When tweets don’t work

Sanjay Kapoor

It was a year ago that the Jasmine revolution swept the Arab world. Regimes in Tunisia and Egypt were seemingly ousted by the power of crowds that wanted the corrupt, ageing dictators to go. At that time, it seemed all other authoritarian governments in the Arab world and other places would be swept aside. However, all this didn't happen spontaneously.

Libya's Muammar Gaddafi had dug in his heels after mass demonstrations in Benghazi, but he was later smoked out by the formidable airpower of US drones and NATO war planes. Governments, equally despotic and facing the wrath of the masses, but friendly to the US and NATO, did not get the Gaddafi treatment. Clearly, there was blatant asymmetry in how the UN resolution on "responsibility to protect" the people was applied in different countries.

While Libya came to grief, Bahrain, Yemen and the women-hating regime of Saudi Arabia were allowed to prosper. In Bahrain, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, backed by the US and the UK, stepped in to contain what was explained as a sectarian 'Shia uprising' against the Sunni Caliphate. Similarly in Yemen, the hugely unpopular Ali Abdullah Saleh was given a safe exit to the US. It would be interesting to watch how various prescriptions are applied in Syria, the last country where some kind of 'Arab Spring' continues to rage.

Before we revisit the issue of Syria, it would make sense to address once again a question that elicits many competing claims as answers. Take, for instance, the uprising in Egypt. Here, the angry, spontaneous congregation of young people at Cairo's Tahrir Square, and the army's refusal to bail out the sphinx-like President Hosni Mubarak, were shown as reasons for the historic change. Now, after poring over WikiLeaks and the latest leak of the intelligence site, Stratfor, it is apparent that freelancers close to White House and the US administration may have played a role in organizing demonstrations and affecting change in Egypt.

A few months earlier, we wrote about Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), a Belgrade-based organization, which claimed to have tutored Egyptian and other demonstrators in non-violent struggle. Now, the Stratfor leaks tell us the fascinating story of Jared Cohen, former member of the US Secretary of State's policy planning staff and former advisor to Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.

Thirty-year-old Cohen is one hell of a busy body. Heading Google Ideas, a think/do tank, Cohen reportedly met Wael Ghonim, a Google staffer and one of the leaders of the Egypt uprising, hours before he was famously picked up by the Egyptian police. Stratfor does not give more details about Cohen's movement in Egypt, but what comes out amply is that Google was "doing things that CIA could not do". Stratfor shows that Cohen apparently had support and "air cover" of White House in many of these activities.

All this sounds bizarre till we are able to comprehend Cohen's thinking. Barely in his thirties, Cohen is a geek with great faith in technology. He believes the earlier generation have no clue what the young are doing with technology, especially on social media and through mobiles. Travelling in Iran, he found that the youth were able to duck the scrutiny of moral policemen by resorting to communication technology.

Armed with this understanding, Cohen and others in the US establishment helped in triggering a mass revolt through the use of social media. Huffington Post says he delayed the scheduled maintenance on Twitter so the Iranian revolution could keep going. Stratfor's vice-president of counterterrorism, Fred Burton, who seems opposed to Google's alleged covert role in "foaming" uprisings, describes Cohen as a "loose cannon" whose killing or kidnapping "might be the best thing to happen" to expose Google. Executives at Google, too, felt Cohen might come to grief soon.

Cohen's intervention is evidence of how the US is using companies like Google and Twitter, besides agencies like CANVAS and AVAAZ, to create a new world order. Few may shed tears for the dictatorships that fell to these machinations, but one cannot shy away from raising a fundamental question about how the US, Europe and large corporations use technology and social media as tools to undermine the sovereignty and legitimacy of Third World governments.

And when tweets don't work, they brazenly send in the drones, aircrafts or mercenaries to help the 'rebels'. Another Stratfor leak shows the US government asking private security firm Blackwater to help the Free Syrian Army to throw out President Bashar al-Assad. Some revolution this!

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: April 2009