The Mubarak government shut off all Internet access in the country early Friday morning (shut down made possible because of single Internet provider in Egypt unlike most countries). By Saturday, unconfirmed reports had some Internet transmission restored, although cell phone service is still out.
Like the images of protesters riding jubiliantly on tanks, the return of Internet and cell phone service could be a sign that powers within the government are siding with the populist uprising. With incredible pressure on Mubarak to resign, the world is watching to see how a power vaccuum may be filled. Transition government until national elections can be held? Will the people prevail pushing Egypt to emerge as a more democratic republic? Will radical fundamentalists seize power? How will the uprisings continue to spread throughout the Arab world?
Watching the massive protests in Egypt live on Al Jazeera English is fascinating but disconcerting. By all accounts a genuine ground-swell of protest, with no identifiable leader.
What will be the outcome of this tsunami of disenchantment?
Like Tunisia, where the government of President/dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben-ali was toppled two weeks ago, the insurrection seems to fueled by the economic and social discontent of young people.
And like the protests in Iran in 2009 over that country's rigged national election, social media has been a galvanizing force, even as the besieged leaders have tried to "turn off" Internet access and cell phone transmission. The images and the stories inevitably get out, and take on even greater meaning.
In Iran, the jubilant, youthful energy of the "Green party" protesters in 2009 did not lead to regime change. Indeed, "President'"Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to be recognized as the legitimate head of state nearly two years after the highly dubious elections. Will the apparent success of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings provide a new spark to the young populists in Iran?
And, what of the upheaval in Lebanon and Yemen? Will all this popular discontent lead to greater freedoms or provide an opportunity of instability for new fanatical regimes to seize power?
The world is watching. And thousands of on-the-spot images from cell phone cameras and other forms of citizen social media provide not only a fascinating window into the chaos but a galvanizing force as well.
Now is the 'Sputnik moment' for clean tech in the U.S., Energy Secretary Steven Chu declared in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington today.
The part of the Soviet Union is today being played by China (of course). China's clear lead in any number of clean energy technologies--advanced coal, nuclear, renewables, etc. is jarring. And the scale of China's investments in developing new technologies across the board in clean energy demonstrates a commitment to long-term leadership if not out-right domination.
Will the U.S. direct concerted policy to drive research and development in clean energy technologies that aren't currently affordable (unless you include unaccounted costs associated with oil dependency, energy insecurity and global climate change)?
Will U.S.-based companies combine creativity and perspiration, innovation and continuous improvement to move ahead of China, Inc.?
The fear and insecurity inspired by the little Sputnik satellite transformed into American will power to over-take the USSR in the race to the moon. Can we harness that same sense of urgency and national pride in a contemporary race with even bigger stakes?
We like things simple. Black and white. But few issues that matter are so cut and dry.
Successful issue management often calls for the difficult task of communicating "in the gray."
In a corporate environment, we too often clam up in the midst of uncertain times. Lawyers caution against comment and risk-adverse leaders are all-too happy to take the advice to the extreme. A skillful leader will win trust and boost the confidence -- of employees, investors and other stakeholders -- by providing some measure of the challenges being faced and the relative prospects for success in the future. Avoiding hollow promises or insincere platitudes, the leader gives stakeholders a sense of just how serious the issue is and his/her relative confidence in a positive resolution, emphasizing what needs to be done immediately to move the ball forward. Constituents understand and forgive the lack of specifics if the leader has built up good will in the past with candid and accurate communication.
That's what it means to communicate "in the gray."
Media relations in such an environment can be even trickier. The mass media gravitate to simple "archetypes" or story lines. When a villain is readily apparent, media will naturally assume the competing person (or idea) is virtuous.
Life is often more complex than that. World events in the news show the difficulty of choosing between the ready-made alternatives:
The recent election in Iran was almost certainly rigged. Peaceful protesters there call for international support against a repressive regime. But the Obama Administration has rightly been cautious in its response, even in its somewhat more vocal condemnations more than a week after the election, not wanting to provide credence to accusations of U.S. interference in Iranian affairs. Nuance is seldom cheered, and Obama continues to draw criticism for not taking a harder stance. Further complicating the issue is the unhappy choice between the two top candidates. Incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is clearly an enemy of peace and freedom, but the leading opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi is no true reformer -- despite the inclination for many in the Western media to brand him a "moderate." Obama has wisely steered away from showing any support for Moussavi. .
Corporate life can be messy, too. Constituents who find one course of action particularly unappealing will seek a quick and simple alternative. When there is no easy solution, no clear-cut winning move, don't fall into the trap of endorsing the lesser of two evils. Treat your constituents as adults. Talk about the unpleasant situation without promising an easy fix. Often that means the company itself must act as a game-changer to rise above the flawed choices that appear to be the only alternatives.
Repressive official forces in Iran, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei put a stop to wide-spread protests of disputed official results of the country's presidential election. It appears a 10-day cooling off period is being enforced, after which reform-minded protesters may have sufficiently lost momentum to prevent substantial opposition being voiced to the clerical regime.
In the meantime, officials in Iran have shut down Facebook use and cell phone texting transmission, and confiscated cell phones protesters have used to capture and post video of the protests and police brutality in suppressing them.
Incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has long used social media himself, as noted in my post here in 2007. Ahmadinejad came to power as a populist who at the same time made it clear to the ruling clerics that he was their man. For a time, Ahmadinejad breathed new life into the clerical regime's sagging popularity. But his hardline ways have been rejected by increasing numbers of citizens, particularly women and young people.
For his part, opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi has quite limited credentials as a reformer. A hard-liner himself, Moussavi was included among the four candidates the ruling clerics allowed to be placed on the ballot from 200 initial candidates. But only when he began to modify his rhetoric to express some support for reform did his "green" campaign catch on, with women and students his most vocal supporters.
