Exploring the debate about the role of social media in Egypt's uprising
It took just 18 days of protests to force the resignation of Egypt’s long-serving President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The uprising saw protesters from across the political spectrum gather in their hundreds of thousands in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to bring a momentous end to his repressive 30 year regime.
Long before the start of the uprising, social media had become the main channel for young educated Egyptians to discuss their aspirations and grievances. Around two-thirds of the population is thought to be under 30 and their dislike of Mubarak centred on issues of low wages, high unemployment, police brutality and widespread corruption.
Many had been communicating through Facebook, Twitter and blogs in the run-up to the unrest, but as the crowds gathered in Tahrir Square, the regime reacted quickly by shutting down the Internet. Although this act of censorship failed to stifle the uprising, the significance of social media in influencing its outcome has become hotly debated.
Elizabeth Iskander of LSE’s Middle East Centre has examined the connection between social media and the uprising. Part of her research involved interviewing Facebook users.
With the Internet shut down, multiple means of communication became essential, Dr Iskander found. In her article, Connecting the national and the virtual: can Facebook activism remain relevant after Egypt’s January 25 uprising? published in the International Journal of Communication, she interviewed one Facebook user living outside Egypt. He described watching al-Jazeera via satellite television with his computer on his lap and both mobile and landline telephones beside him. Throughout 18 days of protest, he posted updates on his Facebook profile from al-Jazeeera and called landline numbers in Egypt to pass news from the Internet and satellite television on to family and friends. In turn, he gleaned eyewitness accounts from inside Egypt from these calls and then relayed them to his network among the Egyptian diaspora via Facebook and Twitter and to a wider audience via English-language media websites and blogs.
Dr Iskander writes: “This was important, especially on the first Friday of the protests, January 28, when the state media inside Egypt…were focusing their broadcasts on the rumours of looting and violence. This spread panic and fear among people because alternative sources of information were limited and some were convinced that the protests should end. By keeping the information flowing, people were able to judge the situation more clearly, and this helped to maintain the momentum of the protests.”
She adds: “Egypt’s uprising did demonstrate some of the ways in which social media are different and the ways they can be used. However, this does not mean that they produced this uprising or that their newfound prominence will lead to a more democratic polity…The previous failed attempts by activists to use social media to organise substantial protests show that momentum is required at the national level for social media to amplify and support. Social media could not organise a movement or supply momentum to a protest that was not there.”
She points out that opposition to the regime was fragmented into different political factions but started to organise around specific issues such as the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In 2004, the regime’s restrictive press laws were relaxed and allowed some independent newspapers and satellite television channels to emerge, along with greater freedom of communication brought by the growth in Internet and mobile phone technology.
Blogs began to emerge and disseminate footage of anti-government protests and strikes. They were the first to speak openly and explicitly about police torture and brutality, posting testimonies, pictures and videos on the Internet.
Esraa Abdel Fattah, an Egyptian woman who created a group on Facebook in 2008 calling for solidarity with striking workers, quickly attracted massive support, and the strikes began to symbolize a broader protest against the regime. She was arrested and held for two weeks, but her movement became part of the political scene.
In 2010 Mohammed ElBaradei, a former head of the International Atomic Agency, returned to Egypt and used social media to call for free elections, but state media launched a strong campaign against him and he failed to achieve any progress. Dr Iskander says this points to the continued importance of traditional media in a country where the majority does not have regular Internet access.
When a young man called Khalid Mohamed Said was beaten to death by police outside a cyber café in Alexandria in June 2010, pictures of his disfigured body were posted all over the Internet and led to the creation of an influential Facebook group “We Are All Khalid Said”. The surge of public opposition to police brutality led to the choice of January 25 2011 as a “Day of Rage” as this is National Police Day in Egypt and subsequently became the first day of the uprising.
Dr Iskander concludes that social media were central to the way the January 25 uprising was experienced for the minority of the population that uses Facebook and Twitter and how it was explained to the outside world.
Shortly after Mubarak resigned, the man who set up the “We Are All Khalid Said” Facebook group was interviewed on CNN, claiming to have started the revolution. Dr Iskander argues that the lead-up was longer in the making but that the momentum certainly picked up after the death of Khalid Said because the incident “acted as a tangible focus for solidarity”. She adds: “Social media were then able to provide the medium and the tools for some to express their reactions to the incident and its causes. Although social media enabled a particular group of people to narrate the revolution and its demands, the views and discourses that dominate Egyptian Facebook spaces do not necessarily represent the political voice of the majority of Egyptians.” She points to the overwhelming failure of a social media referendum campaign after Mubarak resigned, urging people to vote No to constitutional amendments.
She warns enthusiasts of social media not to rely on it to ensure future social and political change in Egypt: “Although social media provide an essential sphere for dialogue, its users must engage strongly and consistently with traditional forms of media and political organisation in order to avoid limiting their audience to Internet users alone and therefore limiting the ability of those activists who have relied on social media to have an impact on Egypt’s political transition.”
Posted December 2012