David Malone, president of Canada's International Development Research Centre, says more people turned out for Egypt's 1977 Bread Riots than last winter's demonstrations that toppled president Hosni Mubarak.
Malone says those earlier demonstrations more than three decades ago — which mobilized hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in many cities to protest an end to food subsidies — occurred without the help of Twitter or Facebook.
"As a young man, I lived through the Bread Riots of Egypt," Malone told a panel discussion Monday at IDRC headquarters in Ottawa.
"It mobilized many more people on the streets of Cairo than the Egyptian spring has so far. And those were mobilized without any help from social media."
Malone's long diplomatic career included serving as Canada's top envoy to the United Nations and India. He is a respected author on international issues. He now heads the Crown corporation that leads Canada's international research.
As the one-year anniversary of the Arab Spring uprisings approaches, many have touted the role of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in the historic events across the Middle East and North Africa.
One example is a September study by the University of Washington that concluded: "After analysing more than three million tweets, gigabytes of YouTube content and thousands of blog posts, a new study finds that social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring."
Malone credited Arabic television footage from networks such as Al-Jazeera for mobilizing protesters across a region that he says was already ripe for change.
"I think it's very easy to be carried away by means of communication. I think many of these countries were ripe for a change," said Malone, who was hosting a panel discussion with the three editors of a new book entitled "Rewiring Regional Security in a Fragmented World."
"So there was a ripeness in the situation that existed for change. Secondly, governments could no longer control information, which they had tried so hard to do in much of the Middle East, quite successfully, for a long time."
Monday's book launch was a joint project with the United States Institute of Peace, which also held its own symposium this past September at its Washington headquarters on the role of social media in the Arab Spring uprisings.
"Several commentators at the conference cautioned against exuberant pronouncements that social media — widely used to organize and rally anti-government protests in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab Spring movements — are the new key to toppling dictators and ushering in democracy, freedom and peace," says a summary of the event on the institute's website.
It quoted John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, as saying: "They are a tool, and they can be used for good and for ill. "
Malone also noted Monday that social media users likely never expected the outcome of their protests would lead to electoral success for Egypt's major Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, in the country's current parliamentary elections.
"Now we're beginning to see that in terms of outcomes of elections, the outcomes of elections are not necessarily what the people using social media would have wished for," he said.
"So I think a degree of caution is required in believing that social media is at the root of everything that's happening. I don't think that's the case at all. I think it's a factor amongst other factors."