Egypt: The First Internet Revolt?

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 Egypt: The First Internet Revolt?                                                 BY XIAOLIN ZHUO, BARRY WELLMAN, AND JUSTINE YU1

               The Egyptian Revolt2 was both the old story and a new story
“What brought Hosni Mubarak                                The ways in which the revolt played         lowed, de-emphasizing individual path-
down was not Facebook and it                             out more subtly suggest that, much like       ologies and showing that some degree of
was not Twitter. It was a million                        Western societies, parts of Egyptian so-      formal organization and informal net-
                                                         ciety are transforming away from tradi-       works is necessary to mobilize commu-
people in the streets, ready to die                      tional groups and towards more loosely        nities of protest and structure social
for what they believed in,” New                          structured “networked individualism.”4        movements. This became the new or-
York Times columnist Thomas                              There is less group control—and more          thodoxy, known to all scholars and

Friedman recently proclaimed.3                           autonomy—in networked societies. In           thoughtful policymakers.7
                                                         Egypt, we see the same manifestation of
          riedman appears to have had an                 the “triple revolution” that has hap-         SOCIAL MEDIA JOINS SOCIAL
          either/or dichotomy in mind                    pened in Western societies:                   MOVEMENTS
          when assessing the Egyptian                    1) the turn to social networks,                 Recent scholars have incorporated the
          revolt that started in January                 2) the proliferation of the far-flung,        role of information and communication
2011. That’s an oversimplification, ig-                     instantaneous internet,                    technologies (ICTs) into the studies of
noring not only the lack of opposition                   3) the even wider proliferation of            collective action. For example, the in-
from the elites, military, and US gov-                      always-available mobile phones.            ternet has served as an important chan-
ernment, but also the role of social                                                                   nel for American political mobilization,
media and the organized groups and in-                   TRADITIONAL THEORIES OF SOCIAL                in conjunction with face-to-face inter-
formal networks that brought people to                   MOVEMENTS                                     action and organizational membership.
the streets. It’s clear that social media                  When the oldest author of this arti-        The internet, personal networks, and
such as Facebook played important                        cle—Wellman—grew up in the 1950s              organizational networks account for
roles in transforming organized groups                   and 1960s, Americans were taught that         mobilizing many participants.8 Writing
and informal networks, establishing ex-                  Third World rioters were rootless indi-       before the Egyptian revolt, Philip
ternal linkages, developing a sense of                   viduals who had lost traditional norms        Howard’s research in Islamic countries
modernity and community, and draw-                       and were vulnerable to following politi-      found that the internet helped to main-
ing global attention. Their impact sug-                  cal agitators. Daniel Lerner’s 1958 The       tain strong and weak network ties for
gests that those concerned with the                      Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing   political mobilization, and was more re-
quest for democracy and peace should                     the Middle East and James C. Davies’s         sistant to state control than the tradi-
pay more attention to the explicit and                   “Towards a Theory of Revolution” were         tional media of TV, radio, and newspa-
implicit effects of these social media.                  canonical statements of this outlook.5 It     pers. Moreover, social media’s swiftness
                                                         took only a little systematic scholarship     and international reach can help ampli-
                                                         to show that Third Worlders—like              fy local conflicts to a global level.9
                                                         Westerners—were immersed in impor-              The interaction of organized groups,
                                                         tant social networks and organizations        networks, and social media was crystal-
                                                         that shaped and sustained their social        lized in the Egyptian revolt. Of course,
                                                         movements. Charles Tilly’s 1964 study         Friedman is right: it wasn’t just the in-
                                                         of the French counter-revolution in The       ternet (and mobile phones), but at the
                                                         Vendée awakened scholarly awareness of        same time, Friedman is wrong to down-
                                                         this and became widely known when the         play their importance. And he is wrong
                                                         1969 Kerner Commission Report on              to use the image of “millions of
                                                         American inner-city riots of 1968 pub-        Egyptians” presumably disconnected.
