Social Media and the Egyptian Revolution

The freedom to create communities—whether virtual or real—is a powerful tool for liberation

By Merrick Nelson

The revolution that occurred in Egypt in 2011 highlights how technology can influence the mobilization of a population as well as execute a successful civil uprising. In order to better understand how the Egyptian revolution occurred, it is important to consider the players that were involved as well as what factors contributed to the political, economic, and social situations in modern Egypt. In this way, it is then possible to understand the role that social media plays in shaping a political uprising.

The Global Generation

The group that was directly responsible for causing the uprising has been dubbed “the Global Generation” by Adeel A. Shah, and Sheheryar T. Sardar.1 This generation consists “of those born after 1980, representing roughly 52% of the world’s population.” Furthermore, they reported that, “according to Pew Research, ninety-three percent of the teenagers in America routinely go online, as do 93 percent of young adults.” This lifestyle strongly contrasts with the previous generation’s usage and view of technology. Growing up in the digital age can allow individuals in various geographic locations to experience the same events virtually in real time. In addition, those that are internet savvy can access vast amounts of information almost instantly and, in turn, depend on that ability for daily functioning. Shah and Sardar concluded, “this Global Generation not only communicates across borders, it emotes across borders, creating deeper connections and striving to understand who would otherwise be the ‘other’.”

In Egypt, it was this generation that was faced with a particularly gloomy future. In 2006 for example, Dina Shehata noted that “young people with a secondary education or more represented 95 percent of the unemployed in their age group.”2 This Global Generation became increasingly agitated, as they had to apply for positions for which they were over-qualified and often were turned away because of their advanced degrees. The global economic crisis in 2008 only exacerbated domestic Egyptian woes; there was economic stagnation coupled with high inflation rates.

The proliferation of social media use by the Global Generation legitimized the medium as an effective journalism tool. People using those technologies as a platform to report on events and ideas did not need to worry about traditional fact-checking structures. Instead, if someone published an article online, peers could comment on the legitimacy of the facts by quickly cross-referencing anything in question with a search on Google. In many ways social media can be a more reliable source of information; those in the Global Generation believe that articles that are written and shared among friends and friends-of-friends seem more personal and reliable than a corporation pushing the same message. The speed in which information is disseminated or “goes viral” does not depend on elitist structures. Further, since each person can contribute to the online community, there naturally emerges no one leader whose voice can dominate. Overall, the medium allows for users who previously only consumed traditional media the opportunity to participate and interact.

Dr. Shehata concluded that “Mubarak’s downfall was the result of three factors: increasing corruption and economic exclusion, the alienation of the youth, and the 2010 elections and divisions among the Egyptian elite over questions of succession.” The Egyptian revolution can be defined by a series of mounting protests that started some ten years prior to the protest that eventually made Mubarak step down from power.

Facebook Activism Before 2011

In the early 2000s, workers and educated professionals took to the streets to protest labor laws but they never pushed political issues until 2006, when movements began to stress the need for the removal of President Mubarak. The Kefaya movement was made up of apolitical youth who organized protests in an attempt to overturn Mubarak’s presidency. Dina Shehata stated that the activists from this movement formed the “April 6 Movement in solidarity with textile workers… [ and ] attracted 70,000 members on Facebook.” This protest was notable because of the large number of its Facebook followers, as well as the strike that took place being uploaded to YouTube, which in turn allowed for a global audience to be exposed to the events.

In 2010, parliamentary elections appeared to be heavily orchestrated in Mubarak’s favor so that no oppositional groups were going to be represented. Much of the country was against this plan. The Muslim Brotherhood, which unified citizens with social and political frustrations through Islam, was particularly upset due to its lack of political representation. Additionally, other groups like the Kefaya movement, which was made up mostly of Egyptian youth, also increased its demonstrations against the Mubarak regime.

The Tunisian Example

The catalyst for the Egyptian revolution came in part from the self-immolation of Mohammed Buouazizi in 2010 in Tunisia. Buouazizi’s actions could be attributed to his frustration at not being able to support his family through his limited income as a food vendor. That event triggered the uprising in Tunisia. The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, as it became known, was televised for the world to see. What Egyptians got out of watching the unfolding action was that through mobilization they too could topple their oppressive government.

