(2/3) 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.


Part 1: Click here

Media, the Old and the New, and its Impact in Different Spheres

 

The call was through Facebook and was taken from there to every corner in Egypt. There was high and strong escalation on Facebook before the day of the Strike. Reporting every single moment happened on that day through a cooperation between the 6th of April Facebook group and Blog. Upon her arrest, a self-titled Free Israa group spontaneously emerged on Facebook, where she was considered a heroine, by the dozens of thousands who joined in. “This proved once again how powerful these online youth really are,” said Ghoneim.


People’s Assembly Speaker Fathi Sorour was quoted in Al-Ahram, the most important official Newspaper in Egypt and by far a governmental/ official one, saying: “The 6 April strike was aimed at undermining stability and security to achieve doubtful aims”. Official papers were unanimous in their criticism of the supposed misuse of the Internet. Indeed, Mohamed Ali Ibrahim, editor-in-chief of the daily official Al-Gomhuriya called upon readers to “boycott Youtube and Facebook websites”. The weekly magazine Rose El-Youssef launched a harsh critique against the Facebook, “Facebook is a secret room aimed at ruining Egypt” ran the headline of the file. “Members of the website are searching for gossip,” the paper reported. Political commentator El-Sayed Yassin was the first to attack the bloggers, accusing them of altering the truth and tarnishing Egypt’s reputation abroad. “Foreign embassies follow up on these blogs and groups and report back to their countries,” said Yassin. Most, if not all, of the bloggers’ posts distort and misrepresent reality. “They send the wrong information about Egypt to the world,” he claimed. Councilor Murad Hassan went further, insisting they deliberately manipulated facts, circulated fabricated pictures, and magnified individual incidents to mislead public opinion. “In addition, the kind of language they use to express their opinions is unsuitable and strange to our society,” Hassan told Al-Ahram Weekly.


What really tarnish Egypt’s reputation, pointed out writer Sakina Fouad, are the “lack of transparency, corruption, as well as a lack of information which these groups and blogs are trying to expose”. The 6 April strike, said Harb, showed that virtual activism is beginning to have a grassroots impact. And the fact that the regime felt it necessary to arrest 27-year-old Israa Abdel-Fattah for starting a Facebook group, he argued, “is a clear proof of the threat that the regime feels… the Internet is the new battleground between those who want to speak out and those who would stop them”. Whatever the ideological leanings of bloggers, said Bahieddin Hassan, head of the Cairo Centre for Human Rights Studies, they have one thing in common: “They are all rejected by the authorities, regardless of their political, social or religious views, on the grounds that what they do is a crime.“ And, with his magical touch as always, veteran writer Mohamed Hassanein Heikal was quoted in Al-Masry Al-Yom as saying: “The Egyptian press is experiencing a crisis, and this is attributed to the general atmosphere in Egypt which is reflected on the media scene in general.”

 

Is it Really Effective?


A Controversial Debate


In the aftermath of the 6th of April the question of how effective is Facebook as political and social tool for the change in Egypt becomes very debatable in the different intellectuals circles. Many see Facebook as the new hammer of hope that the struggle will use it to dig the tunnel of change in Egypt.

 

After an interview, with Dr. Mona El-Tahawy, a specialist on the New Media, a very positive vision for the future of political activism through the New Media, particularly Facebook, could be concluded. El-Tahawy believes that some political activists, especially young ones in their 20s, have managed to use Facebook to organize in ways unavailable to them in the “real” world. Some activities have been successful such as setting up the April 6 Movement, launching groups to combat sexual harassment and to raise awareness among young people, and most recently I just came across a Facebook group called “The Egyptian Candle Against Sectarianism Initiative”. It will organize a demonstration outside the Journalists Syndicate.

 

New Media is one of the few reasons that I remain optimistic about Egypt, speaks El-Tahawy, “a country where the majority of the population is under the age of 30 and where many of those young people who have Internet access are on Facebook. When I have taught classes here in the U.S. on New Media in the Arab World, my students have always been impressed at how Egyptians especially use Facebook in such a political way. Some, of course, use Facebook in the way other young people across the world do – to just connect with friends and post photos from parties – but Egyptians have embraced their ability to voice their opinion on Facebook more than the average young Americans have”.

 

In conclusion, El-Tahawy believes that young people in Egypt especially are learning to experiment with the voices and views through Facebook. Of course it is not available to everyone but views encountered online can be shared with friends’ offline and the circle of influence can widen.

 

However, the above mentioned leads us to ask with Salonaz Sami from Alhram Weekly, does what happen on Facebook remains there? Actually this could be very debatable. From my experience as an Egyptian who lives there and belong to the upper middle class, most of them have Internet access, I would say no. It does not stay there. Particularly after Facebook has succeeded to socialize politics or politicize the Internet. The call for the 6th of April, definitely, did not stay there. The night before the strike I was in Alexandria. All the people I met were speaking about the public strike; from the taxi drivers to the beggars in the streets, from my friends who do not care for politics and do not even want to hear something about to the political and social activists. In this night it did not matter which class or political party you belong to. Fear, cautious, tensions and irritations were seen, felt and even smelled in every corner. Describing the whole atmosphere before the strike and after the strike I would say that it was a night of tension, a morning of fear and cautious and the evening of taking breaths. This does not argue that everything in virtual reality moves to the reality. This mainly argues that it depends on the cause and its importance and engagement with the needs, aims or even fears and the people interests in the reality.