Protesters recharging their mobile phones in
                                                         lished Tilly’s “Collective Violence in        The protesters were very connected in
Tahrir Square during the revolt, January, 2011.          European Perspective.” 6 Other re-            groups and networks. Although we
             Source: Karim Marold, used by permission.   search by Tilly and others soon fol-          focus on Egypt, what we have found ap-

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pears to have happened in Tunisia and in      early as 2005. 12 The young ac-
Libya—albeit with a quite different out-      tivists employed mobile phones,
come. Much of the Egyptians’ social           digital cameras, and the internet to
media connectivity was via texting or ac-     extend their anti-autocracy move-
cessing the internet on mobile phones         ment to the blogosphere.13 After a
rather than via personal computers.           strike in the Nile Delta city of
Their mobile access to Twitter and            Mahalla in March 2008, Maher
Facebook was particularly precious            and others created the “April 6
when the regime blocked access from           Youth Movement” as a Facebook
personal computers. For example, Yara         group to promote a national strike
Adel El Siwi (@YaraElSiwi) tweeted on         on that date. Although security
January 26, 2011: “You who have Twitter       forces suppressed the event and ar-
and Facebook workin on ur phone, use ‘em to   rested Maher, the Facebook group
spread words of hope. We won’t let this end   continued to be widely followed.14 A protester holding a sign during the protests at Tahrir
here #jan25 was just the start.” These mo-    Following the success of the Square on May 27, 2011.
bile phones could easily be carried and       Tunisian uprising in January 2011,                            Source: Zeynep Tufekci, Technosociology,
concealed, and by tapping into street-        representatives from the youth        Used by permission.
lights, recharged.                            movements, the youth wing of the range of people broader than the kin-
  One survey found that 29% of Egypt-         Muslim Brotherhood, and other politi- ship and friendship networks. For ex-
ian adults had some internet access,          cal activists and parties cooperatively ample, Amr Bassiouny, a young activist
mostly at home, although dispropor-           plotted the nonviolent anti-Mubarak in Cairo, wrote on his Twitter feed on
tionate surveying of affluent neighbor-       protests. They announced the protest May 26: “Starting points for tomorrow’s
hoods may overstate the percentage.10         sites online and used Facebook to mobi- Rallies! All Head to Tahrir! http://on.
And if people did not have their own in-      lize the demonstrations.15 Social media SPREAD SPREAD SPREAD RT
ternet connection, it is probable that        offered affordable access to social move- PLZ #Egypt #jan25 #tahrir” (The link
among urban Cairo men, they had               ments by reducing the costs of mobiliza- refers to an Arabic Facebook page to
friends and relatives who did.                tion and organization and accelerating promote the protests on May 27, 2011).
                                              the dissemination of information.           This tweet was broadcast directly to his
ORGANIZED GROUPS                                                                          more than 3000 followers and indirectly
  The movement towards the Egyptian           INFORMAL NETWORKS                           to a larger audience when 26 of his follow-
revolt did not happen overnight; rather,        Informal networks of friends and rela- ers forwarded it to their own followers.
it came after years of preparation both       tives have also been important in initial-
offline and online. A number of political     izing and sustaining social movements. EXTERNAL LINKAGES
organizations have been set up against        One survey reports that word of mouth         The Egyptians did not act in isolation.
