To Thank or Not To Thank Facebook, that is the real question.

Within the past three months, every news outlet has highlighted a developing story of a new country with civil unrest: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, to just name a few. As the Egyptian revolution finally came to an end, many have attributed the magnitude of the protests to the prominent social media outlets of Facebook and Twitter. Once the government noticed that the protests were organized via Twitter, they proceeded to block access to the website. This fueled the organizers’ anger and forced them to heavily use Facebook. Many powerful images have reached television screens, blogs, and websites. This particular one, as seen above, caught my attention because the message was written in Arabic and Facebook was written in its standard English form. Richard Engel, the NBC reporter who originally tweeted the image, reported the sign translated to “Thank You Facebook”. However, I scrolled down to the comments to read the feedback that readers had left. Many stated that the sign didn’t quite say what Mr. Engel originally proposed. Determined to find the true meaning of the Arabic statement, I went to a Yemeni’s restaurant located around City College (CCNY) in Hamilton Heights named Queen Sheeba. I asked my waiter if he would please translate the sign for me and he stated that it read, “Thank You the Youth of Egypt. We will never leave”. Facebook may have been used to catch the attention of the camera lens or the author could have indirectly thanked Facebook for allowing the youth of Egypt to facilitate their organization of the protests. Moreover, Facebook has been perceived as the central platform in the Egyptian revolt, used to post videos and photos that go viral, receive thousands of views, engage fans to participate in discussions and disseminated the message within minutes. Indeed, Facebook allowed the revolt to reach what every organization hopes to accomplish for it’s cause. However, looking at the background of the other Egyptians holding peace signs, the picture may have been propped to catch the attention of the American consumer. Perhaps the mistranslation of Richard Engel was one of tactful motives in order to engage the American public. Or maybe the mistranslation had no ulterior motive and it was a truly a mistake. It can be said without any doubt that social media, most importantly such websites as Facebook and Twitter- played an indelible role in shaping the Egyptian Revolution, which was carried out by the brave youth of Egypt.

How the Crisis in the Ivory Coast is Dividing the African Union

Residents flee after clashes between forces loyal to incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo and his rival Alassane Ouattara. REUTER/Luc Gnago (IVORY COAST)

As the world’s attention is focused on the situation in Libya and unrest in the wider Arab world, there have been renewed clashes in the Ivory Coast, both in the commercial capital Abidjan, and in the western region dubbed as the “Wild West.” There are reports of many people killed and thousands on the move, as forces loyal to incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo clashed with rebel forces aligned with “elected” president Alassane Ouatarra. With the Ivorian crisis presenting a serious dilemma, and even dividing African countries on the right action to take, both camps in the conflict have refused to budge, claiming to be the rightful winners of the disputed elections, and subjecting their people to untold atrocities.

I came across a variety of opinions on the Ivorian crisis, highlighting the serious divisions on how best to resolve the stalemate. Here are a few:

Military Option?   

Among the various options has been military force to remove incumbent president Gbagbo from power. There was even a military threat from ECOWAS, the West African regional grouping headed by Nigeria to use “legitimate” force to oust Gbagbo if he refuses to step down. However, the move towards military action will not be easy, and the leaders in the region know this. Nevertheless, Tony Bello of the Ghana Chronicle points out that after failed attempts of peaceful resolution, it is doubtful that Gbagbo will step down without the use of military force.

However, there are serious limitations and constraints for a military option. Robert Mukondiwa of the Zimbabwe Herald highlighted the risks of military action, noting that the political crisis had not yet moved beyond the Ivory Coast’s borders, that Ecowas had never before led a military intervention against a sitting government, and that Nigerian troops would be asked to carry the biggest burden and suffer the greatest casualties.  

South Africa, the continental powerhouse, is seeking a different approach to resolving the crisis. President Jacob Zuma called for restraint and urged Ivorian leaders to promote reconciliation and unity, adding that a rush to military action will be counterproductive, and could even lead to civil war. The country has even stationed a warship along the West Africa coast, drawing criticism from regional leaders of South Africa’s attempt to prop-up Gbagbo. A recently issued communiqué on South Africa’s position argues for a peaceful resolution involving consultation with the United Nations Security Council, the AU, and Ecowas.