 

Mahinour El-Masari argues that under an undemocratic and tyrant regime in Egypt which suppresses any movement in general and any kind of political dissent and by the emergency law still in force, it is easy to put people in jail for lame evidences. This is the thing that makes activists prefer mobilizing others through social networks, as it is easy to escape from the supervision of the regime, especially that it is still primitive in the technology field. It also gives a wider range of people. The Facebook group calling for the 6 of April 2007 public strike reached over 70,000 members, while at the sometime Kefaya Movement, the largest opposition group by this time, didn’t exceed 4000 activists.

 

Chris Van Buren in his Famous article “Egypt and the Facebook Revolution” says “Egypt, long stalled corrupt secularism and Islamic fundamentalism, may find its political situation radically altered by the rise of  Facebook literate citizens, ready to blog, question and organize for their causes”. Nora Younis, in an interview done by Sami Ben Gharbia and posted on the Global Voices Advocacy said: “Internet was the main tool in mobilizing for the 6 April strike. It’s true a tiny fringe of Egyptians have access to Facebook but the 70,000+ members of the group acted as strike advocates in the society and took the debate from PC screens to taxis, workplaces, dinner tables and breadlines”. However, Nora also pointed out that we should not forget that what gave April 6 its weight was the labor movement uprising and their struggle for a dignified minimum wage. She also added that Internet alone, without the popular base, wouldn’t have led to the successful strike we witnessed April 6. Blogger Hossam El-Hamalawy criticizes the exaggeration of the influence and power of the virtual reality on reality saying:

 

“We, the Egyptian bloggers, have always prided ourselves on the fact that we have one foot on the ground and the other in the cyberspace… But this time, it seems some have thrown both their feet as well as brains in the cyberspace and are living some virtual reality, mistakenly believing (helped by the media sensationalist coverage of the “Facebook activism“) that they are the ones behind the events in Mahalla…”

 

Ismail Alexandrani, an E-journalist and Human Rights activist, told me once in an interview through the Internet that the influence of the Internet, particularly, social networks like Facebook, are very limited because of the wide spread of literacy reading and writing, as well as computer and Internet literacy.

 

“Some of my fellow researchers in the project Social Movements at the American University in Cairo – who are also strong activists – believe that Facebook social networking give an illusion of self that one is a real activist and a large compensatory. In fact, Facebook activists often receive Facebook “piles” in the events they created attended by hundreds, then by default does not come to it in fact only a few dozens”.

 

“However, I can not deny that the Facebook played an important role in the mobilization of many causes as the 6th of April for example. But we should not forget that there were different factors which were more important like the traditional media, without which the mobilization through Facebook only was not going to be that successful”, he added.

 

As anyone who has caught the internet virus can attest, virtual activism may serve as a substitute –and not as a spur- to activism in the real world (Tarrow 1998: 193). In my point of view, I argue that Facebook could lead for strong revolutionary shifts in the political and social spheres in Egypt. If the political activists started to adopt techniques like establishing Rhizomes to oppose the regime, these could work simultaneously and parallel on different causes in different places. This no doubt can easily exhaust the authority if it tried to oppose it. Moreover, the authority will not be able to follow the velocity and dynamics of these Rhizomes. It is asymmetric technique which the authority structures, particularly the security system –regardless its power and harsh violence dealing with any political actions- are not going to be able to ban it or stop its efficiency. Trees hierarchy structures, whatever strong they are, can not defeat the structures of the Rhizomes – this by the facts, nature and order of things.

 

However, away from direct political activism, I argue that there is white revolution, which many are not aware of, in the spheres of social and development activism whose playground is Facebook. Different un-politicized organizations, associations, NGOs and youth initiatives are running a strong and influential work through Facebook. And as most of their activities are safe, non ideologist and interesting, they gained great popularity and a lot members not only on the virtual reality but on the real ground. Moreover, the facilities offered by Facebook allowed them to launch strong campaigns and promote their ideas and events without spending one Egyptian pound. They do all their advertisements, public relations and publicity through Facebook. Their work has nothing to do with a direct confrontation with the current regime, but they work on cultural and social issues which could lead for drastic changes in the collective cognitive maps. This awareness sooner or later will find its way to change, not only the political structure but the whole social, economic and cultural structures in Egypt. Dr. Mona El-Tahawy in an online interview with me said: I like to say that young people in Egypt are rebuilding civil society through new media. They are expressing themselves in unprecedented ways and across the political spectrum. They are also challenging authority of various kinds – political, religious and social. You see blogs and Facebook groups and Tweets by everyone from the Muslim Brotherhood to secular groups to gays and lesbians. However, the flow of arguments leads us to try to explore the impacts of the New Media on the security mentality, structure and system of the police-state in Egypt.

 

To be followed…

Part 3

 

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