Sunday, February 20, 2011

ADVERTISING THE AMERICAN WAY

PHILIP J. CUNNINGHAM



I first encountered Hillary Clinton in China at a reception held at the US Embassy in Beijing in July 1998 when she and her husband, the President, were being feted on a state visit. While the voluble Bill Clinton shook hands and chatted with the guests, she stood back in the shadows, like a wallflower. They went on to enjoy an extended stay in China, comfortably distant from the noise of US internet-driven opprobrium for an alleged scandal that need not be detailed here. In short, she got fried by American Internet freedom and found temporary respite in China. Those were the days when you could escape a vast right-wing conspiracy, the drone attacks of Drudge Reports and the salacious gotcha journalism of CBS and CNN by getting on an airplane.

On February 15, 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech on Internet freedom. Although the Wikileaks case found the US government awkwardly on the “wrong” side of the rousing topic of Internet freedom, she has tried to downplay the obvious hypocrisy of her stance — in short, anything that serves US government interests is enlightened Internet policy — while portraying the Obama political team and its corporate allies as model global citizens on the road to human rights and freedom, never mind the bloody wars raging on in the background.

It used to be thought that what was good for General Motors was good for America. GM, because of the decline of US manufacturing, is a shell of its former self, but Google has emerged as a national mascot, the new pet poodle of American high-tech evangelists. The US promotion of Internet freedom cannot be taken at face value, especially after the frantic efforts made to block and discredit Wikileaks.

Instead, US official rhetoric about Internet freedom is rather code for “do it our way”, which itself can be parsed to mean: “Do as we say, not as we do.”

In fact, Clinton’s latest lecture to the world conflates the idea of Internet freedom with advertising freedom. Her speech is like the start gun in a global race for advertising revenue in which the US has a leg up and has taken an early lead.

What really counts for crony capitalists, inside the Beltway and out, is not so much the freedom of speech but the freedom to advertise, which promotes slavish materialism and ultimately an irresponsible, apolitical way of life. Making the world safe for Facebook, Google, and Yahoo means granting them the freedom to collect and analyze more of your private data in order to their boost ad revenue.

In this context, Hillary Clinton’s speech came off like a partisan pep-talk for US business abroad -- ill-conceived, unnecessary and unbecoming—akin to the diplomatic gaffe made by George Bush Senior in 1992 when he used the presidential pulpit to shill for “Toys R Us” during a Japan summit. To insist that the world wire itself according to US specifications, however, is more than hypocritical. It’s begging for blowback and unintended consequences that go far beyond the indignity of foisting US-style big box shopping on reluctant Japanese consumers.

Granted, America’s top diplomat has a tough job, especially given the precipitous decline in US prestige in the last decade. And a Secretary of State does not enjoy much freedom of speech, as she or he serves at the pleasure of the president, in this case, the hip, hi-tech Barack Obama who utilized Silicon Valley support to get elected President.

There’s something wistful about idyll of a beleaguered Hillary Clinton in Beijing in the summer of 1998, basking in the restful, and respectful attention of her Chinese hosts at a time when America’s nascent Internet was raking her husband over the coals for relations with an intern. Researching the Chinese press at the time for articles in Nieman Reports and the Media Studies Journal, I was surprised at just how “polite” Chinese coverage of US politics was. In contrast to the American media’s mass feeding frenzy on semen-stained dresses and the like, there was nary a mention of Monica Lewinsky in the Chinese press. Now some would say that’s censorship, and by American press standards it might well be. But is an absolute free-for-all the only way to go? Aren’t there also valid questions of decorum and maybe just old-fashioned editing?

One doesn’t have to agree with the particulars of Internet controls in China to agree that the Internet need not open all the floodgates or be ubiquitous or identical in every last corner of the globe in line with Clinton’s proclamation. The call to impose American-style “Internet freedom” on the rest of the world smacks of self-interest dressed up as humanitarian ideology. Far from offering a level playing field, the “free” transmission of information and entertainment as outlined by Ms. Clinton would favor established players with deep pockets and technological prowess, not unlike “free trade”, another American obsession.

In any case, it’s important to distinguish between the free flow of ideas as advocated by upstarts like Wikipedia and Wikileaks, and the corporate giants who rake in the profits while claiming the high ground of Internet evangelism. Facebook is a corporate behemoth, not a pillar of free speech, ditto for Google and Yahoo. These firms examine and manipulate personal details of people’s lives, and are essentially gigantic ad agencies masquerading as communication gurus. No sooner did Google acquire YouTube, a bustling hub of user-donated cultural product, than it started littering the entire site with obnoxious popup ads.

China, like any sovereign state, has the right to resist honey-voiced US calls to adopt a US-style Internet strategy, just as it has the right to keep multinational firms with questionable ethical standards at arm’s length, especially data-mining firms that trade private information for corporate profit.

