becoming commander of the Jerusalem branch, and eventually signed up for the Revisionist’s underground militia, the Irgun Zvai Leumi. Revisionists believed that a Jewish state was essential and that violence was a necessary instrument to be used against Arabs and the British in achieving it. The Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, who would later start the hard-line Likud party and serve as prime minister of Israel, was a terrorist group blamed for atrocities such as the Deir Yassin massacre and the bombing of the British military headquarters at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. In 1937, Yitshaq went to Vienna to run the Irgun’s illegal immigration efforts, and two years later he arrived in New York on a mission to alert American Jews to the Nazi threat to European Jewry.

Ben-Ami, born in 1962 and raised in New York, where his father had chosen to settle after Ben-Gurion crushed the Irgun, obviously grew up in a different era and has found himself involved in another type of advocacy concerning Israel. Yishaq remained a hard-liner until his death in 1984, the year his son graduated from Princeton University. At that time, Ben-Ami seemed broadly in sync with his father’s views. He defended Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and reflexively complained about “media bias” against Israel. But he undertook a deep reevaluation of his views on Israel and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict while residing in Israel after serving in the Clinton administration. Having decided to reconnect with his family’s roots, he enrolled in an intensive Hebrew language course and discovered that some of his classmates were Palestinians from Gaza.

The experience was an epiphany. “After thirty-five years of knowing little more than caricatures on which I had been raised,” Ben-Ami writes, “I was now getting to know pharmacists and schoolteachers, fathers and sons, real people with real stories—and I opened a window into a history of which I had been totally unaware.”

The Palestinians shared their stories of national catastrophe, displacement, and occupation in the wake of Zionism’s great triumph. “As with so many young Jewish Americans being exposed to Israel in that era, I was thoroughly steeped in—and loved—the mythology of the State of Israel, its miraculous founding and the astonishing accomplishments of its brief history,” Ben-Ami writes in a particularly moving passage. “There was, however, one huge gap in my learning about the history and the culture of the region and the land. I never learned about the Palestinians. I knew them simply as the enemies of my people. Back then, we called them simply Arabs. My father and his friends were, to me, the true Palestinians. I understood that the Arabs had tried—more than once—to destroy Israel and make the Jews leave. But never once did I hear their side of history. Not one book in our house told their story. Not one class in Hebrew school exposed us to their culture, their backgrounds and lives.”

By the time he returned to the U.S. after two years living in Israel, Ben-Ami says, “my perspective on Israel and the Middle East had been thoroughly altered.” He was determined to put his new outlook in the service of Israeli–Palestinian peace. He would soon experience the serious disconnect between American policies in the Middle East and the realities in the region as he now understood them.

Back in the rough and tumble of American politics and working for Mark Green’s mayoral campaign in New York in 2001, Ben-Ami was appalled when Green’s charitable donation to Americans For Peace Now caused Green’s opponent, a politician with connections to West Bank settlers, to question his candidate’s pro-Israel credentials. Later, as the national policy director for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid, Ben-Ami was driven to similar outrage when opponents staged a furor over Dean’s comment that the U.S. should be ‘even-handed’ in the Arab–Israeli dispute. “These are but two minor examples of what happens every day, everywhere in the country, when American politicians interact with Israel’s most vocal supporters,” Ben-Ami explains. “Strip away the spin and the politics, and what was so terrible about what Dean said or what Green did?”

Those experiences and others led Ben-Ami to establish J Street as a ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ lobby group and political action committee based in Washington, DC. With the help of liberal Jewish philanthropists, including George Soros, Ben-Ami oversees an operational budget of nearly $7 million and a staff of fifty in eight cities. In effect, J Street’s calling is to convince American Jews and the U.S. government to save Israel from itself. Ben-Ami believes that Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestinian territory, in a time of advances in weapons technology, religious polarization and unfavorable demographic trends, threatens the existence of the state of Israel. If Israel does not grant Palestinians voting rights, he suggests, Israel will face increasing international isolation over apartheid-style domination. Yet if it grants Palestinians the vote, eventually an Arab majority will override Israel’s Jewish character through democratic means. Failure to seize the opportunity for a ‘two-state solution,’ Ben-Ami argues, will see Israel “endure a fate of deeper and bloodier violence, deteriorating democracy and growing international isolation.” He derides the complacency of Israelis and Americans alike who fail to see the urgency of addressing the existential crisis and believe that the conflict can be “managed.”

Like most groups of its kind, J Street raises money for and provides campaign backing to politicians running for seats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, lobbies the Congress and American administration to support its outlook on the Middle East, and engages in nationwide grassroots organizing to promote its efforts. Ben-Ami believes that only the U.S. can persuade Israeli leaders to take a different, more sensible course. But American politicians fail to do so, he argues, because they are heavily influenced by “traditional pro-Israel lobbying groups” that “employ a powerful combination of political assistance for those who follow the line and a healthy dose of fear for those who don’t.” Ben-Ami points out that these groups also have an influence on the American Jewish community itself.

The answer, he believes, is to give a greater voice to moderate American Jews, who in turn would push Israeli leaders to make greater efforts to negotiate the fair and just peace deal with Palestinians that Israelis require for their own long-term survival–or else face painful political consequences. Ben-Ami argues that peace is “a fundamental national interest of the United States,” and the lack of an agreement undermines U.S. security–by damaging American credibility and fueling Muslim extremism, for example.

Ben-Ami makes the case that with political will, a solution to the conflict can be found. Simply put, it would require an end to Israel’s forty-four-year occupation of the West Bank and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state there and in the Gaza Strip. He is correct in pointing out that teams of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have worked in public and in secret for nearly twenty years to greatly narrow the differences on the key issues of mutual borders, Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlers, and sovereignty in Jerusalem. The Oslo Accords of 1993, the Camp David Summit and Clinton Parameters of 2000, the Arab peace initiative of 2002, the Geneva Initiative of 2003, and the subsequent discussions between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas collectively point to a historical ‘end of conflict’ agreement that would receive widespread international backing.

In his mission to save Israel, however, Ben-Ami is up against an American Goliath. As executive director of J Street, he presents an insider’s account of how the influential pro-Israel lobby stifles debate and helps skew American policies for the Middle East. Among the ‘traditional’ groups he identifies are the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the American Jewish Committee (AJP), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)—and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, itself an umbrella group of more than fifty Jewish organizations. They broadly constitute a hard-line, right of center bloc that promotes unwavering support of Israeli policies–including the occupation of Palestinian territory or military operations against enemies–in the belief that an iron-clad U.S.-Israel alliance best ensures Israel’s security and also serves American strategic interests.

He traces their power to a tradition from the early days of Israel when Jewish American leaders believed that the credibility of their minority community depended on speaking with a unified voice that brooked no dissent from within. The organizations, or otherwise their affiliates and individual members, raise money for political candidates and advocacy work, and have outreach branches to connect with local Jewish communities. They are supported by a well-funded network of think tanks, polling groups, media watchdogs, not to mention by allied right-wing groups representing ‘Christian Zionists,’ such as the John Hagee Ministries and Christians United For Israel.

Ben-Ami rejects exaggerations of the influence of these groups over U.S. foreign policy as a whole—a criticism of The Israel Lobby, the 2007 book targeted for venomous attacks by pro-Israel forces. But Ben-Ami agrees that the ‘traditional’ organizations have “masterfully written the chapter on Israel in the rulebook of American politics.” It starts, he explains, when a politician first runs for office and is engaged by Jewish community representatives who provide position papers on the Middle East. “The talking points become the basis for standard responses the candidate will memorize and fall back on for the rest of his or her political career,” Ben-Ami says. “After all, they know how important it is to their political future that they learn the proper way to be ‘pro-Israel’—meaning no criticism of Israeli policy, no vocal opposition to settlements and no talk of active American leadership to achieve a two-state deal.” Even candidates elected to local offices will often be invited by AIPAC or other groups to take an escorted trip to Israel for briefings on ‘security threats’ facing Israelis.

All of that is part of American democracy, which is notoriously encumbered by the disproportionate influence of ‘special interest’ groups, including those that promote the right to bear arms, the tobacco trade, and the concerns of retired citizens. But the tactics used by some pro-Israel hard-liners raise disturbing questions about intolerance and intimidation.

Ben-Ami reports on how pro-Israel donors seek to bar community institutions that they support from hosting programs or speakers they deem unacceptable. One example was in 2009 when the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screened Rachel, a film about an American activist named Rachel Corrie, who was killed while protesting in front of an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza. After the screening, five festival board members resigned and financial backers withdrew their support. The local Jewish Federation declared that it would not henceforth fund programs that undermine “the legitimacy of the State of Israel”—including through association with the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions movement. Ben-Ami rejects such tactics as a form of prior restraint and guilt by association.

Ben-Ami goes so far as to compare the tactics to the McCarthysim of the 1950s, and he has regularly been on the receiving end of them. After Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic (a mainstream monthly magazine) asked Ben-Ami to renounce the support of Stephen M. Walt, co-author of The Israel Lobby, Ben-Ami replied, “One of the reasons I won’t answer your call to quote-unquote renounce him is that it really smacks of witch-hunts and thought police.” Ben-Ami observes that many in the Jewish community throw up their hands and walk away in such an atmosphere. “The taunts, the funding threats and the guilt by association all add up to an undemocratic and un-Jewish pattern of limiting dissent,” he says.

An important part of J Street’s mission is to convince Washington policy makers that the traditional pro-Israel groups do not truly represent the views of the majority of American Jews and that their continuing influence is due mainly to their impressive coffers and organizational talents. Ben-Ami offers up polling data collected for J Street that supports the assertion. While a tiny minority of American Jews make Israel the central cause of their political lives, the vast majority do not primarily cast their votes on the basis of a candidate’s position on Israel. Another survey, in 2010, found that 78 percent of Jewish Americans support a ‘two-state solution,’ and by a margin of 82 percent to 18 percent understand that such a solution is necessary to sustain Israeli’s security and Jewish and democratic character.

The polls belie the perception inside the Beltway that American Jews represent a “single-issue voting bloc that cares first and foremost about U.S. policy toward the State of Israel and the broader Middle East.” That perception, Ben-Ami complains, leads politicians to falsely believe that to win Jewish political and financial support, you have to be ‘pro-Israel,’ and the best way to show that is to “tack as far right politically as possible.” Ben-Ami is palpably aghast when he writes: “This political dynamic goes a long way toward explaining how the United States—the world’s sole superpower and the most generous patron of both parties to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict—is unable to find a way to end the conflict when both the need and the solution are so evident.”

The emergence of J Street is itself one of the signs of the struggle within America’s Jewish community over everything from Jewish political clout and the relationship of American Jews with the State of Israel, to the question of Jewish values. Ben-Ami reveals his deep angst over the latter when he argues that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza should end, not simply because they undermine Israel’s security and U.S. national interests. “They should end because they are morally wrong, and the treatment of the Palestinian people and the condition in which many of them live should trouble Jews, who, as a people, have themselves experienced far too much discrimination and mistreatment in their history,” he writes.

Ben-Ami bemoans the fact that “to raise these moral questions opens you to scathing attack and to being labeled as ‘virulently anti-Israel.’” He says that the nationalist obsession with strength and security is understandable, given the immense tragedies in Jewish history, but argues “strength and survival do not require sacrificing the moral core of what it means to be Jewish.”

Ben-Ami highlights a notable feature of the current communal struggle: disillusion and disenchantment among young Jewish Americans, who are growing up not on the heroic stories of Israel’s founding and spectacular military victories, but with constant headlines about Israel’s armed misadventures, human rights abuses, and international isolation. They are being turned off from organized Jewish life and its attachment to the state of Israel, Ben-Ami argues, partly because of the way traditional pro-Israel advocacy groups have shut off open discussion of the issues in favor of “a simple us-versus-them formulation that demands unquestioning support for Israel.” He cites the “seminal brief” by writer Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books in 2010 “indicting the American Jewish establishment not just for rigid adherence to a hawkish orthodoxy on Israel but for driving young, liberal American Jews away from Israel and from their community.”

Nonetheless, the awful record of the Obama administration on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict suggests that the ‘silent majority’ represented by J Street is far from having a significant impact on American policy. Despite Obama’s early pledges to make peacemaking a top priority, which Ben-Ami applauded as “clear from the start,” his administration ignominiously retreated in the face of resistance from Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The leader of the hard-line Likud party, Netanyahu maintains strong support from the traditional pro-Israel groups as well as from Congress. Just how surreal Washington remains on the issue is illustrated by the fact that instead of focusing on Obama’s spinelessness, the conventional wisdom inside the Beltway questions the president for having pressured Israel in the first place. Obama initially enjoyed a high standing in the Arab world, but his popularity plunged still further recently when his administration moved to block a Palestinian diplomatic effort to receive United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood. Writing more than two years into Obama’s term of office, Ben-Ami accurately states that the peace process is in “shambles.”

J Street’s support for Obama’s rejection of Palestinian UN membership perhaps reflects the continuing influence of the traditional pro-Israel groups like AIPAC; J Street, it seems, is anxious not to veer too far from the American Jewish establishment so as to nurture its mainstream credentials in the face of harsh questioning of its political orientation. J Street has, however, strongly opposed punitive moves to cut off U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority. It also opposed plans to withdraw U.S. funding of the United Nations Economic, Scientific, and Cultural Organization after member states voted to grant membership to Palestinians.

The work of J Street is vital as a new era dawns in the Middle East. The hard-line policies of Netanyahu’s government have further deepened Israel’s isolation in the region and the world. Obama’s acquiescence to them has undermined whatever little Arab faith remained in American moral leadership. The Israeli and American leaders at times seem clueless about the shift in Arab foreign policy–to one that is more independent, nationalistic, reflecting popular sentiment, and critical of the U.S. and Israel–that is inevitable after the Arab Spring. The ever-looming showdown over Iran’s nuclear program is a constant reminder of how dangerous things can still get in the Middle East and why sound American policymaking is critical for the security of everyone in the region.

J Street has made a start. A New Voice For Israel, as with J Street’s lobbying efforts, is helping rewrite the narrative of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. That is a task of profound importance. It will take time and won’t be easy. But in that effort, Ben-Ami is an honorable voice.

Oriental Hall, etc.

Yousri Fouda, one of the Arab world’s distinguished journalists, reported on the September 11, 2001, attacks and later landed exclusive interviews with two of its masterminds, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, prior to their capture in Pakistan and detention by U.S. authorities. Speaking at AUC on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, he argued that the Western media inflated Osama bin Laden. “This plot,” Fouda says, “needed someone to pull it together when the smallest things could have foiled it. A perfectionist, really.” That man, he maintains, wasMohammed Atta, the Egyptian ringleader of the hijackers who piloted one of the aircraft into New York’s World Trade Center. Fouda, host of the public affairs program “Last Word” on Egypt’s ON TV channel, believes that with the Arab Spring it is time for the West to see Arabs in a context other than Islamic militancy. “Now there is a chance to do something about the relationship with the West,” he says. “When this started in Tunisia and in Egypt, it really was such a slap in the face to our friends in the West, to the Orientalists, that this could happen without the banners ‘Islam is the solution’. This is a new decade we are walking into, after this decade of Bin Laden.”

If Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces makes way for democracy, will it stay out of politics? Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, believes that much will depend on the national debate. “Like what happened in Turkey, if the pace of public discourse quickens, the military will realize that the old system and its opacity won’t work anymore,” says Sayigh, who spoke at an AUC conference on “The Future of Civil-Military Relations In Egypt” on October 16. An alternative scenario, he says, is the type of political kingmaker role that the military maintains in Algeria. “If the process here is muddy or things become polarized, and people start turning again to the army as their savior, to provide order in the streets, the army, without having to formalize powers, will continue.”

Stephen Everhart believed in the power of people–including business people. As the associate dean for undergraduate studies and administration in AUC’s School of Business, he nurtured business leaders across the Middle East. On June 23, while developing entrepreneurship education for Iraqi university schools of business and commerce, Everhart was tragically killed in a roadside bomb explosion in Baghdad. “He was a tireless and unwavering enthusiast for the work of his students and colleagues,” AUC President Lisa Anderson said at a campus memorial service on September 27. “He knew–he just knew–that they would change the world, and that they would bring financial acumen and sustainability and prosperity to Egypt and the region.”

Africa, Famine and Solutions

How will the cycle of famine in Africa finally come to an end? Once more, we’re watching the horrific images of emaciated children in the arms of mothers who can do little more than hold them. This is in Somalia, Ethiopia, and areas of Kenya, where the United Nations World Food Programme estimates thirteen million people are threatened by the effects of a summer drought and political turmoil. The hunger in the Horn of Africa is a sign of a food crisis spreading across much of the continent. In January, global food prices reached their highest point since the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization began indexing them in the 1990s. That seemed to be more bad news for Africa, whose population is rapidly growing.

In the quest for solutions, here’s a deceptively simple idea: provide Africans with better business education.

Jonathan Cook, a senior lecturer in business at the University of Pretoria, argues that underlying problems like blockage in supply chains, ineffectual management, and a dearth of innovation in agribusiness can be effectively addressed by a new generation of Africans trained in innovative business schools. “I think it is business schools that can stand in the creative space, between agriculture, as an area of research and development, and business, which is who buys what is produced,” he says.

Cook participated with political figures, academics, and entrepreneurs in “Food Crisis Challenges and Opportunities for Supply Chain Excellence in Africa,” a round table hosted in October by the School of Business at the American University in Cairo. The immediate need, he believes, is to make curricula strongly relevant to local conditions and challenges. He notes that there are 774 business and training degree and certificate programs available in African universities, yet relatively few of them offer programs in agribusiness or supply-chain management.

An important challenge that African business schools can help tackle is the new “scramble for Africa,” the drive by Chinese and Indian megacompanies to secure agriculture deals on a continent that contains 60 percent of the world’s remaining unused or underused arable land. It’s crucial, insists David Abdulai, executive director of the Graduate School of Business Leadership at the University of South Africa, that business schools inculcate a sense of sustainable development.

For example, he explains, graduates need to be equipped with the business and legal tools to negotiate national development benefits in exchange for foreign investment in the agriculture sector. “They should be able to say, ‘Okay, a certain percentage of what you are doing should have to do with technology transfer, and should have to do with selling a certain amount of X in the market, rather than taking everything with you,’” he says.

Another area in which business schools can advance solutions is the production of information about African markets, says Nagla Rizk, associate dean of graduate studies and research at AUC’s business school. Such knowledge, for example, could help devise better crop irrigation, planting, and storage strategies. “A country’s access to knowledge, their systems of informal innovation, if they have balanced intellectual property systems, or if there is incentive for collaborative projects and for science, are all examples of the informal metrics that lead to better local information and solutions,” says Rizk.

Cook brushes aside concerns that Africa’s population boom will deepen the continent’s food crisis. He supports the theory that, like Asia, Africa could enjoy a “demographic dividend”—an opportunity to spur economic growth through the labor of a large able-bodied generation. What he’d like to see is a boom in the number of business schools, too. “There are thousands of business schools around India and around China,” says Cook, who chairs the Association of African Business Schools. “There need to be more of us here as well.”

Free Speech in the Age of Twitter

In the final weeks of 2010, an uprising, set off by the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in the southern town of Sidi Bouzid, stirred in Tunisia. With international media largely banned from the country, coverage of the growing protests was confined to on-line media, namely blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Using the Twitter hashtag #SidiBouzid, media-savvy activists worked around the clock to inform the world of the uprising and drew increasing international media attention to the story.

Twitter played a vital role, too, in the uprisings that ensued in other Arab countries. In Egypt, besides utilizing Facebook, activists employed the hashtag #Jan25 to promote the mass demonstration that launched the Tahrir Square revolt. As the protests began, Twitter was ablaze with activity, as demonstrators first tweeted with jubilation, then later with dismay as activists were arrested and news websites blocked. By the end of January 25, Twitter itself was among the sites censored; on January 26, it was joined by Facebook.

When the Egyptian government shut down the Internet on January 27, some feared a bloodbath. Without the Internet, without the ability to keep the world’s witnesses informed, they surmised, atrocities would go unrecorded, unseen until too late.

But Egyptians were resourceful in defying the blackout. They took advantage of Small Message Service (SMS or texting) functions on sporadically available mobile telephone networks, and reverted to dial-up Internet connections on unaffected landlines. Their tweets were picked up by international media organizations such as the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian, CNN, and Al Jazeera, and thereby helped ensure that the voice of Egyptians would not be silenced.

Central to their efforts was Twitter. The microblogging platform, home to a modest community of Egyptian users that has since grown, collaborated with Google to create Speak2Tweet, a service that enabled Egyptians to call an international phone number and leave a voicemail message, which would then be transcribed and tweeted, and distributed across multiple Internet platforms. The service, released on January 31, capitalized on Google’s then-recent acquisition of voice recognition tool SayNow. Speak2Tweet attracted ten thousand followers in a few weeks. The initial messages, at the height of the Internet blackout, were picked up, translated, and spread widely by mainstream media.

Twitter has emerged as an important tool for digital organizers in the past few years. The platform’s abbreviated nature—allowing short messages of no more than 140 characters—makes Twitter simple to use. Its architecture, which enables users to send messages from third-party services such as Tweetdeck, as well as via mobile phones using SMS, makes it relatively resistant to censorship. The function of hashtags, which group tweets by subject, allows users to create intentional conversations that enhance the effect of the messages.

Twitter’s popularity in the Arab Spring brought it greater recognition, but it had already changed the face of social interaction. Tweeting celebrities have discovered an effective new way to communicate with fans, while corporations talk directly with consumers outside the bounds of traditional advertising and marketing channels. Countless communities have formed around certain topics and events, such as the #Journchat hashtag that brings journalists and students together to discuss the craft, or the hashtags for Monday Night Football enthusiasts in the United States. Politicians have grasped the tool’s utility, too. The account for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, @BarackObama, has nearly eleven million followers. Policy makers from American congresswoman Claire McCaskill of Missouri to European parliamentarian Marietje Schaake of the Netherlands have taken advantage of the tool to interact with constituents and promote their own efforts. The U.S. State Department has used Twitter in its public diplomacy efforts—and has even created an Arabic-language account to more effectively cover the Middle East user base.

Tool of Protest

Some reporting on the Arab Spring has depicted digital activism in the Arab world as a new phenomenon. In fact, the origins of Arab digital activism can be traced back more than a decade, to Tunisia, which has the distinction of being the first Arab country on-line (in 1991), the first to arrest a blogger (in 2000), and the first to have a ruler overthrown partly through the efforts of digital activists (in 2011).

In 2004, a Tunisian activist posted a video, using the pseudonym Astrubal, remixing a popular 1984 Apple Computer advertisement to depict angry Tunisian citizens rising up against the regime of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. The video, which piggybacked on the earlier efforts of Tunisian activists both on-line and off, was simple but innovative, expressing a widely shared sentiment without words.

