In the US, high-profile debates on "social media" continue to take place with little reference to what is actually occurring in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain. Evgeny Morozov, for example, persists in his tut-tut about the possibilities of the Internet for activism --- in contrast to the great possibilities for authoritarian states to use the Internet to repress that activism --- based on his experience of Belarus but with little recognition of North Africa and the Middle East. (To be fair, the US Naval Academy invited Zeynap Tufekci to engage Morozov in discussion, and she displayed the power of an argument based on close study of recent developments, with her sharp summary, "Faster is Better".)
In that context, this essay by David Faris in Arab Media & Society, published in Fall 2008, about Egyptian activism is note-worthy. While the uprising that he considers, sparked by a workers' strike in spring 2008, was quashed by the Mubarak regime, the analysis here points to a precedent that would be significant three years later, with complex lessons for activism, protest, and the regimes which they face.
On the morning of April 6th, 2008, a small group of Egyptian bloggers and activists made their way from one internet cafe to another, updating web sites and Twitter feeds dedicated to the day’s tumultuous events in Cairo and other cities. They generously allowed me to spend the day with them, to see what they were up to and how they were using the tools of Web 2.0 to facilitate political protest and social action in Egypt. The afternoon took me from the overpriced coffee joints of Mohandiseen and Zamalek to the Judges’ Syndicate, where a protest was the focus of several blocks full of plainclothes police, riot police, participants, and gawkers both Egyptian and foreign. The young men and women spent their time in the cafes aggregating reports from other activists about arrests and protests, and while they of course were doing everything they could to avoid being arrested, the general attitude seemed to be one of acceptance of that risk. They were doing all of these things at the same time, often talking on the phone, updating a Web site, and speaking with one another, engaging in what has been dubbed “continuous partial attention.”
As one of the organizers and writers told me, “With the Internet you can get online anytime, wherever, so now we are publishing all the same news the same minute. If someone got caught now, arrested now, we can write about it now, rather than the old style.” By the old style, of course, this young blogger meant the traditional media, which has a built-in time-lag between an event and the delivery of news about that event, a delay that has been obliterated by the tools of new media.
The amazing thing is that much of this activity can be traced directly or indirectly to actions taken on the Internet --- and also that it was facilitated greatly by it. Of course a number of people and organizations had a hand in the day’s events but it is no exaggeration to say that none of us would have found ourselves in the midst of a protest if not for the efforts of one obscure woman from outside of Cairo. She is not the type of person you would have expected to be behind massive social protest in the past, but she is precisely the sort of person who has been most empowered by recent technological innovations in information communications technologies: the massive decline in the costs of mobile communications, the spread of the Internet in the developing world, the growth of blogs and social networking services, the ease of self-publishing and organizing, and the increasing ability of individuals to engage in many-to-many communications. These new communication forms have little to do with broadcast news media, the traditional focus of academics studying Arab media. The day’s events also had little to do with the kind of blogging we have come to associate with the form --- the airing of opinion and analysis by non-professionals.
Esraa Abdel Fattah probably had no idea she was going to create a global phenomenon when she started a Facebook group in March of 2008. The group was devoted to a sympathy strike with textile workers in Mahalla al-Kobra in the Delta. The workers of Mahalla had chosen April 6th as the day to go on strike to protest declining wages and rising prices, and together with other creeping developments in the Egyptian economy and political system, the strike had the potential to develop into something much larger than an isolated labor protest. For months prices of basic commodities had been rising in Egypt at the same time that official figures on the economy continued to look robust. The regime, as usual, didn’t seem terribly interested in helping ordinary people out of trouble. Inflation was rampant, and yet the state still seemed determined to forge ahead with its program of neoliberal privatization. In addition, the government’s heavy-handed campaign against top leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood was reaching a crescendo in advance of the state’s attempts to rig local elections on April 8th, and the state was still feeling the fallout of the army’s failed attempts to take over the Nile island of Qursaya, which to many represented the apotheosis of regime arrogance and disregard for its ordinary citizens.
Finally, massive dissatisfaction with the state’s position vis-à-vis the besieged residents of the Gaza Strip was serving to further delegitimize the state. These gathering elements of disgruntlement formed a kind of perfect storm, but in a climate that has proved particularly impervious to inclement weather. The original impetus for the strike lay with the besieged Mahalla textile workers, but it was only with the bridging and amplifying capabilities of Web 2.0 that a textile strike turned into a national event. In other words, April 6th was the day when organizing tool met political reality to create elements that were strong enough to form storm clouds on the regime’s horizon.
Within two weeks of forming the group, Esraa’s Facebook group had more than 60,000 members, quite astounding given that only approximately 790,140 Egyptians are even members of Facebook to begin with. The idea was for the group members to stay home on the day of the strike, April 6th and the idea soon took on a life of its own. In the heavily policed state of Egypt, organizing demonstrations is technically illegal, and calling for a general strike particularly so. This does not, of course, prevent them from happening regularly, but demonstrations are generally small affairs, thought of by many as the domain of liberal and left-wing activists surrounded by blocks full of black-clad riot police and plainclothes thugs.
Certainly no one could have expected a 27-year-old human resources coordinator to catalyze an event that would grip the national consciousness for the better part of a week. It perhaps seemed even less likely that Facebook, a social networking scheme hatched by Harvard undergraduates just a few years ago and still associated largely with American college students, would be the chosen platform for this massive action. After all, Egyptian blogs can claim some significant victories vis-à-vis the state in the past few years, including exposing police torture and cases of sexual harassment, and a number of articles have been written about the growing power of bloggers. But when examined against developments in the scale-free Egyptian blogosphere and the innovations in network theory, the choice of Facebook makes much more sense.