If the US Internet giants get their way, we will all become as vulnerable as besieged public figures, like Hillary Clinton was during that low point in her husband’s presidency, when hardly a word, movement, transaction or sigh could be uttered without being pored over and analyzed by others.

Bolstered by the elixir of power, Ms. Clinton is now sounding the trumpet in favor of Internet data-miners who are tearing down walls of decorum, stripping away common decency and eroding the integrity of the individual.

Meanwhile, the Internet billionaires are using their new-found ad riches to buy the very privacy for themselves that their business models deny to others. Hidden behind their fortified mansions, teams of bodyguards, legions of lawyers and impenetrable bureaucratic walls, guarded Internet evangelists peddle intrusive technology, stripping away the privacy of the man and woman on the street, putting the hoi polloi on a par with the celebrities of yesteryear, but without the compensatory perks and privileges of celebrity.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

THINGS TO LOOK FOR IN A BIG DEMONSTRATION



BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

(as published in the Bangkok Post, February 12, 2011)


Every uprising is different. But given the shared human capacity for hope, fear, courage and transformative change, certain patterns emerge. Whenever unarmed citizens take to the streets to challenge an entrenched regime, the courage and danger of the quixotic, asymmetrical quest strikes a common chord.

Already the 2011 uprising in Egypt has been compared to Iran in 1979, China in 1989, while it also bears some resemblance to people power revolts in Thailand and the Philippines. Tunisia’s recent upheaval was perhaps the most direct inspiration, but similarities with all of the above can be seen even though each upheaval unfolds in its own way.

In Cairo, crowd dynamics, crowd control, random chaos and organized resistance are playing out in ways that are not entirely unfamiliar.

Here are some things to look for:

-Truth as a casualty. In social conflict, the media comes under pressure from day one. Competing narratives battle it out, pitting the storytelling skills of the authorities against those of the protestors. What starts with banners and slogans against the state-controlled press begins to even out as the story becomes too big to ignore. Thereafter smoke and fire follow, with heartfelt cries for justice and moments of startling clarity amidst outright deceptions and cover-ups.

-TV stations as key links. Television is so effective a transmitter of information (including mis-information, mis-direction, enforced taboos and telling zones of silence) that it can, even under the boot of state control, inadvertently fan the flames of nationwide protest. Satellite and Internet TV offer alternate views. Al Jazeera, despite being banned and burned down in Cairo, has done a superlative job covering recent events.

-Orwellian censorship. The odd scent of censored news doesn’t pass the sniff test. That which was intended to pacify instead has an incendiary effect. When Egypt state TV blamed the unrest on foreigners, the conspicuous failure to mention the crowd’s singular demand for Mubarak to step down resounded louder than all the empty talk.

-Reporters and citizen journalists at risk. Be it reflexive fear of exposure or simply a vengeful way of blaming the messenger, dedicated truth-tellers often get roughed up as public disturbances unfold.

-Journalists, local and foreign, have different roles to play and different audiences to speak to, thus offering divergent views on the significance of what is happening.

-Information redundancy. If one technology fails, or is blocked, multiple ways of transmitting the news remain. The information ecosystem includes everything from cellphones to landlines, from email to hand-painted banners, chants, slogans and word of mouth.

-Social networking is not a revolt. It may be the case that messages sent out by a handful of cyber activists were critical in getting young people out on the streets of Cairo on January 25, 2011, but there is a also a great deal of wishful thinking, a kind of wide-eyed digital evangelism on the part of young netizens who would like to believe that the technologies that happened to come of age when they were teens are innately good and going to rock the world. One influential activist, a Google employee, naively compared Facebook tycoon Mark Zuckerberg to Mahatma Gandhi.

-Technology is neutral. As with the advent of moveable type, the telephone or television, new technology makes new patterns of interaction possible, but it’s not necessarily on the side of the angels. The hype about the “Twitter revolution” in Iran in 2009 propagated by the US State Department and sensational media mavens has since been debunked, just as Google’s clumsy maneuvers in China reveal a conflation of ad agency business with utopian idealism.

-Surveillance. Digitized information transmission and storage creates an information trail that permits surveillance and processing of self-incriminating detail at a level that the KGB and Stasi could only dream about. Everyone’s recording everyone else.

-Politics and media have always gone hand in hand, but today the tango is being speeded up, shaped and shifted by an abundance of actionable information in real time. The fact that the Internet was “turned off” by the Egyptian authorities speaks to the fear of politicized networking and unobstructed information flow. Ditto for the US reaction to Wikileaks.

