Unofficially, it began on April 6, 2008. The social media revolution in the Middle-East. When young internet-savvy Egyptians started a Facebook group called The 6 April Youth Movement, in support of a strike in the industrial town of El-Mahalla El-Kubra. Three years later, it morphed from something that went “viral” on a digital scale via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the blogosphere, into a full scale revolution on the ground across the Middle-East. It was supposed to be the political coming out party of the social media revolutionaries.
People like Asmara Mahfouz, who helped to spark the uprising via her video blog. Mahmoud Salem aka @SandMonkey on Twitter, who posted videos of his experience getting beaten by police. Maikel Nabil, who founded the No to Compulsory Military Service movement. He wrote an article entitled “The Army and The People Were Never One Hand”, which would be the equivalent of a Russian citizen writing an article entitled “Vodka…What is it good for?” Nabil is actually in favor of normalizing ties with Israel. And the would-be leader of this movement is Wael Ghonim, who was a former Google executive in the Middle East and North Africa, and subsequently took a leave to focus on the revolution. This group was to be the future of Egypt.
But alas, in the words of the ever witty libertarian political satirist PJ O’Rourke: “Never let the people with all the money and the people with all the guns be the same people”. So after the leader of the Freedom and Justice Party (otherwise known as the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) in Mohammad Morsi replaced all the top military brass with his close friends, O’Rourke’s words became a stark reality on the ground in Egypt. Since this party came to power via the democratic process, it might be appropriate to grab some vocabulary from that age-old and hardly used language that is Latin: On the Egyptian political scene, the social media revolutionaries went virtually incognito as a result of becoming persona non grata after the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Two years later, enter “The Harlem Shake”. An internet viral sensation. It comes in many versions. One under water, in an Olympic size swimming pool done by the University of Georgia’s swimming and diving squad. Another in the Miami Heat locker room. One by members of the Norwegian Army. Even one in Sea World with the staff, a bunch of sea lions and a willing walrus doing sit-ups. Its Orwellian nature knows no bounds. And it is precisely due to the viral nature of this phenomenon, that it was only a matter of time before it hit the Middle East.
At first, it was done purely for laughs by locals all around the region. Egyptians dancing in front of the Pyramids, appropriately entitled ‘Haram Shake’ meaning ‘forbidden’ in Islam. Saudis in front of a souped-up rice mobile in the middle of Riyadh. Soccer players and fans in Tunisia. Start-up entrepreneurs in an office in Lebanon. A bunch of college kids just hanging out in war-torn Libya. Even a bunch of Iranian guys hanging out at home in an affluent part of Tehran. Although the Harlem Shake has nothing to do with Harlem – a neighborhood of Manhattan where streets bear the names of prominent African-American revolutionaries such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Frederick Douglass – the irony is that it is now being used by that same social media generation in Egypt as a tool of the revolution.
To understand why it’s such a useful tool, let’s proceed in breaking down the aesthetics and mechanics behind the dance. The entirety of the dance tends to be roughly thirty seconds long. It usually starts off with one person dancing and/or gyrating to an instrumental intro in front of a number of people in the scene, who seemingly don’t notice anything out of the ordinary happening around them. After about fifteen seconds, there is a vocal that calls out “do the Harlem Shake!” after which, in a Pavlovian reaction, all of the participants in the scene begin to dance in their own unique way.
If one considers that some of those unique dances can often involve sexually suggestive movements, it is a fitting tool for drawing the ire of Islamic fundamentalists, while simultaneously being the ultimate non-violent protest, mainly due to its downright weirdness. When it comes to social media revolutionaries, the Muslim Brotherhood and others with real political capital were able to use them as a tool for their own political gain. When it comes to thousands if not millions of young people doing the Harlem Shake outside government buildings or in Tahrir Square, those in power will fail to grasp their usefulness or moreover, their purpose in life altogether. Government officials can only scratch their heads and say to each other: “What the hell are these people doing? Are they doing anything wrong? If so, then what exactly? If we arrest them, what the hell do we charge them with? Public stupidity?”
It is the perfect symbol of how revolutions get started. One person gets up and starts causing a ruckus. At first no one joins in and/or even seems to notice anything’s happening around them. Those who do notice that one person write him off as crazy. Then at some point, there’s a trigger. It can be one symbolic act that sets everyone and everything off. Then suddenly, all the people in the scene who were otherwise minding their own business become just like that original “crazy” person and a revolution is at hand; and in this case, Egypt becomes the Democratic Republic of Absurdistan.