Skip to main content

Why David Cameron is sounding a lot like Hosni Mubarak

By Eric Ellis, Special to CNN
tzleft.eric.ellis.jpg
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cameron's call for social media restrictions echoes tactics deployed by Mubarak, Ellis says
  • Egyptians watched the violence from London and were as appalled and flummoxed
  • These are people who think that Facebook helped deliver them from tyranny, he says
  • Cameron was the first world leader to visit Cairo after Mubarak stepped down

Editor's note: Eric Ellis is a former Southeast Asia-based correspondent for Fortune Magazine, and has been covering the aftermath of recent uprisings in the Middle East from Cairo and Tunis.

Cairo (CNN) -- David Cameron doesn't look like Hosni Mubarak -- hated scourge of Egyptians. That would be Robert De Niro.

Nor does dapper Dave look like Tunisia's ousted strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, or Syria's aptly-onomatopoeaic Bashar al-Assad, or any other tyrant from Pyongyang to Minsk.

But in making a reflexive call to curtail social media, Cameron sure is sounding a lot like a potentate, and perhaps forgetting, in a moment of madness, his place in history, as an encourager-in-chief of this year's democratic uprisings across the Middle East.

Cameron's call, made to British parliamentarians in the wake of this past week's appalling riots, seems to echo the very tactics deployed by Mubarak and his ilk to stay in power -- and we know what happened there.

And it would be wrong, as everyone from academics, technologists and anarcho-bloggers in bedsits have been quick to remind him. Curtailing social media won't stop people rioting. Effective policing, perhaps organized via social media, might be a better idea.

David Cameron: 'You will pay'

That also seems to be the view from the millions across the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East who secured their liberty from dictatorship in significant part by artful deployment of Twitter, Facebook, Flickr et al and, yes, BlackBerry Messenger. And still are, as they organize their revolutionary accomplishments.

On communal TVs in poor villages across the sprawling Nile Delta or the sweltering backstreets of teeming Cairo, Egyptians watched the violence from London and were as appalled and flummoxed as any right-minded folk from England's gentle shires.

Poor, desperate, burdened by a future uncertain and a sclerotic, rudderless government -- if anyone could be excused a bit of cathartic anarchy, it's Egyptians.

But unfailingly polite and good-natured, they can't understand why people in the rich West, possessed of worldly items beyond their dreams, would trash and steal.

Egyptian bloggers try to make sense of UK riots

These are people who think that Facebook helped deliver them from tyranny. That has elevated social media in the Middle East to a status it probably doesn't yet deserve, as some magical panacea to deliver just about everything -- a voice, hope and much-needed prosperity.

If anyone could be excused a bit of cathartic anarchy, it's Egyptians.
--Eric Ellis

In some places, it is taking over government function. Access to the new administration in Tunis is best done by Facebook these heady post-revolutionary days. Tunisian civil servants seem to barely pick up their mobiles to speak or text these days, so absorbed are they by Facebook. For a few months, there was even a blogger in the cabinet, until he fell out with his colleagues because he was live-tweeting their meetings.

With the Mubaraks and their cronies blamed for Egypt's poverty, and as fingers are pointed at corruptors embedded inside Cairo's dysfunctional government, Egypt's apprentice democrats promise that with plurality will come a meritorious economy with jobs, healthy incomes, hope for the future.

In this, they are egged on by Western leaders. Indeed, David Cameron was the first world leader to visit Cairo after the revolution, just 10 days after Mubarak stepped down in February.

That's all very well, but for all the talk of "Facebook Revolutions," penetration and connectedness to the net and even to mobiles is still very limited in Egypt, beyond the big cities.

But the surprising outcome of the revolution sent Egyptians a subliminal message that being connected -- whatever that meant to people who weren't -- can deliver extraordinary results.

So more Egyptians than ever are now spending larger portions of their limited incomes to get online, because they think -- misguidedly perhaps -- that being online is an automatic way out of grinding poverty.

In the main, it is very encouraging. And democratic.

But wait! On that village TV, beaming from the place Egyptians now know as the mother of parliaments, the same man who rushed to their capital to tell them their digitally-inspired revolution was a wonderful thing for them and humanity, is now saying that the facilitating medium that helped them make history should be curtailed?

How very Mubarak.

Part of complete coverage on
Open Story: London riots
CNN and iReport contributors document the riots across the United Kingdom.
Map of riot hotspots
A map pinpoints various hotspots in the United Kingdom that have recently seen violent confrontations.
Riots: Into 'the abyss of anarchy'
The past week in London has been like living in a disaster movie. "Escape from Peckham" would have been an apt title on Monday.