- A world in which Internet access is universal is not a level playing field. The US may be skittish about security leaks but is otherwise bullish on the Internet. In contrast, less powerful governments react to the Internet in more tyrannical ways, fearing that which they have yet to master. Americans have long since mastered the art of co-existing with free speech. Washington has long been adept at producing PR, spinning away its troubles, maintaining a monopoly on violence and otherwise retaining political control, all of which gives it an edge in the brave new world of cyberspace.

-When a large crowd manages to gather against all odds, success breeds success. The mathematics of it can be exponential. If ten, a hundred, a thousand brave individuals get away with the impossible, a million might follow.

-Something in the air. When a large crowd asserts itself in a public space, it creates political space and with it new political breezes. An indefinable “something in the air” can kick-start a major uprising. Under the natural evolution of such circumstances, the crowd is likely to be diverse and composed of people from all walks of life.

-When the numbers soar, one is tempted to think one is on the right side of history, however illusory that aura might be. Suddenly, there’s a seductive chance to hit society’s reset button.

-The art of the unexpected. Protests, partly of necessity, burst forth without much advance warning, turning the table on status quo power arrangements at home and abroad. Power brokers scramble to catch up with footsteps on the street, often awkwardly, suddenly face to face with fearless discontents who can no longer be haughtily dismissed or ignored.

-Play-acting is part of the game. An arrogant regime may show an unexpected willingness to talk and make concessions to buy time and seek an escape route, not unlike a rich man accosted in an alley by an angry gang of paupers.

-Order in chaos. A diverse, unscripted crowd, though difficult to control, is not in a state of chaos but subtly governed by unspoken laws based on shared idealism, cultural assumptions and common habits of mind.

-In the tentative early stages of a demonstration, mass demands are likely to focus on a single goal, but as violent reprisals further energize and infuriate, crowd demands are likely to escalate and multiply.

-Absolute dedication to non-violence gives a mass demonstration both integrity and coherence. Crowds that harbor snipers and armed militants are corrupted, corroded and betrayed from within. While a moral crowd must police itself, and protect itself, it needs be on guard against violence from within and without.

-Crowd leadership. Who shall lead? Shall violence be met with passive resistance, withdrawal or action? Will extremists allow moderates to win the day? When a core leadership at last emerges, the crowd is apt to lose its innocence; rebels become politicians, for better or worse.

-Not all demonstrations are good, not all entrenched bureaucracies are bad. As street fighting-weary denizens of Bangkok know all too well, crowds can be uplifting and crowds can be menacing, sometimes both at the same time. When activists adopt colors and compete with rival activists, the pretence of unity and ability to speak on behalf of the people is gone.

-Big demonstrations in a nation’s capital assume a symbolic importance that reverberates into the hinterland, as was seen with the student-led protests in Beijing in 1989 that inspired sympathetic protests in many cities across China. On a more negative note, the torching of buildings in Bangkok in May 2010 stimulated copycat actions in several distant provinces on the part of aligned agitators.

-Hijacking the crowd. Non-violent social action directed at social injustice may be entirely well-intended, but there are unexpected consequences. Peaceful demonstrators can be out-muscled or hijacked by more ruthless elements with a narrow clarity of vision and superior organization skills.

-Cultural identity is up for grabs. When willfully distorted and narrowly defined by fundamentalists and xenophobes, cultural definitions reduce freedom. In Egypt, Mubarak has fostered a cult of Pharaonic overtones, eliding his identity with the history of a proud nation.

-Family ties. As Egypt’s new Vice-President Omar Suleiman says, “We all respect Mubarak as father.” When a politician under fire is compared to a parent, the implication is that any resistance would be unfilial, if not futile.

-Foreign meddling. To blame problems on foreigners is a common enough diversionary tactic, though in the case of Egypt it’s a nakedly hypocritical complaint. The Mubarak regime itself is the product of 30 years of foreign meddling as it has been backed and bolstered by Washington with billions of US taxpayer dollars.

-Army neutrality. In times of civic distress, the army's strength is paradoxically best shown by utter restraint, strict neutrality and the ability to restrain violent outbreaks without resorting to violence. If and when the army draws blood, it becomes tainted by perceptions of partisanship and weakens its legitimacy as protector of all citizens. The army is too blunt an instrument to be used in a citizen crackdown.

-Lack of an exit strategy. Shared risks taken in pursuit of common dreams create intoxicating bonds of comradeship. Thus it is difficult to convince those who have been energized by the whiff of danger and hypnotic pull of the crowd to yield to authorities or cede the “holy” occupied ground.

-The drug-like high of a being caught up in a human whirlwind that is part carnival, part killing field, set out in the open under the sun and the moon, makes the idea of packing up and going home seem like a betrayal, if not surrender. This was evident in Bangkok last May when rank and file members of the red shirt demonstration refused to budge even as approaching gunfire resounded down the road. There were vocal wails of disappointment when the red shirt leaders threw in the towel on May 19, 2010 and surrendered to police.

