Egypt, Tunisia and the rise of the “open source insurgency”

10/08/2018 Posted by admin

by Paul Johnson

Some months ago here in Washington, DC, I was at a congressional hearing on terrorism where a very well spoken young expert told America’s leaders something they didn’t seem ready to hear: that in the future, the power of people like them to control populations would only go down. “Prepare for more chaos,” he said, “more instability, but also more and better ideas, technologies, and ways of organizing society.”

The man was John Robb, software executive and former Air Force counterterrorist operative, and part of what he was talking about was his theory of ‘open source insurgency.’ I hadn’t heard the phrase before, and had only a vague idea of what he might be talking about, and I wrote the words down in my notepad. At the time I couldn’t picture a real world example of this, but I wouldn’t have to wait too long.

Iran. Tunisia. Now Egypt. All of them saw long standing grievances spontaneously erupt into uprisings that challenged (sometimes successfully) the ruling establishment. In the great sweep of history, these outcomes are not unique, but what makes them different, what makes them ‘open source insurgencies,’ are a couple of key things:

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● Networked technology. Social media, cell phone pics and videos, e-mails and texts give protestors a powerful way to organizing outside the government’s control. But possibly more important: they provide the ability to capture and broadcast the story of the uprising completely outside the control of the establishment. For the first time in history, activists can tell their own story, in real time, to themselves and to the world. Predictably, governments under pressure do their best to shut these down when the heat gets too much, but this just looks increasingly pathetic in the age of open source insurgency. Any move to shoot down the internet (as the Egyptian government apparently tried) runs the risk of justifying the root causes of the protest movement in the first place. I suspect China, with its censored internet, is watching this very closely.

● Leaderless, “flat” organizations. The Americans had George Washington in their revolution, the French had Robespierre, but who is leading the revolt in Egypt? In the open source insurgency model, the leaders are “everyone” and “nobody in particular” at the same time. This makes it much harder for authorities to crack down, when there’s no leader to arrest or kill, and no headquarters to cordon off.

It also means the ideas, talking points, slogans and grievances that fuel the uprising aren’t fixed and attached to any one particular personality. Instead they are viral, and can powerfully morph on an hour by hour basis to suit the situation and defy the ability of the establishment to decode and disarm them. The Burmese could simply lock up Aung San Suu Kyi for many years, but what do you do when there is no leader to arrest and millions of citizens simply carrying ideas like hers in their heads? You probably do what the former leader of Tunisisa did: flee the country.

Men add fuel to a fire burning in front of party headquarters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, where protestors continued into the night. The streets of downtown Cairo were filled with celebration on January 29. Photo by Carolyn Cole, MCT.

There’s much more to the concept of open source insurgency than I’ve touched on here, and all of these situations are slightly different, and sometimes contradictory, but John Robb’s presentation was early prophetic. One can only hope some of his other visions don’t come to pass: hollowing out of the authority of nation states, replaced by the power of transnational corporations, criminal gangs and networked tribes. Robb sometimes uses the phrase “Global Guerillas” when describing this dark, almost Mad Max vision of a future of scarcity and conflict.

As accurate as he’s been on some things, let’s hope he wrong about the others.

Paul is a Global National correspondent based in Washington, DC.

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