The next few years saw an explosion in the use of digital tools by Arab activists. In Egypt, anti-torture campaigners like Wael Abbas bravely posted videos of police brutality on YouTube. That incurred the wrath of Egyptian authorities. It was also deemed too graphic to YouTube moderators, who initially removed the video for violating the site’s content policy. In Morocco, an anti-corruption activist known only as the Targuist Sniper caught police taking bribes on camera, spurring Moroccan authorities to copy his methods in an effort to clamp down on petty corruption.

The launch of Twitter in 2006 initially went unnoticed in the region. Even as it began to catch on, its use was hampered by poor support of the Arabic language on the platform and, later, by a lack of support on third parties, such as those developing applications for Apple’s iPhone. But in 2008, Twitter gained wider attention in the Middle East following the detention by Egyptian authorities of American journalism student James Buck.

The police hauled Buck into custody while he was reporting on worker protests in Al-Mahalla Al-Kobra, a city in the Nile Delta region north of Cairo. En route to the police station, Buck pulled out his phone and surreptitiously tweeted the word “arrested.” Over the course of a few hours, he sent updates about his situation via Twitter, which were then picked up and passed on to other audiences by Egyptian bloggers. That, in turn, attracted the attention of mainstream journalists, and probably helped secure Buck’s release. Afterwards, Buck used Twitter to publicize the detention of his translator, Mohammed Maree, who was also eventually released, albeit three months later. At the time, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone called Buck’s story compelling, noting that it “highlights the simplicity and value of a real-time communication network that follows you wherever you go.”

Later in 2008, activists in Palestine and abroad used the hashtag #Gaza to raise awareness of the plight of Palestinians during Israel’s ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in Gaza, often sparring with pro-Israel users of the service. The Israeli government recognized the impact of the #Gaza hashtag, and even called the first Twitter press conference in an apparent response to it, with officials at the Israeli consulate in New York answering questions on Twitter about the Gaza conflict. On the first anniversary of the Israeli operation, solidarity activists succeeded in causing the topic to show up on Twitter’s ‘Trending’ list, a sidebar that tracks prominent hashtags and terms being used on the site.

‘Twitter Revolution’

In Iran, protesters took Twitter activism to a new level. Following what was widely believed to be the rigged reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009, angry Iranians took to the streets, chanting “Where is my vote?” Eventually, millions of protesters swelled in Tehran and other Iranian cities. Iranians used Twitter to help organize what became known as the ‘Green Revolution’ (named after the campaign color employed by opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi) and provide up-to-the-minute reports from citizen journalists. International media organizations, whose reporters were restricted from covering events on the ground even if they were present in Iran, increasingly took to citing Twitter accounts of the protests and police crackdown in their reports. Paraphrasing jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron’s composition “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” social commentator Andrew Sullivan memorably declared, “The revolution will be twittered.” Iranian protesters, Sullivan argued, “can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before.”

But Iran’s uprising was not the first to be dubbed a ‘Twitter revolution.’ Earlier in 2009, scholar Evgeny Morozov used the term to refer to protests in Moldova over fraudulent elections and discontent with Communist rule. He noted that protesters were tweeting at a “record-breaking rate.” Though Morozov later, famously, questioned the use of the term, it was—for better or worse—here to stay.

Movements credited to social media spread beyond the Middle East in 2011. The ‘M15’ protests in Spain demanding political and economic reform were first announced on Twitter, while the social justice protests in Israel spread with the use of the hashtag #J14. In San Francisco, where a longstanding campaign against transit police had stagnated, the use of social media managed to suddenly resurrect the issue. The ‘Occupy’ movement, which started in New York City in September and has spread throughout the United States, Western Europe, and beyond, has made use of Twitter to attract followers and provide on-the-ground accounts of the activists’ actions.

Twitter’s architecture gives it certain advantages. While Facebook, and similar platforms, are enclosed, with content largely or even wholly placed behind a log-in wall and accessible only to other users, Twitter is inherently public. As science fiction writer William Gibson has observed, Facebook is like a mall, while Twitter “actually feels like the street. You can bump into anybody on Twitter.”

Twitter’s openness provides utility not only to activists, who can seek out like-minded individuals easily through the site, but also to mainstream journalists, who are increasingly looking to Twitter for sources, information, and perspective. Twitter, indeed, has created a special format for the media. NPR journalist Andy Carvin, formerly a social media strategist, has used the tool to curate news from the various Arab uprisings. Many journalists tweeted reports directly from Tahrir Square.

Perhaps more important than Twitter’s architecture, however, is its commitment to free speech. In contrast with many other Internet companies, it has adopted a strict no-censorship policy and intervenes only when users post illegal content. Twitter also scores free-speech points by allowing users to remain somewhat anonymous. While their IP addresses are logged (meaning that legitimate requests by law enforcement authorities can lead to the identity of users), individuals using the site can choose to identify by whatever name they choose, allowing a degree of anonymity for safer operation under repressive or threatening conditions. By contrast, Facebook and Google+ require the submission of real or common names as a condition of registration, and regularly remove those reported to be using pseudonyms.

Twitter’s ever increasing user base, coupled with its functionality and protection of free expression, has made it the platform of choice for activists. Twitter’s openness allows topics to quickly go viral with just a single tweet from a well-known person, a function often leveraged by well-connected activists. Its simplicity makes it easy to search for breaking news; activists and journalists alike follow Twitter closely to be on top of events. And its ease of use from mobile phones makes it easy to check and update.

Fighting Internet Censorship

Free expression is on shaky ground in the Internet age, with more than fifty countries censoring the Internet in some way. Egypt’s complete shutdown during the Tahrir uprising set a new precedent for stifling speech; while the Syrian regime, embattled by protests since March, has utilized tools made by American companies to monitor its citizens’ on-line activities. Almost all Middle East and North African governments engage in Internet censorship of some kind.

While Twitter’s policy has always been not to mediate content between users (users who report other users for bad behavior receive a note to that effect), the company’s commitment to free expression was tested in 2011 by the release of secret diplomatic cables by Wikileaks. Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of parliament in Iceland, announced on Twitter in January that all of her account information, including direct messages, dating back to November 2009, had been demanded of Twitter by the United States Department of Justice in its investigation into Wikileaks. The demand, backed by a federal court order, sought the mailing addresses, billing information, connection records, session times, and IP addresses used to connect to her Twitter account; some of which is information that Twitter does not even track. The order requested the same information for the accounts of various activists as well as for that of Wikileaks itself. In addition to the demand for information, Twitter was placed under a gag order to prevent the company from informing the concerned parties about the U.S. government demand. Twitter, however, chose to fight back. It asked that the gag order be lifted, and the request was granted.

Commenting on its position, Twitter issued a statement on January 28, 2011, titled “The Tweets Must Flow.” It said: “Our position on freedom of expression carries with it a mandate to protect our users’ right to speak freely and preserve their ability to contest having their private information revealed. While we may need to release information as required by law, we try to notify Twitter users before handing over their information whenever we can so they have a fair chance to fight the request if they so choose . . . We will continue to increase our transparency in this area and encourage you to let us know if you think we have not met our aspirations with regard to your freedom of expression.”

Twitter was tested again in August 2011 when, following a week of rioting in Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that censorship of social networks might be necessary to stop the violence. Twitter, along with Blackberry and Facebook, met with British Home Secretary Theresa May following Cameron’s comments. While no statement was made by Twitter afterwards, the British government’s calls for censorship ceased.

The impulse to censor is by no means confined to authoritarian regimes. Regulations being drafted in various countries, including France and New Zealand, would disconnect users from their Internet service providers entirely if they used the Internet in the violation of copyright statutes. The governments of Britain and Australia have leveraged their power over Internet service providers to enforce censorship of obscene content.

With private companies—such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook—increasingly playing host to public speech, the on-line public sphere is increasingly privatized. Their social networking tools have made global discourse simpler, but the policies of the companies behind the tools are rarely in compliance with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” In fact, privately owned companies are often all too willing to cave in to pressure and shut down speech, as occurred last year when Amazon, PayPal, and others denied service to WikiLeaks.

In the face of censorship—threatened or real—human rights and civil liberties advocates have taken up cyber arms. They are fighting against restrictive legislation, such as the Protect IP Act in the United States, which would give the government greater powers to shut down websites deemed to be engaging in on-line piracy. If enacted, prosecutors could seek court orders seizing domain names of offender sites, and requiring search engines, advertising networks, and payment transaction firms to cease dealings with them. Advocates are also working, through projects like the Global Network Initiative and the International Digital Economy Accords, to convince companies that human rights and free speech are good for their bottom lines. Meanwhile, there is a need for tighter regulation of surveillance equipment. American and other Western companies have for years exported their wares with impunity to authoritarian regimes. The European Union recently enacted legislation to restrict the export of such software, while rights groups in the United States are lobbying for similar measures.

Activists themselves are showing resolve in the face of censorship. Nascent groups, such as the Tunisian Association for Digital Freedom (ATLN), as well as more established organizations like the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), are promoting digital rights. Independent activists are regularly addressing threats to free expression in their own countries. In the U.S., they are exposing hypocrisy in government policies, such as the Commerce Department export controls enacted on Syria that effectively deny Syrian citizens access to vital communications tools like Google’s Chrome browser and Java. One recent campaign targeted the hashtag of a Silicon Valley human rights and technology conference, in an attempt to drum up attention. Still others engage in ‘hacktivism,’ conducting attacks against websites for a cause.

Egyptian activist Hossam El-Hamalawy blogged an important observation in 2008. “The Internet is only a medium and a tool by which we can support our ‘off-line’ activities,” he said. “Our strength will always stem from the fact that we’ll have one foot in the cyberspace, and, more importantly, the other foot will be on the ground.” Yet activists have become acutely aware of the importance of on-line expression. Their struggle now includes the cause of an open Internet.

Jillian C. York is the director of International Freedom of Expression at the  Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. From 2008 to 2011 she was a project coordinator at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She is a regular contributor to Global Voices Online and serves on its board of directors. She has been a contributor to other publications, including the Guardian, Index on Censorship, SHIFT Mag, Huffington Post, Bloomberg, Foreign Policy, and to the Al Jazeera English channel. York is the co-founder of the Talk Morocco blog, and blogs at jilliancyork.com.

“People Need Tools”

At first, Twitter seemed like another amusement for Internet geeks. It’s a service that enables you to send brief digital messages of no more than one hundred forty characters via the Internet for whoever might like to hear what you are thinking or doing. (“My cat is making the cutest face!”) But when you realize that your ‘tweets’ can be read not only by a few friends, but by millions of people in your country and around the world (“Hey, join the revolution in Tahrir Square!”), that’s no joke.

Just five years after tech entrepreneurs Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams brainstormed the idea, one hundred million users log in to Twitter every month—half of those on a daily basis—to transmit messages for others to read, or to view the latest tweets posted on the Twitter pages of organizations, groups, businesses, and individuals they want to be connected with. Hollywood celebrities like Ashton Kutcher (eight million followers on Twitter) and Charlie Sheen (five million) helped popularize Twitter by using the service for self-promotion, but Twitter is a proven tool for informing and organizing people around serious issues. Eleven million users get news flashes from CNN via Twitter. Barack Obama (eleven million followers) used Twitter to rally financial contributors and supporters for his successful 2008 run for the White House. Twitter, of course, is credited with assisting antigovernment protesters during Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009 and the Arab Spring of 2011.

While Twitter embodies the awesome force of social networking on the Internet, it’s cofounders believe that they have only scratched the surface of what is possible. On June 28 at the Aspen Ideas Festival 2011 in Aspen, Colorado, Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson spoke with Stone and Williams on the topic “What Is Next For The Internet?”

WALTER ISAACSON: We are actually going to start with a piece of news about the future of the Internet and seriously, a significant piece of news.

BIZ STONE: Evan and I and our longtime collaborator, Jason Goldman—our dream was always to build our own company where we get to make whatever we want, whatever we think is going to be helpful to the world and make the world a better place. And so we put up a website today and we’re calling our company “The Obvious Corporation.” And we don’t have anything specific to say about exactly what we’re going to be working on just yet. We’re not ready to reveal that. But we’re excited to announce that we have started a new company.

EVAN WILLIAMS: It’s actually a relaunch of sorts. “Obvious” was the company that incubated Twitter before spinning it off into its own company. The original idea with Obvious was that we were going to create multiple things and see where they went and we didn’t end up doing that many things. What we’re really excited about is building systems that help people work together to improve the world in various ways. We think that’s really so much of what the Internet promises. At least the bright side is people working together to become greater than they could individually or greater than even organizations and institutions can be.

WALTER ISAACSON: You’re talking about launching a few products of Twitter-like quality that would help people collaborate?

EVAN WILLIAMS: And collaborate could mean various things and Twitter-like quality could mean various things. Our goal is to have impact. If we get as lucky as we did with Twitter, that would be great. There’s a whole wave of new companies and services starting today that are about helping people work together to do things. It’s one thing to just find like-minded people and talk about stuff. It’s another thing to find like-minded people and then do stuff. And I think that’s what we’ve seen in the Middle East. We’ve seen much smaller examples throughout the history of Twitter, from stories we heard early on about people saying, “Hey, it’s Christmas time. There’s a bunch of homeless people on the street. Let’s go give them blankets and food. Who’s with me?” We heard stories like this and we were convinced that that wouldn’t have happened if people didn’t have this . . . communication channel—that these thoughts get blocked in people’s minds and they don’t get out there unless you give them mechanisms to connect to other like-minded people. So that scratches the surface of what’s possible in much bigger arenas, I think.

BIZ STONE: It seems like we’re just beginning to scratch the surface on the Internet and on specific applications like Kickstarter and to an extent, DonorsChoose and things like this that are allowing people to virtually collaborate to effect real world positive change. And in many ways, Twitter has done that. It’s not entirely what it’s about, but it has done that in certain cases. But there’s a proliferation of startups and of apps that are doing that now.

WALTER ISAACSON: In some ways, this is the history of the Internet because it was started as a collaborative medium and it became something different for a while, became a “put your stuff out there” medium.

EVAN WILLIAMS: It absolutely did. [The] original goal was to help scientists collaborate. And then it took on this very, very commercial mode—where the default paradigm for commerce was one-way and we’ll push stuff out to people and they will consume. They will buy things and they will consume our media and they will consume our advertisements. And then there’s a next wave where we realize, well, this is a two-way medium and people don’t just consume, they participate, they create media themselves. And there’s many great examples of people collaborating on the Internet to create software, to create information like Wikipedia. I think bringing that collaboration back to the real world is sort of the next phase that we’re picturing.

BIZ STONE: The way that I sort of simply think about it in my mind is that there was this pure collaborative seed in the very beginning at CERN [European Organization for Nuclear Research], right? Then blogging came along and some little seedlings started to sprout through the cracks and we lowered the barrier to self-publishing. So the democratization of information suddenly flourished. And now we’re entering that sort of third phase where it’s not just an overwhelming amount of information. There’s people working on relevance to get you the best information as quick as possible, but also this third phase includes taking the virtual and making it real and making true, real, positive global changes in the world . . . Everyone thought for the first nine months of Twitter, everyone thought it was just totally useless. And they said it to our face every day and finally, one day, Ev just got frustrated and said, “Well, so is ice cream. Do you want us to ban ice cream and all joy?”

WALTER ISAACSON: Before we get into the future of the Internet, let me pick back on something you said, which was the Arab Spring. [New Yorker writer] Malcolm Gladwell comes out with his argument you know, that the revolution will not be tweeted. This is all bull.

BIZ STONE: His argument was these revolutions aren’t Twitter revolutions. No one said they were. So that was weird. Basically, I wrote a rebuttal that said, look, agreed. Huge, major change like the civil rights movement comes from people. People need tools, you know. The telephone was a big part of bringing down the Berlin Wall, but the telephone didn’t bring down the Berlin Wall. I just think that his argument was kind of a straw man thing. I just think he was angry that people kept writing Twitter into their headlines. And so he said, “Look, Twitter had nothing to do with it.” But in fact, it did have a sideline part because these people were ready to speak up. Twitter was a tool that helped them realize that others felt like them and it emboldened them and allowed them to feel like, “Okay, maybe we can do this.” And so it has a role as a simple tool but at the same time, Twitter must remain a neutral technology, not picking sides, not getting involved, not celebrating any part of helping in any success or anything like that.

WALTER ISAACSON: Well, you call it a neutral technology, but let me ask you a question. Do you think from Gutenberg to Twitter, the technologies that enable a freer flow of information and communication inevitably bend the arc of history towards democracy?

EVAN WILLIAMS: What do you think? Yeah, I want to know your answer to that.

WALTER ISAACSON: The answer is yes. I mean it empowers and enables people. That makes democracy. It’s not neutral. It doesn’t empower authoritarian regimes.

BIZ STONE: Well, you could probably use it to do that. But it wouldn’t be as effective, I don’t think. But the thing we’re facing now is that, you know, like the State Department is suddenly very cozy with Twitter because they were like, “Oh, wow, we were trying to get this done with AK-47s and you guys kind of did it with tweets. Can we be friends?” But I maintain that it has to be a neutral technology because there are different forms of democracy. And you don’t want your company, you don’t want your technology, you don’t want Twitter to look like it’s simply a tool to spread the United States’ version of democracy around the world. You know, you want it to help for good, but you don’t want it to look like you’re in the pocket of the U.S. government. And so we try to do that as much as we can, just to try to speak out and say that they have no access to our decision-making capabilities.

EVAN WILLIAMS: One thing that’s changed a lot is the global nature of the Internet. And now if you create a consumer web service, most of your users are going to be outside the United States. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the heart of Silicon Valley and launch only in English. Most of your users are outside the U.S. because most of the people are outside the U.S. and that changes how you think about things from kind of the get-go and it comes up in all kinds of policy decisions as you get big. And then the State Department starts calling and all kinds of other weird things happen when you’re a company of, like, forty people and why is this happening. But I think an interesting factor in designing anything these days is that if you can make something truly global, that it’s more global than it was even five or ten years ago with digital networks. I want to create and launch Twitter in Korean in January. And Twitter and maybe Facebook now are the first two services to grow substantially in Korea that are not from Korea. And even though they’re very advanced, they have high-speed Internet connections, they have lots of home-grown Internet services, there is something culturally that kept most of the users on the home-grown sites. But people want to be connected to the global network . So you can’t separate the stuff anymore. It has to be part of one massive system. Which also leads to other interesting things like the Internet becoming more closed and less decentralized. But that’s another topic.

WALTER ISAACSON: Is there a problem with the future of the Internet that you think it might become more closed?

EVAN WILLIAMS: Absolutely. I think there are a lot of trends that push it toward being a more closed environment, and specifically, the economics of the centralized systems and the user-experience benefits of centralized systems are very powerful.

WALTER ISAACSON: Are you talking about Apple, for example?

EVAN WILLIAMS: Apple is a good example, as is Facebook, as is YouTube even. Let’s take YouTube as a less talked-about example. YouTube isn’t closed but it is very centralized. And if ten years ago, if you would have talked to anyone, any technologist, they would have said obviously, video is coming to the Internet as bandwidth increases and storage costs decrease. But at the time, no one I know would have said, yes, and 80 percent of the video views are going to be run through one service. That would have been a strange thought at the time because the Internet model was decentralization. Every website, every newspaper, everyone has their own island on the Internet. So why wouldn’t video work the same way? And now we’re looking at a world where if you want to publish a video, you’d probably publish it on YouTube whether you’re a major media outlet—[you] may be published on your own site, but lots of organizations publish on YouTube partly at first, it’s because it was a lot easier. But now it’s because that’s where the viewers are. And so it has big network effects and those network effects will keep it, make it more and more powerful, and the same thing with Facebook and the same thing with Apple now. If you want to write a mobile phone app, then you’re going to publish through Apple’s store because that’s the only way to get it on the phone and because that’s great for users. And it’s the same thing over and over again… that the user experience is superior if it’s centralized and then the reach is better and the economics are better. So what we’re getting is a platform where there’s a few major players that are getting bigger and bigger and there’s opportunities for little guys to be on these major players’ platforms, but I think it’s going to be more dependent on these platforms than they were before.

WALTER ISAACSON: Well, couldn’t you put Twitter on that list?

EVAN WILLIAMS: Yes, hopefully.

BIZ STONE: It’s almost like there’s a bunch of different Internets and you just pick the one you want to work with.

WALTER ISAACSON: So we have moved. I mean by Internet, most of us have grown up thinking [of] the Internet, which it has been for twenty years, as basically HTTP web-based Internet. So we’ve had twenty years of a web-based Internet. Now you’re saying we’re moving towards a social network-based Internet, but there will be certain platforms like Facebook or whatever, YouTube, and that will be more centrally controlled perhaps?

BIZ STONE: You could go on your iPod Touch and just not have Safari and still get almost everything you need. You get maps. You can get Wikipedia. I mean everything’s on there.

EVAN WILLIAMS: But I think the distinction that’s important isn’t whether it’s HTTP. Most of the apps use HTTP in the background. And so that confuses the story a little bit. I think what’s important is the paradigm has shifted from a completely decentralized Internet to a more and more centralized Internet. So you have to go through the apps store to get an app on your phone. That’s very, very different than anyone can put up a website. And if a site uses Facebook Connect or Twitter accounts to log into their website because people are automatically having accounts and even tapping their social graph, that’s very, very different than the days when you created everything from scratch. And I liken it to in the early days everybody had sort of an island and they tried to live on that island, they tried to attract visitors. They tried to attract tourists to the island. Tourists would show up and they’d issue them a passport and feed them whatever goods, you know, whatever coconuts they grew on that island. And then over time, a lot of islands were like, well, we can’t be completely self-sustainable. So we’re going to import things and so some of the first things they imported were advertising networks. We’re going to import monetization and we’re going to import search. And it kind of stopped there but, you know, you could import your CMS [Content Management System]. So that’s what Blogger did really. It had a centralized CMS and published out to lots of different places. And now you can import your identity, now people are saying, screw, we don’t even need to own our land. We’re just going to rent in this mall basically, and all these services will be provided for us, and we’re just going to exist at a much higher level, which makes a lot of sense from an entrepreneurial standpoint. It can be a lot more effective, but that means you’re very dependent on that landowner.

WALTER ISAACSON: And what’s the downside?

EVAN WILLIAMS: Maybe the landowners get too much control.

WALTER ISAACSON: Until Facebook changes or Apple changes their terms of service, yeah?

BIZ STONE: This is a little bit different, but when we started Odeo, it was a podcasting service that let you record into your browser, and send that recording out to anyone who had an iPhone, and they would sync it with their iPhone. And then Apple said we are podcasting in iTunes. And we said that’s probably a good place for it. That’s probably better than our website. And so once they made that decision, we had to pivot.

WALTER ISAACSON: And another big difference, if you’re doing it apps-based as opposed to just purely web-based, it’s not searchable and linkable as much, right?

BIZ STONE: Right. It’s not part of the Internet, the greater Internet really.

EVAN WILLIAMS: I think in many ways, apps are a step backwards from the web because they’re not connectable.

WALTER ISAACSON: What else are you worried about in the future of the Internet?