January 25th, 2011 was the date that was set for anti-government protests and Facebook was used as a way to raise awareness for the protest. Shah and Sardar wrote, “by January 24, 2011, more than 85,000 people had signed up to attend the historic protests in Egypt.” Six youth movements were involved in the protests and they comprised social activists and labor rights groups. Not all of the organizing was done online, though. The internet was used as a framework for raising awareness and support, but in-person meetings were used to discuss the details as well.

A week before the revolution, Asmaa Mahfouz, a recent college graduate and Egyptian activist posted a video on her Facebook page stressing the need to protest the Mubarak regime. The video was then re-posted many times by other individuals on Facebook and it was then eventually put on YouTube where it received even wider exposure. The significance of this video was that it “went viral” and helped to garner world attention about the events that were unfolding. The video is notable for its lack of production value and for showcasing a bold emotional monologue by a girl urging others to join her at Tahrir Square. These qualities helped to legitimize the video among its viewers. Once on the Facebook network, friends shared the video with other friends and it started to move through the social web. Those who could visit Facebook to communicate socially with friends could now be exposed to this video and gain knowledge about the event. This in turn spurred discussions and debates that would otherwise not have happened if they had just been watching a televised broadcast of the video. Also, those who were not apt to turn on the network news or read a newspaper were still exposed to this political video while viewing their Facebook page.

Mubarak Pulls the Plug, But Protests Continue

Navid Hassanpour, in a doctoral thesis, stated, “In the early hours of January 28th, the Mubarak regime shut down the Internet and cell phone networks across the country.”3 The next day the protests increased to the point that the military was needed to support the police. Amir Ali points out that “Following the blackout over one million Egyptians joined demonstrations across the country, up to a tenfold increase.”4 The blackout not only failed, but may very well have exacerbated the situation. Lack of communication between the state-run media and the people prompted people to rely on one another in order to get news and discuss ideas. Those not involved with the protests were motivated to seek out answers as to why the Internet and mobile phone services were shut off, and took to the streets to look for other people who could help them.

The population was not completely cut off though; Sandra Surez wrote that landline phones were used for Google’s Speak2Tweet; a program that “allowed people to call designated numbers and leave voicemail messages that were then automatically translated into type and sent out as tweets.”5 This tool allowed Egyptians on the ground as well as in the global community to be updated.

The lack of internet and cell phone service affected the revolution in a variety of major ways. Those who were initially apolitical became implicated in the demonstrations. Also, as people went into the streets to reach family and friends, people had to communicate face-to-face. Finally, as communication networks became increasingly fragmented and decentralized, citizens needed to create new ways to communicate.

Revolution Without Leaders

It is interesting to note that in traditional political movements, there is one individual who rises up to become a leader; in the Egyptian Revolution, this pattern was not the case. This change was in part due to the Mubarak regime’s being likely to assassinate any such individual. The very nature of this movement was that of being leaderless. Also, many past movements were defined by cultural groups, or centered on one leader’s ideas. The internet allowed many individuals the opportunity to participate in the political and social movements and create change. The revolution that occurred in Egypt was not because of an international force or an oppositional political party but came from the grassroots mobilization of dissatisfied youth. With the Global Generation, the social media, including the internet, video conferencing, and even commerce, allowed for a disintegration of past cultural differences in order for individuals to work as a collective.

During the revolution, the traditional media structures, especially in the West, either labeled the unfolding events a “Twitter Revolution” or a democratic revolution showing that the people in the Middle East wanted to adopt the Western democratic process. But the individuals in Egypt did not simply want to adopt a governmental model similar to the United States; instead, they wanted the ability to pursue their own goals, aspirations, and happiness. The Mubarak regime, with its economic woes did not give the youth any opportunity to fulfill their hopes. During the protests, groups that normally did not align with one another, namely those of differing religions and political affiliations, networked and became unified; it was this unity that made Mubarak leave power. The military’s inaction also helped bolster the protests and showed he was fighting a losing battle.

