January 30, 2011

Egypt: public diplomacy and social networking

There was a fascinating article in the New York Times that echoes the past week's discussion, especially Kelley's “Between Take-Offs and Crash Landings” article describing the need for public diplomacy strategy as a part of regular diplomatic relations. While the US has been a major source of funding for the Egyptian military and an overall ally of Mubarak, “Calling for Restraint, Pentagon Faces Test of Influence With Ally” brings up the major lack of focus on public diplomacy from the US point of view.

Despite the amount of money and support provided by the US, that cash can't necessarily be turned into political sway. While US political aims in support a known ally or supporting a new democratic uprising are questionable right now, Obama is missing out on good public relations with the Middle East in not giving a clear statement on the US position. More than that, it shows how little influence the US might have in making requests of an ally and funding recipient, leaving our public diplomacy strategy lacking indeed.

An expert on the Egyptian military at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said of Egypt: “They will listen. But this is a very proud group of people. The fact that they will listen doesn’t mean we can in any way leverage them.” If cash isn't fungible into political sway, then what short of trade embargos and funding cuts could influence Mubarak? Obama has to balance between supporting the government and Mubarak, and a democratic movement, “and the military relationship could be crucial in that effort.”

As Taria points out in her post, Obama is really missing out on what could be good diplomacy with the Egyptian public, to show support of peaceful protest. The dictator that we “bought-and-paid-for” may not be swayed by our diplomatic relations, but the Egyptian people could be.

(From the New York Times, "Spotlight Again Falls on Web Tools and Change”)

Another great article in the NYT addressed the use of social networking in Egypt, including discussing “The Net Delusion,” the same Evgeny Morosov book that Cory Doctorow reviewed for the Guardian. While I agree overall with the critical eye of Morosov's book, the article, “Spotlight Again Falls on Web Tools and Change” brings up some great points:

“Fear is the dictator’s traditional tool for keeping the people in check. But by cutting off Egypt’s Internet and wireless service late last week in the face of huge street protests, President Hosni Mubarak betrayed his own fear — that Facebook, Twitter, laptops and smartphones could empower his opponents, expose his weakness to the world and topple his regime.”

As is true of most everything, social networking tools can be used for good or evil, and they aren't an answer for modern activism per se, but their power is undeniable. Mubarak's move to shut down the Internet was not only imperfect (too easy to get around) but inflammatory (to many in the US and around the world, as well as in Egypt), and clearly showed his ignorance of how information moves in 2011.

“Calling for Restraint, Pentagon Faces Test of Influence With Ally” New York Times, 30 Jan 2011.

“Egyptians Defiant as Military Does Little to Quash Protests” New York Times, 30 Jan 2011.

“Spotlight Again Falls on Web Tools and Change” New York Times, 30 Jan 2011.

“Obama's Missed Public Diplomacy Opportunity in Egypt” USC PD Blog, 30 Jan 2011.

“We need a serious critique of net activism” The Guardian, 25 Jan 2011.

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