Do you know what is so astonishing about the uprisings and protests that we are seeing across the region? Quite simply, no leaders seem apparent. There are no individuals for the media and, by extension, the wider world, to focus on. El Baradei in Egypt has actively tried to push the spotlight away from himself, and even Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who was detained for his Facebook rabble rousing, does not seem sufficient in stature to encapsulate the energy and passions of the movement.
It is not just in Egypt that this is the case. It was the same in Tunisia and Algeria, Yemen and Bahrain too. As I type, outpourings of popular dissent are even being seen in Libya. But the crowds are not dominated by the personalities of a few. Rather, they seem massive manifestations of a collective spirit, resolute and doughty, and all the more potent for it.
And there is one reason, one answer and one word to explain this: the internet. What we are seeing, as antiquated as it sometimes seems is the most modern of revolutions. Who needs men to stand before crowds, whipping them into frenzies with rhetoric, when at home there is Facebook and Twitter?
It sounds ridiculous to say it, perhaps because their very names — Facebook, Twitter — sound so light and inconsequential, but these social networking sites, or engines through which moods and anger and insurrectionary intent can be disseminated at broadband speed, are revealing themselves to be democracy’s best and most powerful friend.
In 1857, when India rose up against British rule, secret messages had to be painstakingly passed from one revolutionary to another in the form of symbolic chapati breads. Today, Iranian insurgents try to outwit the authorities and galvanise support with messages on Twitter that are read by thousands in minutes.
The figures, particularly for the MENA region, are mind-blowing. While in the last decade, internet penetration across the globe rose at 432 percent, in the Middle East it grew by 1825 percent. At this moment, the world has an average internet penetration rate of 25.6 percent. In the Middle East, it is 28.3 percent. Nearly 64 million Arabs are online, while close to 12 million of these — yes, twelve million — are on Facebook.
Bahrain has a tiny population, just 738,004. Yet incredibly, 253,100 (34 percent) are, according to Facebook, on Facebook. Other nations such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan have over ten percent of their population on the site, while the figures for Twitter are heading only one way. Up. And fast.
There is an irony here, which is that for the past five years countries such as Bahrain have done most to encourage growth and investment in IT, making sure that everyone, everywhere in the country can get online, whenever they want, at whatever speed they want.
Arab youths, according to every credible survey, spend more time surfing the net than watching television. And as Hosni Mubarak found out just over a week ago, no address on state television is a match for the power of Facebook and Twitter.
None of us can predict the future of the region with any accuracy, and there is no indication as to where the current protests will lead or end.
But I am confident of this: in hundreds of years from now, when the history books are written about the events we are witnessing today, the following seven names will feature prominently: Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, Evan Williams, Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes.
If you hadn’t already guessed, these are the founders of Twitter and Facebook. Very modern revolutionaries.
Damian Reilly is the Editor of Arabian Business.