On February 1st, 2011, President Mubarak said that he would step down from power in September. The day afterward, though, security forces and hired thugs shot at the protestors. Dina Shehata wrote that “eleven were shot and killed in Tahrir alone” and this event in turn provided another rallying point for the protestors. It was not until February 11, 2011, that President Mubarak stepped down from power and handed over control to the military. The revolution succeeded in eliminating the Mubarak family and the business elite that surrounded his family. Currently, the High Council of the Armed forces rules Egypt and much of the bureaucracy remains.

Nationalism And High-Tech

There are many ideas that one can take away from the revolution. In terms of Egypt and the Middle East, though, it is important to realize how their desire for democracy contrasts with a Western conception of democracy. The West is characterized as having religion separate from government. Nationalism helped to bolster the political identity of the state. In the Middle East, which is dominated by Islam, religion and politics are intertwined. The spread of democracy, as facilitated by the Internet, therefore does not imply the spreading of Western values. The freedom to connect with others and the imagined community can liberate those under an authoritarian regime. Though there are many theories about how a revolution can occur, this modern revolution demonstrates that through the use of technology, individuals can be empowered with their own voices.

The uprising in Egypt showed how technology is changing our conception of nationalism. The Egyptian revolution revealed that the social networking media not only played a large role in the revolution itself, but also demonstrated their own power. Information gained from online sources helped raise awareness and knowledge about the government’s actions. It also gave a voice to those who previously lacked one. Those who do not have digital technology now are at a great disadvantage.

The Egyptian Revolution proves that the Internet can strengthen national identities, which in turn can unify people in new ways. Persons who communicate through the social media take on a virtual identity that is an extension of their reality-based identity. The medium allows individuals to unify around ideas without revealing their own location. This, in effect, de-territorializes one’s conception of what a nation is; nationalism becomes decentralized. The youth who participated in the Egyptian revolution came to realize that there were many who shared their own problems and aspirations.

As the leaderless revolution in Egypt demonstrated, there no longer needs to be a centralized power discourse to generate national sentiment. The Egyptian revolution was born from decentralized grass-roots mobilization. This kind of nationalism is generated from many individuals, who in turn can spread their ideas throughout social networks. Anyone who has the hardware and the connection can participate; the actual use of the website that hosts these social networks is free of charge.

What is incredible about the revolution in Egypt is that the virtual happenings online—the Facebook groups and the user-generated blogs, videos, and Tweets—were translated from the cyber-world into reality. These events prove that the medium is not an abstract activity that contrasts with the reality-based self. Instead, events that are happening online are blending with reality. In all sorts of ways, the Internet is a democratic tool. People using social media no longer need to reside in a specific nation to be a part of a movement. The interactions online are among people with diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds that make up the Global Generation and previous generations. Egyptian youths, by using social media, created their own discourse as to what Egypt should represent. This shows that nationalism remains a pervasive concept to the globalized world, but it now has more dimensions. The social media are promoting ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic diversity within nations.

At the same time social networks on the Internet have given individuals a new surge of power. They rightly feel a new ability to participate in political, economic, and social affairs that their governments may have previously blocked. This puts governments under increasing threat. Indeed, in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya, governments have been threatened or overthrown.

Merrick Nelson is a recent graduate of Purchase College, part of the State University of New York.

Notes

1 Shah, Adeel A., and Sheheryar T. Sardar. Sandstorm: a Leaderless Revolution in the Digital Age. [United States]: Global Executive Board LLC, 2011.

2 Shehata, Dina. “The Fall of the Pharaoh: How Hosni Mubarak’s Reign Came to an End.” Foreign Affairs 90.3 (2011): 26-32.

3 Hassanpour, Navid. Media Disruption Exacerbates Revolutionary Unrest. Thesis. Yale University, 2011. APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper, 1 Aug. 2011. Web. 15 Sept. 2011.

4 Ali, Amir H. “The Power of Social Media in Developing Nations: New Tools for Closing the Global Digital Divide and Beyond.” Harvard Human Rights Journal 24 (2009): 185-219.

5 Surez, Sandra L. “Social Media and Regime Change in Egypt.” Campaigns and Elections 32.3 (2011): 30-31.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2012

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2012, page 19. Some rights reserved.

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