Egypt: Social Movement Amplified through Social Media

This photo by Nasser Nouri shows protesters clashing with Mubarak’s security forces in Mahalla, about 110 km (68miles) north of Cairo on 7 April 2008. The police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannon and live ammunition to disperse the demonstrators. The latter blocked the railway lines by rocks and wooden logs. Hossam_el-Hamalawy/Flickr

In January 2011, Egypt witnessed the largest anti-government protests responsible for overthrowing a dictatorial regime. Within eighteen days, Hosni Mubarak forcibly stepped down from the presidency after having ruled for thirty years. “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world”, tweeted one Egyptian activist in the early days of the nation’s uprising. Following is an attempt at mapping out the digital media landscape of Egypt prior to the 2011 uprising.

Immediately after President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in neighbouring Tunisia, Egyptian activists called for mass protests against unemployment, poverty, government corruption and lack of political freedom. The protesters demanded that President Mubarak step down, that the government repeal the emergency law and that presidential terms be limited. As thousands of people gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on 25 January 2011, protests broke out countrywide within hours in other cities, including Suez and Alexandria.

During the mass uprising, mobile phones, social networks and digital media technologies played a significant role in organising and coordinating the protests, bearing witness to abuses by security forces and garnering international support. It is critical to note that despite the importance of digital tools in political mobilisation, the movement was successful in deposing Mubarak because of the people on the streets risking their safety to face rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons, batons and arrests.

Under Mubarak’s regime, Egypt turned into an aggressive police state. The Emergency Law, first enacted in 1958, allowed the suspension of citizens’ constitutional rights, legitimised censorship, restricted non-governmental political activity and permitted indefinite imprisonment of individuals without charge. The Emergency Law has remained consistently in effect since 1967, except for a brief period of 18 months in 1980.

In addition to the Press Law and penal code provisions that govern Egyptian media, the Emergency Law continues to curb the constitutional freedom of the media in the post-Mubarak era. The Press Law, amended in 2006, removes limitations on the media in reporting private and public financial dealings of national political figures, however it continues to mandate criminal penalties for criticizing the president or foreign leaders. Human Rights Watch stated that the “vague and broadly worded provisions in Egypt’s Press Law invite abuse and contravene international standards of freedom of expression”.

Over the past decade, the Egyptian government has made considerable progress in building the state’s information and communications technology infrastructure. The proliferation of cheap mobile phones and computers in the last decade allowed these technologies to quickly gain popularity among the Egyptian population. New media technologies have played a significant role in the recent uprisings in Egypt where more than half of the population is under 25 years of age. The disenchanted youth population applied their knowledge of digital tools including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs and text messages to organise protests, meetings and to generate political dialogue under an authoritarian regime. In 2009, the Berkman Center for Internet & Security identified that the highest number of blogs from the Arab world were Egyptian with the highest proportion of female bloggers found among the Egyptian youth sub-cluster .

Social Media Activism Leading up to the 2011 Uprising

Although the Egyptian people were inspired by the 2010 mass uprisings in Tunisia, the 25 January Movement was a tipping point for Egyptians after a decade of strikes and demonstrations within Egypt expressing social, political and economic discontent. Social media served as an alternative source of information, communication and political expression for the Egyptian people under a repressive authoritarian regime.

Starting in 2004, Egyptian bloggers became increasingly involved in covering anti-government protests and documenting police brutality. Among them, blogger Wael Abbas has become an important source for the Egyptian press in exposing state abuse. Abbas and other citizen journalists faced serious consequences for their success in drawing attention to the government’s misconducts, police abuse, violence against women and coverage of political protests. The Egyptian police responded by subjecting bloggers and reporters to arrests, intimidation and pressure.

When opposition activists held peaceful demonstrations outside the Interior Ministry in May 2005 to protest the public referendum on constitutional changes, the riot police and pro-government armed civilians attacked activists and journalists, and sexually assaulted women at the demonstrations. Bloggers present at the demonstration recorded and uploaded videos and pictures of these attacks to the Internet. The national and international media then used these pictures and videos to report on state violence. As a result of publishing evidence of police misconduct, the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defence and Interior, established units to monitor online content put forward by Egyptian bloggers as well as international coverage of Egypt (Steven Cook in  The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square).