Backing South Africa’s stance are a number of African leaders, most notably Dos Santos of Angola, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. According to Museveni:

The UN’s recognition of Alassane Outtara as winner of Ivory Coast’s disputed presidential ballot is premature. There is need for a serious approach that involves investigating the (electoral) process, including registration of voters and who voted. There should be investigations, not just declaring who has won. No, no, no.

Meanwhile, as the squabbles continue between the pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouatarra camps of the African Union, the situation on the ground remains precarious. Just last week, the new forces rebels who control the north of the country siezed a major town in the west from the government army,effectively ending the fragile ceasefire that have held since 2003.  Five African leaders from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, South Africa, and Tanzania were appointed to mediate and resolve the crisis. As they stall, bicker, and argue among themselves on the right course of action to take, the Ivorian people continue to suffer grave human rights abuses at the hands of their own leaders.

For more on the violence and human rights abuses in the Ivory Coast, see Amnesty International’s report here.


Mohamed Jallow is a former Colin Powell fellow. He graduated with a BA in International Studies in 2008, and currently pursuing and MPA at City College. He is a program associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Columbia, ROTC, and the Civilian-Military Divide

Disclaimer up front: I’m very much in support of reinstating ROTC at both Columbia University and the City College of New York.

Now on to the post.

Last week, a a student veteran who was shot multiple times while serving in Iraq was heckled while delivering a statement during one of Columbia’s ROTC debates. A story was written in the NY Post, which gained traction on social media sites (especially among veterans) and made national news. Since then, commentators have used the story as a reflection of liberals generally and the atmosphere at Columbia University specifically. Reportedly, hecklers have received death threats, and the anti-ROTC camp felt the need to organize their own, separate panel to discuss opposition to ROTC on campus.  (It is important to note that the student-veteran organization at Columbia – MilVets – which is in favor of reinstating ROTC, released a statement of support for Columbia University that said the behavior of the hecklers does not reflect support for veterans on campus.)

The debate that is happening at Columbia is important, as it makes sense to discuss the potential outcomes of reinstating an ROTC program. Unfortunately, both camps seem to be talking past one another. Instead of discussing the merits and drawbacks of providing students the opportunity to attend school and serve their country through an ROTC program, commentators from both sides are stating their positions on the inherent ‘good’ or inherent ‘evil’ of the military as an organization or its function in US foreign policy. Simply stated, if a person shows up to the ROTC debate with an anti-military attitude, they will not be in favor of reinstating ROTC. Similarly, a pro-military person would be in favor of its return.

One of the things that I’ve learned since leaving the Army is that for the most part, fundamental beliefs on the use of violence and military force are irreconcilable. That is, if a person is a pacifist, it doesn’t matter what argument you bring to the table regarding the benefits of ROTC, they cannot be convinced.

Nor should they be convinced. Everyone has a right to their own beliefs, and we live in a world where learning to live with people who think differently is important, and a key skill in keeping sane.

That said, not all those in the anti-ROTC camp are irreconcilable pacifists. Even with the repeal of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ there are still legitimate concerns regarding the military’s policy on allowing transgender people to serve, and the right to benefits for veterans who are transgender.

But that brings me to the larger point – the growing gap between the public and its military. This is popularly referred to as the ‘civilian-military divide.’ Concerns about this gap are not new, but have become more apparent in recent years (see here and here, and if you have the time, read this piece by Tom Ricks from 1997 for a real deep look).

Unfortunately, the alarms are being rung mostly by those within the military community itself. That’s because it is those who serve who can actually see the divide. A friend of mine wisely told me “Civilians do not see themselves as ‘civilians’ as an identity until faced with someone from the military who reminds them.” (She is a civilian ;-))

As someone very invested in the lives of veterans, I always view these alarms of a growing divide with frustration. There’s a growing divide? Okay, so what are we going to do about it? The problem is clear, but the solution is not. The seemingly obvious solution would be to re-institute the draft, therefore allowing for wider participation from all segments of American society. But this wouldn’t actually solve the problem. Yes, a wider portion of American society would participate in military service, but the proportion that would serve would still amount to less than 1% of the population. Most Americans would still be out of touch with their military.

So what can be done?