BIZ STONE: You should ask Goldman about what we’re worried about because he’s the more cynical one. We’re both, as Ev says, hallucinogenically optimistic. And Jason’s always like, “But here are the ten ways we can get screwed.”

EVAN WILLIAMS: I’m definitely an optimist. But one thing we’ve talked about is quality of content. For the last fifteen years, we’ve worked on lowering the barrier to content creation. And that’s had all these positive effects. But it seems that no one has been working on how do we improve the quality of content on the Internet. I think this is highly possible, but if you look at what reading an article on the web looks like today, it’s basically the same as if you read in a magazine or if you printed it out, you have the same experience. And once it’s published… the collective intelligence that’s available in the world doesn’t really collaborate to improve it and the process of creation isn’t very much different than traditional media. It’s just the distribution is the only thing that’s changed. I think all those things could potentially change, the consumption experience, the evolution of information after it gets out there, the production process could be way more efficient and open. So that’s a really interesting opportunity in a way that things could actually improve that haven’t, really. I mean the publishing industry in general is—there was a lot of turmoil and despair, it seems, because like well, the Internet screwed our business model, which is true. But I’m optimistic there are more fundamental things than how distribution happens to change about publishing.

WALTER ISAACSON: And where does collaborativeness come in beyond the “Wiki” phenomenon?

EVAN WILLIAMS: Well, I think there hasn’t been nearly enough experimentation between user-generated content and professional content. And there are pretty much different worlds on the Internet today, and the best you get is an article and then a bunch of comments underneath the article completely separated and those comments can be from anybody. So no one ever reads them because they’re—you know.

WALTER ISAACSON: Talk about it.

EVAN WILLIAMS: Like, I want to read my New York Times after Walter has read it and highlighted and written in the margins. Not everybody in the world, but you know, depending on what the article is, someone who’s expert, I don’t know exactly what that looks like. There’s all kinds of ideas. Just like Wikipedia, there’s a collective intelligence that collaborates to make more accurate information most of the time. Why doesn’t that exist outside Wikipedia?

BIZ STONE: Right. And just to your point about collaboration and I think there’s much more ways of thinking about collaboration on the web than, you know, groupware or specific apps created to collaborate. You know, just apps like Twitter that are just wide open where you can follow any interest that you like. Whether you tweet or not is up to you, but you can follow your interests on Twitter. You can follow your mom. You can follow CNN. You can follow, you know, whatever it is, anything, Nike. I think there’s a lot of potential for collaboration, because people meet others that they would never have met if they were just on a social network, because you connect with people you already know there. You’re just reaffirming your relationship, but when you’re on a fundamentally different system where you’re following people you wish you knew instead of people you used to know, then you’re kind of—it’s more of like an aspirational thing. And we’ve seen it over and over again. People are holding these tweets up where they say, look, we’ve all started following each other on Twitter and why don’t we get together and meet each other in real life? And it has all these wonderful repercussions. First of all, one of the earlier tweetups was, let’s get together and raise money for charity: water. I’m going to say in my town, let’s all meet together at this pub and buy a $20 ticket, and that $20 would go to charity: water to build wells for people who don’t have clean water in developing nations. And then what happened was that grew to two hundred and fifty cities around the world and they raised a quarter of a million dollars on one Tuesday night.

WALTER ISAACSON: You know, that’s a good example, but there aren’t that many of them of how you make the virtual world connect to the physical world. In other words, people have their virtual friends and virtual followers or whatever and there’s been a disjuncture. So is the future of the Internet somehow or another, better integrating the real world than your virtual worlds?

BIZ STONE: Yes, it is.


EVAN WILLIAMS: [Holding up a mobile phone] Well, this does a lot to do that.

BIZ STONE: Mobile, yeah.

EVAN WILLIAMS: You no longer have to be sitting at your desk to experience the Internet, and it’s more interspersed in our daily lives, and then new applications are available with this. So this simple idea of, like, I now call a taxi from this is kind of integrating the Internet to real life.

BIZ STONE: You don’t have to actually tell the taxi where you are. You just press the button. He shows up at your house.

EVAN WILLIAMS: What I’m excited about is more examples. Have you heard of Carrotmob? So Carrotmob’s so named because it’s the opposite of a boycott, anti-boycott. The idea is people should vote with their dollars. But the only organized way to do that, say, we’re going to boycott this business. And that’s kind of negative and also it doesn’t seem like there’s necessarily an effect most of the time. So this guy got the idea we should use the carrot instead of the stick and we should go to a business and say, we want you to do this, and if you do, we’ll all spend our money. And so for example, this guy from San Francisco went to all these liquor stores in the Mission and got them to bid for how much they would contribute to improving efficiency in their store out of all the people who organized and bought stuff, and the highest bid was 22 percent. And so they rallied the troops and they got all these people to show up at their store. They got like two hundred people to show up. And they bought everything in the store. The guy normally makes one thousand bucks a day. He made ten thousand bucks that day. And he put $2,200 into replacing the lights . . . It wasn’t a group-on, just to get people in here. They presumably bought things they would anyway and then they were further invested in the store, both emotionally and actually financially. I love that.

BIZ STONE: It was a fun thing. The pictures he showed us of the first event were like all these people in line, talking and chatting, meeting each other, and since then, there’s been lots of them in Germany and all around the world. And it’s just sort of taken on a life of its own.

WALTER ISAACSON: Would the future of the Internet be better if there were less anonymity or at least the option to be involved in Internet where people weren’t anonymous, if you could be secure on who they were?

EVAN WILLIAMS: I think so. And there’s a lot of benefits in anonymity, but not most of the everyday use cases.

WALTER ISAACSON: I mean leave aside the Arab Spring type politics of it.

BIZ STONE: I think sometimes in more dangerous situations, you need to be able to protect your anonymity and then in other times when you want to open up and get ahead in life because you want a better job or whatever, you want to use your real name and you want to open up and show your interests and what you can do and that sort of thing. But if you’re more of like a whistleblower in a dangerous area or something, you want to be able to protect your privacy.

WALTER ISAACSON: Well, the reason I ask is you keep talking about the collaborative web. It seems to me that only works if I actually can trust that I know who I’m collaborating with.

EVAN WILLIAMS: I think that’s true. I think reputation is incredibly important in society in general. So we need to replicate that to some degree online and most large systems do have a concept of reputation, Twitter, Facebook. I’m sure behind the scenes at least, most large systems do because it’s a way to combat abuse . . . You don’t necessarily have to use your real name. You can participate under a pseudonym or something, but there needs to be longevity to and a history of your actions. So there has to be cost to throwing away an identity and creating a new one. Because if there’s not, then there’s no consequences for our acting badly as there is in society.

WALTER ISAACSON: Google today launched Google+ or at least unveiled it, which is trying to be a competitor to Facebook and trying to do it by guaranteeing you more privacy. Do you see the possibility that Facebook could be displaced, the way Myspace was, as the foundation for social networking?

BIZ STONE: Could Facebook be displaced like MySpace? You know, the general answer for that is when you get displaced, it’s because you displaced yourself. Like MySpace shot itself in the foot.

WALTER ISAACSON: Is Facebook doing that?

BIZ STONE: So the key is execute, keep your eye on the user, do what they need you to do. And MySpace tripped up there. Facebook seems to have a really firm grasp of its users, but they also seem to have a “we’re going to do it whether you like it or not” kind of attitude “because we’re really smart, and we know what the right answer is even if you don’t think you do.”

WALTER ISAACSON: Suppose you were building a new service or product that needed to be based somehow on the platform of a social network with the identity and whatever. Would you feel comfortable basing it on Facebook, Ev?

EVAN WILLIAMS: I would probably use Facebook if it were useful, but I wouldn’t depend on it. I think Facebook can [be] really useful, both for users and for sites to bring in people, you know. So I don’t think Facebook will be displaced. I mean, what they do is too fundamental, connecting with people you know, their core use case, sharing photos and messaging with people you know is very fundamental to obviously most of the world it seemed. But I think what’s going to be really hard for them is the same thing that’s really hard for every big company, which is extending that to everything. And so what I hear from people who use Facebook a lot is it gets to a point where it’s too big for certain things or they’re just—because you form a network on Facebook based on what you do on Facebook. And so Google’s, you know, been pretty public about their theory is that you don’t want to share all the same stuff with everybody. And so if they can successfully get people to create these different circles, whatever they’re calling them, of people, then they said that would more naturally map to what people want to do. That could be successful. And people will still probably keep using Facebook for the stuff they use Facebook for today, because that will be very, very hard to displace. But something else could come along to be better for some specific other use—which I think is what happened with Twitter. And to be fair, Facebook has all the functionality that the new Google Circles does. But people aren’t used to using it that way. And I think that’s a lesson we’ve seen in creating these services over the years: the norms of the culture of the system define what people do with it as much or more than the actual functionality possible in the system, if that makes sense.

WALTER ISAACSON: Tom Friedman started this week by saying he’s never used Twitter, never used Facebook, and never seen any reason why he would ever do it. Do you have a response to that?

BIZ STONE: Well, I would challenge him on whether or not he’s actually used Twitter, because I would ask him have you ever watched CNN or read any other newspaper? Have you ever read the New York Times? There are tweets in the New York Times. There are tweets all the time on CNN. The chances are he’s read a tweet, he’s a Twitter user.

WALTER ISAACSON: But are there people [who] can get by without social networking? Is social networking going to be a fundamental part of our lives from here on out? On the Internet.



BIZ STONE: Probably.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: The other side of the Internet is connecting to massive computing power that has a lot of knowledge. It seems to me that maybe we should be thinking about those kinds of uses where, say, a physician wants to get best practices, or something like that. You’re not going to get it out on Facebook where you get a whole bunch of ideas from wacky people. You’re going to want to get it from something that has distilled all of this knowledge and really gives you something to go. So there’s going to be a place for that side of computing too, I’d like to suggest.

EVAN WILLIAMS: I totally agree. I think that’s a great example of when it comes to the collaboration we’re talking about, it doesn’t mean with everybody in the world. Most of the systems developed haven’t allowed for—it’s kind of like, user-generated content versus professional. It’s one or the other, it’s everybody in the world including nut jobs and haters who just want to attack everybody else, or it’s this closed system. I think there has to be nuance in between that, to allow people to earn credibility or to be able to connect with only those who have a certain amount of trust.

BIZ STONE: One of the things we were always excited about with Twitter was that maybe one day down the line—since Twitter was designed to work on all five billion mobile phones, because they all have SMS or mobile texting and it’s 140 characters and their limit is 160, so it fits within it—we always thought like, wow, we might be able to have an impact in rural areas where a farmer could ask a question—”can I get a better price for this grain”—or a pregnant woman who has to travel fifty miles to the doctor could ask her question—“are these symptoms worth the trip”—and get an answer back from a doctor, yes, or no. And in fact, tests have already been done in Uganda and other places where the SMS, just simple SMS, where, you know, lives have been saved because they’ve been able to report medical diagnoses just over SMS. And even some guys in Berkeley invented a microscope you can slip over an iPhone and you can take a microscopic picture of the virus and then send that picture in an e-mail, from, you know, a ramshackle kind of clinic to a fancy clinic and get back within a minute a diagnosis of that virus.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: You started off talking about the separation of the Internet with companies, but there’s also the issue of separation of the global common medium with countries. And I’m wondering if you have any concern about that, Iran or China or what happened in Egypt in terms of the global common medium of the Internet, and if you have any interest in pushing for a single global digital market?

BIZ STONE: Our philosophy has always been that the open exchange of information can have a positive impact on the world. We often get blocked by countries that don’t agree with that philosophy. We’re blocked in China now. We’re probably blocked in some other places. The funny thing is people find ways to continue twittering. We’ve found that in order to completely shut down people from twittering you have to shut down the entire telecommunication service and the Internet. And when you do that you cripple your entire state. So it’s really not worth it. Like, even now that we’re blocked in China we still see in our logs traffic coming from China. So people are figuring out ways around the block to continue to collaborate, to tweet, to share information.

EVAN WILLIAMS: What I worry about is the separate worlds within the U.S. and people only paying attention to people who agree with them. That’s one of the ironic things about what all these technologies have created, is more separation in some ways rather than more connection. And there’s less of a common market place of ideas to some degree because people are just filtering out everything that is from a different viewpoint. And the technologies encourage you to filter these things out.

BIZ STONE: Some of the Twitter stuff we’re doing is starting to get tweets from others that they’re not following. So, I mean, one of the dreams of ours has always been to say, like, okay, we know you live in Berkeley and you drive over the Bay Bridge everyday. Maybe you don’t follow the Bay Bridge on Twitter, but we just thought that you might like to know that the Bay Bridge fell down. And you’d be like, okay, yes, I do like to know that, thank you. And you wouldn’t be like, screw you, why are you tweeting me? You’d be, like, this is good information. There’s a billion tweets every six days. There’s definitely information in there for everybody that’s relevant. The Twitter team has to work really hard on delivering those relevant tweets to the people who need them right now wherever they are on their mobile device so that their lives can be made smarter, richer, better for it. When Twitter first broke out it was because we went to a conference called South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. We went to the nerd portion and it was early on in Twitter’s history where basically it was just nerds on Twitter and nerds at the conference and it was a huge overlap. And a few things happened, but I’ll just relate one. And that was, there was a guy at a pub. He wanted to talk more freely and openly with his colleagues at the pub, but it was really loud in that pub. So he used Twitter to send in a tweet that says, hey, it’s too loud here, how about we walk over to this other pub on Sixth Street? He named the pub. In the eight minutes that took him to walk to that pub it was completely filled to capacity, there was line around the block. His plan totally backfired but what had happened was in eight minutes eight hundred people had converged on one spot from one tweet because he sent it to his followers, his followers thought it was a good idea and sent it out, and so on. And the metaphor that came to my mind was that of a flock of birds moving around an object in flight like a tree or a telephone pole and when you look at it, it looks like its incredibly choreographed, it looks incredibly complicated and difficult and yet it’s not. The mechanics of flocking are totally rudimentary. It’s just simple communication among individuals in real time that allow the many to behave as if they’re one, almost as if they’re one organism. And this for the first time ever we were seeing people behaving almost as if they were one organism like this. We’d never heard of a tool or never seen anything like this before. And that sent chills down our spine because we thought, sure, this is a party, but what if it had been something more serious, a disaster, you know, a political situation. We actually went back, I think it was two days later, and formed Twitter Incorporated because that was the first big realization that we’re onto a new form of communication among humans that could potentially, you know, change the world.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: One thing that we always read about is there are a lot of people like me on Twitter. We use it all the time but we’re actually a minority of the user base. And a lot of people know what Twitter is but not many of them are active users every day. So I guess I’m wondering how you guys are tackling that issue in what you’re doing.

BIZ STONE: Well, it also depends on how you describe an active user. We like to say that [to] get value out of the Internet, you don’t have to create a web page. You don’t have to necessarily tweet to get value out of Twitter. You know, one billion tweets every six days, there’s a lot of info, and there’s 1.65 billion searches a day, there’s a lot in there to find.

EVAN WILLIAMS: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s two answers there. One is that most of the reports that have come out about what the percentage of active users are in Twitter are only looking at tweet creation and we see that’s a little bit of a misunderstanding that people have when we talk to people all the time. It’s like, yeah, I don’t use Twitter, I just don’t know what to tweet, I have nothing to say to the world, and then it turns out they’ve either actually read tweets all the time or we start interviewing and say, well, what are you interested in and turns out we can create them a Twitter stream that they love and go back to all the time. It turns out I think two out of three Twitter sessions result in no tweets being created but people are using [it] as a source of information. So most of the measures do not look at that, so Twitter as a company cares about the people who are getting information from it just as much [as] the people creating the information. And that percentage is increasing over time because a lot of times the early adopters were more likely to create. So there actually are a lot of active users they may not know about. And two is, because of that sort of misunderstanding that we’ve been trying to correct for a long time and people are getting more and more of an understanding. I think the Osama Bin Laden thing [when a man live-tweeted the U.S. raid on the Al-Qaeda leader in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May] was for Twitter a great milestone for a lot of people who saw it. Oh, this information came out on Twitter. Oh, Twitter is a news source. Oh, I get it now. It’s not about the cliché, “Here’s what I had for lunch today.” It’s about getting information I care about that’s happening in the world. And I may not even have to have a Twitter account but this stuff is here and it’s real time and it’s relevant to me no matter what I do or where I am.

BIZ STONE: I probably check Twitter like twenty-two times a day and tweet once a day. I think you can define engagement in two different ways and I think for a long time a lot of Internet companies have been defining engagement the wrong way. I think if you define engagement as hours spent staring at a computer screen, like, yes, on average our users spent eight hours staring at our site, like, we are awesome at engagement. I think that’s a very unhealthy way to measure engagement. I think that if your users are checking your service twenty, thirty times a day for ten seconds at a time to make a quick decision or figure out what they want to do next or what have you, that’s a way better type of engagement. That’s a healthy engagement that shows that our service is helping them make choices everyday, efficiently and smarter and saving time et cetera.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: What has really surprised you about what Twitter has become? I’m assuming the scale of it and the magnitude and the diversity of it is a little bit beyond what you might have anticipated. But what has really been a surprise to you as Twitter has become a kind of an emergent phenomenon and changed over time? And what do you think it might become in the future?

BIZ STONE: There is an element of, “Holy crap, we didn’t know it was going to be this big of a deal.” But we had worked on Blogger for so long and we knew that giving a voice to the voiceless and allowing them to create a webpage for free that spoke about injustice, or was in many ways the only way they could get their information out, was important. And we supported that and we designed our, you know, rules and fought against our parent company to keep it free and open and err on the side of freedom of speech and all those other stuff because we knew that it was important in the world. And so we had a feeling when we were working on Twitter, even though it was fun in the beginning, that there was the potential of it also having that same kind of impact in the world. What wasn’t expected was we lowered the bar so much more down. With Blogger, you had to have an Internet connection and at first you had to know how even to FTP [File Transfer Protocol] and stuff like that. With Twitter you just needed to know how to do a text message, which the world was getting to know very quickly. What really surprised me anyways was the speed that Twitter grew out and the speed at which all the stuff was adopted and the way that it sped up democracy and sped up business and sped up all these other things.

WALTER ISAACSON: Was it a holy sh— moment, when all of a sudden somebody says [during the 2009 protests in Iran], “Hi, I’m Jared or Alec from the State Department, and would you please not do maintenance this weekend because we’re having a revolution somewhere?”

EVAN WILLIAMS: That was a big week.

BIZ STONE: There was some energy in the office when we did that, yeah. But again my primary thing on that was, oh boy, I don’t want people to think we’re doing this because they asked us to. So I wrote a blog post that day that said, look, we got hundreds of e-mails, we had hundreds of tweets and we had lots of phone calls and one of those phone calls in the middle of all this stuff was from the State Department. And we decided to change the maintenance window because all these users thought it was a good idea, and frankly we really should be up anyways. But we’re not doing this because the State Department asked us, and they don’t have access to our decision-making capabilities. We wanted to have that global neutral vibe to us, but yeah, there was a lot of energy that day.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: On places like Twitter and Facebook, how do small businesses get more recognition, get followed, aside from being bigger?

BIZ STONE: The beauty of small businesses in Twitter has not escaped us from the very beginning, because you don’t have to have a lot of followers. Early on I was in New York City and I walked by a bakery that was, like, mostly did cookies. And they had part of a cardboard box with a magic marker that said, “Follow us on Twitter. When the cookies come out of the oven warm we’ll tweet.” And I was like that’s genius because even if only ninety eight people in the neighborhood follow that account [and] everyone just gets out of the office runs down there, they just sold all their cookies. And all they needed for their entire marketing department was a Sharpie and a piece of a box. You know what I mean? And then you take that idea and you extend it out to developing nations and people who sell grains on a blanket at a market. And they could say, “Hey, follow me on Twitter and I’ll tell you if I get a special grain next week,” or something like that. There’s a whole huge group of small businesses that aren’t going to build a website and advertise, but they can for free get a Twitter account and a chalkboard and go for it.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: There’s a lot of talk right now about the tech bubble. Is it going to burst?

EVAN WILLIAMS: I’m not a speculator about the stock market but I think there’s a lot of excitement right now because a lot of the stuff is getting real. And that was always what people foresaw with the Internet from the first dot-com boom. It is becoming central to people’s lives and now the user base that you can reach a billion people on a service and you can actually make a lot of money is very clear to people. So as usual, maybe investor excitement is outpacing the development of the businesses. Long-term I don’t think it’s a problem. I’m holding my Twitter stock long-term. So I think if there is a correction it’s, you know, these things always go in cycles. So that will be fine. But there are fundamental businesses that are here for the long term.

The Cairo Review is grateful to Walter Isaacson and the Aspen Institute for permission to publish the text of the Aspen Ideas Festival 2011 discussion with Mr. Stone and Mr. Williams.

Walter Isaacson is the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. He has been the chairman and CEO of CNN and the managing editor of TIME. His most recent book is Steve Jobs, a biography of the late cofounder, chairman, and CEO of Apple Inc. He is also the author of Einstein: His Life and Universe; Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; Kissinger: A Biography, and coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. Isaacson is chairman of the board of Teach for America and was appointed by President Barack Obama.

The Revolution Will Be Tweeted

What happened in January 2011 in Egypt did not start in January 2011. It began at least ten years earlier, and it’s not over yet. The revolution was joined by people of all walks of life, Internet users and non-users alike. It gained momentum once it was joined by hundreds of thousands of workers, many of whom have been demonstrating for years. Why was this particular round of demonstrations so successful? Much of the organization and mobilization occurred through the Internet, particularly on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. But social media also played a vital role as a democratic model. Its inclusive space indirectly taught lessons in democracy to a wide sector of Egyptian youth that was not necessarily politically inclined. When the right moment arrived, they were ready to join the revolt.

The main catalyst for the January 25 revolution was the Internet, so it may be accurate to describe this as an Internet-based revolution. Not that the Internet was the only factor involved, or that Internet users were the only ones protesting. But the Internet was the tool that showed every dissident voice in Egypt that he or she is not alone, and is indeed joined by at least hundreds of thousands who seek change.

Facebook did not go to Tahrir Square. The people did. Twitter did not go to Al-Qaied Ibrahim Square. The people did. More than one-third of Egypt’s population of eighty million remains illiterate, and just 25 percent of Egyptians use the Internet. However, Facebook and Twitter were instrumental in organizing, motivating, and directing these crowds as to where to go and what to do. Egypt’s revolution was created as an event on Facebook eleven days in advance. People clicked “I’m attending.” Certainly, this was a people’s revolution, yet one based on and accelerated in many ways by the Internet. What happened in Tahrir and every square in Egypt was the accumulation of years and years of activism, including Internet activism. Social media prepared Egyptians for the revolution and enabled them to capitalize on an opportunity for change when the time came.