the Mubarak regime. The Muslim                from family and friends was widely used Just as Western contacts encouraged the
Brotherhood—the underground politi-           (by 72% of Egyptians) to get informa- Russian move to democracy in the
cal opposition organization founded in        tion about “the events of January 25,” 1980s-1990s,17 Egyptian activists used
Egypt in 1928—played a role in fighting       with only television (97%) being used social media to form linkages with kin-
the riot police during the protests that      more widely. The importance of mobile dred networks and organizations else-
soon ousted then-president Mubarak.           phones in Egyptian life is seen with SMS where and took these connections off
Afterwards, the now legal Brotherhood         (texting) being the third most widely re- line. A few months after the founding of
has been distributing daily necessities       lied on for information (28%). Internet the April 6 Youth Movement in 2008, a
and medicines and participating in the        sources were less widely used: Facebook group of young online Tunisian activists
upcoming election.11                          (15%), internet news sites (13%), email set up the Progressive Youth of Tunisia
  Social media came more directly into        (2%), and Twitter (1%). Moreover, the following a strike in Tunisia. Facebook
play with The April 6 Youth Movement,         social media percentages may be high became the channel of communication
a more recently established political         due to disproportionate sampling.16         between the two groups in two coun-
group that contributed to the Egyptian          But, this doesn’t mean that Friedman tries. “We shared our experience with
revolt. For example, Ahmed Maher—a            was right in scoffing at the internet. strikes and blogging,” said Maher, the
30-year-old civil engineer and one of         Once we get past either/or thinking, we leader of the April 6 Youth Movement.18
the cofounders of the April 6 group—          find that social media has expanded the       The Egyptian activists also communi-
had engaged in political movements as         traditional word of mouth to inform a cated via the internet and in person with

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                                                                                                                        tise, spread hopes, and overcome the
                                                                                                                        fear that comes with living under the op-
                                                                                                                        pressive regime.25 When police officers
                                                                                                                        beat to death Khaled Said, a 28-year-old
                                                                                                                        Egyptian businessman, in June 2010,
                                                                                                                        cries of police brutality and public out-
                                                                                                                        rage erupted online, especially after
                                                                                                                        someone created a Facebook page called
                                                                                                                        “We Are All Khaled Said.” Several peo-
                                                                                                                        ple, who apparently did not initially
                                                                                                                        know each other,26 posted photos taken
                                                                                                                        from a mobile phone of Said’s beaten
Self-organized checkpoint on the Qasr Al-Nil bridge area to Tahrir Square on May 27.
                                                                                                                        face and created YouTube videos depict-
                      Source: Zeynep Tufekci, Technosociology, Used by permission.   ing Said as a happy individual prior to
                                                                                                                        his death. This Facebook group later
the Centre for Applied Nonviolent                         Square revolutionary holding a sign say-                      helped to promote the anti-Mubarak
Action and Strategies (CANVAS): an                        ing “Facebook” for both local and                             demonstrations. As of June 2011, it has
offshoot of the Serbian youth move-                       Western media to see,23 and months                            more than 1.3 million supporters on its
ment, Otpor (“Resistance”) that had                       after the revolt, Facebook T-shirts in                        Arabic page (and more than 100,000 on
participated in overthrowing the                          English and Arabic are widely sold by                         its English page), widely disseminating
Slobodan Milosevic regime in 2000.                        Egyptian street vendors quick to re-                          updates about the revolts in Egypt and
Members of the April 6 Youth Move-                        spond to popular trends.                                      the Middle East-North Africa region.
ment had traveled to Belgrade to learn                      Social media also helped to establish                         Communities are also strengthened by
how to organize peaceful protests, and                    an alternative public sphere where                            spreading news, hope, and help on
Serbian activists had reciprocally trav-                  young Egyptians could bypass the state                        Twitter. Thus Farah Wael, an Egyptian
eled to Egypt to train protest organiz-                   control of information and discuss poli-                      living in Paris, wrote on Twitter on
ers. While protesting, organizers lever-                  tics and democracy. For example, Karim                        January 26: “In case of arrest call those
aged their networks and resources, and                    Marold (@karimmarold), a young ac-                            numbers for legal help : 0123112420
received practical advice from experi-                    tivist in Egypt, tweeted on February 21,                      0106574724 0122222672 25310027
enced activists in Tunisia and Serbia,                    2011, “The parliament should be able to re-                   Retweet please #25jan #jan25.” This mes-
such as sniffing lemons, onions, and                      move a president and not be removed by one.                   sage was been retweeted by 65 others to
vinegar for relief from tear gas.19                       The president should not be able to change                    offer legal help for more people.
