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Urban Space, Virtual Space, and the Media In Egypt

November 2, 2015

Tahrir Virtual SpaceWhat is “the geography of urban uprising during the so-called Arab Spring” and, particularly, what is the relationship between its physical and virtual locations?

That’s the question two scholars of urban planning at Berkeley seek to answer in a paper published In the most recent edition of the journal Urban Studies.

The spatial metaphor apart, this is an interesting article in that it attempts to examine, and analyze,  the relationships between the social media that organize gatherings and communicate political messages, the practices of protest in urban space and the magnifying power of global and national media. the authors argue that the dynamic relations between these three institutions–social media, urban protests and national media–transforms what happens in (to?) all three.

In other words, the whole system becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

The paper doesn’t focus exclusively on Egypt–it’s a comparative look at Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. It ultimately concludes that while the rise of social media have greatly expanded–perhaps even transformed–the repertoire of social movements, any real understanding of how the protests achieved their results must examine

the cyclical and reciprocal relationship between social media, traditional media and the urban spaces in which the uprisings took place.

As an example of this cyclical and reciprocal relationship between social media, traditional media and urban space they look at riots in Egypt on 4 February 2012:

The day before, a major riot broke out in Port Said on the Suez Canal after the local soccer team beat a major visiting team from Cairo. More than 70 people, many of them fans of the Cairo team, were killed in the ensuing fights. A rumour quickly circulated that the attackers had been hired by a wealthy businessman from Port Said who was well connected to the former regime. Although no evidence of this was discovered, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) of the Muslim Brotherhood … posted the rumour on its Web site as if it were a fact. Propelled by the posting, violent demonstrations broke out in the streets of Cairo the following day and lasted several days (Kirkpatrick, 2012). This incident demonstrates how events in one urban space, covered by mainstream media and interpreted and disseminated by social media, may generate entirely new protests in other urban spaces. In fact, among the most important outcomes of the uprisings of the Arab Spring has not only been a convergence of roles between traditional and social media, but also the emergence of a new repertoire of mass movements in urban space.

They conclude:

Simply put, neither the regimes nor the traditional mainstream media would have paid attention to the protesters had they not forcefully taken over symbolic public spaces in these cities. Yet we also need to look at the new urban dynamics that resulted from complex social and political relations—where, for example, new social media has become a subversive apparatus in the articulation of politics and the reappropriation of urban space.

Here’s the abstract:

This article analyses the geography of urban uprising during the so-called Arab Spring, with a focus on the relationship between its virtual and physical dimensions. To enhance understanding of contemporary social movements, it pays particular attention to the interwoven relationship between the social media that now organise gatherings and communicate political messages, the practices of protest in urban space and the magnifying power of global and national media. Using case studies from Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, it analyses the spatial and temporal aspects of recent protests and suggests that the reciprocal interaction between social media, urban space and traditional media does not simply reproduce relations between these actors, but also transforms them incrementally.

References

AlSayyad, Nazar and Muna Guvenc. 2015. Virtual Uprisings: On the Interaction of New Social Media, Traditional Media Coverage and Urban Space during the ‘Arab Spring.’ Urban Studies 52(11): 2018-2034.

Kirkpatrick D. D. 2012. Protests over soccer match riot continue in Egypt, New York Times, 2 February www.nytimes.com/2012/02/05/world/middleeast/protests-over-soccer-match-riot-continuing-in-egypt.html

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