Friday, August 19, 2011

Violence At the Libyan Embassy in Cairo

For the second time this week, Libyans and Egyptians descended upon the Libyan embassy in Cairo to hoist the free Libya flag. And for the second time this week, the Egyptian army and police responded with violence. The outcome yesterday was hardly a surprise. Rather, it was completely expected.

On Monday night, Libyans learned a lesson their Egyptian compatriots have known for a long time: the security forces in Egypt are willing to use force, even when no force is necessary. About fifty protesters gathered in front of the embassy, chanting anti-Gaddafi slogans and singing songs about Egyptian-Libyan unity. Without warning, the police and army fired into the air. The demonstrators ran from swinging truncheons and zapping tasers of the security forces, pouring into a busy thoroughfare of the normally peaceful neighborhood of Zamalek.

Protesters claimed security forces had fired live rounds into the air before I arrived.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Romance of the Online Barricades

This past month, the group Anonymous announced their next two targets for their (in)famous hacktivism: the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and Facebook. For those not familiar with Anonymous, they are a major player in the online freedom of information movement. Previous targets have ranged from everything from the church of Scientology to the Syrian Defense Ministry. Anyone who threatens free speech anywhere risks the ire of Anonymous.

As with Wikileaks, Anonymous pursues a righteous cause to an unrighteous extreme. And in the process, they can do as much harm as they do good. Take for example their threat against the Egyptian SCAF.

Addressing the SCAF directly, Anonymous declares “war on you as you have declared war on to us and the April 6th Movement.” For context, the April 6th movement has been one of the most prominent revolutionary groups in Egypt, their activities dating back to labor strikes in April 2008. The movement has been unfairly painted as a foreign traitor by both the SCAF and other counterrevolutionaries in Egypt. Such propaganda has done tremendous damage, as the (vulgar) graffiti shows below.

I have no doubt Anonymous released the video with good intentions. They clearly want to see a democratic Egypt. But sometimes even well-intentioned foreign intervention can hurt the cause more than it helps (as I write here). With the majority of Egyptians already skeptical of April 6th’s authenticity and tired of the revolutionary upheaval more generally, Anonymous could taint April 6th even further. As Egyptian blogger Zeinobia worries, “Anonymous does not understand how popular the Egyptian army [is] among the people […] Thank you dear Anonymous but this can harm the movement in the public eyes more than it is already harmed.”

There is a certain arrogance in Anonymous’ threats against the SCAF. For them, there are no shades of gray, no complexities or contingencies to consider. Just simply: the SCAF has threatened April 6th and they are therefore an enemy of Anonymous and Freedom itself. So they barge into Egypt’s revolution condescendingly certain of both their goals and their methods.

It is that exact dangerous mixture of arrogance and condescension that underpins their threat on Facebook. There is no question Facebook suffers from a number of deficiencies in protecting the identity and information of its users. Jillian York has done a particularly good job of holding Facebook accountable on her blog, particularly when it comes to the safety of online activists. With those flaws in their crosshairs, Anonymous has deemed “your medium of communication you all so dearly adore [i.e.Facebook] will be destroyed.”

Just as with their Egyptian announcement, Anonymous finds the righteousness of their cause self-evident. The video boasts, “one day you will look back on this and realize what we have done here is right.” In the description of the video but not in the video itself, they continue, “you will thank the rulers of the internet, we are not harming you but saving you.” Just as the Egyptians need saving from the SCAF, so do Facebook’s nearly 750 million users need saving from themselves.

I joined Facebook when it was still, and only students from a handful of schools could join. Seven years later, I use the site to keep in touch with my friends and family literally across the globe. I know the risks involved, and I accept them. It’s my choice. And Anonymous has no right to make that choice for me.

In one of their many affiliated sites, Anonymous asserts, “The open sharing and expression of ideas and opinions, however controversial or divergent, is the cornerstone of all free societies. This ability empowers individuals to determine their own destinies.” In other words, freedom of information is instrumentally, not intrinsically, valuable. Information is valuable only to the extent it allows individuals and societies to make informed choices, to “determine their own destinies.”

In these latest videos, Anonymous seems to have mistaken their means for their ends. Instead of protecting our right to determine our destinies, they have deemed themselves responsible to determine our destinies for us. What use is free information if Anonymous is making our decisions for us? Information itself, not freedom of choice, has become their religion.

Tom Gara recently likened Anonymous to the rioters in the UK because both share an “incoherent narrative of an ambiguous ‘uprising.’” I think the analogy is rather apt. Beyond the arrogance, condescension and self-righteousness, it seems Anonymous has become enraptured with the romance of the online barricades. As a result, Anonymous seems so occupied by epic soundtracks, overblown rhetoric and Guy Fawkes masks to fully consider the consequences of their actions. So caught up in the fight against (what they deem) online tyranny, they are either unaware or indifferent to the damage left behind in their wake.

UPDATE: It appears some members of Anonymous have renounced the proposed attacks on Facebook. The group is not so much a group but a movement of like-minded individuals. It is therefore very hard to determine what the 'group' believes and plans to do.