                                                          the constitution at all. Governors and may-
SENSE OF MODERNITY                                        ors should be elected by the people in each cir-              GLOBAL ATTENTION
  In addition to being involved with or-                  cle instead of them being assigned by the                       Wael’s tweet shows how social media
ganizational and social network activity,                 president.” On May 27, 2011, youth ac-                        outside of Egypt played a significant
social media distinctively contributed to                 tivists again mobilized tens of thousands                     role in the revolt. Egyptians, other
the revolt by stimulating the growth of a                 of people and self-organized a festive,                       Arabs and those living abroad were in-
sense of modernity. Although only 24                      peaceful protest at Tahrir Square, de-                        volved. The realities of dictatorships are
percent of Egyptians used the internet                    manding “respect for law, constitution,                       often underreported in countries with
in 201020, this percentage was not ran-                   and an end to the military tribunals of                       state controlled mass media and re-
domly distributed. The internet users                     dubious legality and transparency.”24                         strained freedom of speech. While local
were predominantly the young adult                                                                                      media dare not report, foreign media
Cairo men who were at the heart of the                    SENSE OF COMMUNITY                                            are often not interested. Karim
revolt. The young activists recalled that                   In a repressive society, there are dan-                     Marold’s tweet, on January 27, 2011, il-
social media was naturally integrated                     gers that each person fearfully thinks                        lustrates the local underreporting of the
into their movement. 21 They pro-                         that he or she stands alone. Social media                     Egyptian revolt before Mubarak’s over-
nounced themselves as “the Facebook                       helped to build a sense of community                          throw: “boycott: do nt buy the national
generation,” signifying that they were                    and minimize this feeling of isolation.                       newspapers for the nxt 3 days, since they r nt
no longer the non-modern Egyptians of                     Social media became platforms where                           covering the whole truth (al ahram, al
the past.22 A widely distributed picture                  discontented Egyptians could voice                            akhbar, al gomhooria)”.
during the revolt showed a Tahrir                         their frustrations, share relevant exper-                      However, social media enabled citizen

                                                                                   JUL/SEP 2011


journalists to circumvent the monopoly       would have worsened the
of state media, resist state censorship,     economic paralysis and re-
broadcast personal experiences world-        sulted in more losses for the
wide, and access alternative news            business elites and the gov-
sources. In addition to writing in Arabic,   ernment officials associated
many used English to reach audiences         with them. The elites thus
outside the Arab world. The English in       took the side of the protest-
the signs we show in this article illus-     ers to pressure then-Pres-
trates this prevalent use. Many protest-     ident Mubarak to resign,
ers wrote in English on Facebook and         and the Egyptian military
Twitter, and held up signs in English        decisively did not inter-
during protests. For example, Karim          vene violently in the
Marold sometimes summarized and              protests.28 Moreover, the
tweeted reports from CBC News and            US government an- “Facebook”2011 Egyptian revolt.
                                                                            day of the
                                                                                         printed t-shirts commemorating January 25, the first
sometimes broadcast news on his own.         nounced its support of the             Source: Zeynep Tufekci, http:/ Used by permission.
On May 27, 2011, he tweeted from his         protesters. As the US has
BlackBerry at the site of the Cairo          been providing sizeable funds to the mobile phone networks.30
protests, “Rally going to #tahrir from       Egyptian military, the military followed             The integration of social media into
mostafa mahmoud [square] #May27              the money, did not overtly oppose the              social movements illustrates the turn to-
#Egypt,” and attached a photo of the         revolt, and maneuvered to remain in wards networked individualism among
rally to his tweet.                          power after the downfall of Mubarak.29             the young urban men. The Egyptians in
  People outside Egypt followed the re-                                                         Tahrir Square do not appear to be the
volt and communicated with insurgents        CONCLUSION                                         traditional members of densely knit, self
inside to collect stories. An analysis of      The success of the revolt should be isolated villages and neighbourhoods.
more than 3 million tweets containing        credited to Egyptian people, but the im- Rather, the young men were able to use
six popular hashtag codes relevant to the    pact of social media is undeniable. Social social media and mobile technologies to
Arab revolts, such as #egypt and #sidi-      media played an important role in the access large and diversified networks,
bouzid (Tunisia), found that the major       mobilization and organization of the reach beyond physical and social
spikes in usage were driven by tweeters      Egyptian revolt. It intertwined with the boundaries, and exploit more resources
living outside of the Middle East,27 al-     development of formal organizations, to potentially bring about social change.
though our study of some tweeters sug-       informal networks, and external link-                As we write in early June, 2011, the fu-
gests that they were expatriates. Inter-     ages, provoking a growing sense of ture of Egypt is unclear. Will the revolt
net-connected Egyptians were aware of        modernity and community, and global- become a revolution? Will the “Arab
this global attention and, thus, strategi-   izing support for the revolt. However, Spring” produce blossoms and fruits?