Over the past two decades, due to rising food prices and low wages, Egypt’s working population has staged thousands of protests. Protests became more frequent between 2006 and 2008, when the al-Mahalla al-Kubra, Egypt’s textile industry town, became the hub for demonstrations. In December 2006, close to 27,000 workers went on strike to demand higher wages to be able to afford the rising cost of food and consumer products. Strikes continued through 2007, with thousands of workers including textile workers from al-Mahalla al-Kubra planning another strike for 6 April 2008 over high food prices, low wages and the possible privatisation of state owned factories (Cook).Harsh police crackdown on the strike, however, stopped the protesters from reaching their goal. Nonetheless, the movement proved to be an important event for laying the foundation for social media activism and the subsequent 2011 uprisings.

In solidarity with the al-Mahalla al-Kubra workers, two young volunteers of former presidential candidate Ayman Nour’s El-Ghad opposition party, Ahmed Maher and Israa Abdel-Fattah, came together to create the 6 April Youth Movement group on Facebook.The aim of the movement was to support workers by staging demonstrations in Cairo and encourage a nationwide boycott of consumer goods. Although the protests in Cairo did not gather a large crowd, it showed the importance of social media in generating political dialogue when 70,000 people joined the Facebook group.

The next major event in Egypt’s social media activism campaign took place in June 2010, following the death of Khaled Said, a young businessman. Said was tortured and brutally beaten to death by the Alexandria police on a public street in front of several observers. According to news sources, authorities targeted Said because he possessed video evidence of illegal drug transactions involving members of the police force. The story and images of his brutalised corpse went viral on social media networks, sparking demonstrations by outraged citizens. The street protests against police brutality were a turning point in uniting members of leading opposition groups including Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Ayman Nour.

The deeply flawed parliamentary elections held in 2010 also served as an important catalyst for the 25 January Movement in Egypt. As Mubarak’s regime refused to allow international election monitors, civil society initiatives proved critical in reporting on intimidation, violence, ballot stuffing, removing names of opposition candidates from ballots and closing polling stations. The Development and Institutionalization Support Center (DISC) and the Egyptian Democratic Academy (EDA) set up U-Shahid.com, a crowdsourced digital mapping platform to gather reports on misdemeanours during the elections.

The U-Shahid platform allows citizens to update multimedia content through various social media networks, email and text messaging service. The DISC recruited and trained 130 bloggers and activists from major cities across Egypt to monitor and report on the elections in real-time. Additionally, the organisation worked with Thompson-Reuters to set up specific guidelines for validation of crowdsourced data submitted by other citizens. Prior to the November elections, four other crowdsourced mapping platforms were set up by independent organisations and smaller groups of social media activists for collecting data to increase transparency and democracy.

Within days of Said’s death, Dubai-based Google executive Wael Ghonim created a Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Said” that gained close to 130,000 followers within weeks. In the aftermath of the Tunisian protests, which were first publicised on social media and then broadcast on international satellite television channels, Ghonim used his page to call for a “Revolution against Torture, Corruption, Unemployment and Injustice” scheduled for 25 January. The date was significant because it was Egypt’s Police Day, a national holiday to commemorate the killing of 50 police officers in 1952 at Ismailia Police Station.

Thousands of people gathered in Tahrir Square from all over Cairo, with protesters using their mobile phones and computers to publish updates on social media, videos, audio files and images to tell people in Egypt and around the world about the mass protests. In the beginning, the movement received very little attention in the mainstream media, but once videos and images of the protests flooded social networks, audiences criticized international satellite channels like Al Jazeera for their failure to cover the unrest in Egypt. Soon after, major international news channels began to use reports from citizen journalists and social media activists to tell the story of the Egyptian uprising.

Although digital media technologies help activists and journalists quickly share information and organise, these technologies also allow the governments to easily monitor people’s activities. As the protests acquired more followers and international attention during the 2011 movement, the Egyptian government attempted to block access to social networking sites websites, such as Facebook and Twitter. On 28 January 2011, the Egyptian government ordered major Internet Service providers (ISP) in the country to suspend Internet services, a move that drew immediate criticism from the international community. The government shut down the country’s six largest ISPs, with the exception of the small ISP, Noor. Noor, a company focused on servicing the Egyptian financial sector, continued to operate until 31 January when the Egyptian government ordered the ISP to shut down along with mobile phone services. The country’s Internet and mobile network services remained inactive until restored on 2 February. Activists were able to bypass the Internet block through proxy servers, mesh networks, fax modems, dial-up Internet using international numbers, communicating over amateur radio frequencies and other specially created services. As the world saw a majority of Egyptians losing access to the Internet, engineers from Google, Twitter and SayNow came together to create a service called Speak To Tweet allowing people to send audio tweets by dialling a phone number and recording their messages.