The Internet, by definition, is a democratic medium, at least in the sense that anyone with Internet access is a potential publisher of information. The average person may not have a chance to publish a newspaper article, or even a letter to the editor, and may not have a chance to appear on television, or to call in to a program. But they can readily design a website, publish a blog, or have a page on the numerous social networking sites, whereby they can make their views public. The mere presence of the Internet as a source of information helps open up a freer space for public debate, and makes it much more difficult for governments to censor information. When regimes censor an article in a magazine or an entire edition of a newspaper, that article or newspaper will find its way on to the Internet and in people’s email boxes.

Internet activism started in Egypt with the appearance of Web 2.0 technology in the country around 2003. The new generation of interactive applications that took over the Internet since then has enabled and empowered the Internet user to do with the tools what was never possible before. This started with very simple tools, such as enabling readers to leave comments on a news story, and soon proliferated to include applications that changed the face of the Internet through making it much easier to have user-generated content. Blogging was the first valuable brainchild of Web 2.0 technologies. A blog, short for ‘Web log,’ is an Internet personalized space where someone can ‘blog’ or write their own thoughts about anything they please. The Internet has always been a user-based platform. But before Web 2.0, the options were very limited. One had to learn HTML (Web design language) to be able to build a website. The on-line services that enabled a user to create a ‘page’ from some templates were very limited both in size and in design options. Blogging changed that forever.

From Off-line to On-line Activism

The phenomenon exploded in the Arab world, with Egyptian bloggers pioneering and leading the scene. Blogger numbers in the region approached half a million by the beginning of 2009, the great majority of them coming from Egypt. Although Egyptian bloggers constitute under 0.5 percent of the total blogs available on-line, they managed to show that they can act as elements of change in their society. Political blogging in particular became more popular, as users felt that they could remain anonymous if they so wished. Nevertheless, most Egyptian political bloggers choose to blog under their real names, which frequently got them in trouble with the regime. The state security crackdown on bloggers was testimony to their potential impact.

Undoubtedly, blogging created a space for the voiceless in Egypt. It was the first time individuals felt they could make themselves heard. That in itself was important, whether or not the content was political, and whether or not anyone was reading the blogs. The phenomenon created a venting space for people who had long gone unheard. Some made very good use of the opportunity. Within a few years, star bloggers appeared in Egypt. They created names for themselves by blogging constantly and credibly. Soon, they started being internationally recognized, and more Egyptians in turn took notice. Early on, Alaa Abdel Fattah and Manal Hassan were awarded the Special Award from Reporters Without Borders in the international Deutsche Welle’s 2005 Weblog Awards (Best of Blogs) contest, where their blog was cited as an instrumental information source for the country’s human rights and democratic reform movement. The husband-and-wife team had created one of Egypt’s earliest blogs, “Manal and Alaa’s Bit Bucket,” where they documented their off-line activism and posted credible information on protests and political movements, election monitoring and rigging, and police brutality.

Another award-winning blogger was Wael Abbas. He received several honors, including the 2007 Knight International Journalism Award of the International Center for Journalists for “raising the standards of media excellence” in his country. This was the first time that a blogger, rather than a traditional journalist, won the prestigious journalism award, a testament to the important work such bloggers were doing. In the same year, CNN named Abbas Middle East Person of the Year. He has been instrumental in bringing to light videos of police brutality in Egypt, a topic that was taboo before he and other bloggers ventured into it. As a result of these efforts, the Egyptian government at one point brought three police officers to justice on charges of police brutality for the first time in Egypt’s history; they were convicted and sentenced to three years in jail.

As blogging was becoming a phenomenon in Egypt, some political movements started having a strong on-line presence, and taking to the streets based on their on-line organization. The most important was probably the Kefaya movement, whose formal name is The Egyptian Movement for Change. The movement was established in 2004 by a coalition of political forces, and became better known by its Arabic slogan. The word kefaya is Arabic for ‘enough,’ and as the name implies, the movement called for an end to the decades-old Mubarak regime, and for guarantees that his son would not succeed him as president. Kefaya was instrumental in taking people to the streets, thus bridging the gap between the on-line and the off-line worlds. Many of its supporters were bloggers, and many of the street protesters started blogging. So, increasingly, reports on the demonstrations found their way into blogs and were provided media coverage even when the traditional media ignored them or were afraid to cover them. One result was that many more Egyptians gained the courage to write blogs that openly criticized the authoritarian system and crossed the ‘red line’ of challenging their president.

Internet applications such as the video-sharing platform YouTube, which appeared in 2005, took blogging to a higher level. Not only were activists such as the Kefaya protesters able to document their demonstrations through articles on their blogs, now they were also capable of videotaping street protests and uploading the clips on YouTube. Watching people chanting “Down with Hosni Mubarak” in the mid-2000s was a totally new, riveting experience, which led many other brave Egyptians to join these demonstrations. Internet activists and blogger stars such as Wael Abbas, Alaa Abdel Fattah, Manal Hassan, Hossam El-Hamalawy, Malek Mostafa, and others uploaded hundreds of videos of police brutality, election rigging, and different violations of human and civic rights.

“The Federal Democratic Republic of Facebook”

The next important development came with the introduction of what is typically known as social media, the platforms that allow for wider user discussions and user-generated content such as MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. Social networks of this sort were a welcome addition to Egyptian cyberspace and to the on-line activism circles for several reasons, and I believe their structure indirectly taught Egyptians several lessons in democracy.

In my analysis of the use of these social networks in Egypt, it is important to note that they have had a greater effect on previously apolitical Internet users rather than on core on-line activists The latter, after all, tended to carry their activism to the street with or without social media, although of course social media helped them disseminate their activism to a much wider audience.

Picture yourself in the middle of a circle of ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ who follow your every move on their news feeds or timelines. That circle is your social networking page, be it on Facebook or Twitter. Whenever you are on that page, you are in the middle of the circle, you are the center of attention. Those people on the outside of the circle are all gathered around you. They have their eyes on you, they watch your every move, they listen to (or read) your every comment or post, and they reply or comment back if you allow them. In that space, you are king or queen. You have the power to befriend whoever you want, or block whoever you want. You have the power and the freedom to say whatever you want, post comments as you please, post links to videos or articles that you deem interesting, because you can. This is your space, and everyone on the outside of the circle is expected to play by your rules.

There is a catch: the moment you click on someone else’s name from the people on the outside of the circle, you immediately move into their space, where they become the center of attention, and you become one of the many people forming the circle. Literally, at the click of a mouse, the center of the circle has changed, and you are now on the periphery rather than in the center. You know you can easily go back to the center with another click of the mouse, but you know you have to play that role interchangeably if you want to be part of a ‘social network.’

The structure of social media taught Egyptians that space exists that you can call your own, your space, where you can speak your mind. To many in the West, this is probably no big deal. There are countless venues where they can express their opinions relatively freely. But for people in Egypt, and in the Arab world in general, this was a new phenomenon, and one I believe to be of profound importance.

The second valuable lesson it taught Egyptians was a lesson in what I call ‘horizontal communication.’ Before social networks, Egyptian youth were accustomed to being talked at, rather than talked to or spoken with. Communication was mostly vertical, coming from the regime down to everyone else. The youth had several layers of that vertical communication imposed on them, sometimes with even their own families forming one such layer. Authoritarian patterns of communication do not allow for much horizontal interaction. But social networks do, and eventually their existence on the Internet taught Egyptian youths a few lessons in democratic communication, even if the essence of the conversations carried out was not necessarily political in nature.

The bulk of those that I believe were affected by these lessons in democratic expression were clusters of the population that were not previously politically oriented. These form a good sector of those who took to the streets on January 25, and were joined by millions who held their ground in Tahrir Square and in every square in Egypt until Mubarak was toppled. The majority of these millions, including myself, were people who had never participated in a demonstration before. They were not political activists before January 25, but they saw or heard the call for action, and it touched a nerve as they found safety in numbers. Which brings me back to another function that social networks served: making you realize that you’re not alone.

Perhaps the first time Egyptians learned about the power of social networks was on April 6, 2008. Workers in the Egyptian city of Al-Mahalla Al-Kobra planned a demonstration to demand higher wages. Esraa Abdel Fattah, an activist then twenty eight years old, felt for the workers and wanted to help them. She formed a group on Facebook and called it ‘April 6 Strike’ to rally support for the workers. She knew it was too much to ask people to join in the protest, so she simply asked them to participate in spirit by staying home that day, not going to work, and not engaging in any monetary transactions such as buying or selling. The group was brought to the attention of the traditional media and was featured on one of Egypt’s popular talk shows, thus getting more exposure. What ensued surpassed all expectations. To Abdel Fattah’s own surprise (and everyone else’s), the Facebook group immediately attracted some seventy three thousand members. Many of these, and others who got the message through traditional media, decided to stay home in solidarity with the workers. Others were encouraged to stay home by a bad sandstorm that swept across parts of Egypt that day, and yet others stayed home for fear of the strong police presence on the streets. The overall outcome made political activists realize that social networks could be a vital tool in generating support for a political cause, and in encouraging people to join a call for action. The April 6 Youth movement that grew out of that Facebook effort became a notable opposition force, and was quite active in the January 25 revolution. Abdel Fattah, who was detained for two weeks immediately after the April 6 action, became known in the media as the ‘Facebook girl.’

The April 6 event was meaningful because it provided a sense that people were actually willing to take an action, to do something beyond clicking a mouse. Yet, doubts remained about the potential of social media as a tool of protest, as some argued that calling on people to stay within the safe confinement of their homes is different from calling on them to go out and demonstrate in a high-risk situation.

Indeed, three months before the January 25 revolution, Malcolm Gladwell argued in a much-discussed article in The New Yorker under the title “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted” that social media can’t provide what social change has always required. He said that social media is good when you’re asking people for small-scale, low-risk action, but not for anything more. “Facebook activism succeeds,” he wrote, “not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.” He explained that this is because high-risk activism is a “strong-tie phenomenon,” meaning that those who carry out such acts of activism have to personally know each other well and develop strong personal ties before they would risk their lives for each other or for a common cause. Since Facebook and Twitter provide mostly “weak-tie” connections, since users typically have a strong off-line social tie with only a small percentage of their ‘friends’ or ‘followers,’ these social networks were therefore not capable of motivating people for a high-risk cause. He therefore concluded that a social network “makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”

I’m not sure if Gladwell’s comments make sense within Western culture, but they certainly did not hold true in Egypt. Indeed, there were many times since January 25 when I myself, an inexperienced protester, ventured alone to a demonstration, and couldn’t help but feel absolutely safe in the warmth of people that I did not know personally. I always felt that these fellow Egyptians would protect me with their lives if that was necessary, and that I would do the same for them. And indeed, there are documented cases of Egyptian protesters who died in the line of fire as they tried to protect someone else, someone that they did not know.

The trick, I think, is knowing that you are in the company of many who share your utter belief in the same cause. That is something that social networks delivered. In a 2009 essay entitled “The Federal Democratic Republic of Facebook,” I argued that social network users in the Arab world developed a sense of patriotism to the network (or to certain pages or functions of it) analogous to that which they have for their countries because the social networks afforded them a great deal more democracy than their own countries. I argued that Facebook has a lot to teach Arabs about democracy as it affords users the opportunity to speak their minds with no ‘red lines’, and gives them the freedom to associate with whoever they deem appropriate without direct interference from authority. Unlike Arab governments, Facebook officials do not torture political dissidents and do not jail citizen journalists. I argued, therefore, that the feelings of belonging to the social network might in time create a sense of real community that is not present in the Arab off-line communities, and might help make Arab citizens bolder in their political demands as they learn that they are not alone in these demands.

“We Are All Khaled Said”

One of the Facebook pages that played a major role in this regard was the Khaled Said page. Khaled Said was a young Egyptian who was brutally beaten to death by police informants outside an Internet café in Alexandria in June 2010. He had an innocent face that everyone could identify with. He could be anyone, and anyone could’ve been him. The Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” appeared shortly thereafter. It started asking its members, whose numbers increased steadily, to go out on silent standing protests in black shirts with their back to the streets. The demonstrations started in Alexandria and soon spread to every governorate in Egypt. Numbers increased with every protest. More and more people gained a little more courage and tasted the freedom of dissent.

One of the main advantages of the Khaled Said page was how well organized the events were. Protesters were provided with exact times and locations, and given exact instructions on what to wear, what to do, as well as who to contact in the case of any problems with security forces. The page quickly became one of the most popular on Facebook among Egyptian users; and it was the Khaled Said page that eventually posted the ‘event’ for a massive demonstration on January 25, Egypt’s Police Day. It was only several days into the demonstrations when it was revealed that the group was administered primarily by a Google marketing executive, Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian who was detained on January 27 for twelve days by state security police.

The organizational (and democratic) skills of the Khaled Said page administrators played an important role. Over the course of several months, the page gained wide credibility, partly because the events it posted were always well organized, and the users’ opinions were taken into consideration in planning them. The administrators usually polled their users, asking them to vote for their place or time of preference for the next protest. The responses would be in the thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, and the administrators would read them all, and give a breakdown, with exact numbers and percentages, of the votes. By January 25, the Khaled Said page users had developed enough trust in the administrators and in the thousands of fellow users they did not know personally to actually go out and demonstrate.

The January 25 demonstration was motivated and aided by an important intervening variable, the revolt in Tunisia. When Tunisian protesters succeeded in ousting President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, Egyptians felt that toppling a dictator through demonstrations was finally possible. (I suspect they were a little jealous that it didn’t happen in Egypt first.) The Khaled Said page, which by then had about six hundred thousand followers, demonstrated its strong ability to organize. They listed all the major squares in every Egyptian governorate where they expected people to gather, and again gave specific instructions on what to wear, what to take with you, and who to contact in times of trouble. They then alerted the users that the listed venues for demonstration would change at midnight on January 24 to give police forces a lesser chance of mobilizing against them the next day. On the morning of January 25, there were close to half a million people who had clicked “I’m attending” the revolution. Today, the Khaled Said page has more than 1.7 million users, by far more than any other Egyptian Facebook page.

The concept of the power in numbers is important, because it encouraged people who had no experience in demonstrating to actually go out on the streets on January 25. This was the first time that an event created for a demonstration showed so many people intending to attend. If half a million people indicate they are going to demonstrate, chances are you will not end up in the company of a few hundred.

And indeed that was what happened. We witnessed another key moment illustrating the power of the interaction between social media, traditional media, and interpersonal communication. Newspapers, broadcasters, and on-line outlets had been discussing the potential ‘Facebook demonstration’ for a few days prior to January 25. As groups of demonstrators marched through the streets enroute to main squares chanting “Ya ahalina endamo lina,” (“Friends and family, come join us”), people watching from their balconies and windows heeded the calls and enabled the protests to snowball to unprecedented numbers. People were galvanized by the sight. The core activists, who attended every demonstration for years, were suddenly seeing new faces on January 25, mostly mobilized by the Internet. They came by the thousands, and then by the hundreds of thousands, numbers larger than anyone had expected.

Twitter played an important though slightly different role. Crucial messages relayed in short bursts of one hundred and forty characters or less made protesters ‘cut to the chase.’ Most activists tweeted events live rather than posting them on Facebook. Twitter was mainly used to let people know what was happening on the ground, and alert them to any potential danger. It usually was ahead of Facebook in such efforts. Twitter also enabled activists to keep an eye on each other. Some managed to tweet ‘arrested’ or ‘taken by police’ before their mobile phones were confiscated. Those words were incredibly important in determining what happened to them and in trying to help them. Most activists are, to this day, in the habit of tweeting their whereabouts constantly, even before they go to sleep, because they know that fellow activists worry if they disappear from the Twittersphere.

Egyptians Prove Gladwell Wrong

When the Egyptian regime belatedly realized on January 25 how dangerous social networks could be to its survival, the first thing it did was block Twitter. Internet censorship is a ridiculously ineffective strategy, though. Users were tech-savvy enough to find their way onto proxy servers within minutes, and to post on Facebook how to gain access to Twitter and how to remain on Facebook if the regime blocks it, which indeed happened later. The government felt it didn’t have any other option but to block all Internet access in the country for five days starting January 27 (as well as mobile telephone communications for one day). By then it was too late. People had already found their way to Tahrir and nearly every square in Egypt. Ironically, some were partly motivated by the Internet and communication blockage to take to the streets to find out what was happening and be part of it. And they were joined by workers’ movements in many governorates that expanded the protester numbers into the millions. The major squares of Egypt were full of people of every age, gender, religion, creed, and socio-economic status.

Gladwell, it turned out, was wrong. These people didn’t know each other personally, but the “weak” personal ties had not proved a barrier to high-risk activism. Egyptians discovered the strong tie of belonging to the common cause of ousting a dictator. We have all seen pictures and videos that went viral from Tahrir Square of people who have probably never used a computer crediting Facebook and/or Twitter for some aspect of the revolution. Social network users were not the only ones revolting, and social networks were not the only reason or motivation for revolt. However, the role that social media have played over the years in indirectly preparing sectors of Egyptian youths for this moment, and in enabling them to capitalize on an opportunity for change when the time came, cannot be understated.  It can also be said that the role of social networks in Egypt has hardly ended. The revolution is not yet complete.

Rasha A. Abdulla is an associate professor in the department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo. She is the author of numerous monographs, including The Internet in Egypt and the Arab World; The Internet in the Arab World: Egypt and Beyond; and Policing the Internet in the Arab World. She is the recipient of the 1993 Mostafa and Ali Amin Journalism Award, the International Communication Association Outstanding Teaching Award in 2003, and AUC’s 2011 Excellence in Research and Creative Endeavors Award.

Egypt’s Search for Truth

When the deposed former president Hosni Mubarak was wheeled on a hospital bed into the makeshift Cairo courtroom hastily prepared for his trial, the process of transitional justice in Egypt appeared to have achieved an important symbolic victory. The sight of the former autocrat laid low before a court of law to be held accountable for his actions was undoubtedly an important marker of the fundamental changes that have convulsed Egypt following its eighteen-day uprising and the fall of the Mubarak regime. After numerous court proceedings against former Mubarak advisors and confidants, the start of the trial also appeared to fulfill a central demand of the uprising: that Mubarak and his cronies face justice for their past crimes. Yet, the outsized focus on the former president and the speed with which his trial was initiated also raised troubling questions about the future scope and trajectory of transitional justice efforts, converging with broader worries about the course of Egypt’s transition.

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Much like the muddled political transition overseen by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), transitional justice has been characterized by ad hoc decision-making and suffered from a fundamental lack of transparency and popular participation. The outcome of Egypt’s extended struggle for political supremacy—parliamentary elections are due to take place in November 2011 and presidential balloting at a date still to be determined—will shape the depth and scope of transitional justice efforts. Based on the reactionary posture of the SCAF during its tenure as Egypt’s ruling authority, it is a near certainty that transitional justice efforts will remain rudimentary until such time as civilian authority is reinstated. The transition to civilian authority will provide an opportunity to revisit those areas that have been neglected during SCAF’s control. Renewed focus on justice, accountability, and equality before the law would also provide a significant link to the ethos that animated Egypt’s unexpected uprising and direct attention to those lofty goals at a time when prosaic and flawed politics are becoming the central focus of the country’s attention.

Transitional justice will be highly contested within Egyptian society. The goals of these efforts are not simply retributive, although punishment and deterrence through prosecutorial action are certainly important results. Addressing the claims of the former regime’s victims would help in establishing a credible basis for political reconciliation. The creation of an unimpeachable historical record of the excesses and abuses of the Mubarak regime would play a significant role in the difficult long-term task of forming an open and accountable political culture.

The normative value of transitional justice efforts would also have political utility if implemented judiciously, as efforts at increasing accountability for past regime crimes would be an important route to ensuring the supremacy of civilian governance and bolstering the country’s democratic infrastructure. This type of initiative could also play an important part in nurturing judicial independence as a check against future official abuse.

The Egyptian military would likely be much more comfortable with a discrete focus on the excesses of Egypt’s crony-capitalist economy and the violence associated with the repression of the January 25 uprising. The military has played a less pronounced political role in recent years, but a more probing initiative that sought to speak to the systematic crimes of the former regime and its predecessors would more directly implicate the military in light of its central role within Egypt’s authoritarian superstructure. This is particularly the case for earlier periods when Egypt could be described as a military state and society, and the military and its officer corps were implicated directly in day-to-day repression. As such, the military would be averse to broader efforts seeking to document state repression during the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, in addition to the years of Mubarak’s rule. Demonstrating credibly the repression that has characterized the Egyptian state since the Free Officers’ Movement and the toppling of King Farouk in 1952, however, would have the benefits of reinforcing the imperative to break with the past and lending legitimacy to civilian efforts to limit military interference in governance.

Conversely, an aborted or truncated transitional justice process would likely have deleterious effects on Egyptian society and would divert the search for truth to unfortunate ends. Association with the former regime would provide fodder for the politics of demagoguery and character assassination, with no recourse to institutional checks or burden of proof. The questions that animate transitional justice efforts will not be resolved in the short term. Decisions in the coming months will perhaps complicate future options but will not necessarily foreclose all of them completely. The complex process that undergirds the push for truth and accountability will undoubtedly evolve over time. The struggle to define earlier eras will play a key part in the country’s political discourse, and it is likely that transitional justice efforts will mirror Egypt’s future political, social, and cultural evolution.

From Nuremberg to South Africa

The widely varying responses of countries to the past and issues of accountability indicate that there is no agreed-upon set of prescribed approaches to transitional justice. National responses are an outgrowth of the particular circumstances of a country undergoing a transitional juncture. Yet, accumulated practice offers insights into the various modalities that may be employed in the pursuit of accountability and the many difficulties that states may encounter. This practice has also illustrated that these modalities are often interlinked and overlapping, supporting a broad and flexible discourse.

Traditionally, the quality of transitional justice has been governed by both the extent of governmental change and the political will to tackle wrenching questions that implicate large swaths of a society. In this sense, outright victory, in terms of war, or regime change, have, historically, provided a clearer path to serious engagement with transitional justice processes. Such situations have at times led to excesses and accusations of revenge, retribution, and victor’s justice. The ability to balance the need for accountability with the imperatives of reconciliation and social cohesion has often been lost as a result.

The discipline that has come to be known as transitional or post-conflict justice took more cohesive form in the 1980s and 1990s following a series of high-profile engagements with this set of issues. In many instances, the efforts to account for the past have not simply been a function of transitional politics and finite timelines, and the term itself does not convey fully how these issues can play out within societies for years and decades. In this sense, transitional justice is not a “now or never” proposition, although certain approaches reliant on testimonies and the safeguarding of data may not be delayed to a more conducive moment.

With the landmark initiation of a truth and reconciliation process in South Africa and the institution of ad hoc international tribunals to address the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, transitional justice garnered significant international support and academic focus. During this period, a tentative consensus began to coalesce on the need for engagement with the crimes of the past as a necessary prerequisite for the creation of an open and responsive democratic political order and culture. There also emerged an understanding that stabilization and security were often enhanced by ending impunity and limiting the possibilities for unsanctioned revenge, thereby creating a basis upon which societal divides could be overcome.