cally voiced their concerns.                 the impact of social media should not be We are unsure of how the Egyptian re-
                                             overestimated. According to the afore- volt might develop. The military still
ELITE ACQUIESCENCE                           mentioned Williams survey, only about rules, at least until the forthcoming
  Although presence is generally more        one-fifth of Egyptians acquired news September 2011 election, and they
noticeable than absence, the lack of         and information through social seem uneasy about the turn to democra-
overt opposition from Egyptian elites        media—and this may well be an overes- cy. Although none have been arrested
and the military to the revolt is as im-     timate. Yet, these Egyptians had friends, yet, the Egyptian military has called in
portant as the activities discussed above.   relatives, and friends of friends, and the for questioning the activist bloggers
Unlike in Libya, the tanks sat quietly in    news spread quickly via mobile phone who have been an important part of the
Tahrir Square without shooting; the air      texting, old-fashioned phoning, and revolt.31 As journalist Mona Eltahawy
force did not strafe or bomb. As Michael     even more old-fashioned face-to-face has noted, “We got rid of Mubarak, but
Schwartz argued in the April 2011 issue      conversations. Strong ties convinced with the generals in power, we have
of this magazine, the mass protests          friends and family to join the demon- many little Mubaraks.”32
threatened the Egyptian economy by           stration; the more abundant and diverse Barry Wellman is a professor, Dept. of
disrupting core industries such as           weak ties bridged communities and Sociology, University of Toronto. Justine
tourism, communication, and trans-           spread the news widely even in the face Yu is a recent graduate and Xiaolin Zhuo
portation. The options of either a mili-     of government manipulation of mass is a current BA student.
tary repression or outwaiting the revolt     media and shutdown of the internet and See page 10 (overleaf) for endnotes.

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“Egypt: The First Internet Revolt?” cont. from page 9              April 14–April 27, 2011.” Washington: International     02/14/world/middleeast/14egypt-tunisia-
                                                                   Republican Institute.      protests.html
1 We thank Bernie Hogan, Katy Pearce, Lee Rainie, Yu Owen          center/news/iri-releases-egypt-poll                              20 Arab Social Media Report 1, 1. Dubai: January 2011.
Song, and Zeynep Tufekci for their advice. We dedicate this        11 Worth, Robert. F. 2011. “Egypt’s Next Crisis.” New York       21 Tufekci, Zeynep. 2011. Email “Tunisia/Egypt preliminary
essay to the memory of Charles Tilly.                              Times Magazine, May 27,          thoughts.” March 14.
2 We conservatively call what happened in Egypt the                29/magazine/egypts-next-crisis.html                              22 Eltahawy, Mona. 2010. “Generation Facebook Creating
“Egyptian Revolt” because as of our writing in June 2011, the      12 Kirkpatrick, David D. and David E. Sanger. 2011. “A           Egyptians’ Political Party of the internet.” Aspen Institute.
alternative terms – “Arab Spring” and “Egyptian Revolution”        Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History.” New York
– we do not assume that the events were a fundamental change       Times, February 13, 2011/02/14/          society/programs-topic/journalism/arab-us-media-forum/dead-
in Egyptian society: elections are imminent, but the military      world/middleeast/14egypt-tunisia-protests.html                   sea-scrolling/generation-
and other elites retain much power.                                13 Azimi, Negar. 2005. “Egypt’s Youth Have Had Enough.”          23
3 Friedman, Thomas. 2011. “Commencement Remarks.”                  Open Democracy, August 31,         TWEET.jpg
Tulane University, May 12,       democracy-protest/enough_2794.jsp                                24 Tufekci, Zeynep. 2011. “The Revolution Will be Self-
thomas-friedman.cfm                                                14 Kirkpatrick, David D. and David E. Sanger. 2011. “A           Organized, Tahrir, #May27 (part1).” Technosociology, May 30.
4 Rainie, Lee and Barry Wellman. 2012. Networked: The New          Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History.” New York
Social Operating System. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.                 Times,            25 Ghonim, Wael. 2011. “Inside the Egyptian Revolution.”
5 Lerner, Daniel. 1964. The Passing of Traditional Society:        east/14egypt-tunisia-protests.html                               TED Conference, Cairo, Egypt, March.
Modernizing the Middle East. Free Press; Davies, James C. 1962.    15 Levinson, Charles and Margaret Coker. 2011. “The Secret       talks/wael_ghonim_inside_the_egyptian_revolution.html
“Toward a Theory of Revolution”, American Sociological             Rally That Sparked an Uprising.” Wall Street Journal, February   26 Sutter, John. 2011. “The faces of Egypt’s “Revolution 2.0.”