Mobile Technology

With over 90% of the population owning mobile phones, text messaging is an important medium of communication. Prior to the 2005 elections, the Muslim Brotherhood rallied political support through text messaging campaigns and was successful in winning 20% of the parliamentary seats. Seeing the success of effective text messaging campaigning, the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) put messaging under heavy regulations leading up to the 2010 elections. Media outlets interested in distributing news via text messaging were required to obtain a separate license.

The license required companies to pay a 3% fee to cover costs of government monitoring of the content disseminated to subscribers. Consequently, opposition groups that did not have an official status such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the National Association for Change, the Nasserists, the Wasat Party and a number of protest groups were barred from using mass text messaging services (Cook).

Following the Egyptian state’s failed attempt to block the Internet to quiet down the protest, government turned to mobile phones for spreading mass propaganda. Mobile phone subscribers reported receiving messages urging protesters to stay at home and not participate in the movement. Moreover, the Information Ministry forced major mobile-phone carriers including Vodafone, Mobinil and Etisalat to send out mass text messages to their subscribers urging them to attend pro-Mubarak rallies.

Traditional Media

Despite some freedoms granted to the media under the Mubarak regime, starting in 2004, state-owned and private media outlets still experience heavy regulations, close monitoring and censorship by the government. In preparation for the run-off elections scheduled for December 2010, NTRA cancelled the permits of all broadcast companies that provided live television news feeds in Egypt in an effort to control the flow of information from polling stations around the country. Although these media outlets were asked to apply for new licenses, they were required to use state-owned facilities to broadcast (Cook).

The state controlled media in Egypt refused to broadcast images of thousands of people gathering in Tahrir Square at the beginning of the protests. In order to undermine the legitimacy of the protesters, the state media labelled them thugs, anarchists and foreign representatives. Egyptian television networks such as Al Oula TV, Nile TV and Al Masriya TV, all controlled by the Information Ministry, spread propaganda about alleged plots and “foreign” conspiracies. Despite this, through social media platforms, activists and citizen journalists were able to dispel rumours and propaganda by the state-run media.

Activists and journalists present in Cairo during the uprising reported being explicitly targeted by security forces and armed pro-government civilians. “It genuinely seemed like journalists had indeed been explicitly targeted…those who weren’t attacked by mobs were arrested by police officers or detained — allegedly for their own safety — by the military”, reported Khalil Ashraf.

The Battle for Freedom Continues

In the post-Mubarak era, Egyptian bloggers, social media activists and professional journalists continue to play a crucial role in reporting on misconducts of the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). On-going protests calling for democracy, transparency and accountability on part of the ruling military government often result in violent clashes between activists and security forces. At the same time the ruling military council continues to detain, question, abuse and harass professional and citizen journalists.

International organisations such as Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Project Journalists (CJP) are concerned about the continued crackdown on bloggers, activists and reporters. According to the RSF Press Freedom Index for 2011-2012, Egypt has fallen 39 places from its previous rank of 127 out of 179 countries to 166. Moreover, Arab media studies scholar, Adel Iskandar, notes that while there is a surge in private media and Egyptians are increasingly turning towards satellite channels, the military exercises considerable control over state as well as private media. “Through a sinister combination of compulsion and coercion, the military has both effectively infiltrated most private networks and has an array of options to ensure compliance from station owners, staff and media personalities”, writes Iskandar.

As Egyptians continue to struggle for freedom and democracy, citizens in other Arab nations are rising up against repressive regimes. Digital media allows not just the activists to organise, share information and document violence by the state, it also allows the ruling governments to monitor, censor and intimidate citizens. In light of the crucial role technology has played in mass movements across the Middle East, on 23 April 2012, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Orderto authorise sanctions against entities using information and communication technologies for committing human rights abuses especially in collaboration with the Iranian and Syrian regimes. The sanctions are directed at entities or individuals that have operated or directed the operation of, information and communications technology that facilitates network disruption, monitoring, or tracking that could assist in human rights abuses by or on behalf of the Iranian and Syrian governments.
During the 2011 Egyptian uprising, protesters found evidence of a British technology firm offering to sell digital intelligence software to the Egyptian government for monitoring Internet activity. Moreover, in recent years, a number of Western technology companies have reportedly provided monitoring and censorship technologies to repressive regimes in the Middle East. Although, President Obama’s order does not clarify whether these sanctions will target American firms and individuals, this is a positive first step towards taking global initiatives for creating policies that prevent the utilisation of technologies as tools of oppression.
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