These developments were a necessary antidote to the practice of political expediency that purported to prioritize stability and, for far too long, inhibited a proper accounting of past misdeeds. In addressing Chile’s long-running failure to prosecute past human rights violations, Jorge Correa Sutil, the former deputy minister of interior in Chile and a judge in the Chilean constitutional court, noted that societal ambivalence was a reflection of “continuing concern among many . . . that any solution that is found to the human rights issue will, in turn, obstruct other political and economic objectives.” Legitimate concerns about social cohesion endure and should be heeded in mapping appropriate and properly-tailored transitional justice strategies, and recent experience offers lessons as to the often difficult balance between stability and justice. On occasion, such lessons have been cautionary, as when zealotry and vengeance have replaced rational analysis in determining the scope and impact of transitional justice processes. Without heed to the practical and political constraints governing its application, transitional justice can be a destabilizing factor. As the noted journalist Tina Rosenberg has observed in her 1995 book, The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism, “Justice must be done—but too much justice is also injustice.” In the aftermath of wholesale regime change or total military victory, it is often the very circumstances that have enabled transitional justice efforts that have undermined their judicious application.

Despite tangible achievements, it is also clear from recent history that combating impunity and seeking accountability remain difficult and controversial endeavors. In this regard, according to the legal scholars George P. Fletcher and Jens David Ohlin, “even the most democratic and legally sophisticated countries may have difficulty punishing their own.” In the case of fragile transitional contexts, partisans of an ousted repressive regime, some of whom might retain an ongoing role in a successor government, will as a matter of course attempt to thwart efforts at establishing accountability.

Although the various strands of transitional justice have received greater systematic attention in recent decades, the antecedents to more robust conceptions of transitional justice can be found in the collective experience born of grappling with the atrocities of World War II. Particularly at the prosecutorial level, these crimes spurred disparate efforts to bring some number of perpetrators and collaborators to justice. While the International Military Tribunal sitting at Nuremberg has garnered disproportionate attention due its ambitious agenda and dramatic courtroom clashes, the vast majority of prosecutions undertaken against Nazi crimes and atrocities have taken place in domestic settings, including Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Croatia, Lithuania, Canada, and the United States. While the scope and adequacy of such prosecutions was inconsistent, these prosecutions at the national level constituted the few vital examples of transitional justice during the fraught Cold War era, during which time the development of transitional justice was largely stunted.

The so-called third wave of democratization, which began in the late twentieth century, and whose initial track record was undoubtedly uneven, set in motion a number of democratic transitions in which the issue of accountability was contested as part of the broader political struggles of that era. The turbulent and protracted transitions from military dictatorships to democratic governments in Latin American are particularly relevant with respect to Egypt’s transition. Country-level responses varied dramatically based on the relative continuing power of the militaries and their ability to thwart civilian and judicial efforts to initiate transitional justice processes, ranging from prosecutions of high-level perpetrators, historical commissions, and vetting. However, the breadth and diversity of experience in the Latin American context has now been integrated into the political imagination of the region and created shared understandings and expectations.

But even efforts that failed to immediately achieve stated goals had an ameliorative effect on the long-term struggle to break with the past. Following its transition to civilian authority in 1983 in the wake of its “Dirty War” and the disappearance of at least 14,000 under the rule of a military junta, Argentina began efforts to reconcile with the brutality of its recent history. Central among those efforts was an attempt to prosecute the nine leaders of the military junta. The prosecutions resulted in five convictions, but also set in motion a furious counterreaction that truncated those efforts and led to the passage of amnesty laws and pardons. The issue remained vital within Argentine society due to the persistence of civil society groups and was resuscitated in 2005 when the Argentine Supreme Court declared the country’s amnesty laws unconstitutional.

Undoubtedly, the Argentine experience demonstrates the depth of resistance launched by members and partisans of the former regime. However, even in the face of manifest reversals, it also demonstrates the importance of the efforts to keep issues of accountability alive and the influence such efforts can have on the establishment of new social norms. This type of dual utility is indicative of the potential role of prosecutorial strategies, even when initially unsuccessful, in the reconstruction of political culture and the establishment of democratic institutions.

Prosecutions alone, however, are an inadequate tool. The inherent practical limitations attendant to judicial processes mean that only a select number of perpetrators can be prosecuted. To fill such gaps, states have increasingly relied upon vetting to bar individuals responsible for past abuses from participation in government and political life. Such bars may vary from lifetime bans to limited periods of disqualification. Vetting is a clear method for instilling popular confidence in a country’s newly formed democratic institutions. It is also reasonable to assume that old power structures, particularly in rural settings, may prove resilient and immune to change.

While vetting is a critical facet of any comprehensive approach to transitional justice, its application is prone to excess. States tend to employ less rigorous modes of adjudication because the sanction is less onerous than a criminal finding even if it remains significant. The political ramifications of vetting may be great, often encouraging strategic exploitation for political ends.

Vetting processes were employed, although haphazardly, following the end of World War II, with denazification being the best known of these experiences. In addition to the post-World War II examples, transitioning societies in Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East have undertaken vetting efforts, with widely differing degrees of sincerity and success. Two of the more recent experiences with vetting, in post-Communist Czechoslovakia and post-Baathist Iraq, offer cautionary tales as to the potential for overreaching in design and implementation.

The need for lustrace, or lustration, the vetting process undertaken in Czechoslovakia, was acute and the transition process faced real dangers from elements of the former regime and its collaborators. Although many came to see the Czechoslovakia experience as a witch hunt, “the witches were real,” in the words of Tina Rosenberg. Among the controversies created by its broad lustration process was the evidentiary challenges created by reliance on the files of the secret police, the Státní Bezpečnost, or StB, for proof of collaboration. This system resulted in numerous errors since such files are often inaccurate and open to fabrication. Fabrications were often a function of the need of security service personnel to reach certain quotas for compensatory reasons, and at such times were not reflective of actual collaboration. Similarly, such files were also fabricated to be used as leverage to pressure collaboration through the threat of release of incriminating but falsified evidence. Such standards also do not account for actual behavior, as mere inclusion does not indicate the nature of the contact or necessarily equate with treachery or outright collaboration. Finally, reliance on such files produced a distorted picture since files were subject to manipulation and destruction, often leading to the exclusion of senior leaders. The experience suggests strongly that with respect to secret collaborators, due process protections and stringent evidentiary requirements are essential and that the focus must be on actual behavior as opposed to mere association.

Iraq’s more recent experience with vetting through de-Baathification also proved problematic, particularly with respect to over-broad formulations that focus on mere association as opposed to actions. The Iraqi precedent has now come to be seen as a warning, and transitions in the Arab world have, for the moment, focused on the excesses of the Iraqi example and its destabilizing effects. De-Baathification crippled Iraq’s administrative services and bureaucracy and purged lower-ranking members of the Baath party who had joined merely to advance their careers or secure employment. The policy was initially implemented by the Coalition Provisional Authority, as the temporary occupying power, but was zealously overseen by the country’s de-Baathification commission and its first head, the controversial exile politician Ahmed Chalabi. The initial scope of the vetting process included the dismissal from all government service of the four top levels of Baath party membership and instituted lifetime bans on future participation. This approach was focused solely on association and rank and did not rely on any evidence or findings of wrongdoing, although exceptions could be granted on an individual basis. Many observers believe that by negatively affecting Sunni Muslims who formed the base of Saddam Hussein’s support, de-Baathification exacerbated sectarian divisions and fueled a Sunni insurgency. While the excesses of de-Baathification led to a reassessment of Iraq’s vetting policies and a revised legislative approach, the sectarian and political divisions of the country thwarted implementation.

Despite these unsuccessful efforts to curb the scope of the policy, de-Baathification remained a potent political weapon. It was resurrected recklessly during preparations for the country’s March 2010 parliamentary elections to polarize electoral discourse on sectarian lines, stunt cross-sectarian politics, and exclude political actors without adequate process. The Iraqi experience is a testament to the necessity of standards of proof and guarantees of due process. The associational aspects of the approach have hindered meaningful political reconciliation and stigmatized large classes of people while also empowering demagoguery and amplifying sectarian trends.

Beyond the need for dealing with members of the former regime, truth commissions and other investigatory bodies have come to be seen as important transitional justice mechanisms. While the practice of establishing investigative bodies is not a recent phenomenon, its profile grew with the establishment of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In fact, such bodies had been widespread throughout Central and South America from the early 1980s, although with varying degrees of efficacy.

Unfortunately, some of the attention on truth commissions is partly due to resistance to prosecutorial strategies and an impression that such investigatory methods offer a less divisive route to truth-telling. However, South Africa’s TRC was unique due to the broad powers conferred upon the body, such as subpoena powers and the ability to grant amnesties under certain circumstances. These powers allowed the TRC to go beyond the mere construction of historical narrative, but amnesties proved to be a controversial approach to eliciting confessions. The public nature of proceedings was constructed as a means toward accountability, by forcing those offering testimony in return for amnesty to do so publicly.

The work of the TRC met with mixed reaction in South Africa as it proceeded, but by its completion many had come to appreciate its role in cultivating a sense of national unity. The TRC’s approach also demonstrated the utility of conditioned and limited amnesties, in distinction to the problematic use of blanket amnesties. Particularly with respect to low-level perpetrators, such amnesties can be a recognition of the scarcity of judicial resources and a possible route to breaking down the conspiracy of silence surrounding the security sector and its repressive apparatus. These positive attributes, however, should not be cause for displacing or preempting other transitional justice strategies. However, cumulative practice in varied national contexts offers strong support for the establishment of truth-telling bodies.

An often overlooked aspect of transitional justice is the attitude of the successor state as expressed through educational reform and symbolic actions such as apologies and practices of memorialization. Such steps, in other contexts, have blunted the impulse for revenge and provided a basis upon which political reconciliation could move forward.

Finally, and more recently, state practice has begun to reflect the emerging academic consensus regarding victims’ rights and reparations. While the examples in practice are limited, a variety of approaches have been implemented, including restitution, compensation, and rehabilitation. While these measures cannot be restorative, they are a reflection of a political commitment to the victims of the former regime and provide a basis for their reintegration into society.

Egypt in Transition

Egypt poses a unique set of challenges due to the particular circumstances that ushered in its transition. As opposed to outright revolution and toppling of the political order, the uprising in Egypt and the removal of the former president required the intervention of the armed forces, themselves a key pillar of the former regime. However, while the Egyptian military had once dominated all facets of government, its role in politics and governance had diminished in recent decades. The military enjoyed distinct privileges, but the Egypt of the Mubarak era could no longer be described as an outright military regime and witnessed the emergence of competing centers of authority, such as the Ministry of the Interior and the crony-capitalist elite associated with the president’s son, Gamal Mubarak. Further, the armed forces were insulated from the practice of day-to-day repression. This allowed the Egyptian military to untether its own future from the fate of the president and his inner circle of civilian advisors.

The transitional government, overseen by the SCAF, has initiated a series of circumscribed steps to address both the corruption that typified the Mubarak regime and the violence directed at protesters during the eighteen-day uprising. The process, in keeping with the SCAF’s approach to the overall transition, has been opaque and haphazard. Furthermore, the interim government’s commitment to accountability has appeared to fluctuate in relation to the level of public outrage and protest, and lacked an articulated rationale for its course. There has also been insufficient public discussion of the direction of transitional justice efforts and this has fueled popular frustration and suspicion regarding the SCAF’s intent. It has also led to public cries that justice must be meted out swiftly, which has complicated efforts to ensure due process to the accused and undermined proper investigatory and prosecutorial processes. Such uncertainties have been compounded by the routine use of military courts for civilians, which became a standard practice for the SCAF. The summary and swift fashion of these military court decisions, alongside the continuation and expansion of the emergency law, has stood in stark contrast to the inconsistent course of accountability efforts for the former regime.

The early moves to prosecute the associates of Gamal Mubarak, such as Ahmed Ezz, the steel magnate and former leading figure in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), are unsurprising in light of the military’s traditional antipathy for the neoliberal elite cultivated by the former president’s son and the broad public disgust with official corruption. The series of corruption cases involving former high-level members of the Mubarak government, such as Youssef Boutros-Ghali, the former minister of finance, Rashid Mohammed Rashid, the former minister of trade and industry, and Anas Al-Fiqqi, the former minister of information, have proceeded at speed and have raised the specter of inadequate process, although these trials have met with public approval.

Similarly, there has been broad public support for the efforts to prosecute those responsible for the violent crackdown on protesters during the January 25 uprising. The decision to prosecute Habib Al-Adly, the reviled former minister of interior, was one of the first concrete signs that accountability for the crackdown would be pursued. The complicated and strained relationship between the military and the Ministry of the Interior, and the universal public scorn for Al-Adly, made this decision easier for the judiciary and the transitional authorities.

The fate of the former president, however, has been controversial. Some segments of society have viewed the trial as a national humiliation, given the former president’s role as a symbol of the state. The SCAF appeared to hesitate to go forward with Mubarak’s prosecution considering his military background and longstanding ties to the current leaders of the military. The decision to proceed with the prosecution appeared to be a key victory of the protest movement.

Subsequent events eroded confidence in the integrity of the proceedings, however. The preexisting suspicions of the military’s intentions were revived by the apparently inconsistent testimony given by the head of the SCAF and longtime minister of defense, Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. In leaks of his alleged secret testimony before the court, Tantawi is reported to have denied receiving orders to shoot on protesters, stating “We were not ordered to open fire at citizens and we will never do that.” In earlier public comments in May 2011 at a police cadet graduation ceremony, Tantawi had intimated that the military had refused such orders, stating, somewhat cryptically “We don’t open fire on the people.” This sentiment was further memorialized in the SCAF’s Communiqué No. 52. This apparent reversal raises the possibility that the SCAF’s acquiescence to the prosecution was merely an attempt to dampen the continuing protest movement and blunt far-reaching calls for systematic reform.

More generally, inconsistencies have bedeviled the prosecutorial track and the selection of appropriate cases. With very few other ongoing prosecutions, new developments have taken on greater import. In July 2011, riots erupted in Suez when seven policemen accused of killing seventeen protesters were released on bail. Reports indicate that one hundred and forty police officers are in various stages of prosecution for their actions during the uprising.

Ominously, the SCAF’s tenure has produced its own set of abuses as political repression has increasingly come to typify the transitional period. The broad public has partly been shielded from these abuses due to continuing state propaganda efforts and outsized confidence in the armed forces. With the shocking and brazen attacks on largely Coptic Christian protesters on October 9, which resulted in at least twenty-seven deaths at the hands of military, police, and vigilante forces, public discussion at an elite level has shifted, and calls for accountability among a small segment of society have now begun to encompass the transitional period. All told, the situation lacks clarity as to the intent, progress, or scope of current investigations.

In addition to prosecutions, the transitional government established a commission of inquiry in order to investigate the repression and violence employed by the former regime during the January 25 uprising. The fact-finding commission concluded that at least 825 protesters were killed and over six thousand injured during the uprising and that the police forces were responsible for many of those deaths. Among the commission’s key findings was the use of snipers by the Ministry of the Interior. As opposed to injuries and deaths resulting from clashes between protesters and security forces, the use of snipers is unambiguously indicative of premeditated plans to kill and injure protesters. As such, this issue continues to prove contentious, with Ministry of the Interior officials denying the use of snipers during the eighteen-day uprising and, in some statements, denying that the ministry employed snipers at all. The commission also implicated NDP figures with orchestrating violence against protesters, including the February 2 attack on Tahrir Square when armed thugs descended on protesters on camel and horseback. In addition to its limited scope, the work of the commission has not been highlighted by the transitional government or accompanied by public outreach, undermining the usefulness of the exercise and its impact.

The SCAF also established a compensation fund for victims of state repression during the uprising. The fund began disbursements during the month of Ramadan, with payments of thirty thousand Egyptian pounds ($5,000) for the families of those killed, fifteen thousand pounds ($2,500) for disabled protesters, and five thousand pounds ($833) for all others injured.

With respect to broader examinations of the former regime’s repressive past, prosecutorial efforts have been limited, exposing a clear gap in the current approach to accountability. In this regard, the case of Khaled Said, the Alexandrian whose June 2010 death as a result of torture helped galvanize the protest movement, was perhaps the only current instance of a criminal justice process looking beyond the eighteen-day uprising at the repressive legacy of the former regime. While rumors circulated as to the former interior minister’s complicity in an Alexandria church bombing in January 2011, no evidence has been presented to buttress these allegations.

Woefully incomplete efforts at security sector reform have also contributed to a sense of drift from the original goals of Egypt’s uprising. Thoroughgoing reorganization of the Ministry of the Interior and reconstruction of its prevailing culture is one of the more critical tasks for the transitional authorities and their successors. Reforms to date have been largely cosmetic. While the State Security Investigations unit (Mabahith Amn al-Dawla), the most feared arm of the ministry, has been disbanded, the jurisdiction and authority of its successor, the National Security Apparatus (Jihaz al-Amn al-Watani), remains undefined. The Central Security Forces (Amn al-Markazi) have also been involved in heavy-handed dispersals of peaceful protests, evoking their role under Mubarak in suppressing organized dissent. There is as yet no systematic vetting procedure for the ministry, and civilian oversight of its activities is weak. While the ministry announced the dismissal of several hundred senior officers in July 2011, the lack of transparency surrounding the move prompted skepticism regarding implementation. The endemic problems of the ministry will persist without a more consistent effort at inculcating respect for the rule of law and reforming the educational regimen for police officers.

Finally, limited steps have been taken to deal with the former ruling party, which was dissolved in April 2011 by court order and had its assets seized by the state, fulfilling a core demand of the protest movement. However, no plans for vetting former NDP members have been agreed to, and concerns remain about their ability to exploit their previous connections and organizational capacity for electoral gain and to thwart genuine efforts at systemic reform.

Imperatives of Accountability and Justice

With Egypt’s politics in flux, a return to authoritarianism is among the possibilities for the country. Grappling with the past is as much, in this regard, about preventing the return of dictatorship as it is about ending impunity. While an excessive preoccupation with justice and accountability could distort the focus of transition, without a proper and unimpeachable accounting of repression and authoritarian rule, the process of constructing a democratic culture and respect for the rule of law will be compromised from its inception.

The near-exclusive prosecutorial focus on corruption and the repression during the uprising raises an overarching question regarding the extent of commitment to fundamental reform and change. The necessary accounting facing Egypt is not solely bound up with the repression of the eighteen-day uprising or the financial crimes and corruption popularly associated with Gamal Mubarak and his associates. Instead, what is required is a probing of Egypt’s recent history, perhaps dating as far back as 1952 and the establishment of Nasser’s military regime.

The Nasser regime and its successors corrupted Egypt’s political life and inculcated a culture of impunity, constructing an unresponsive government and devaluing the dignity of Egyptians. The authoritarian order was assured by the repression of dissent, often through torture, arbitrary detention, and control of the media. These characteristics were not simply a reflection of the latter years of Mubarak’s rule, but represented a tradition of dictatorship that gave shape to Egypt’s national politics stretching back to the Free Officers’ Movement. The Mubarak regime tolerated a controlled level of dissent and its repression was not totalitarian in its application. However, the state was in the end still the arbiter of acceptable discourse and policed the boundaries. Serious political challenges were dealt with severely, even in their nascent stages. Further, apart from political repression, the routine interactions between citizen and state were often marked by heavy-handed brutality as a matter of course.

The experiences of other similarly situated societies suggest quite clearly that the success and efficacy of transitional justice is often a function of the breadth of those efforts chosen to address the past, bearing in mind that any such efforts will evolve over time. The scope of any such efforts is also reflective of a state’s commitment to the goals of transitional justice, as opposed to the cynical employment of transitional justice to further narrow political goals or to simply exact revenge against enemies.

Retribution is a reasonable goal for transitional justice, as it is for any criminal justice mechanism. However, prosecutions as a tool for accountability must necessarily be selective as a result of limitations of capacity and the serious burdens presented by thorough and fair investigations and trials. Bearing these limitations in mind, prosecutions must prioritize high-level actors in positions of responsibility and authority. The circumstances surrounding the violent crackdown against the largely peaceful protesters of the January 25 uprising will undoubtedly occupy future efforts and will be an area that captures the popular imagination.

However, discretion should be exercised in this regard, and aside from central regime decision-makers, prosecutions should focus on the most egregious incidents of unprovoked killing, with a special emphasis on the use of snipers against peaceful protesters. This should stand in distinction to those protesters killed during attempts to storm police stations and other government buildings, such as the Ministry of the Interior. Despite the moral claim that such actions were justifiable within the context of a revolutionary moment, as a legal matter it is difficult to imagine that defensive actions of individual police officers could be construed as unwarranted killings. Much like the dilemma faced by post-unification German courts during the trials of the East German border guards, while morally reprehensible, such actions were not technically criminal at the time of commission and, in the Egyptian context, could also be plausibly portrayed as self-defense.

Prosecutors should also engage in greater public outreach to reassure the public that credible investigations are being undertaken and that any judgments with respect to investigations and trials are solely a function of prosecutorial discretion. Transparency will engender public trust and afford investigators, prosecutors, and judges greater latitude to pursue their investigations without undue public pressure for speedy resolutions. Credible investigations and proper judicial function are not amenable to popular whims and temporal demands, and judicial authorities should be shielded from unreasonable pressures.

The focus of prosecutions must move beyond the events of the eighteen-day uprising, and prosecutors should look to the systematic abuses that characterized the repression of the former regime. In this regard, prosecutions could be a vehicle for elucidating the regime’s mechanisms of repression, including systematic use of torture and the corruption of the criminal justice system. This pattern of repression and abuse could arguably sustain a conclusion that international crimes, namely crimes against humanity, have been committed. However, there exists no technical legal basis in Egyptian law to prosecute international crimes. Based on the principles of legality, which require that public notice of a crime be delineated prior to the commission of a criminalized act, and the dualist nature of the Egyptian criminal justice system, prosecutions may only rely on domestic law as the basis for any future trials. Unfortunately, the lack of national-level incorporation of international crimes in the Egyptian criminal code has foreclosed the possibility of a symbolically powerful prosecution for a core international crime, such as crimes against humanity.

However, expanding the focus of prosecutions is crucially important to the long-term health of Egypt’s political culture. The legitimacy of the demands for change is not simply a byproduct of the brutal response to peaceful protest, but a rejection of decades of repression and authoritarian rule. Of course, the sheer volume and scope of such violations does not lend itself to vindication through judicial processes. Criminal trials are also insufficient in accounting for the many corrosive actions necessary to maintaining the regime that fall short of criminality. And it is here that Egypt will have to rely on other approaches to ascertain the full truth of the former regime’s crimes and repressive practices.

Among the options, a truth commission should be a component of Egypt’s transitional justice initiatives. A commission would have wide purview to provide an objective account of the decades-long history of violations and abuses. Judicious and regulated usage of amnesties for lower-level perpetrators could provide an avenue to exposing the excesses of the internal security apparatus, and bolster efforts at serious security sector reform.

Egypt will also have to be mindful of the victims of its authoritarian past. In this regard, victim-centered approaches should be crafted with an understanding that the state’s responsibility extends beyond the eighteen-day uprising to encompass those who have long suffered the caprice and cruelty of the former regime.