-Follow the money. Rent-a-mobs paid for by powerful patrons complicate the mix. Taking money and marching orders from billionaires, or their proxies, may allow for a good canteen and satellite uplinks, but it is a short-sighted strategy that erodes the democratic credentials of a movement in the long run.

-Class cleavages. Even if one knew nothing about the years of torture and brutal police controls in Egypt, the obscene corruption of Hosni Mubarak, -personal worth estimated worth between 40 and 70 billion dollars tells you all you need to know about why so many people, and not just the poor, want him out of power.

pc

Sunday, February 6, 2011

EGYPT: EMBRACING THE OPPOSITION

BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM



A powerful regime, facing a rare moment of vulnerability, is all of a sudden interested in reform and willing to talk. It invites its arch-enemies to the negotiating table. But once the crowds are gone, what guarantee remains that the police state will not regroup and retrench and strike back with a vengeance?

Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman met with members of the opposition over the weekend. What remains unclear is if the Mubarak regime is sincerely extending an open hand of peace to the opposition, or trying to draw them in close enough so they can be slapped or lured into a trap. Is the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood a heartfelt bid to hear all sides or a plan to sow division in a protest that to date has been notable for being leaderless, secular, spontaneous and youthful?

Given the low esteem with which the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed in Israel, Europe and the US, extending an olive branch to the banned, radical opposition might seem paradoxical at first. But it is sometimes easier for entrenched power to deal with its arch-enemy, the enemy that it knows, and not only knows, but probably needs, as an existential doppelganger. On a certain functional level it may be easier for a ruthless power to deal with, if not respect, another ruthless, tightly organized entity, rather than deal with a random mass of peaceful moderates without a hierarchical political organization.

Certainly in other places, at other times, this paradoxical embrace of the opposite can be seen in effect. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US found it easier to work with Japan’s old wartime elite than the communists, pacifists and trade unionists who opposed Tokyo’s war on Asia. In recent decades, Beijing’s rulers have found it easier to engage the Communist Party of China’s arch-enemy represented by the KMT party on Taiwan, rather than deal respectfully with rag-tag individuals such as Liu Xiaobo, and many thousands of others, who demonstrated at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Thus, what appears at first glance a gesture of inclusion on the part of the Egyptian regime might in fact be a bid to exclude the moderate core demonstrators and keep the focus on mutually antagonistic extremes instead.

Suleiman, who has emerged for the moment as Washington’s go-to guy in trying to find a resolution to Egypt’s political impasse, might be acceptable to his foreign interlocutors, but demonstrators on the scene, including Nobel laureate Mohamed El Baradei, tend not to agree. Is it really realistic to expect a regime of thirty years standing and a reputation for brutality to change its game overnight? Is it likely to keep the promises it makes under pressure?

The search to find a stand-in for the Egyptian government who is minimally acceptable to demonstrators, the regime and its foreign allies alike will continue apace.

Meanwhile, Suleiman articulated his bid for recognition by trumpeting a meeting held on his terms with selected members of the opposition. In an English language summary released on February 6, 2011 by his office, the long-standing intelligence chief put forward some promising points, even as veiled threats and dark innuendos were woven into the script.

Suleiman’s official statement offers some valuable clues as to what the regime is thinking right now. The regime has not lost its cool, it is calm and seemingly in control. It puts forward a public relations release that is part complaint, part threat, part a bid to appear reasonable, and part misdirection.

The document reads like the minutes of an "action meeting;" it is at once sophomoric and stifling, full of trumped-up promise and riddled with veiled threats; sort of like a cross between the minutes of a high school student council meeting and a withering assessment made in a US State Department cable of the sort made famous by Wikileaks.

"All participants of the dialogue arrived at a consensus..."

As is usually the case when words are offered in lieu of action, terms that sound good can mean very much or very little, and even words that please the ear can mean different things to different people. The promise to deal with the crisis "seriously, expeditiously and honestly" is hard to find fault with, but what does it mean in concrete terms, given the grim context?

To hear Suleiman bemoaning the "lack of security for the populace" is ironic when the regime itself, which Mr. Suleiman earnestly represents, is the root cause of much insecurity, guilty as it is of unbridled corruption, documented brutality and a reputation for torture.

To buttress the stability-at-any-cost argument that follows, Suleiman's text makes mention of a litany of pressing problems, such as "the disturbances to daily life, the paralysis of public services," along with school closings and logistical delays slyly suggesting that the reaction to regime injustice --the determined and courageous and largely spontaneous gathering of peaceful demonstrators-- is the problem rather than the underlying injustice itself.

