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A Quick And Dirty Account of Media in the Egyptian Uprising

December 19, 2013

Photo Credit: AhmadHammoud via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: AhmadHammoud via Compfight cc

I have a chapter coming out in a book on the social anthropology of the Middle East. I was asked to write a chapter on “New Media and Electronic Networks.”

While most of the text is about various ways anthropologists (and their colleagues in related disciplines) might think about  media in the modern Middle East, I have one section in which I do a brief account or the revolution.

The goal was to write an account that was 1) brief, 2) covered the main events and actions of the revolution, and 3) included media institutions and practices but did not exaggerate their causality.

I thought I might share it here:

Revolutions are extraordinary times that break down pre-existing political, economic and social structures, ushering in periods of creativity and imagination as well as struggles over what new realities will emerge. Media play at least two key roles in this process. On the one hand, their institutional roles — their relations with the state and communities of media users —may be abruptly changed. On the other hand, as social forces media will play transformational roles in the revolutionary process.

            In the case of Egypt, the uprisings took place at the end of more than a decade of protests that peaked in 2005 and again in 2010. Although many of these were labor strikes at factories or in small communities disconnected from each other and from larger social movements, many of the urban protests involved closely knit groups of protesters and organizers who learned from experience, from one another, and in some cases, from wider global pro-democratic protest networks. New media technologies played important roles in creating these connections and disseminating lessons. Many of these urban protest leaders also made strong efforts to connect to the less technologically sophisticated labor movements. The 6th of April network, one of the most important mediated social movements in Egypt, began as a simple Facebook page calling on protesters in Cairo to support a planned labor protest in  the industrial town of El-Mahalla El-Kubra.

            Egypt’s media ecology consisted of widely distributed state controlled newspapers, radio and television, and a much smaller number of independent newspapers and television stations, privately owned but subject to ambiguously defined legal restrictions against criticizing government agencies and actions. Blogging emerged as an important alternative system through which writers could explore new literary styles and find alternative voices (Radsch 2008). For the state, allowing free expression at the margins—in foreign language and on-line–initially served as “a safety valve and a way of keeping tabs on opponents and alternatives at a safe distance from local arenas” (Anderson and Eickelman 1999: 61). Simultaneously, in response to new initiatives for measuring development by global agencies like the UN and World Bank, the government established initiatives to make Internet more and more easily available to larger numbers of people, establishing free dial-up connections and building village Internet facilities.

As more and more political bloggers came on-line writing in Arabic, however, they became increasingly subject to government reprisals. The regime quickly learned that arrests of bloggers received surprisingly widespread attention outside of Egypt both because of the capacity of blogging to reach audiences outside the state, but also because of the nature of the cultural values placed on these activities by those external audiences. The arrests of bloggers like Ahmed El Droubi and Alaa Al-Fatah actually received more international criticism than punitive measures against crusading newspaper journalists like Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the independent newspaper Dustour.

In addition to blogging and the creation of protest event pages on Facebook, protesters against the regime found extraordinary, creative ways to employ social media designed in North America and Europe for very different purposes. The Piggipedia, for example, employed the photosharing site Flickr to upload pictures of secret police, usually taken with cell phones at protests, which could then be annotated by others, in an effort to introduce transparency as a counter to state secrecy. Yet while liberating activists from a regime-controlled communications grid, these tools were also subject to constraints imposed by Western ideologies and practices: Flickr refused to upload images seized from the security apparatus itself on the grounds that the activists didn’t “own” the images, while Facebook’s frequent structural revisions could cause entire networks and conversations to vanish.

The Jan. 25 uprising succeeded in part because it was a continuation of the social and political unrest that had marked the entire preceding year. Three events in 2010 became particularly powerful symbols of what was wrong with Egypt: the clash of Egyptian security forces with Palestinian Arabs during Egypt’s unpopular enforcement of the Israeli blockade of Gaza; the murder of blogger Khaled Said by state security forces, and the blatant ballot box stuffing and intimidation used to ensure a National Democratic party win in 2010. Social media played a crucial role in mobilizing these events as symbols among the young, college-educated underemployed youths sometimes called shabab Facebook:

The Internet gave these young Egyptians a view of the Gaza clashes unobtainable through state television. Disaffected government employees posted videos to YouTube taken with cell phones of fellow poll workers stuffing ballot boxes. The Facebook page Kullina Khaled Said (We Are All Khaled Said) became a rallying point for calls to revolution. Blogs became important sites for commenting on media, both domestic and foreign. Streams of Tweets pointed people to blogs, Facebook pages, and news site in an ever-growing web of political resistance (Peterson 2011).