Review, 27(1), February, 5-19.                                     11,      SB100014240527       CNN, February 21,
6 Tilly, Charles. The Vendée: A Sociological Analysis of the       48704132204576135882356532702.html                               tion/02/21/egypt.internet.revolution/index.html
Counter-Revolution of 1793. Cambridge, MA: Harvard                 16 Williams and Associates, “Egyptian Public Opinion Survey      27 Freelon, Deen. 2011. “The MENA Protests on Twitter:
University Press, 1964; Tilly, Charles. “Collective Violence in    April 14-April 27, 2011.” Washington: International              Some Empirical Data.”, May 19,
European Perspective.” In Violence in America, edited by Hugh      Republican Institute. 2011/05/19/the-mena-protests-on-twitter-
Graham and Tedd Gurr, 4-45. Washington: U.S. Government            center/news/iri-releases-egypt-poll; see also Borkan, Brett.     some-empirical-data/
Printing Office, 1969.                                             2011. “TV, Not Internet, Main Source of Information for          28 Schwartz, Michael. 2011. Why Mubarak Fell: The (Some-
7 Tarrow, Sidney. 2011. Power in Movement: Social Movements        Egyptians During Jan 25 Protests, Says Poll.” Cairo: Daily       times) Incredible Power of Nonviolent Protest. Peace Magazine,
and Contentious Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University          News Egypt, June 7, 2011.      27(2), April-June. post/175355/
Press; McAdam, Doug, Tarrow, Sidney, and Tilly, Charles.           ple/tv-not-internet-main-source-of-information-for-egyp-         tomgram:_michael_schwartz,_weapons_of_mass_disruption/
2001. Dynamics of Contention. Cambridge: Cambridge                 tians-during-jan-25-protests-says-poll.html. We repeat our       29 Wong, Marian / ProPublica. 2011. “Where does the U.S.
University Press.                                                  cautions about the accuracy of this survey.                      money to Egypt go—and who decides how it’s spent?” Seattle
8 Fisher, Dana R and Marije Boekkooi. 2010. “Mobilizing            17 Spencer, Metta. 2010. The Russian Quest for Peace and         PostGlobe.
friends and strangers: Understanding the role of the internet      Democracy. Lanham, MD: Lexington.                                the-us-money-to-egypt-goand-who-decides-how-its-spent
in the Step It Up day of action.” Information, Communication &     18 Kirkpatrick, David E. and David E. Sanger. 2011. “A           30 Tufekci, Zeynep. 2011. “Agents of Change.” Presented to the
Society, 13(2), March, 193-208; Hampton, Keith. 2011.              Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History.” New York        Personal Democracy Forum, New York, June. Keith Hampton
“Comparing Bonding and Bridging Ties for Democratic                Times, February 13,           (2011) has just shown similar dynamics in American society. See
Engagement: Everyday Use of Communication Technologies             world/middleeast/14egypt-tunisia-protests.html                   his “Comparing Bonding and Bridging Ties for Democratic En-
within Social Network for Civic and Civil Behaviors.”              19 Stojanovic, Dusan. 2011. “Serbian Ousters of Milosevic        gagement.” Information, Communication & Society, 14(4), 510-28.
Information, Communication & Society, 14(4), 510-28.               Make Mark in Egypt.” Newsvine. February 22. http://www           31 Tufekci, Zeynep. 2011. “Military has been calling prominent
9 Howard, Philip. 2010. The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and    .newsvine. com/_news/2011/02/22/6104771-serbian-ousters-         bloggers for ‘questioning’ – so far, they haven’t been arresting
Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam. New York:   of-milosevic-make-mark-in-egypt; Kirkpatrick, David and          them. Still, worrisome.” Tweet by @techsoc. June 2.
Oxford University Press.                                           David Sanger. 2011. “A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook         32 Eltahawy, Mona. 2011. “Rewriting the Narrative of the
10 Williams and Associates, “Egyptian Public Opinion Survey        Arab History.” New York Times. February 13. http://www           Middle East.” Luminato Festival, Toronto, June 12.

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