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Egypt: The First Internet Revolt?
PEACE MAGAZINE 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 F 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- JUL/SEP 2011 6 PEACE MAGAZINE 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 http://technosociology.org/?p=448. 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 fb.me/mgez1d 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 JUL/SEP 2011 7 PEACE MAGAZINE 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, http://technosociology.org/?p=448. 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 8 PEACE MAGAZINE 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:/twitpic.com/53ufr7. 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. JUL/SEP 2011 9 PEACE MAGAZINE “Egypt: The First Internet Revolt?” cont. from page 9 April 14–April 27, 2011.” Washington: International .nytimes.com/2011/ 02/14/world/middleeast/14egypt-tunisia- Republican Institute. http://www.iri.org/news-events-press- 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, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/ 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 http://www.aspeninstitute.org/policy-work/communications- – we do not assume that the events were a fundamental change Times, February 13, http://www.nytimes.com/ 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 http://i.huffpost.com/gen/244665/THANK-YOU-FACEBOOK- 3 Friedman, Thomas. 2011. “Commencement Remarks.” Open Democracy, August 31, http://www.opendemocracy.net/ TWEET.jpg Tulane University, May 12, http://tulane.edu/grads/speakers- 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 http://technosociology.org/?p=448 Social Operating System. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/14/world/middle 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. http://ted.com/- 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, http://online.wsj.com/article/ SB100014240527 CNN, February 21, http://www.cnn.com/2011/TECH/innova- 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.” DFreelon.org, May 19, European Perspective.” In Violence in America, edited by Hugh Republican Institute. http://www.iri.org/news-events-press- http://dfreelon.org/ 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. http://thedailynewsegypt.com/peo- 27(2), April-June. http://www.tomdispatch.com/ 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.http://seattlepostglobe.org/2011/02/01/where-does- 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, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/14/ (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. JUL/SEP 2011 10
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