Surely Egypt would be less wobbly were Mubarak to resign immediately and enjoy his forty billion dollar private fortune in exile, but that's not the kind of stability Suleiman is alluding to. It is clearly stability with the regime intact that he is after.

Not surprisingly for a public relations statement that aims to create an aura of domestic solidarity while reining in a nationalism gone awry, Suleiman pins the lion’s share of the blame on foreigners, a useful target for rogues everywhere since time immemorial.

"The attempts at foreign intervention into purely Egyptian affairs and breaches of security by foreign elements working to undermine stability in implementation of their plots," is the way he puts it, but it sounds uncannily like McCarthyism dressed up in local clothing. If Mr. Suleiman wants to reduce foreign influence in a nation that depends on tourism for ten percent of its revenue and depends on US taxpayer money to arm itself and stay afloat, he might start with refusing all aid and assistance from the US and Israel.

The text is at times haughty and uncompromising in tone. Suleiman comes across as a proud and fairly dignified figure on TV, and he has an air about him that suggests the hard-to-shake confidence of the ruling class in a country of extreme wealth and poverty. The arrogant tone shifts only briefly with a nice sop to the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. It sounds like a protective mantra, a minimum condition, perhaps one proposed by those members of the opposition present. It's a formulaic line, but one worth remembering: "The 25 January movement is an honorable and patriotic movement."

The official notes on the meeting go on to say, a bit too promisingly, that a high degree of consensus was found "on a number of political arrangements."

This section that follow seems to come in response to President Obama's public statements, calling for meaningful change, now. But it also takes a defiant note, implying some things are non-negotiable, as made evident in Mubarak's mule-like resistance to stepping down, while offering some superficial changes and a promise not to run again. "No nomination for a new presidential term will take place," says the statement. What follows are vague promises of constitutional reform which may be the product of earnest internal discussion, but also serve the purpose of buying time for the regime haunted by a ticking clock.

Clause number 7, which calls for "Restoring the security and stability of the nation, and tasking the police forces to resume their role in serving and protecting the people," certainly sounds like a bid to restore the status quo.

In the past few weeks, the police were rather more part of the problem than a solution to it, alternately engaged in heavy-handed arrests and volatile provocations of the crowd, in tandem with a disappearing act that made their invisibility painfully "visible" in the context of orchestrated looting, prisoner escapes and damage to national treasures including a statue of King Tut. For those who don’t get easily upset at head-cracking, there was the unthinkable threat of damage to priceless artifacts. (This is reminiscent of the “outrage” of the Asia Society in New York during the Vietnam War which had nothing to say about the bombing and napalming of the Cambodian people but got visibly upset at the possibility that the ruins of Angkor Wat might be damaged.)

What turned out to be a minor attack on the National Museum served up an appetite for a dose of law and order, which of course did not bode well for the crowd assembling adjacent to the museum.

The most significant areas of "agreement" that the Suleiman statement puts forward --that of releasing prisoners of conscience, ending emergency law and liberalizing the media with no extra-legal constraints-- certainly sound like welcome changes, but the devil is in the details and the implementation. The document does not promise to release political prisoners, but rather announces “the establishment of a bureau to receive complaints" which in the end might address some long-term miscarriages of justice while leaving others unresolved. What progress such a bureau might achieve would most likely be slow and halting, dragging with the glacial pace common to a bureau wrapped inside of a bureaucracy.

Likewise, for Suleiman to proclaim that the state of emergency will be lifted “based on the security situation” is to say not much at all, unless it happens soon.

The text goes on to offer a salute to the patriotic and loyal role played by Egypt’s Armed Forces, which sounds a bit like a pat on the back, since Mubarak and Suleiman sit on the top of the pyramid of a military regime, but it remains intriguing inasmuch as the army has, to date, behaved better than the police. When it comes to wishful thinking, both the regime and opposition like to think the army is on their side.

The only real clause with bite is the xenophobic stab that follows: "All participants expressed their absolute rejection of any and all forms of foreign intervention in internal Egyptian affairs."

That’s reasonable reaction for a once-colonized nation on a certain level, but it is also blatantly hypocritical, and not just because the Mubarak regime depends on US aid for its survival. Presumably Suleiman is in touch with the US State Department and the White House, and may well be taking into account specific "instructions" issued to his regime that go beyond the timorous, ambiguous, and sometimes backtracked calls for change being made by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in public. Call it diplomacy, or the art of saving face for the rich and powerful.

Overall, the statement leaves one wondering if there’s any daylight between Mubarak and Suleiman at all. Suleiman is part and parcel of, and continues to serve with something akin to abject loyalty, the self-styled modern-day pharaoh Mubarak. Like a loyal consigliere, there’s a touch of humility to the subordinate man’s arrogance, and although titular vice-president, he is quick to disavow any interest in power.