The uprising itself began not as a call to revolution but as an anti-regime protest to mark National Police Day. Activists wanted to exploit the fact that people did not have to work in celebration of the holiday to mobilize them in protest of the holiday. A famous V-Log by Asmaa Mahfouz challenged young men to come out for the protest; it went viral within Egypt. Protesters used social media sites and cell phone text messaging to organize several of the protest marches, but knowing electronic networks were monitored, they also organized a few through word of mouth and printed handouts distributed in working class neighborhoods with histories of labor unrest.

Initially, the protests seemed to follow a familiar script common to protests in Egypt: marchers congregated to a spot (in this case Tahrir Square). State television announced that although they were breaking the law, the president was graciously allowing them the freedom to express their discontent. A little after midnight, under cover of darkness, security forces entered the Square and broke up the gathering with batons and tear gas. But the attack was far from secret; cameras captured the action from rooftops, and the videos were uploaded to YouTube and broadcast on Al-Jazeera.

The next day, disgruntled protesters gathered in small groups throughout Cairo, vowing to resume the protest. This was typical in the aftermath of a protest, and police squads had been assigned throughout Cairo to deal with it. On Jan 26, however, the numbers of these gatherings were unusually large, in many cases beyond what police could control. As groups began to march toward Tahrir Square, their numbers swelled as they recruited, and coordinated, often through text messages, Tweets and phone calls (Nunns and Idle 2011).

The 18 day occupation in Tahrir Square that ended Feb. 11 with the resignation of Hosni Mubarak has been described by participants as exhilarating, a breakdown of social norms replaced by an intimate interpersonal generosity, organized by a strong sense of purpose. The participants suffered hunger, thirst, and exhaustion, punctuated by moments of fear and violence. Participation in the occupation elicited a deep sense of community, as people spontaneously organized makeshift hospitals, security cordons, food delivery and rubbish removal services. Many of these activities were organized in part through cell phone call chains, Twitter, and text messaging, and these technologies were crucial in coordinating with citizens outside the Square, who brought in supplies.

It was a period of extraordinary public drama, from Muslims and Christians protecting one another as they prayed on their respective days, to the defection of public figures to the protest movement, the chanting of creative slogans (Colla 2013), the invention of new songs, and the expression of hope through graffiti and hand-made signs. All of these activities had national and international audiences. Local participants took pictures and videos and uploaded them to the web, where they were subsequently re-edited by supporters internationally. Al-Jazeera courageously covered the entire occupation live, in spite of continued interference from security forces, frequently incorporating digital media taken by protesters in their coverage. Al-Jazeera’s footage was in turn aired by broadcast media throughout the world.

Famously, the regime cut off nearly all Internet service for the entire country Jan. 27th, in an effort to stem the tide of this “Internet revolution.” This effort failed spectacularly, damaging the Egyptian economy far more than it did the incipient revolution. This fact drew the attention of those positing a “social media revolution” to the significance of links between on-line and off-line activity, the important relationships between social media and the traditional mass media of television and newspapers, and the creativity of protesters who again and again turned obstacles into opportunities.

In the aftermath of the uprisings, digital media’s roles in the new Egypt became less clear. Several efforts were made to recapture the “spirit of Tahrir” through social media web sites, most of which foundered from lack of participation. Other experiments sought to link social media to civil society such as the “Tweetnadwa” (Peterson 2012, Srinivasan 2013). Social media has continued to be an effective site for disseminating criticism of the government, and communicating with mainstream media. It is also a site where particular forms of critique can be “tried out”—an immensely popular series of web videos launched a successful television career for political humorist Bassem Youssef, while others, like the political humor series by actress Mona Hala, failed to gain traction.

But social media is a double-edged sword. During the Mubarak regime, security forces used technology provided by international contractors such as the Boeing subsidiary Narus to monitor and record internet traffic including e-mail, online chats, text messages, and even website visits. Its ability for geographic tracking reportedly enabled the arrest of activist Wael Ghoneim 27 Jan. This surveillance technology remains in the hands of the military, security forces and the new government, and continues to be used to monitor, detain and arrest prominent social media dissidents. Simultaneously, social media also became less and less dominated by protesters as mainstream institutions and political leaders created Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and web sites as ways to reach out to their own publics, and to independent media at home and abroad.

Far from being a clear-cut case for new media serving as a liberating force for democracy, the Egyptian case emphasizes how complex are human media practices, how broad, shifting and multilayered the networks they create, and how unpredictable and creative such practices can be.

Please feel free to share your comments on anything I’ve left out.

Sorry, you’ll have to read the actual chapter appears if you want to read the references.

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