First off, we need to understand that there is no answer. There is supposed to be a gap between the civilian and military world (it’s designed that way, after all). In a perfect world, citizens would intrinsically care and keep themselves informed of issues relating to the military and veterans and involve themselves through direct service or donations to Veteran Service Organizations (like IAVA and the VFW).

Of course, that’s not going to happen. It is my belief that the civilian-military gap has grown due to the lack of contact between military/veterans and civilians. Military bases are for the most part, self contained units located far from major cities. And the nature of a smaller, all-volunteer military means that fewer and fewer Americans actually know someone, much less have a relative, who is serving.

So how do we increase interactions between the civilian and military world?

That’s where we get back to ROTC. For many people, college is where they find themselves. Young adults are away from their parents and experiencing new ideas and meeting new people. Before college, interactions with the military are limited to stereotypical Hollywood films and marathon Call of Duty sessions. Google ‘Medal of Honor.’ Chances are the first few links will be about the video game, not the nation’s highest award for valor.

ROTC offers an opportunity for both the future officer and the civilian student to interact with one another, in an environment that fosters the free expression of ideas. Officers will go on to serve their country with the benefit of having been exposed to different mindsets and ideas (than they would find in the service academies, for example) and civilian students would come a bit closer to understanding what the military is all about by taking classes with future military leaders. At the very least, ROTC on campus can help distill the idea of the military as an abstraction by putting an actual human face (probably a goofy, young college face, like that of most college students) on its future leaders.

Why do I think this would help? I’ve seen it work on a smaller scale at the City College of New York. CCNY no longer has an ROTC program (for now), but we do have a large and vibrant veteran community, and the City College Veterans Association. Besides functioning as a community for student veterans and assisting in their transition to college life, the group collaborates with other student organizations for school events (most recently in setting up a Lasagna Cook-Off – civilians and vets, baking together!).

While I think interactions between veterans and civilians on campus are good and can help bridge the gap a bit, it isn’t the same as the interaction between a uniformed ROTC student who is representing the military and a civilian. Veterans know what the military is all about, but they’re also outside of the system and represent themselves. ROTC cadets, on the other hand, are on their way in, and represent the military.

Given all the lip-service that the civilian-military divide has received recently, it would be a shame to keep ROTC off campuses like Columbia and CCNY.  ROTC programs are one small venue for bridging the civilian-military divide. And speaking from experience, life on Manhattan island is about as far from military service as you can get.

Don Gomez is a Colin Powell Fellow alumni.  He graduated from City College with a BA in International Studies in 2010.  He is now attending the School of Oriental and African Studies pursuing an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies. Twitter: @dongomezjr

Konnichiwa! Language Learning In the Era of New Media

With the new forms of interconnectedness we see everyday via the web, it is no surprise that language acquisition has caught on with the new trend. We have more access to people from other cultures speaking different languages then ever before. A company that has taken advantage of this golden opportunity is based out of Shanghai and calls its new form of social media “italki”. The company was originally launched in 2006 to assist English language learners in China a chance to practice their new language with others via the web. Today, more  than 500,000 users in 200 countries all over the world exchange close to 100 languages through the website.

Its popularity has increased significantly in areas where users can exchange language knowledge for free through video conferencing and posting questions to language groups. Like Facebook, each user has control over their own profile with a wall where others can post questions and status updates. The highlight of their page is  the ‘Language Box’ where members list the languages they speak and the languages they want to learn. They are then rated by language level of ‘beginner, elementary, intermediate, advanced, and native’. The website then helps to find other members who want to exchange their language with your own. For example, if I am looking to improve my Mandarin at an elementary level, then I would be matched with a native Mandarin speaker looking to improve their English skills as a native speaker. Members are also searchable through their extensive database where anyone can be found and matched based on their language capabilities.

A new feature on the site that has now pushed the social media site even further into prominence is its new ‘Marketplace’ where teachers and students can exchange professional language services. Language teachers are able to get paid through video conferencing with pre-prepared language lessons and are evaluated on the spot for future clients. Students are also able to browse through the websites database of teachers and specific lessons that they might be interested in, for example, “Intermediate Business English” or “Literatura Española y Latinoamericana” (Literature from Spain and Latinamerica). One aspect that I find fascinating about some of these classes is that teachers are offering ‘slang’ or ‘dialect’ classes. For example “Aprendo Argentino” (learn Argentinian) from a teacher in Buenos Aires who advertises her classes as “charlemos (Argentinian slang for ‘lets chat’) for a little bit so you can get the idea of what it’s like to speak in Argentinian”.