It seems unlikely that the entrenched powers in Iran will allow any real scrutiny of the highly suspect election, The bigger question is whether large numbers of reform-minded citizens will continue to openly push for truly Democratic change in Iran. Hopes rests firmly on the power of social media to connect Iran's citizenry to each other and to supporters around the world. Call them citizen journalists or the Facebook generation -- they are the best hope for lasting change in a repressive nation.
Are we about to witness a historic moment in Iran, similar to the popular unrest in Eastern Europe in 1989 that led to fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Bloc? Or, more likely, is Tehran similar to Tiananmen Square the same year, where student protests captured the world's attention but did little to erode the repressive hold of the Chinese government?
Strategic crisis management begins with an audit of potential crisis vulnerabilities, followed by preventive actions to reduce the liklihood of a crisis, and, finally, the development of a thorough crisis communication plan that is tested and periodically updated.
Unless you are a totalitarian regime, that is. Then you can skip most of that and just concentrate on repressing the public's reaction to the crisis.
Last April, Russia launched a national center for crisis management, formally called the National Crisis Management Center of the Ministry of the Russian Federation for Civil Defence, Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters, according to a United Nations press release. (The new Russian agency could be abbrevieted as an acronym even George Orwell wouldn't have believed: the NCMCMRFCDEECND.)
At that time, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin declared that the Russian Federation was "fully engaged in cooperation with the United Nations" in its emergency relief coordination. The UN's press release noted:
This event illustrates current efforts by the international community to expand the network of coordination centers worldwide, enhance support to the coordination of emergency response actions and promote the exchange of information between humanitarian partners such as the Russian Ministry for Civil Defence, Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters.
But that was when the price of oil was approaching $150 a barrel. Russia is the world's second-largest oil producer, and the crash in oil prices has been devastating to the Russian economy. The tension is evident in the increasingly repressive actions of the Medvedev / Putin regime.
Putin is redeploying the concept of a national center for crisis management away from an alignment with the U.N. for global hot spots to a focus on the growing crisis at home. Former Soviet chess superstar Garry Kasparov, now the leader of the Other Russia coalition, provided this update in an op-ed in the March 5 Wall Street Journal:
Russia is beefing up its federal security forces in order to violently repress public protests. Last month, for example, the regime created the "National Center of Crisis Management," which will deploy uniformed troops against "disturbances."
In the 1960s, Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe created the so-called "new journalism" by actively becoming part the dynamic stories they were "reporting" on. But they were novelists, not hard news reporters. Journalists representing news agencies are not supposed to violently interrupt a news conference to demonstrate contempt for a head of state. That would be crossing into crazed Keith Olbermann territory or perhaps Michael Moore boorishness -- not the place for a respectable professional chronicler of the news.
So when Muntadhar al-Zeidi hurled two shoes at U.S. President George Bush at a press conference in Iraq, he crossed a line of journalistic professionalism that underscored societal differences in defining a journalist's role, particularly in places with less than full protection of free expression.
The shoe-hurlling journo quickly became a hero in much of the Arab world where he was seen as honorably expressing disgust for Bush and American intervention in Iraq. All the more demonstrating that in much of the world, journalists do not necessarily aspire to stay apart from the fray but may in fact revel in it. And it underscores the dangers Western-style journalists face in trying to report in lands where press freedom is not held sacred - you begin to understand a bit how it can be that professional journalists find themselves accused of spying or anti-government activism. Indeed, the degree that al-Zeidi's tantrum is legitimized undercuts the ability of dispassionate journalists to get free access to the stories they need to cover.
And so it is that the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization I have long admired and often written about since the early days of this blog, remains silent on al-Zeidi even as accusations grow that he was beaten by Iraqi police, reportedly breaking a rib and sustaining other injuries. Sticking up for al-Zeidi and calling for his release would chip away at CPJ's commitment to journalistic sanctuary based on neutrality.
At the banquet last week, PBS' Gwen Ifill mentioned that CPJ has initiated an effort to help provide some protection for citizen journalist bloggers in countries where free expression can get you jailed or killed.
Supported by Yahoo! and Microsoft, among others, CPJ has launched the Global Network Initiative (granted, not the most awe-inspiring or even self-descriptive name) to provide a spotlight on repressive practices against citizens reporting news and information a ruling regime doesn't want to get out.
A worthy effort indeed, and I wish it well. But this noble cause could have started two years earlier, and it could have been Dell as the champion of the cit journo.
Faithful readers of Force for Good may recall my open letter to Michael Dell in 2006, suggesting that Dell champion this very cause as an advocate for its customers in dangerous lands.
Danish Karokhel and Farida Nekzad have been covering news and fighting for media rights for the past five years in a country where violence, repression and intimidation are as much a part of life as squalor and lawlessness They aren't in it for the awards or "career advancement" or even the exhilaration of covering a historic event -- all the reasons that bring Western journalists to dangerous assignments in war zones. They're freedom fighters in the truest sense and it was terrific to see them recognized for their noble, and mostly unsung, heroism.
Impressions from the CPJ awards banquet: It always makes me a little uncomfortable to walk into the splendid ballroom of New York's Waldorf Astoria wearing a tux and consuming a couple of mixed drinks along with the happy chatter all about me before we sot down to a fine meal ... and a series of video news reports that transport us to some of the most horrific places on earth, as far from the comfortable spendor of mid-town Manhattan as imaginable. And always two days before Thanksgiving. That's no coincidence -- CPJ wants us to give thanks for the freedom and liberties we enjoy and to help in the fight against press repression anywhere and everywhere.
Politically Incorrect Idle thought: Overhearing a discussion in decidedly British accents about our new President elect -- can someone please tell the Brits that his name is not Barack O-bomber!