The issue of vetting has rightly received scrutiny, along with the fate of NDP-affiliated individuals. While vetting is a critical component of the transition the process, two options under consideration to bar the remnants of the former regime from participation in Egyptian political life were flawed and would have potentially negative ramifications if implemented. Unfortunately, the lack of proper preparatory work due to governmental indecision meant that the twin goals of fair process and sufficient scope could not be met.

The first such option is a blanket ban on all members of the NDP. Such a move would, in fact, be both over-broad and underinclusive. The NDP did not function as a true broad-based political party, though it sought to festoon its activities with the trappings of political party life, complete with platforms, policy documents, and secretariats. Political parties had been abolished in January 1953 following the Free Officers’ ascension to power, and the revolutionary regime had sought to fill this void with a regime-led political front, the Liberation Rally. The Liberation Rally was succeeded by the National Union, which included all Egyptians, and set the stage for political repression and the suppression of alternative modes of political organization. These political fronts were established primarily to thwart challenges from existing political culture, but neither played an active role in governance. These aborted attempts foreshadowed future regime efforts by both Nasser and Sadat to contain and direct Egyptian political life, although Sadat’s moves were often aimed at undermining the political forces loyal to Nasser. Within this stultifying political environment, Sadat introduced reforms aimed at establishing a controlled multiparty system, and it is within that context that the NDP was formed in 1978. In its later years, under the influence of Gamal Mubarak, the NDP sought to champion market reforms, but the party lacked coherence and broad-based participation. While the NDP dominated Egypt’s representative bodies, often through fraud and intimidation, it was, in many ways, simply a vehicle for patronage and electoral politicking.

Despite the fact that the numbers of those from the ranks of the NDP are relatively small, a blanket ban would be overbroad and undemocratic in its inclusion of members who are not guilty of any criminal activity and whose disassociation from political life would rest solely on the matter of their association. Such measures could include individuals such as the transitional prime minister, Essam Sharaf, who served in the Mubarak government and was a former member of the NDP’s policy secretariat, despite the absence or suggestion of any criminal or corrupt behavior on his part. This type of vetting raises the uncomfortable question of complicity, which is often diffuse in an authoritarian environment, but blanket bans on participation create a troubling precedent and erode the inculcation of democratic values. It is also disappointing, since the grounds for political exclusion of many politicians and supporters are obvious, whether on the basis of corruption, electoral fraud, or involvement in physical abuse.

Blanket bans would also prove ineffective in combatting entrenched political interests linked to power brokers. This key constituency within the constellation of NDP patronage networks is not dependent on individual personalities, and actual representation could be filled by any number of surrogates, whether relatives or business associates. While this should not forestall vetting efforts, certain longstanding concentrations of power will prove resilient to even the most draconian approaches.

A blanket ban on NDP participation would also be seriously underinclusive in light of the absence of NDP participation in the security sector. As opposed to the former Baath party in Iraq and the Baath party in Syria, the NDP was not a necessary prerequisite to career advancement within the bureaucracy and its membership did not extend to either the armed forces or the internal security forces. While a focus on NDP membership is understandable within the context of elections, vetting should be rooted in examination of past behavior and transgressions that go beyond mere party membership and focus on actual criminality, including electoral fraud and irregularities. In light of upcoming elections, however, vetting procedures would ideally be bifurcated so that judicial panels could certify the participation of individual candidates in the electoral process.

The second approach entails amendment of Qanun al-Ghadr, the moribund treason law established by the Free Officers in 1952. The original law served as a vehicle to purge political enemies and to entrench the power of the new regime. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the law is its vagueness, since it lists political offenses as potential criminal acts. Without clear guidance rooted in the criminal code, this section of the law could prove malleable and might encourage overbroad application or wholesale purges. Introduction of the law would be poison within the body politic and encourage reckless accusations and the politics of character assassination. It is also unclear what gaps are filled by application of the law as opposed to reliance on the existing criminal code.

Creating a New Arab Order

As with Egypt’s outsized influence on the trajectory of political change in the region, the Egyptian experience with transitional justice will also shape regional understandings of the issue. Success or failure will either encourage or hinder similar efforts elsewhere.

What has emerged on a popular level across the Arab world is the erosion of an Arab order that prioritized the Palestinian cause and resistance to Israel and the West, to the detriment or exclusion of solidarity with the plight of other Arabs living under repressive rule. The emerging regional dynamic eschews this false dichotomy; it has continued to support the cause of Palestine while demanding that the social compact between ruler and ruled be refashioned in a way that affords citizens dignity and respect. Championing Arab causes and channeling hostility toward Israel and the West are no longer a sufficient buffer to domestic scrutiny and opposition, and a revitalized transnational solidarity has meant that repression is no longer ignored or an issue of secondary importance. The sustainability of these nascent shifts and the establishment of regional norms will depend on the broader success of the political and economic transitions now underway in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. How Egypt and other societies account for their often painful pasts will be an important measure of success, or failure.


Juan E. Mendez, In Defense of Transitional Justice, in TRANSITIONAL JUSTICE AND THE RULE OF LAW IN NEW DEMOCRACIES 1, 6 (A. James McAdams ed., 1997)

Jorge Correa Sutil, “No Victorious Army Has Ever Been Prosecuted . . .”: The Unsettled Story of Transitional Justice in Chile, in TRANSITIONAL JUSTICE AND THE RULE OF LAW IN NEW DEMOCRACIES, 123.

Tina Rosenberg, The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism, (New York: Random House, 1995).

George P. Fletcher & Jens David Ohlin, The ICC-Two Courts in One?, 4 J. INT’L CRIM. JUST. 428 (2006).

Ruti G. Teitel, TRANSITIONAL JUSTICE 39 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).



Priscilla B. Hayner, Fifteen Truth Commissions – 1974 to 1994: A Comparative Study, 16 HUM. RTS. Q. 558 (1994).

Eric Wiebelhaus-Brahm, Truth Commissions and Other Investigative Bodies, in THE PURSUIT OF INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE: A WORLD STUDY ON CONFLICTS, VICTIMIZATION, AND POST-CONFLICT JUSTICE, Vol. I, 477 (M. Cherif Bassiouni, 2010).

Naomi Roht-Arriaza, Reparations in the Aftermath of Repression and Mass Violence, in My Neighbor, My Enemy: Justice and Community in the Aftermath of Mass Atrocity 121 (Eric Stover & Harvey M. Weinstein eds., Cambridge University Press 2004).

SCAF Communiqué No. 52, May 16, 2011, available at http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=215963445090579&set=a.191412130879044.43504.191115070908750&type=1&theater.

Kristen Chick, “Egyptian Report Details Brutality Against Protesters Before

Mubarak’s Fall,” Christian Science Monitor, April 20, 2011.

Anouar Abdel-Malek, Egypt: Military Society: The Army Regime, the Left, and Social Change under Nasser, translated by Charles Lam Markmann (New York, Random House, 1968) (first American edition)

John Waterbury, The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat:The Political Economy of Two Regimes (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1983)

Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at the Century Foundation. He is a regular contributor to the Atlantic and Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel. He has been a senior fellow at the International Human Rights Law Institute, where he conducted research on post-conflict justice, victims’ rights under international law, and the Iraqi High Criminal Court. He is a term-member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Erdoğan Effect: Turkey, Egypt and the Future of the Middle East

Turkey’s foreign policy activism is drawing considerable attention these days, particularly because of the momentous transformation in the broader Middle East. The tour of Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdoğan to Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia in September underscored the rise of Turkey’s involvement in the region—and of Ankara’s potential to be a formidable and positive influence.

Erdoğan articulated Turkey’s vision for a democratic Middle East. “The freedom message spreading from Tahrir Square has become a light of hope for all the oppressed through Tripoli, Damascus, and Sanaa,” he told an audience at the Cairo Opera House. “Governments have to get their legitimacy from the people’s will. This is the core of Turkey’s politics in the region.” Equally, Erdoğan’s tour demonstrated Turkey’s recognition of the regional shifts. He signaled that Israel will no longer be shielded from accountability by a strategic status quo that buffeted authoritarian Arab rulers like former President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Erdoğan’s message to Israel emphasized human rights, democracy, and the rule of law as the true parameters of regional balance of power. “Israel must respect human rights and act as a normal country and then it will be liberated from its isolation,” Erdoğan said.

Turkish democracy has matured and Ankara feels confident enough to present itself as an inspiration to the Middle East. Turkey’s transformation from a staunchly secularist NATO ally under military tutelage to a democratic model did not occur overnight. Turkey, in fact, considered the Middle East as an unfamiliar and hostile region for much of its republican history. During the 1980s and especially in the 1990s, Turkey maintained a largely hostile and confrontational posture in its relations with many countries there. Turkey’s conflict involving the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) overrode all other issues, and the Turkish state was suspicious of virtually all of its neighbors for supporting the PKK. Claiming to represent legitimate demands of the Kurdish people in Turkey, the PKK had launched an armed struggle against Turkish security forces in the 1980s. Regimes in Syria and Iraq allowed the PKK to base militants in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley (then under Syria’s control) and in northern Iraq.

A sea change came, however, with the Turkish Parliament’s “No” to allowing United States troops to stage an invasion of Iraq from Turkish military bases in 2003. Since then, Turkey adopted the so-called ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy. This prioritized stability and peace in the region and had a proactive outlook as it sought to prevent conflicts as much as manage them in coordination with neighbors. Turkish officials became more confident after the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999 and a general reduction of violence in the conflict with Kurdish militants. Therefore, Turkey would no longer define its foreign policy solely by terrorism concerns.

As it improved its relations with all of its neighbors, Turkey advocated political integration as well as free flow of goods and services in its neighborhood. This policy achieved concrete results in the form of increased and diversified economic relations, heightened diplomatic clout and political influence, closer coordination with neighbors on issues such as terrorism, mediation in international conflicts, and a broadly positive response to Turkish foreign policy. In implementing its neighborhood policy, Turkey advocated speaking to all sides, including groups such as the Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas. Seen as an honest broker, Turkey mediated between Israel and Syria, as well as between Iran and the international community in the nuclear issue. Turkey’s diplomatic initiatives were never guaranteed success; but the new Turkish foreign policy was no longer a spectator to regional developments but a serious actor shaping and contributing to various difficult issues.

Some have argued that the Arab revolutions undermined Turkey’s neighborhood policy, which to some extent was based on good relations with the region’s authoritarian regimes. It has been charged that Turkey was not committed to democracy and simply pursued its interests. However, notwithstanding the fact that all countries were caught off guard by the Arab Spring, Turkey advocated a peaceful, and democratic, outcome. Ankara declined to support Mubarak, or President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, or any of the authoritarian leaders; on the contrary, it called on them to either step down or undertake serious reforms immediately. Turkey avoided a totalistic approach as it distinguished between the different dynamics at work in each of the countries undergoing political upheaval.

The political transformation in the Middle East is part of the broader global transformation toward a multipolar world. Turkey has been pursuing a multidimensional foreign policy precisely because it sees the global order being reconfigured in the aftermath of the Cold War. More specifically for the Middle East, however, the Arab regimes’ claims to legitimacy in the name of protecting their people against “colonialist and imperialist” powers proved to be hollow. The new order in the region will require governments that enable the people to chart their own destinies. It will have to be based on participatory politics, democratic principles, and peace and stability. Turkey and Egypt are poised to become major actors in this new order. They will be competitors as well as collaborators, given their competing and complementary features and capabilities.

Neo-Ottomanism Versus the New Turkey

Turkey’s special and complex relationship with the Middle East and North Africa is often underappreciated. Those who recognize it tend to avoid discussing it out of fear of raising the issue of “neo-Ottomanism.” Although historiography in places like the Balkans and the Middle East have produced nationalist narratives under the broad theme of the ‘Turkish yoke,’ Turkey’s ties with the Middle East cannot be reduced to Ottoman political rule over these lands. Ottomans and modern Turkey have shared institutional and legal commonalities as well as cultural affinities with the Middle East.

Over the course of the twentieth century, however, Turkey chose not to build on this past and pursued a relatively defensive foreign policy. Tying itself in with the Western security architecture, especially after World War II, Turkey aligned its foreign policy very closely with that of its Western allies. Turkish foreign policy was based on its commitment to countering the ‘Communist threat’ during the Cold War. Turkey relied on its strategic importance for international legitimacy and relevance. However, Turkey sacrificed democratization for the sake of security concerns in this period; the country’s military tutelage regime helped ensure that Turkey retained its Western alliance at the expense of democracy at home.

The Turkish military was supported by the Western alliance even when it intervened in politics through coups d’état, which greatly hampered Turkish democracy. As a mere strategic asset to the Western alliance rather than an actor, Turkey did not try to devise its own foreign policy. Instead, it relied on the Western consensus and kept itself outside regional developments as an active player until the 2000s. The end of the Cold War made it clear that the country’s strategic relevance could take it only so far, and it had to respond seriously to demands for freedoms, and advance democracy along with economic development at home. The military tutelage could no longer justify rule by pointing to the conflict with the PKK or ‘foreign enemies providing safe havens for terrorists.’ Turkey witnessed the rise of the middle class demanding more of a say in domestic and foreign policy issues, which had been monopolized by the military and civilian bureaucracies. This change resulted in a strong popular push for more democracy at home and a more ‘dignified’ foreign policy.

Turkey’s adoption of a more proactive foreign policy was thus related to the democratic transformation within the country. Turkey proceeded to fill the vacuum in the Middle East created by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Ankara’s ‘peace and stability’ vision for the region was reflected in its efforts to broker a deal between Syria and Israel, its mediation efforts between various factions in Lebanon, its changed attitude toward Kurds in northern Iraq, and its involvement in negotiations to resolve the international dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. Turkey made the determination that it was in its security and economic interest to advocate greater economic and political integration and oppose sanctions as well as conflicts in the Middle East.

Turkey’s economic relations with the region have improved as a result of both the shifts in global economic trends and Turkey’s new neighborhood policy. Yet, while better relations brought economic benefits, Turkey recognized that the political structures in place made good trade relations and regional integration difficult. In addition, ongoing conflicts in the region were an obstacle to any major improvement in the region’s economic outlook.

It can be argued that Turkey’s foreign policy activism in the Middle East contributed to the downfall of authoritarian regimes, by implicitly calling for the end of the ‘Camp David order’ and exposing repressive regimes that survived with the help of regional strategic arrangements related to the conflict with Israel. Turkey showed that it is possible to be democratic, have good relations with the West, and still stand up to unjust Israeli policies. Its ‘dignified’ stance was strengthened after the incident at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in 2009 in which Erdoğan stormed out of a discussion with Israeli President Shimon Peres about Israel’s war against Hamas. Erdoğan’s gesture, widely acclaimed on the Arab street, exposed and undermined Arab leaders who had acquiesced to Israeli policies and committed to the status quo.

If Turkey found itself increasingly unable to talk to the Arab regimes, it was able to speak to ordinary Arabs. This was not mere populism, as some critics have charged, but a sincere response to the yearning for dignity. As demonstrated by the enthusiastic welcome that Erdoğan received in Egypt in September, Turkey’s stance has had a significant political impact across the Arab world. In the short and medium terms, Turkey’s challenge will be to turn this positive outlook into concrete policies in bilateral relations in order to sustain a long-term collaboration toward a more democratic political order in the region.

The ‘Camp David Order’

If one can speak about the ‘old Turkey,’ there is also an ‘old Egypt.’ The Mubarak government enjoyed a privileged position in the region as a facilitator of the ‘Camp David order.’ It aligned itself with Israel albeit in a ‘cold peace’ relationship, and, in return, received close to $2 billion annually in U.S. military and economic aid. Egypt supported the Arab world’s normalization with Israel through the ‘peace process’ and reduced its regional ambition to supporting U.S. interests.

Ultimately, however, Egypt had to punch below its weight in foreign policy. Its investment in the regional order for the sake of security, combined with its unresponsiveness to the demands of Egyptians for greater political freedom and economic opportunity, resulted in a loss of credibility and prestige for Mubarak’s regime domestically, regionally, and internationally. It tried to survive its legitimacy crisis through a moderate authoritarianism, and by oppressing Islamist movements and other opposition groups. But the January 25 revolution made it clear that this strategic arrangement was not sustainable.

A significant aspect of Mubarak’s problem was that Egypt’s regional role became over-leveraged in the Palestinian issue. On one hand, Egypt defended Palestinian rights, and coordinated peace efforts with Israel especially after the Madrid Conference in 1991. However, following the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, Egypt failed to side with Palestinians as a whole, and instead sided with Fatah leaders Yasser Arafat and, later, Mahmoud Abbas, at the expense of Fatah’s Islamist opposition. Mubarak defined Egypt’s regional role as maintaining the ‘Camp David order’: legitimizing Israel’s security needs, and supporting solutions accepted by Fatah without offending Israel.

Mubarak’s partisan approach turned out to have negative consequences for Egypt and his regime. His collaboration in the isolation of Gaza, after Hamas won the elections in January 2006, had a negative effect on Egypt’s image in the eyes of the Palestinians in general. Egypt thus found itself at odds with both the Hamas administration in Gaza and with Turkey on issues including the closure of the Egyptian–Gazan border. Undermined by Turkey’s support for the Palestinians and Erdoğan criticism of Israel’s ‘Operation Cast Lead’ against Gaza in 2008, Egypt faced a deepening legitimacy crisis with respect to the Arab–Israeli conflict.

The ‘old Egypt’ also enjoyed strategic importance arising from the Suez Canal and its geographical location between the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe. The passage from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean is critical for the navigation of warships as well as transit of oil and gas tankers. The canal provided the Atlantic alliance access to the Gulf and secured energy routes for Europe. Egypt indirectly contributed to the stability of global energy prices at the expense of Russian monopoly of energy resources by ensuring the diversity of energy supply routes. Egypt has also long influenced African politics and Nile Basin geopolitics and assumed a key role in inner parts of Africa.

In ideological terms, Mubarak’s Egypt also attempted to be a bulwark against political Islam. Through Al-Azhar, one of the oldest centers of Islamic teaching, it sought to have a moderate influence on religious thinking throughout the Muslim world. At the same time, Mubarak sought to contain Islamist political movements through repression. In the ‘war on terrorism’ after the September 11, 2001, attacks, Egypt played an instrumental part in intelligence operations, especially considering that many Egyptian citizens held important positions in Al-Qaeda. In his regime’s struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood (a leading Egyptian opposition group) Mubarak benefited from the global paranoia about Islamic extremism.

The ‘New Egypt’

There are three scenarios for the political evolution of the ‘new Egypt.’ The least probable one is the occurrence of a military coup with a minor modification of the old order under Mubarak. It is important to bear in mind that as long as the military is involved in politics, there will always be a case for such a scenario. Nevertheless, domestic, regional, and global conditions, and the persistence of Egypt’s January 25 protest movement, make a complete military takeover in Egypt something that would be very difficult to achieve. From its perspective, the Egyptian military would be understandably reluctant to assume responsibility for the country’s ongoing economic failures.

The most likely scenario, at least for an extended transitional period, may be the establishment of a regime of military tutelage. Officers will hold political and military powers overseeing a civil technocratic government. Veto mechanisms would be established, where the civilian initiative is kept in check by institutions controlled by the military. This, of course, would restrict freedoms in daily life and generally hamper civilian authority. Such an arrangement kept Turkey anchored in the Atlantic alliance during the Cold War era but it proved unresponsive to the social, economic, and political realities of the ‘new Turkey.’ In the case of Egypt, military tutelage would effectively mean continuation of the ‘Camp David order’ domestically. Though a very possible scenario, the Egyptian military would have to convince Islamists and liberals that it was in the interests of the country.

The most desirable yet most difficult scenario is the creation of a democracy. Egypt would delegate authority to civilian actors and create a democratic constitution. Old elites would be withdrawn from politics. Even assuming success, it will take at least a few years before democracy takes hold and Egypt can reassert itself as a major regional player.

A democratic or semidemocratic Egypt may herald important shifts. Egypt will likely adopt a tougher posture toward Israel due to popular pressure that came to a head in September. Israeli forces in pursuit of terrorists entered the Sinai and killed Egyptian security personnel, prompting the interim Egyptian government to withdraw Egypt’s ambassador from Israel. Later, protesters stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo, effectively forcing Israeli diplomats to flee the country. The incidents led Egyptians to criticize the peace treaty with Israel, which Prime Minister Essam Sharaf publicly described as “not sacred” and open to modification. A democratic Egypt that includes Muslim Brotherhood participation in the parliament and government may pursue the normalization of relations with Hamas and put an end to the isolation of Gaza.

In that vein, Egypt can play a positive role in integrating Islamist movements into the political structures in the region. Participation of Islamist parties in Egypt’s democracy can provide a model of greater diversity within Islamist movements, whose previous exclusion from official politics encouraged reactionary and sometimes extreme behavior on the part of a minority of Islamists. If Islamism is normalized, nascent Islamist administrations in the region will not feel marginalized and can pursue politics democratically. That may encourage the emergence of more independent, democratic Arab countries.

A democratic Egypt may also influence the evolution of a new Arab nationalism—one that is more moderate and substantive than the more reactionary variety rooted in the pan-Arabism of the 1960s. Arab nationalism can become a more authentic expression once it is stripped of its authoritarian character. The involvement of Islamists will help ensure that any nationalistic revival does not turn into anti-Iranianism or anti-Turkism.

Iran’s influence in the region will be affected by a new balance of power. Iran has posed a challenge to the status quo by championing the cause of the Palestinians. But being a Shiite-dominated country lacking Turkey’s democratic credentials has limited its leverage. The emergence of a more democratic region with a Sunni majority will require Iran to revise its regional policies. In contrast with Turkey’s nonsectarian approach, Iran may move toward exploiting sectarian differences. Egypt, hopefully, will resist attempts to forge sectarian alliances such as those supported by the Gulf countries. If the Muslim Brotherhood participates in government and controls its Salafist wing, the anti-Iranian bloc in the Arab world will likely lose strength. Such a change will leave Saudi Arabia more isolated. The so-called ‘Sunni crescent plan,’ supported by Gulf countries and the U.S., which aims to contain Iran through the forging of a sectarian bloc, may be rendered meaningless. In that case, struggles in the region would reflect competing national interests rather than potentially destructive sectarian bigotry.

Forging a Democratic Middle East

During his visit to Cairo in September, Egyptians gave the Turkish prime minister a hero’s welcome. Indeed, some held up signs reading: “If Erdoğan had been our leader, we would have liberated our Jerusalem.” While Erdoğan’s Arab tour promoted Turkey’s aspiration to contribute to the democratic transformation in the Middle East, it also reflected Ankara’s vision of an integrated region opposed to national, religious, and sectarian divisions.

In Egypt, democracy is by far the most desirable scenario for Turkey. Indeed, Ankara must assume an active role and share its experience in evolving from the tutelary regime to a democratic one. Turkey can help Egypt, given its extensive experience in transition to civilian rule, managing civil–military relations and its long history with a multiparty political system, conducting free and fair elections, and constitution-making.