Another dedicated number-two, and coincidentally an old pal of Hosni Mubarak, none other than ex-vice President Dick Cheney, has also joined the fray. He says Mubarak is a loyal friend of the US. No stranger to arrogance himself, Cheney suggests, as he did throughout his campaign to fool the American public and force a war in Iraq, that he is privileged to know things that ordinary citizens can only guess about. In any case, he rather inadvertently drives home the point that the American public is not always aware of what kind of behind-the-scene deals are being made in its name by the White House.

In the end, if the Cairo regime, in this, its moment of desperation, finds foreign influence so truly objectionable, then it would be morally and ideologically consistent to stop accepting the hard-earned dollars of American taxpayers and go it alone, facing the wrath of a people long betrayed, not just by foreigners, but by their own leaders.

Friday, February 4, 2011

EVERY UPRISING IS DIFFERENT


Philip J Cunningham


Given shared human strengths and weaknesses, the dynamics of crowd behavior, crowd control, and crowd chaos play out in ways that strike a common chord. Having written about popular protest, cultural clashes and street marches in East Asia for two decades now, there are certain commonalities that come to fore as the events in Cairo, as reported by Al Jazeera and other Internet sources, unfold in real time on my computer screen.

-Truth is an early casualty of any conflict, and the media comes under pressure almost immediately. Competing media narratives diverge wildly, usually the storytelling of the government pitted against the storytelling of the protesters. Distortions to the truth range from outright lies and censorship, to mudslinging, misdirection and deliberate prevarications. There is obfuscation and startling clarity. There are also moments of heartfelt expression, courageous calls for change and sometimes shocking clandestine reports from the frontlines of the conflict.

-Television stations are a coveted resource for those seeking political control. State television, even when it is reduced to producing propaganda, is such an effective transmitter of information, (including mis-information, mis-direction, taboos and telling silences) in regards to an escalating crisis that it can inadvertently help fan the flames of nationwide protest. Even when the details of a mass incident in progress are garbled or distorted by heavy-handed censorship, the fingerprints of the heavy-handedness are visible for all to see. The odd, Orwellian quality of manipulated news, what with its revved up nationalistic fervor, glaring contradictions, threatening reassurances and a rather too loud pleading of innocence, is politically charged enough to betray meta-truths about the abject nature of the regime.

-Journalists are at risk. Be it for their truth-telling capacity or simply a vengeful way of blaming the messenger, journalists often get roughed up as public disturbances unfold. Journalists are detained and denied access to key locations, often in the name of safety. Western journalists are especially easy to find as they tend to hole up in luxury hotels where they are subject to surveillance, harassment, and confiscation of film, memory chips, cameras, etc.

-Al Jazeera TV. The upstart TV station based in Qatar has come of age, although it observes, like every news service on the earth, certain ground rules and avoids certain sensitive topics. Its unique take on world news is largely ignored by US cable TV providers, but luckily Al Jazeera Internet streaming can reach a truly global audience, providing a service to viewers whose television and cable service is tilted in favor of the national agendas of the traditional media giants such as CNN, BBC, Fox and ABC. In what might be understood as a backhanded compliment, Al Jazeera has been accused of meddling by the Egyptian government.

-The Internet. Online news services, specialist blogs, Twitter and social networking tools have helped get the story out as well. Advanced information technologies, and the costly, complex devices required to view the news on, are convenient when they work well, and they work especially well across borders at global distances, but remain largely out of the reach of the poor and can be rendered momentarily worthless when the plug gets pulled, as was the case in Egypt when the Internet was turned off. The technology itself is neutral, and there are various ingenious ways to get around blocking, but despite the freedom of expression hype, modern tools are no different from the printing press or radio in the sense that they can be used to further things good and bad and can be used to promote the cause of either side through skillful public relations and information control.

-Word of mouth. Fortunately, the information ecosystem is full of diverse platforms and incidental redundancies; if one technology fails, or is blocked, other ways of transmitting information remain. This includes everything from hardy, traditional technologies such as landline telephones and fax machines to hand-painted banners, chants, slogans and word of mouth.

-Rumors. Rightly or wrongly, rumors take the place of reliable information when reliable information is hard to come by. Rumors serve to excite people to action. The more severe information control at home, the more likely agitated citizens are to turn to the latest gossip on the street.

-Crowd dynamics. When a large crowd manages to gather and assemble, especially in an environment where political gatherings are generally banned and ruthlessly suppressed, success breeds success. If ten, a hundred, a thousand brave individuals get away with the impossible, it inspires others to follow.

