The Role of Social Media in the Egyptian Protests
By Mimi Niggel
For the people of Tunisia, it started with word spreading online and in the streets worldwide of the people taking control of their government. It spread to Egypt with the mass demonstrations. After the successful overthrow of two pseudo-republics in the Middle East during the first two months of 2011 the Arab-nations of Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Libya, Syria, Iran and Bahrain have also joined in what is being called, “The Twitter Revolution.”
Pushed by the younger generation and fueled by blogs, Facebook, Twitter and mobile phones, these protests are taking place in countries with the most censorship. A worldwide audience is now connected to this movement, Pan-Arabism, where there is no language barriers or class barrier—everyone can have a blog. Looking in retrospective at a firsthand look inside the Egyptian protests it is clear social media is not only changing the political scene of the Middle East, but also the modern citizen journalist role.
Scott Doughty, second grade teacher at the all-English St. Fatima School in Cairo, said he first heard about plans for protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, “Liberation Square,” through rumors and messages on Facebook. He says the first Facebook page he was shown was “Rassd News Network | R.N.N.”, was in Arabic.
“I couldn’t find any English ones, so I was using Google to translate the Arabic,” Doughty said. Another Facebook group he followed was the predominantly media-featured group, “We are all Khaled Said,” which is written in English.
In the Middle East, Facebook and Twitter have made international headlines for roles in mobilizing the protests. Doughty added that before long, the impending protests were common knowledge in Egyptian society thanks to social media. Egypt is the eighth largest Facebook using country in the world.
These protestors—who are making history one tweet at a time—are young, educated and have social media at their disposal. “Organization came from people our age,” said Doughty of the Egyptian protests. “But it’s not just our generation on these social networks.”
The interest is widespread; the use of blogs to organize peaceful demonstrations against former-president Hosni Mubarak has been popular since about 2004. Those who have been a part of the movement since the early days of Mubarak’s rule are now older and have inspired the younger generation. These young professionals were born in a time when a corrupt president was in power and are sick of the way things have always been. They have Facebook and Twitter; they see those of democratic nations, like the United States, enjoying the freedoms of speech and they want that too.
Doughty said his Egyptian friends were split over the protests at first; not all of them were confident it would work for Egypt the way it worked in Tunisia.
“A lot of people don’t realize it’s more developed in Tunisia as a whole,” Doughty says. When asked if he thinks the protests in Egypt were imminent he replied, “I don’t think it would have happened now without Tunisia; it was the jolt people needed.” He explained the revolts in Tunisia were an example for Egypt to get organized, they showed that if the people would “come together, they can do it too.”
The most recent protests for social change began in December 2010, when the people of Tunisia began protests against former-president Zine El Abidine Ben over unemployment, food inflation, corruption, lack of freedom of speech and poor living conditions. On Jan. 14, El Abidine Ben resigned after he fled to Saudi Arabia. The media hailed the success of the Tunisian people’s peaceful protests, crediting social media site Twitter with the ultimate downfall to the former president’s 23-year rule.
Then the people of Egypt began protests on Jan. 25, inspired by those in Tunisia, against their former-president, Hosni Mubarak. Again, protests centered on lack of freedom of speech and free elections, presidential corruption, unemployment, food inflation, low minimum wage, police brutality and the state of emergency laws. Twitter and Facebook, once again, made international headlines for their roles in mobilizing the protests in Egypt.
Doughty lived in the neighborhood closest to former-president Mubarak’s palace— the neighrboorhood was also one of the safest during the protests. The Egyptian military had completely blocked off one end of his neighborhood with military tanks. Doughty went downtown to join the protestors in Tahrir Square on Jan. 28, the “Day of Rage” –the most violent day according to some; the day after the Egyptian government had blocked Facebook and Twitter.
“Riot police fired warning tear gas over a mosque,” Doughty recalled. “There were spray painted Facebook and Twitter logos.”
The Egyptian government had also blocked all Internet and cell phone reception countrywide during this time. Doughty said there were a few dial-up numbers that could work and a few lucky people with satellite access could get through to the Internet. He added that the international journalists, who were in Egypt tocover the protests, were letting citizens use their equipment, which was mostly satellite based. Ultimately, this act allowed the people of Egypt to communicate to the world by using their blogs, Facebook and other social media. This was a way to let the world know they are striving for democracy and shattering the common stereotype that citizens of Arab-nations will never attain the freedoms basic to countries like the United States which gave new importance to citizen journalism.
“It was never really a battle between the military and the people,” Doughty said, “As soon as the police were taken down the people came together, organizing neighborhood watches.”
The demonstrations in Egypt were peaceful ones, despite the use of riot police and the military tanks by the Egyptian governments; organized through social media sites, Twitter and Facebook. “There was non-stop posting, especially in the first few days when it was a lot more dangerous due to riot police,” Doughty said. “Social media was used to show where violence was, where re-grouping would be and what supplies were needed.”
Doughty said the protestors often employed feints to trick the Egyptian government; for example, they said would protest at one place, but actually protest in another. Another use of social media, in the first, pivotal days of protests, was to address the rumors of the Egyptian government shutting down certain social media sites and Internet access.
“There was advice on how to circumvent the security with either things like Google groups, which also got Google blocked for a couple days here, and proxy sites to get on to blocked sites.”
There were rumors that the protestors marched to the palace, 10 kilometers from downtown. However, until Feb. 9 the protestors did not even attempt to march to the palace. Also during the last week of protests— the first week in February—the metro was shut down and a 4 P.M. curfew was imposed on all downtown shops. Some grocery stores were stocked and some were not; there were often huge lines with people buying the necessities. Doughty said by this time most protestors had spent all their money on the basic necessities of food and could not access their accounts due to the banks being down.
“It is amazing how quickly everything changed. It [the protests in Tunisia] is empowering that people could show it was possible.” Doughty said after former-president Hosni Mubarak officially resigned. “There was a sense of comradely; nobody was in downtown Cairo by accident.”
Mimi Niggel is a freshman journalism major who thinks you are what you tweet. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.