Concerning strategic interests, Turkey would like to see an Egypt that pays serious attention to people’s demands, promotes the rule of law, recognizes the representation of all political actors, and solves its regional legitimacy problem. An economically powerful and democratic partner in the Middle East would fit Turkey’s foreign policy priorities, which promote regional economic and political integration as well as freedom of movement. Turkey’s own domestic political transformation led to the expansion of its presence in the region. A similar outcome for Egypt would be the most desirable for Turkey, despite the unavoidable areas of possible competition.

Turkey’s regional standing will be directly affected by the developments in Egypt. An authoritarian Egypt will continue to be a source of harm for the region: normalization of Islamist movements would be delayed; the deadlock in the Palestinian issue would continue; and sectarian conflicts may emerge and threaten the regional peace and stability. However, if Egypt moves toward becoming a true democracy, it will undergo radical changes for the better in its domestic political life and foreign policy.

A democratic Egypt will limit Turkey’s influence and popularity on the Arab street, but the two countries would have opportunities and shared responsibilities. They are the region’s two largest key Sunni powers, comparable in size, historical experience, and strategic importance. They will have to lead the wider region toward freer and more democratic structures. And they will also have to shoulder the burden of managing the conflicts. A promising sign of potential cooperation was their work together in the Palestinian reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas in May. Relations between Turkey and Mubarak’s regime had been strained after the Hamas leader’s visit to Turkey amid Egypt’s general discomfort with Turkey’s proactive foreign policy in the Middle East.

The outcome of the current upheavals will help determine the future of Turkey–Egypt relations. As both Turkey and Egypt seek to resolve the crisis in their differing capacities, their cooperation and competition will be determined, to a large extent, by how Egypt emerges out of its own domestic political turmoil. Turkey’s foreign policy activism, which has already deeply affected the region, and Egypt’s new foreign policy orientation, influenced by and responsive to the demands of its domestic public opinion, will together play a crucial role in shaping the new regional political order.

If Egypt moves toward a truly civilian democracy, Turkey’s gains in the region will become permanent and its role will increase. If Egypt comes out of the current turmoil as an economically and politically strong actor, competition will likely occur but this will empower both countries. If Egypt goes toward a tutelage system, Turkey as the only consolidated democracy would gain ground at Egypt’s expense. The military in Egypt would be preoccupied trying to balance Islamist and liberal forces, which would diminish Egypt’s potential to be a leader in the region.

A relatively weak Egypt would make Turkey’s job more difficult, even if Ankara’s prestige would remain high. Turkey may not find a partner to share its role in terms of regional policies and region-based approaches. The Middle East would waste time with short-term crisis management instead of constructing a truly new regional order. The urgent need for developing human resources, capacity building, and creating sustainable development projects would be delayed. Turkey constitutes an example of civilian power pushing back the influence of the military to consolidate its democratic institutions. As such, Ankara must oppose arguments that it is too early to establish full democracy in Egypt. Turkey’s democratization was hampered by such arguments, which delayed civilianization of Turkish democracy.

When it comes to construction of a new regional order, as an economic and democratic power, Turkey has a lot to offer. Turkey is in many ways ahead of Egypt in what it can contribute to the shaping of the new Middle East. Turkey’s challenge, however, is to institutionalize its regional gains and invest in sustaining its commitment to the region. The worst thing for Turkey would be to appear as a force that cannot deliver. Given the high expectations from Turkey among the Arab public and the intellectuals, Turkey will be held to a bigger test. In contrast, expectations from Egypt will be quite modest, and any step Egypt takes in the right direction will be considered positive.

This is where cooperation can come: Turkey and Egypt have the ability to fill the gaps left by one another. Egypt may not be able to confront Israeli policies directly, but Turkey can do that. Egypt also cannot promote democratic transitions around the Middle East as effectively as Turkey can. Turkey’s intense pressure on the Al-Assad regime in Damascus, in the form of harboring opposition groups and military defectors, conducting border exercises, and threatening sanctions, is a clear example of this. Both Egypt and Turkey will be at odds with the Gulf powers who are neither en route to a democratic transition nor eager to take risks in the Palestinian issue. Those countries may become increasingly alienated from the region if Turkey–Egypt cooperation increases. This will be exacerbated if the U.S. (as the closest ally of the Gulf powers) becomes less inclined to support the authoritarian Gulf regimes.

Egypt has an advantage over Turkey in the regional leadership position as an Arab nation. But given the high diversity in the Middle East in terms of ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity, Turkey has an advantage as it can speak to a variety of actors from different ethnicities (Iraqi Kurds) and sectarian groups (Iraqi Shiites, Lebanese Christians). Egypt’s importance will be most apparent in the Arab–Israeli ‘peace process,’ which Turkey considers the single most important regional issue in the Middle East.

Because of its increasingly independent stance on foreign policy issues, Turkey has gained the trust of Arab populations and showed that Arab regimes were not only dysfunctional but also inept in constructing true solutions to regional problems. Turkey will need to build on this reputation while Egypt will have to earn it. Egypt may feel forced to distance itself from the U.S. policies in order to do that, while Turkey does not have to prove its independent approach by distancing itself from the West. Egypt must be careful not to fall into determining its policies based on anti-Islamist, anti-Shiite, anti-West, or anti-Israel frameworks. A proactive as opposed to reactionary Egypt, and a more democratic, independent Egypt, will prove to be a robust force.

The Arab revolutions have presented the Middle East with a historic opportunity for a more democratic and dignified future. Egypt’s evolution into a stable democracy will be crucial for the structural transformation of the region. If the new Egypt seizes this opportunity without reverting to a pseudo-democracy for piecemeal strategic arrangements as it did in the past, the prospect of the emergence of a new Middle East may turn into reality. The greatest challenge for Turkey during this period is to help create the new language and terms of discourse. Turkey must not watch but manage this process, as it did during the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. If Turkey can remain involved and relevant in the medium term, then it may help the Arab momentum to create a truly new regional order.

Kadir Ustun is the research director of the SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research in Washington. He is the assistant editor of SETA’s quarterly journal, Insight Turkey, and a contributor to the Al Jazeera English channel and insideIRAN.org.

Nuh Yilmaz is head of quality assurance for Al Jazeera Türk. He is the former Washington bureau chief for Turkish media organizations, including CNN Türk, ATV, 24, and STAR. He is a contributor to publications including the Washington Times, the National, Foreign Policy, and Open Democracy. He is a member of the board of the SETA Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research in Washington, and served as SETA’s founding director from 2008 to 2011. 

Joining Hezbollah

The process of joining Hezbollah, the nearly thirty-year-old Shia Muslim “resistance” organization in Lebanon led by Hassan Nasrallah, has evolved as the organization has grown in size and become more institutionalized and entrenched within Shia society. In the initial stages following Israel’s 1982 invasion, personnel were recruited in the Bekaa Valley through a process of mass mobilization along family and clan lines, which helped preserve internal security as well as facilitate the enrollment of hundreds of volunteer fighters. In south Lebanon, devout young Shias needed little incentive to join the nascent resistance, given that it was their homes and land that bore the brunt of Israeli occupation.

Today, however, the motivations for joining Hezbollah are more multidimensional, blending religious observance, hostility toward Israel, and the Shia commitment to justice and dignity. On a more prosaic level, many young Shias naturally gravitate toward an organization that has helped empower their community in Lebanon and has earned respect for its martial exploits over the years. “Our fighters are driven by complex motives— patriotism and Islamic motives,” Sheikh Khodr Noureddine told me in 1996, when he was Hezbollah’s political chief in south Lebanon. “Our Islamic beliefs make these young men refuse to accept injustice. They will do anything to resist Israel. I know the West does not understand, but our youth cannot live with Israel.”

Recruits drawn from the south who have grown up with an inherent distrust of Israel will dwell more on the  aspect of defending their border communities against the perceived perpetual threat of the Jewish state.

“It’s an honor to serve,” said one veteran Hezbollah fighter, explaining in 2009 why he still served with the Islamic Resistance even though Israel had withdrawn from Lebanon almost a decade earlier. “It’s like this. If you have a house or a villa and someone powerful takes it over, you have a long struggle and after a while he gives you a room. You struggle a bit longer and then he gives up and hands back the house to you. You might think the struggle is over, but then he parks his car in your parking spot outside the house. Do you accept this? We are in the south because Israel is like this powerful usurper and there is no government to protect us and the UN can’t protect us, either. That’s why we need the resistance.”

Given Hezbollah’s long-term strategic perspective and commitment to building a “society of resistance,” the process of mobilization and radicalization of its potential recruits begins at an early age. Children as young as six or seven are encouraged to participate in Hezbollah’s youth movement, a first step on the long path to becoming a resistance fighter. Activities include lectures, plays, and sporting events through which the youthful participants are immersed in Hezbollah’s moral, religious, political, and cultural milieu. Hezbollah-affiliated cultural associations and publishing houses churn out books and pamphlets and hold seminars and conferences to spread the creed of resistance. Among them are the Islamic Maaref Cultural Association, the Imam al-Mahdi Institute, and the Imam Khomeini Cultural Center all of which promote the teachings of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Other institutes produce materials that range from explaining Hezbollah’s concept of jihad and promoting hostility toward Israel to treatises on the role of women in Islamic society and the importance of a healthy lifestyle. Some of the material is intended for a youthful audience, with cartoon books telling stories of resistance fighters or fairy tales featuring villainous Israelis and heroic Palestinian and Lebanese children.

During the summer holiday months, a common sight in the southern suburbs of Beirut is rows of wide-eyed children sitting patiently at desks in outdoor classes being taught the way of Hezbollah. They are raised in a heavily militarized environment in which the youngsters are encouraged to venerate and emulate the fighters of the Islamic Resistance. During the Ashoura commemoration or the annual Jerusalem Day parades, small children march alongside regular combatants, all of them dressed in camouflage uniforms and carrying plastic toy rifles, wearing headbands inscribed with slogans such as “O Jerusalem, we are coming.”

The process continues in the Hezbollah-affiliated nationwide network of Mustafa schools, where pupils study religion and pray for Islamic Resistance fighters. Hundreds of youngsters each year pass through the dozens of summer camps held by the Hezbollah-run Imam Mahdi Scouts in valleys and hills in southern Lebanon and the northern Bekaa, where they are imbued with a sense of military brotherhood and discipline replete with uniforms, parades, and martial bands.

Hezbollah generally does not accept combatants into the Islamic Resistance below the age of eighteen, but basic military training and familiarization with weapons does begin at a much younger age. A tall, rangy Hezbollah fighter in his mid-thirties, whom we shall call “the Chief,” once showed me video footage shot on his cell phone of more than fifty children aged between six and nine dressed in camouflage uniforms marching through rugged mountains and woodland in a south Lebanon valley. The children were the sons of “martyrs”—Hezbollah fighters killed in action—and they were participating in a military-style training exercise. Uniformed adult instructors walked alongside the children, helping them plunge across a narrow river and scramble up steep, rocky slopes. They smeared their faces with dirt, and some even fired a few rounds from an AK-47 rifle, each one aiming at rocks in the river with a kneeling instructor helping prop up the heavy weapon.

“The next generation of mujahideen,” said the Chief with a smile of paternal pride.

In addition to the childhood induction process, Hezbollah deploys recruiters in every village and neighborhood where the party wields influence to look out for likely prospects among the local young men and women. The recruiter is looking for pious, disciplined, modest, intelligent, healthy, well-behaved individuals who could fit into Hezbollah’s way of life. Young men who listen to music, drink alcohol, drive fast cars, and flirt with girls stand little chance.

“The idea is to meet potential recruits and cultivate a friendship. You don’t hit him at the same moment with an offer to join. You make him love Hezbollah first. You sell the idea, then he can choose whether to join or not,” explained the Chief, himself a recruiter.

After observing a potential recruit for a period of months, even years, the recruiter will make his move, inquiring whether he or she would consider joining Hezbollah. If the person accepts there follows an intensive initial phase known as tahdirat, or “preparation,” lasting up to a year, in which recruits are taught the ideological foundations of Hezbollah. “At this stage, we give them Islamic lessons, ethical, political [and] social lessons, as a preparation, as part of the resistance. He will live in an atmosphere of religion and faithfulness,” says Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy leader.

“Our Life Dictates Our Death”

The new recruits absorb the principles of the Islamic revolution in Iran, obedience to the wali al-faqih[the head of an Islamic state, according to the system of wilayat al-faqih, which holds that the preeminent religious authority should be the supreme ruler], and enmity toward Israel. They are taught the Islamic texts according to the interpretation of Hezbollah’s clerics, and learn to pursue the “greater jihad” of spiritual transformation to bring them closer to God. “The religious lessons are first,” says the Chief. “Religion first, before you even see a gun.”

A recruit can have different reasons for joining the party in the first place—a desire to resist occupation, religious commitment, or simply peer pressure—but realizing the importance of jihad as it is taught by Hezbollah is critical to understanding what drives the fully trained and committed Islamic Resistance fighter.

Sheikh Naim Qassem describes the world as a “perishable home,” a transient “place of test and tribulation for man,” and how a person chooses to live his life will dictate his fate in the hereafter. The “greater jihad” is the daily spiritual struggle within the carnal soul to resist and overcome the temptations and vices of the human condition in order to achieve divine knowledge, love, and spiritual harmony. According to Hezbollah, success on the “greater jihad”—the inner spiritual struggle—is a necessary precondition to undertaking the “lesser jihad”—the outer, material struggle. The “lesser jihad,” or “military jihad,” falls into two categories. The first is “offensive jihad,” in which Muslims are permitted to invade other countries or wage war against other societies on the basis that Islam is the one true religion. However, “offensive jihad,” according to the interpretation of Hezbollah’s clerics, is not considered applicable until the return of the “awaited imam.” The second category is “defensive jihad,” which confers not just the right but the obligation of Muslims to defend their lands and communities from aggression and occupation. For Hezbollah, the call for “defensive jihad” can be made only by the wali al-faqih. Hezbollah’s campaign of resistance against Israeli occupation in south Lebanon and its post-2000 military confrontation with Israel were conducted under the rubric of “defensive jihad” sanctioned by Khomeini in his role as wali al-faqih, and later endorsed by his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Accordingly, Hezbollah fighters are taught that when they confront Israeli troops in the stony hills and valleys of south Lebanon, they are not merely resisting occupation but also fulfilling the deeper religious obligation of pursuing jihad.

Central to Hezbollah’s observance of the “lesser jihad” is the culture of martyrdom. For the Shia, the paradigm of jihad, resistance, and sacrifice is Imam Hussein, whose death at Karbala against the numerically superior forces of Yazid epitomizes the struggle against oppression and injustice and serves as a powerful inspiration and exemplar for new generations of Shia warriors serving with Hezbollah. Hezbollah teaches that Imam Hussein actively sought martyrdom at Karbala, rather than choosing to engage with Yazid’s army knowing that despite the odds there was a faint possibility of survival.

A Hezbollah fighter who has advanced in the “greater jihad” will have spiritually moved beyond the human fear of death, instead welcoming it as a sacrifice in God’s name during the fulfillment of the “lesser jihad.” Unlike suicide, which is forbidden by Islam, Hezbollah considers the act of self-sacrifice as a paramount demonstration of faith in God, far removed from earthly, corporeal concerns. The motifs of martyrdom are inescapable in Hezbollah’s strongholds, where streets and roads are lined with the portraits of “martyrs”—fighters who have died in battle—and billboards with paintings of fallen fighters entering garish representations of paradise with richly colored landscapes of green hills, wild flowers, and flowing rivers bathed in bright sunlight. The annual Martyrs’ Day commemoration held each November 11 (the anniversary of Ahmad Qassir’s suicide bombing of the IDF headquarters in Tyre in 1982) is one of the most important events in Hezbollah’s calendar. Each Hezbollah fighter is photographed for an official “martyr’s” portrait on joining the Islamic Resistance. His picture will adorn his neighborhood’s lampposts should he be killed in the course of duty, and each year he updates a “martyr’s letter,” containing his final thoughts and wishes.

Conversations with committed Hezbollah fighters on the subject of martyrdom hold a certain surreal quality. When I met Maher, commander of a sector in south Lebanon, in May 2000, he mentioned that two of his friends had been killed days earlier in an operation inside the occupation zone. Normally, one would offer a polite commiseration, but Maher forestalled any expression of condolence with a raised hand. “Do not be sorry for them, be happy for them,” he said with a wistful smile. “God chose them to be martyrs, and, God willing, one day I, too, will be martyred fighting the Israelis.”

Maher had light brown crew-cut hair and a neatly trimmed beard, and his pale blue eyes shone with unquestioning confidence in the certainty of his convictions. At thirty-three years of age, Maher was a combat veteran, having joined the resistance in 1983. He was in charge of four units, two assault and two fire support. But he was also married and a father; when I met him, his wife was pregnant with their fourth child. If he were to die in combat, Hezbollah would provide for his family—a house, free education for his children, medical care, and a pension of around $350 a month. Yet how could he relish the prospect of death when he would leave behind him a widow and four fatherless children? Maher smiled again, nodding sympathetically.

“It is difficult for you to understand because you are not a Muslim. My wife will feel great joy and pride if I am martyred,” he said. “Martyrdom is a religious and philosophical concept. Islam is the same as Christianity and Judaism in the sense that if you follow God you will go to Heaven. But in Islam, it’s explained differently. We are born to get acquainted with God. Our goal of living is to reach God. To reach God we have to move from the living world to the next world. This is done by death. We are all going to die, but each person has a choice of how to die. The way we lead our life dictates our death. According to Islam, the best way to die is to die for God.”

Hezbollah fighters can volunteer to join the Martyrdom (Istishadiyun) Unit, which means that they could be selected for specific suicide attacks or particularly perilous missions where chances of survival are low. Although Hezbollah has always been associated in the public mind with suicide bombings, it conducted only eleven such operations in Lebanon during the years of Israeli occupation between 1982 and 2000. Of the eleven, only four were carried out during the 1990s.

“Martyrdom is a personal initiative,” says Maher. “A potential martyr makes his decision, then tells his religious leader [marja’]. The religious leader decides whether the candidate is suitable or not. Sayyed Nasrallah is the only one who can decide these things in Lebanon. He makes the decision according to priorities. He assesses whether the result is worthy of the act, then decides. It also depends on the situation on the ground. An act of martyrdom is like a military operation.”

This type of martyrdom is an alien concept in Western philosophy, which emphasizes the sanctity of life, but for many Hezbollah combatants, seeking death is a desirable outcome, one that is nurtured and constantly reinforced by the religious and cultural environment in which he lives. For unlike a member of a political party in the West, the Hezbollah recruit is submitting to a way of life that will dictate almost every aspect of his or her future: choice of friends, employment, social amenities, and often even marriage.

“In one home you could have a brother who is a communist, another who is with Amal, and a third who is with Hezbollah,” explains the Chief. “They are all brothers in the same family, but for the Hezbollah man, Hezbollah is his family. He breathes Hezbollah, eats Hezbollah, everything is Hezbollah. . . . None of our fighters join because they want a job. Many of us are educated people—university graduates, teachers, doctors. We are like everyone else. We want to live in peace, but we also want to live in dignity and without having our rights trampled upon.”

After a recruit has passed through the initial tahdirat phase, he will enter the second stage of induction, known as intizam, or commitment, which also lasts around a year, during which the rigors of party discipline are instilled along with basic military training. “Afterward, it depends on his improvements, he can undergo other courses with higher levels that enable him to hold positions within the organization,” Qassem says. “Some are gradual and some are specialized. You can say it’s like a university.”

Paradoxically, despite the cultish aspects of the indoctrination and educational process, Hezbollah is not interested in churning out an army of mindless drones blindly sacrificing themselves. A degree of self-reliance and autonomy is encouraged, so long as the parameters of party discipline are not breached. Even within Hezbollah, there are those who practice their religious observance more deeply than others. Speaking in the context of the resistance against the Israeli occupation in the late 1990s, Nasrallah admitted that there were two categories of fighters in the Islamic Resistance: “Fighters and officers whose objective is eventually to go back home, and those whose objective is martyrdom, pure and simple. The latter have a far higher morale on the battlefield, and regardless of the kind of weapons they carry, their faith and spirit makes them strong and steadfast and allows them to deal the enemy a severe blow.”

The lengthy and intense process of religious instruction attempts to inculcate within the recruit the moral and religious rectitude of the second category to which Nasrallah refers. Maher, for example, fitted into this category. Raised in an austere and violent environment in south Lebanon and devout from childhood, he had known nothing but resistance and jihad throughout his young adult life. Maher was a single-minded combatant for whom the act of resisting Israel was considered a religious obligation that even took precedence over his human desire to end Israel’s occupation of his natal village.

The Chief, on the other hand, although pious, had not reached the same level of religious intensity as that attained by Maher. He admitted to me that his principal motivation was a desire to protect Lebanon from Israel. The Chief’s upbringing was generally secular, and he had been a talented athlete before joining Hezbollah. His easygoing, friendly nature made him a popular figure in his neighborhood, which is why Hezbollah appointed him a recruiter and placed dozens of fighters under his charge. The Chief was an organizer and a team leader rather than a resolute seeker of martyrdom.

“A Matter of Conviction”

Still, despite the arduous induction process, there is no compulsion to join Hezbollah. The party seeks only those who are unreservedly committed to its ideology and willing to follow the doctrine ofwilayat al-faqih, which is an unconditional prerequisite for membership. Recruits who remain unconvinced after weeks of educational courses are free to leave.

“The wali al-faqih is the leader as far as we are concerned,” Qassem says. “His status in Islam is a religious one. If we are to be reassured that our applications of the teaching of our religion are correct, we need to know the restrictions and the rules that the religion endorses. He gives us these rules and our general political performance. He does not interfere in details.”

As an example, Qassem said that the resistance campaign against Israel in Lebanon from 1982 was religiously sanctioned by the wali al-faqih, Khomeini at the time. But the wali al-faqih did not bother with the tactical details of how Hezbollah waged its resistance campaign. Similarly, the wali al-faqih, this time Khamenei, was the ultimate arbiter of Hezbollah’s decision to enter parliamentary politics in 1992. But Hezbollah’s parliamentary policies are left up to the party and do not individually require approval by the wali al-faqih.

“During this period, the [recruit] will have a vision forming through information. If he becomes convinced . . . he will become a member. If he doesn’t believe in it, he will leave us. It’s a matter of conviction,” Qassem explained to me. “ Hezbollah has a doctrinal intellectual Islamic code of law. It regards the wilayat al-faqih as part of its system. We believe in the leadership of the wali al-faqih. This is a religious issue as far as we are concerned. All those who want to be a part of Hezbollah have to commit themselves to its intellectual code of law, and the wilayat al-faqih is part of this.”

Many recruits receive little or no pay from Hezbollah for the first two or three years, and most will find day jobs to provide an income. Later they will receive monthly salaries and financial support for housing, education of children, and medical needs.

