(1/3) Facebook and Political Mobilization in Egypt

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An Academic Paper by: Aly El-Raggal, February 2010

This paper was submitted to Professor Alvaro Sierra as an assignment of the Program of MA in Peace, Development, Security and International  Conflict Transformation Studies at the University of Innsbruck, Austria.

Introduction

 

What can not be done in reality, can be done in virtual reality. The New Media opens totally new horizons which were never there before. Now we can be the producers and consumers, at the same time, of a media done by us. It is no longer that we are going to consume information passively. It is everyone’s turn now to tell his or her word in the world of media and information. The information technology revolution, which is considered to be the third most important one in the human history after the industrial revolution, can empower anyone who can just have access to the Internet. However positive or negative impacts this will have on our lives, this technology is no doubt a strong tool for exercising power. Technology can easily turn to be our worst nightmare. But this has nothing to do with technology itself. Still there is –and will always be- a human factor beyond the screens. The scene we watch on the theater of life is played by people like us. And even if the show was done through robots, still we are the one who program them.


The New Media, Power and Information

You Create Your Own Media

In my point of view, I argue that knowledge is mainly based and created on/ through information. Power reproduces knowledge/ power and exports it to us. According to Foucault, power is knowledge which could only be understood and have a meaning through discourses. “Discourse is about the production of knowledge through language. Foucault argues that discourse construct the topic; it defines and produces the objects of our knowledge. It governs that a topic can be meaningfully talked about and reasoned about” (Margaret, Stephanie and others, 2003: p.72). In the spectrums of these lines of argumentation, I argue that through the new technology and our capability to produce our knowledge, power can never be centralized. The truth “either/ or” dichotomy will barely exists in our life. This New Media will allow power to emerge from the center and from everywhere, not like before, practiced from the top to bottom, as Max Weiber argued. “Politics in the “information age” is, in Castell`s view, either on the informational networks or it is irrelevant. That is, contemporary politics is necessarily media-centric since outside the media sphere there is only political marginality” (quoted from Frank Webster, 2001; p.7). But what the New Media allows, from my point of view, in the game is that media is not centralized anymore.

 

Facebook- Your Book

 

Facebook is not only a social network, but it is an information network too. It is one sort of the New Media. It is, in my point of view, a revolution in the New Media itself; a radical and total change, exactly as any dictionary could define revolution. Facebook changed the whole game. It changed its tools of production and consumption. It is totally a new interface and interaction. You can produce and consume all kind of media and information from writing your status informing about your mood, to articles, news, photos, images and videos. All in the same pot and can be done almost in the same time. Every one can be on Facebook, from business men, politicians to students, young people, peasants and labours. “And if it is on the news, you will find on Facebook, said Salama –a professor of social studies” (Salonaz Sami, 2008). Social networks, particularly Facebook, made a drastic change in our lives. Debord described the change done by the new technology by saying “all that was once directly lived has become mere representation” (Debord 1992: Thesis 1).


The New Media is, according to a lot of scholars, journalists and writers, playing a huge rule in different spheres; from the socio to the economic. Egypt is the second country in Africa having Facebook users. According to Harvard University’s Berkman Centre – which did a study on the Arabic blogosphere in 2009, Egypt has the highest number of blogs in the Arab world. Since two years now, the role of Facebook and the New Media is widely debatable in Egypt. In Egypt, where more than half the population is under 25 years old, “there is a thirst for new technology,” explained Ahmed Ghoneim, a Technical Director. “Facebook has provided these young people with a chance to escape the backward conditions they were born into, into their own virtual utopia, where anything is possible,” he added.


Facebook is up and growing, offering a lot more than just a political platform for activists. Users can choose to join different networks organized by city, school or workplace. It allows members to create groups that discuss everything, from politics, philosophy, and history to religion and spirituality. Egypt, also, is one of the best examples for the usage of the social networks like Facebook, and the new media tools like Twitter for political mobilization. This is because of reasons concerning the level of freedom in the country, the strength of the opposition powers, the type of the issues and its variety, and the target group from this kind of mobilization, thus had spoken Mahinour El-Maseri, a young political activist, in an online interview with me.


In 6 April 2008, Esra` Abed El-Fatah and other young people from different organizations and movements called for a public strike. This strike found a strong ground in Egypt, particularly, in the labors sectors. And it ended with one of the most violent incidents in Gazel El-Mahaila, a big industrial city for textile. Many people were wounded by the security forces and some of them were killed. (See different reports on http://6april08.blogspot.com/). The city turned to be a battlefield between the security forces and the masses. Different cities, like Alexandria where I was in its streets reporting for Alexnews website, were occupied by hundreds of security vehicles and thousands of soldiers. Different demonstrations were oppressed by violence. This is in addition to hundreds of political arrests in different cities.


This strike caught the attention to the possibility of using Facebook as strong tool for political mobilization. Some started to argue that the Egyptian political activists are politicizing the Internet. Facebook, points out Amr Elshobaki of Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic and Political Studies, is popular all over the world. Only in Egypt, he says, has it been so politicized. One reason being that while other countries have a variety of venues for socio-political expression, including political parties and NGOs, in Egypt this is not the case. “Young people have deserted a reality in which they knew they can change nothing and directed their efforts instead towards this virtual environment. If the state deprives them of even this form of expression, then they will look to release their anger elsewhere.” They may turn to violence” (Magada El-Ghitany, 2008).


However, in my point of view, I strongly believe that Facebook succeeded to socialize politics and to politicize the Internet. The 6th of April strike was, yes, mainly initiated by political activists, but the 75, 000 who joined the Facebook group were not all of them political activists. Thousands of people who did not go to their jobs at this day were not either. Facebook succeeded to bring ordinary people to the game by making the political issues socially debatable. Even the 6th of April Manifesto was almost calling for social things. People who were doing nothing except uploading photos on Facebook and who had not done any political or social activity before are now socially debating many political issues. “This is the so called “cute-cat theory of digital activism,” whereby average users, normally interested in uploading cute cat pictures, suddenly develops a political grievance against the censoring authority” (Chris Van Buren, 2009).


However, this strike has huge impacts on the political, social and media spheres till the moments. The role, also the media –the New and the Traditional- played was very critical one, through the different stages of the strike.

 

to be followed….

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