-Something in the air. When a large crowd asserts itself in public space and coalesces on symbolic ground, a window is opened to possible political change, an opportunity not normally evident. An indefinable “something in the air,” combined with concrete opportunities for assembly, adequate channels for expression and a broad consensus that change is desirable if not necessary, helps kick-start a major public uprising. When this takes the form of staking out contested ground in the heart of the capital its significance is magnified in a way that enables a crowd to grow exponentially. Under the natural evolution of such circumstances, the crowd is likely to be diverse and composed of people from all walks of life.

-Safety in numbers. When the numbers soar to the hundred of thousands, not only do individual members of the crowd begin to feel uncannily safe –however illusory that protective aura might be – but it gives rise to a sense that a historic turning point is at hand. Suddenly, due to a confluence of rising frustration, mutual reinforcement, strength in numbers and chance developments, there’s a perception that an unprecedented and largely unexpected overhaul to the status quo just might be possible. It’s a bid to hit society’s reset button.

-The art of the unexpected. If a protest takes root without much advance warning in a challenging environment, it has succeeded so swiftly and against such odds as to not be taken seriously at first. Rather it is treated like a fluke, something to be haughtily dismissed by men accustomed to the privileges of extreme wealth and supreme power.

-Play-acting is part of the game. Regimes under siege will resort to all sorts of cagey strategies; everything from arrogant claims of noblesse oblige, to lying about their true aims and intentions in order to buy time with which to restore power and sweep up the opposition. “Your demands have been answered,” newly named Vice President Omar Suleiman pre-emptively announced as a clearly unplacated crowd began to gather in earnest on Tahrir Square in Cairo on February 3, 2011.

-Offers of superficial change. Powerful figures will feign ignorance, sympathy, offer up partial apologies and assume a quasi-humble posture in hopes of buying time to regain power. Hosni Mubarak could make a fiction of stepping down by appointing a loyal flunky to act in his stead. Even political theatre that went so far as to appoint an unknown to power, or even a moderate opposition figure would not necessarily be evidence of serious systemic change so long as the levers of control and the powers behind the curtain remained the same.

-Insincere concessions. All sorts of promises might be made with the aim of diffusing popular rage rather than truly negotiating or acceding to popular demands. Then, once the crowd was dispersed and the security forces regained the upper hand, a purge of the opposition would follow. Then the powers that be could quietly re-impose something close to the old, unjust status quo, with the rich as rich as ever, and the police-security elite as powerful as before.

-Blatant intimidation. “Police brutality is… a daily occurrence,” but hidden, according to a US State Department cable made available by Wikileaks. The sort of abuse that was once hidden in police stations, Interior Ministry facilities, and black sites used for extraordinary renditions at the behest of the US during “peaceful” times is now out in the open. Increasingly, callous tactics and shocking abuses of power are taking place in the streets for all to see. Speeding security vans knocking people off their feet have been caught on camera, Molotov cocktails have been thrown at protesters by regime-supporting thugs, while agents-provocateur infiltrate the crowd carrying glossy posters of Mubarak, knives, clubs, even have resorted to using horses and camels to intimidate.

-Crowd solidarity. Crowds look unitary but are in fact a diverse mix. Some individual actors in a crowd are strident believers in a cause, others vaguely sympathetic, some are opportunistic, others just curious, some full of rage, others full of joy, while others still are just hapless commuters and bystanders who get in the way.

-Crowd leadership. When the names and faces of leaders of an uprising are not evident, the confusion makes the movement vulnerable to manipulation or dissolution, even as it lends strength to the impression that the gathering is truly a spontaneous mass movement. When not a scripted disciplined, partisan effort, or a expertly directed demonstration, a crowd is near impossible to control. But a large diverse crowd, even if innocent by its very lack of organization, is vulnerable to being hijacked by better organized, and perhaps more ruthless elements within.

-Popular demands. In the tentative, early stages, crowd demands are likely to focus on a simple, simplistic plea, such as calling for dialogue or removal of a single leader. As tensions rise and the impasse grows, and as violent reprisals further energize the mob, crowd demands are likely to escalate and bifurcate, with incipient divisions within the crowd coming to the fore. Who shall lead? Shall violence be met with passive resistance or violent action? Shall the extremists or moderates be allowed to win the day? Who are the real patriots? Factions will be portrayed as insufficiently moderate or insufficiently radical.

-Every crowd is different. As demonstration-weary denizens of Bangkok know all too well, crowds can be uplifting and crowds can be menacing, sometimes both at the same time. When popular protests split into competing groups, and take on “colors” as happened in Thailand in recent years with competing red shirts and yellow shirts and blue shirts and black shirts, the pretence of unity is gone and something akin to gang warfare takes its place.

-Provinces take cues from the capital city. Big demonstrations in a nation’s symbolic center take on an importance that reverberates to the hinterland. The student-led protests in Beijing in 1989 inspired sympathetic protests in many cities across China, most prominently in Shanghai and Chengdu.