Needless to say, this is one language exchange that you will not find in a classroom. Plug in, turn on, connect, and start learning!


Social Media: A great contributor to civic engagement

Interesting fact: “If Facebook were a country it would be ranked third largest”, says Social Media Today. That’s incredible. There are around 1 billion people who are active Internet users and now, with social media, more people are willing to address public concerns. Nowadays, there is an increasing possibility for civic engagement through social media websites. This gives us all the opportunity to take on leadership roles – to become leaders of our communities, our opinions, and our information. It gives us a voice that can bypass citizenship, age, ethnicity, social status, education, and all other factor that can threaten the unity of a group.

Just as we are doing with this blog, many use social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and WordPress, as a platform for interaction and to voice opinions. As David Burstein says in the video above, young people “are the unique creators and consumers of this technology” and we found ways to use it to get our peers to civically engage (finally a positive act of peer pressure). This is important because we are the generation that is going to move things forward by creating the change that this world desperately needs.

Man sets himself on fire in Senegal – Is the Tunisia/Egypt syndrome spreading?

Following my blog entry about the prospects for revolutions south of the Sahara, there were reports this morning of a man setting himself on fire, right in front of the presidential palace in Dakar, Senegal. According to AFP, citing police and witnesses, the man poured liquid on himself, then lit himself with a lighter.

While self-immolation is not common in West Africa, Senegal, like many countries in the region is plagued by rampant corruption, grinding poverty, and a stagnant economy making the daily lives of ordinary people more difficult and unbearable. The man who set himself on fire, according to other witnesses was a former soldier whose pension has not been paid by the government for years.

Nevertheless, Senegal might not be the first country on my list for places in need of change, but the country’s leadership, under President Abdoulai Wade has grown increasingly autocratic, despite a history of peaceful transfers of power. There are  rumors of the president grooming his son to succeed him. Stay tuned for a detailed analysis of this,  and other developments across Africa, including the month long protests in Gabon against President Ali Bongo.

Tunisia, Egypt, and Beyond

Similar to millions of people around the world, I have been captivated by the historic events currently taking place in Egypt. Demonstrators poured into the streets of Cairo in late January and demanded nothing less than the end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year autocratic rule. Millions of Egyptians rejoiced as Mubarak signed his resignation on February 11, unable to withstand the pressure of Egyptian revolutionary forces.

The uprisings in Egypt are not an isolated event, however. They followed a trend set by Tunisian demonstrators who ousted their autocratic President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in early January.  Passionate voices from Tunisia, transmitted instantaneously to all parts of the world with the help of such social media websites as Facebook and Twitter, inspired Egyptian anti-government organizers to take direct action in the streets. As the news from the frontline of Egyptian Revolution spread across the Internet, millions of people around the globe, using social media as a primary source of information, received up-to-the-minute developments of events in Tahrir Square. 

President Mubarak, threatened by the viral spread of anti-government protests, shut down the Internet, in effect limiting freedom of speech. While the ban on the Internet was eventually lifted, the implications were profound.  Not only did this decision show Mubarak’s vulnerability, it also drew sharp criticism from the world’s leaders, including President Barack Obama. Most importantly, shutting down Internet in the midst of anti-government demonstrations highlighted the true power of social media. Mubarak’s authoriatarian government banned Internet because it realized that it gives people the power of social networking, as well as tools for collaborating and organizing.  

Recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt truly belong to the people, and crediting social media with the success of the anti-government movements would be shortsighted. However, it is important to note that social media has accelerated the spread of youth revolts by allowing activists to communicate with each other faster than ever before. Social media, unlike traditional news sources, is unfiltered and “by the people”; it has the power to motivate and empower those with similar aspirations.

The growing unrest that is now spreading across North Africa and Middle East serves as the evidence of the power of people when they have the opportunity to connect and unite. As I am writing this blog, protesters are out on the street of Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, and Morocco. 

Although it is unclear how events will unfold from here, I know for certain that I will be using social networks to follow new developments in real time.