After the 2006 war with Israel, Nasrallah authorized a one-time payment of $100 to each Hezbollah fighter and members of his immediate family in a simple gesture of appreciation. The sum was deliberately kept small. “If we gave them all Range Rovers, they wouldn’t want to fight anymore,” noted one Hezbollah official.

Hezbollah fights for God, not Mammon, but the party’s leadership knows from the experiences of others the temptations that arise when an organization is awash with funds and practices lax accounting. The lure of cash can easily dull the sharp edge of commitment to the cause. In the 1970s, Hezbollah’s future leaders had watched the PLO leadership become corrupt and lazy when it was the recipient of substantial funds from foreign donor countries. The Amal movement today is inefficient and bloated by graft, corrupted by access to state funds to sustain its patronage networks—a grubby legacy to the integrity of Musa Sadr’s original vision.

Recruits into Hezbollah are expected to be financially honest and reliable in accordance with Islamic tenets. Anis Naqqash, the early tutor of the young Imad Mughniyah, recalls sharing a taxi from Damascus to Beirut with a young Hezbollah fighter who had just returned from a training session in Iran. Naqqash offered to pay the fighter’s $15 taxi fare, but the youngster insisted on paying for himself. Naqqash took offense and told him, “Shame on you. I am like your father. I am a businessman and you are a student.” But the youngster would not yield. Later, Naqqash discussed the incident with a friend in Hezbollah.

“Yes, this is normal,” the Hezbollah man said. “We would have given him the fifteen dollars for the taxi fare. It was impossible for him to keep the money for himself.”

Although salaries may be limited, the Hezbollah member knows that his needs will be met by the party, which acts as a vast social welfare network in a country where state social support is almost nonexistent. If a Hezbollah fighter has an accident and requires hospitalization but lacks insurance or the funds to be admitted for treatment, the party will step in and provide the financial coverage and handle the paperwork. I heard of one young Hezbollah man who fought bravely on the front lines in south Lebanon during the 2006 war who was rewarded afterward with a grant of $40,000, allowing him to marry and purchase a home.

Self-discipline and obedience are integral characteristics of Hezbollah. Hezbollah fighters are expected to obey all orders promptly and fully when they are given. They are also expected to behave correctly toward each other as well as toward people outside the party, a natural outcome of successfully pursuing the “greater jihad.” Transgressors face being fined, having pay docked, or spending time in Hezbollah’s own prison in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

During the preparatory phase, each recruit is subjected to a rigorous background security check by Hezbollah’s internal security apparatus. Anyone who has lived abroad for a lengthy period of time, for example, will be treated as a potential security risk and face great difficulty in joining. The security assessment is constantly updated during the recruit’s subsequent life within Hezbollah. Hezbollah has managed to maintain a high level of internal security over the years due to each recruit’s learning self-discipline and developing a sense of security. Nevertheless, individual Hezbollah fighters feel the tug of human emotion—anger, jealousy, humor—just like anyone else. Many of the Hezbollah fighters who spoke to me were not authorized to do so, but some of them had become friends over the years, and others were willing to talk on the assurances of mutual acquaintances.

Hezbollah men tend to be wary of strangers and are required to report any contact with a foreigner to their superiors. Foreigners appearing in Hezbollah-controlled areas are sometimes stopped and questioned and occasionally followed. Every now and then one hears stories of unsuspecting foreign tourists swooped upon by vigilant Hezbollah men while innocently snapping photographs in Beirut’s southern suburbs. A newcomer to Lebanon doubtless will be unsettled, to say the least, when apprehended by burly Hezbollah men or tailed by a militant riding an off-road motorcycle while driving through southern villages. But Hezbollah personnel are generally disciplined and polite, albeit firm, when quizzing a visitor. Over the years I have run the gamut of Hezbollah security procedures, from the mild (being stopped and politely questioned for a few minutes) to the mildly annoying (being stopped, politely questioned, and having a roll of film confiscated) to the disconcerting (being stopped, politely questioned, and photographed, face-on and profile, mug-shot-style, by a Hezbollah security officer) to the thoroughly vexing (being stopped, detained, interrogated, accused of being a spy, handed over to Lebanese military intelligence, and thrown in jail for the night).

Walking in the Path of Ahl al-Bayt

Khodr was not even born when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, but the soft-spoken university student knew from childhood that he would join Hezbollah one day and serve in the ranks of the resistance just as his father had done. Raised in a pious environment in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Khodr was twelve when he joined Hezbollah’s youth program in 1998.

His stocky physique and thickly muscled arms are testament to the hours he spends pumping iron in a local gym. But while he mixes with his neighborhood Shia friends even though they do not share his beliefs, Khodr has no appetite for listening to music, going to parties, or generally enjoying the indolence of youth. “I look at my friends and see them chasing girls and drinking, but in the end I am laughing and they are crying,” he says. “Everything I do is with the Prophet Mohammed and the Ahl al-Bayt [the Prophet’s family line through Imam Ali] in mind. I am walking the same path.”

Each recruit undergoes an initial military training program lasting thirty-three days, during which the rudiments of guerrilla warfare are taught and basic fitness attained. During the 1980s and early 1990s, much of the training was carried out at established camps in the barren valleys of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains on the eastern flank of the Bekaa Valley beside the border with Syria. There was no ground cover to mask Hezbollah’s activities from Israeli jets and drones, and the recruits usually slept in tents, caves, and huts. Hezbollah assumed that the presence of air defense systems—its own rudimentary weapons and Syria’s more advanced missiles on the other side of the adjacent border—were sufficient to deter the Israeli Air Force from attacking the training sites.

However, on the night of June 2, 1994, Israeli jets and Apache helicopter gunships swooped on the Ain Dardara camp east of Baalbek, where some 150 recruits were sleeping in their tents. The jets dropped bombs on the camp and the helicopter gunships mopped up, using thermal imaging to locate fleeing militants and tear them to shreds with bursts of fire from their 30 mm guns. More than forty recruits were killed in the raid, the deepest into Lebanon in seven years. Hezbollah and Lebanese army antiaircraft units shot blindly into the night sky without hitting any Israeli aircraft, and the Syrian SAM batteries remained quiet. It was Hezbollah’s largest loss of life in a single incident, and party leaders were quick to vow revenge. “We are preparing an operation that will surprise the world,” Hajj Hassan Huballah, a top official, warned.

Six weeks later, on July 18, a suicide bomber blew up a van packed with more than six hundred pounds of explosive beside the seven-story building of the Mutual Israeli Association of Argentina, an umbrella group of Jewish charities in Buenos Aires. The blast killed eighty-five people and wounded another three hundred and completely demolished the building. Hezbollah denied responsibility, but for Israel, the bombing again demonstrated Hezbollah’s ability and will to exact revenge on a global scale to extraordinary actions undertaken by the Israeli military. Whether Israel would have repeated the Ain Dardara air strike in view of the blow-back in Argentina is unclear, although Hezbollah would not give them the opportunity.

“We Could Hear the Sizz of the Fuse”

Following the Ain Dardara raid, Hezbollah changed its training procedures in the Bekaa Valley, switching to the more wooded western flanks of the valley, which provided better ground cover from Israeli aircraft. The training, while as intensive and rigorous as ever, was conducted on a more ad hoc level, with recruits no longer sleeping in fixed locations on a regular basis.

Basic military training begins with the recruit receiving instructions to be at a certain rendezvous point at a given time. The recruit brings nothing with him apart from a change of underwear and toiletries. He is picked up by a minibus with windows masked by black cotton sheets, and along with some fifteen other recruits begins the journey to a training area in the Bekaa Valley. Although it normally takes only about ninety minutes to reach the nearest Hezbollah training areas from Beirut’s southern suburbs, the journey for the recruits is usually considerably longer, as the minibus driver deliberately follows a meandering route, doubling back more than once to thoroughly disorient his passengers. When close to the training area, the recruits leave the minibus, and for the final stage of the journey along rough dirt tracks, they sit hidden beneath canvas awnings in the back of pickup trucks or large SUVs. By the time they are deposited on a mountainside along with perhaps two more groups of recruits from elsewhere in Lebanon, none of them will have any idea where they are.

The emphasis of the first thirty-three-day training period is to build fitness and endurance. The recruits, in batches of around fifty and dressed in camouflage uniforms, are sent on punishing marches across the rocky limestone mountains weighed down with rifles and backpacks filled with stones. Sometimes they carry cement-filled ammunition tubes for the B-10 82 mm recoilless rifle. They are given one canteen of water a day, which they use for drinking and for washing before prayers. Their instructors are experienced combat veterans, usually in their mid-thirties or older, who maintain steady pressure on their youthful charges. The marches are augmented by uphill sprints and seemingly endless push-ups.

“They wore me out,” recalls Khodr of his initial training session. “I had to do fifty push-ups, but I could only do thirty, so they made me run back up the hill. One time, they told us to take off our boots and socks and climb a mountain while they shot at us. You should see how we suffered. I spent nights when I couldn’t sleep because of the pain from blisters and sore muscles.”

Training occurs throughout the year, regardless of weather. In the winter months, Hezbollah takes advantage of the snowy conditions in the mountains to teach Alpine warfare techniques. Alpine training is not as incongruous as it might at first seem. The peaks of Mount Hermon between Lebanon, Syria, and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the scene of fierce confrontations in the 1973 Arab–Israeli war, are topped with snow for about five months of the year. The IDF’s Unit Alpinistim is deployed on Mount Hermon to protect the signals intelligence (SIGINT) station on one of the lower peaks.

“When it’s very cold, I stay away from water,” Khodr says. “The first time I washed in water in winter I couldn’t breathe. We spent one night in an open field without tents or sleeping bags. I spent all night awake shivering and trying to get a little warmer. One guy sleeping beside me was so cold that he stood up and cursed and cursed and cursed and then fell back down and went to sleep.”

At night, each recruit does at least one hour of guard duty, fighting off fatigue and trying to remain alert in case the instructors decide to spring another surprise. “One hour on guard duty can seem like one year. The trees seem to be walking in the darkness. We see wild boar, hyenas, and in the summer we have big problems with snakes,” Khodr says.

The recruits also have to endure a “toughness day” when they are forced to crawl on thorns or jump from heights. The instructors keep the recruits on edge with “shock tactics,” such as ambushing them by firing live rounds at their feet and RPGs above their heads. “On my first session, we were lined up in rows and the instructors planted blocks of C-4 explosive among us attached to fuses. We could hear the sizz of the fuse but we had to stand still,” Khodr says.

He recalls one occasion when he and some fifty other recruits had marched for several hours and were passing through a narrow valley when they were ambushed by a group of instructors hidden in the rocks above. “They set off a roadside bomb close to us. Some of the recruits were in shock. The guys in the middle of the column ducked down while the guys at either end charged up the hillside to flank the instructors who were shooting past us with live ammunition.”

In addition to fitness and stamina, the recruits are taught how to use the basic weaponry standard to the Hezbollah fighter—the AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles, the PKC 7.62 mm light machine gun, the .50 caliber heavy machine gun, the RPG-7—until they can strip, reassemble, and load each weapon blindfolded. They practice firing during the day and at night using tracer rounds. Each recruit is handed a limited amount of ammunition and told the importance of conserving rounds. Fire aimed single rounds, they are told, and avoid switching the rifle to automatic: you lose accuracy and waste ammunition.

The recruits learn how to plant roadside bombs and land mines. They study the different types of armored vehicles used by the Israeli army and how to fire RPGs at their more vulnerable spots.

The instructors ram home the need to maintain constant vigilance no matter how tired the recruits. Rifles must be kept in hand at all times, including when sleeping, eating, or praying. Recruits are taught to be fully awake and combat ready within five seconds of being woken in the middle of the night. Radio communications must be answered at once. Failure to comply with these basic rules results in punishment, such as being forced into stress positions for a prolonged period.

They learn the art of camouflage and stealth, various kinds of crawl, and the ability to lie in position on observation duty without moving for hours on end. The recruits are taught navigation using map and compass and GPS instruments before embarking upon five-day orienteering treks across the mountains. They learn how to find their direction from a simple sundial consisting of a stick planted in the ground, or determining north using a wristwatch. Occasionally, one group of recruits will be ordered to launch a sneak raid against another group camped a few miles away in the mountains or to keep them under observation without being spotted.

“The Rebellion Against Fear”

Military training is obligatory for every Hezbollah recruit even if he does not intend to serve in the ranks of the Islamic Resistance afterward. Still, not all recruits aspiring to become combatants pass the military training program. Those who cannot cope with the punishing schedule but still believe in the cause can drop out and are allotted jobs in Hezbollah’s administrative apparatus.

Every Hezbollah fighter is trained in medical support and carries a first aid pack into combat. In an average-sized combat unit of five fighters, two will be medics. Hezbollah places great importance on battlefield medical treatment, partly to ensure that months of training are not wasted and that combatants live to fight another day, and partly for purposes of morale—a Hezbollah fighter may ultimately seek martyrdom in battle, but no one welcomes a lingering death in the mud of some frontline valley because his comrades lack either the kit or the knowledge to cope with wounds. Furthermore, any corpse left on the battlefield could be retrieved by Israeli troops and become a card in Israel’s hands during any future prisoner swap negotiations.

Hezbollah even provides a nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare training course, in which fighters learn how to cope with the difficulties of combat in thick protective suits, boots, and gloves and with vision obscured by gas masks.

Nor is it all physical work; the recruits undertake written and practical exams in the field under the watchful eyes of their trainers.

Although the training areas are located in dense undergrowth and under cover of trees, “sky watchers” constantly look out for approaching Israeli jets or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Each training area is protected by air defense units armed with antiaircraft guns and shoulder-fired missiles.

The initial training phase is only the first of many in the course of a combatant’s career. As a university student—Hezbollah pays some of the tuition fees—Khodr can choose when to attend fitness training sessions and refresher courses in the Bekaa Valley even after opting for specialized training in anti-armor weapons.

By the time the recruit has completed the initial stages of religious instruction and military training to the satisfaction of his superiors, he will have earned a greater level of trust and can then join specific units or pursue certain advanced military disciplines such as sniping, antitank missiles, communications, or explosives. While there is flexibility in allowing recruits to select their area of specialization, Hezbollah commanders will sometimes steer them toward units that are experiencing a manpower shortage, or will encourage them to follow certain disciplines in keeping with the recruit’s education and character.

“We have a gradual training course. It’s variegated according to specialization,” says Maher, the sector commander in the Islamic Resistance. “We study each of the recruits’ strengths, physically and mentally. If he’s good at physics, then he will study trajectories [for artillery]. If he’s good at chemistry, then he will study explosives. In line with their basic training, they also receive training in their skills.”

The military training program undertaken by each recruit in the Islamic Resistance not only prepares them for future combat operations but also helps build esprit de corps, an important asset on the battlefield aside from deep commitment to the Islamic faith. Hezbollah’s military successes, especially during the 1990s, helped convey among the cadres a sense of fraternal and communal pride, achievement, and empowerment, sentiments that also inspire new generations of volunteers to join the party.

Specialized training usually takes place in Iran, or sometimes Syria. The Bekaa Valley is too small and too easily accessed by Israeli reconnaissance aircraft for training on larger-scale weapons systems such as artillery rockets and air defense systems. Those undergoing training in Iran usually travel to Damascus, then board flights to Tehran before being bused to one of several training camps run by the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards near Kuraj, Isfahan, Qoms, or Tehran. Fighters can attend multiple courses in Iran lasting several weeks each. The trainers are full-time Hezbollah instructors, veterans who have proven themselves in combat in south Lebanon and share the same cultural background and Arabic language as the recruits.

Recruits into Hezbollah’s Special Forces unit, the top combat element in the Islamic Resistance, endure an intensive three-month course split into two forty-five-day programs with a five-day break in between. While most Hezbollah combatants are part-timers holding down day jobs or attending college and university, the special forces cadres are full-time combatants who train relentlessly. Not only are they highly motivated combat fighters, they are also the embodiment of the religious and cultural values that make up the way of Hezbollah. Even within the generally homogeneous ranks of the Islamic Resistance, Special Forces fighters tend to stand out. In person, they are usually polite and modest with a quiet sense of humor while maintaining a level of reserve and distance before strangers.

Hezbollah believes that the unremitting religious and ideological instruction creates a combatant far superior to his opposite number in the Israeli army and helps overcome the organization’s material shortcomings in technology, weapons, and funds compared to Israel. Never mind that Israel has Merkava tanks, F-16 fighter-bombers, and Apache helicopter gunships; the Islamic Resistance fighter is taught that God is on his side, an unrivaled affirmation of the sanctity of the cause and the supreme guarantor of eventual triumph over one’s enemy. Furthermore, Hezbollah believes that its culture of martyrdom—this “rebellion against fear,” as Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah once put it—bestows upon the individual fighter an unmatched level of bravery, at least in the secular sense of the word. After all, how can you defeat an army of fighters who believe their struggle is sanctioned by God and none of whom are afraid of dying in battle?

Hezbollah’s leaders maintain that it is the psychological dimension of the individual fighter, rather than the equipment and arms at his disposal, that lies at the heart of the party’s battlefield triumphs. “This group of fighters does not go to war in order to flex their military muscles, score a publicity coup or to achieve material advantages; they fight and do jihad with serious intent and a deep conviction that the only way to regain their usurped territory is by waging war on the enemy,” Nasrallah explained.

While other Islamist militant organizations operating around the world also draw direction from the Koran and pursue jihad, Sheikh Naim Qassem insists that it is the quality of the resistance fighter’s faith that is the foundation for Hezbollah’s “exceptional particularity.”

“First, [it is] faith in Islam and what this means in connection with God, the exalted, and attaining a moral state that gives one self-confidence, strength, hope for the future, readiness to sacrifice [oneself] . . . development, and self-improvement. This is something essential that we have,” he told me.

The second component, Qassem continues, is “readiness for martyrdom” and an understanding that “martyrdom neither shortens nor prolongs life because the timing of death is predestined by God. . . . Since the outcome of this martyrdom is a divine reward in Heaven, this is something quite important when it comes to mobilization, especially that we have historic leaders who have presented this example, such as the Prophet Mohammed, Imam Ali, and Imam Hussein and others.”

The third advantage is the quality and integrity of Hezbollah’s leadership, Qassem adds, citing the martyrdom of Sayyed Abbas Mussawi in 1992 and of Nasrallah’s eldest son, Hadi, in combat in 1997 as examples of the leadership’s willingness to stand in the same trench as the rank-and-file fighter.

The combination of these three assets—faith in Islam, readiness for martyrdom, and “honest, confident . . . enlightened” leadership—ensures that the “limited [material] capabilities or potentials [of a nonstate actor] become of value.”

“Imagine the single machine gun with a faith in God and readiness for martyrdom and a faith in, and interaction with, the leadership, and then you have a person of great power who does not fear death,” Qassem explains. “This differs from the enemy on the other side that does many calculations [to protect itself]. Then our machine gun becomes more powerful than their artillery. This moral issue is quite essential.”

This article is an extract from Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel, by Nicholas Blanford, published in October 2011 by Random House.

Nicholas Blanford
is the Beirut correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the Times of London. He is also a contributor to TIME, and to Jane’s Information Group publications, including Jane’s Defence Weekly and Jane’s Intelligence Review. He reported on Lebanon for theDaily Star in Beirut from 1996 to 2002. Blanford is the author of Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and its Impact on the Middle East, and, most recently, Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel. 

Graffiti Nation

A curious image is displayed on a wall outside the American University in Cairo’s Tahrir Square campus. Inconspicuous at first glance, the red and white chess board is more than a game. The pawns are grouped together at one end, and an upside-down king is flanked by bishops, knights, and castles at the other. An apt metaphor, to many revolutionaries, of how a ruler was toppled yet strongmen remained in power.

The chess board is the work of a graffiti artist who calls himself El-Teneen, “the Dragon,” one of the many young Egyptians who picked up a can of spray paint and stencil for the first time during the January 25 revolution. Once an underground endeavor, attempted by only a few brave souls who did their deeds at night and in the most remote corners, graffiti has emerged as a potent form of expression since the protests that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak. One of El-Teneen’s first pieces, spray-painted in Tahrir Square on January 26, was a simple portrait of Mubarak beside the word “LEAVE.”

Walking through Tahrir, the center of the mass protests, is like passing through a gallery of graffiti art. Images of the graffiti have been captured and disseminated by the world’s media, local bloggers, and ordinary passersby. Names such as Ganzeer, Sad Panda, Kaizer, Adham Bakry, Charles Akl and El-Teneen have been hash-tagged to no end on Twitter. Some of the works are unsubtle, like the boldly colored martyr portraits of Egyptians killed in the uprising. One of the most powerful images is “Tank versus Biker,” produced by Mohamed Fahmy, who goes by Ganzeer. It depicts a tank facing a bread delivery boy, balancing a tray of aysh, an image representing the struggle of ordinary people against state power.

The graffiti phenomenon quickly moved inside AUC’s campus as a subject worthy of study. Samia Mehrez, a cultural critic and professor of modern Arabic literature, launched a seminar aimed at archiving, reading, and translating materials of the revolution from speeches, chants, and slogans to jokes, poems, and wall graffiti. That has evolved into a book, Translating Egypt’s Revolution: The Language of Tahrir, due out in early 2012 from AUC Press.

 One of Mehrez’s students, Lewis Sanders IV, decided to write a master’s thesis on street art and contributed a chapter to the book. “Street art is an expression of the graffiti artists’ thoughts, emotions, and desires,” he explains. “Its proliferation represents a significant shift in social perceptions and interactions with public space, as activated by the revolution. The street artist, in the act of producing art in the street, re-territorializes a territory or place that was previously subjugated by the state.” Graffiti, he says, has become a way of literally reclaiming public space for the freedom of expression.

As depicted in El-Teneen’s chessboard, the struggle for Egypt is far from complete. Huda Lufti, a professor of cultural history at AUC and a noted avant-garde artist, believes that the country’s transitional military rulers even continue to pose obstacles to the creation and preservation of the graffiti. “I don’t think they are supporting the revolutionary spirit in Egypt,” she explains. “There are constant attempts on their part to erase abusive graffiti.”

The messages, however, will not be expunged from history. Various other initiatives are underway to preserve the graffiti for posterity, with social media playing an important role in the effort. On her Facebook page, called “Revolution Graffiti,” enthusiast Maya Gowaily has posted an extensive album of images she collected during travels around the city; some of her two thousand followers on Facebook have also uploaded photographs of graffiti from all over Egypt. Ganzeer, meanwhile, designed an interactive graffiti tracking map at www.cairostreetart.com. Soraya Morayef helped popularize the artists on her blog, Suzee in the City. She also curated an exhibition of graffiti at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery; besides showcasing the work of nine artists, “This Is Not Graffiti” asked if the images can be regarded as graffiti when they are removed from the “noise, the faces, and the life of the streets.”

Perhaps a more pertinent question is whether Egypt’s graffiti will eventually cease pushing political and social boundaries. Is it merely a fashionable trend that will lose its vibrancy? El-Teneen, for one, doesn’t think so. “Even if the political situation here is resolved,” he insists, “we will still have to talk about women, religion and other issues.”