-Who speaks for the crowd? A crowd divided amongst its own, cannot articulate demands, respond to dialogue and react to concessions in a coherent way. The very definition of what the crowd wants shifts and fractures. If dialogue is taking place, it is unlikely to be fruitful in the face of rising expectations for success on the side with the upper hand.

-Lack of an exit strategy. Given the emotional momentum of shared risk, shared dreams and the bonds of instant comradeship in the midst a sea of strangers, it becomes increasingly difficult to break up the party and leave, especially in a spontaneous gathering that depends on each individual to play a role. Inside a demonstration, freedom of movement is proscribed, food and drink depends on kindness of strangers, sanitation is a mess and living in the open under the sun and moon takes its toll.

-Crowd momentum. It can be to surprisingly difficult to convince those who have put their lives on the line, or those who have been energized by the hypnotic pull of crowd dynamics, to cede the “holy” ground, even though they suffer physical discomfort and may be at personal risk. After giving their all to a cause, a human whirlwind that is part carnival, part killing field, it seems a betrayal, especially if partisan blood has already been spilled, to yield to the other side. Even under less tragic conditions, it is hard to break from the pull of a genial, dedicated crowd and acknowledge defeat by going home.

-Crowd compliance. Even when the crowd leaders call on their supporters to leave, compliance is reluctant at best. Crowds are notoriously fickle and difficult to rope in. This was especially evident in Bangkok, Thailand last year when rank and file members of the red shirt demonstration refused to budge even with gunfire resounding down the road. There was visible shock and there were vocal wails of disappointment on the part of hard-core red shirt followers -mostly older folk visiting Bangkok from the provinces who had faithfully sat in the street for weeks by the red-shirt sound stage- when their leaders threw in the towel on May 19, 2010 and surrendered to police.

-Follow the money. Crowds crowing for a particular leader, especially if that leader is a billionaire and wily political operator, undermine their own legitimacy as they can be seen to be serving vested interests, and perhaps even pecuniary self-interest.

-Hijacking the crowd. The positive energy directed at social injustice can be appropriated and even hijacked to support one particular faction or ambitious political leader or a cultural or religious agenda to the detriment of the stated ideals. For example, while the pro-Thaksin activists in Bangkok might style their activities as being “pro-democracy”, and their rhetoric made ample use of the “D” word, in terms of hierarchical loyalties, they nonetheless share something in common with the pro-Mubarak crowds in Cairo. Taking money and marching orders from powerful political figures, or their proxies, erodes the democratic credentials of a movement.

-Cultural arguments. Culture is distorted and re-defined, providing a refuge for scoundrels. Whether it be Japan’s “unique” culture arguments justifying the interring at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo the “souls” of pro-imperial Japan warriors, or phony arguments about Japan being a whale-meat eating society, cultural values are invoked to inhibit debate and hide ulterior motives. In Egypt, Mubarak has apparently created a cult of Pharaonic overtones, making his identity and that of a proud nation seem like one.

-Family ties. As Egypt intelligence supremo Omar Suleiman says, “We all respect Mubarak as father.” He goes on to suggest it is not in the culture of good Egyptians to revolt. When a politician under fire is compared to one’s mother or father, the implication is that the dear leader is in an inviolable position, and that any resistance would be unfilial, if not futile. This presumptuous argument is deliberately fostered and foisted upon the people in order to inculcate the notion that the people owe their nurturance and very existence to the exalted leader.

-Foreign meddling. During an uprising, it’s almost certain there will be allegations of foreign involvement and hidden plots, and in this interconnected world it is easy enough to find traces of foreign involvement, especially on the part of powerful intelligence services. To make such accusations is a common enough diversionary tactic for an unpopular regime under siege, though in the case of Egypt it’s a nakedly hypocritical complaint. The Mubarak regime itself is the product of 30 years of foreign meddling as it has been supported, bolstered and groomed by Washington to the tune of one or two billion dollars a year, partly with the aim of "buying" peace with Israel, courtesy of the US taxpayer.

-Army neutrality. At such a juncture, the army's strength is paradoxically best shown by utter restraint, strict neutrality and the ability to restrain violent outbreaks without resorting to violence. If and when the army draws blood, it becomes tainted by perceptions of partisanship and weakens its legitimacy as protector of all citizens. The army is too blunt an instrument to be used in a crackdown.

-Class cleavages. Even if one knew nothing about the years of torture, mysterious disappearances and brutal police controls in Egypt, the obscene corruption of Mubarak, -personal worth estimated worth 40 billion- tells you all you need to know about why so many people, and not just the poor, hate him. The gross inequities of the status quo and corruption of the ruling class indeed need to be challenged as they are rightfully being challenged right now.