In early 2007, while still a student at the ANU, I received a call from my younger relative in Alexandria, Egypt. Her words: “Are you on Facebook?”
Little did I know, some four years later, social media tools like Facebook would help drive passionate anti-government protests in a country that had been struggling to suppress politicised social media and its outcome on the streets of Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square and other cities in Egypt.
On 6 June 2010, my neighbour in Egypt Khalid Saeed was brutally killed at the hands of police, a tragedy about which I had written last year entitled “Egypt’s Collusion course with History”. In the wake of his death, his symbolism as martyr for anti-government sentiment flourished with the creation of the “We are all Khalid Saeed” Facebook group page whose members grew into the hundreds of thousands. Saeed’s symbolism was powerful; like the Iranian shot dead, Saeed was Egypt’s Neda Agha Soltan.
The Saeed Facebook page became a lightning rod for petitions, grievances, flash protests and civil disobedience updates. While the protests were suppressed, the anger festered, and Egyptians increasingly became united in the view that the Hosni Mubarak regime must go. The inevitable ticking time bomb was now a number of months, rather than years. That explosion went off on 25 January 2011. What the protests organisers, and much of the world, did not foresee, that westwards, a young man in a small Tunisian town would self-immolate sparking an uprising that would galvanise Tunisians and herald the first so-called Twitter revolution.
The Egyptian authorities have been struggling to confront the tidal wave of a social media driven uprising. They were never geared to deal with a faceless, horizontal resistance. The decentralized protest movement has frustrated the security forces, the idea of top-down authority is taken out on the streets in which the security forces look for the same sort of structure in the protester movement. Indeed cyber activists have been arrested and tortured in the past, but with time, wills have hardened and wits sharpened, as the youth have come to realise that fear should no longer be a barrier and that freedom will come at a price.
To appreciate the impact of digital technologies on a developing country like Egypt, consider this: Whilst accompanying my uncle on his regular charity visits to the lower socio-economic areas of Alexandria in 2004, we entered a household where we were warmly greeted by a young mother of three. Despite her limited schooling, I was stunned at how much she knew about Australia. The answer lay in pirated satellite dishes that straddled the cracking rooftops of Egyptian cities, relaying stations from Al Jazeera to National Geographic into the living rooms.
Egyptians from cab drivers to barbers are aware of the world, but deteriorating economic conditions keep them occupied daily scraping a living under the Mubarak regime’s feared shadow. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and if an Egyptian could correctly name me Canberra as Australia’s capital, rather than Sydney, then Mubarak was in big trouble.
It would be a colossal error to suggest that Saeed and social media caused the present upheaval. Egypt’s mass uprising is the grand coalescence of 30 years of political, economic and social stagnation. On regular visits to Egypt, I was able to compare and contrast snapshots of its downward spiral. The gap between rich and poor ever widening, economic liberalisation programs bringing little benefits, rising unemployment rate, the doors to emigration shut as the West tightened its door in the post-911 climate and the Gulf Arab states sought to replace expatriates with their nationals. To exacerbate an already dire situation, corruption became so entrenched, that to remove corruption from Egypt would be like removing casinos from the State of Nevada. A parallel economy had evolved. Not merit but wasta (connection) became the key to opportunity. Young Egypt who have only known Mubarak all their lives were angry, but tech-savvy as well.
The traditional social space for a hyper-social society like Egypt’s was the coffeehouse, but over the past decade internet cafes grew as a rival. Some places physically merged the two, where you could smoke sheesha and surf the net. Six years ago, social networking sites like Friendster, Myspace and the aging mIRC were the popular choice. Whenever I asked the Egyptian male youth what they spent most doing on the internet, it was often job hunting and girl hunting. This of course is the Egypt that is experiencing 34 percent youth unemployment in a region where two-thirds of the population is under 24, and marriage is becoming ever more delayed.
You could certainly see the outcome of social networking sites on the streets, Western women (sometimes older) married to/or in a relationship with younger Egyptian men. Egypt’s thriving tourism industry was no longer the single bastion of cross-cultural unions. Nonetheless, this was of no consequence to the regime. An overt political dimension had not been taken up as yet.
In 2004, there was an estimated 250 social protests, most dealing with rising food prices. A watershed moment came when the movement Kafeya (Enough) burst onto the scene, in which they demanded that Mubarak had ruled long enough and it was time for him to go. It was an exciting prospect, but my observation was that it seemed limited to university students who were out of touch with Egypt’s masses. Social media had not fully matured to the level that could facilitate an effective form of civic activism.
This is not to overstate the impact of social media. Internet usage in Egypt is comparatively low, according to the World Bank, in 2008, Egypt’s internet usage stood at 16.6 percent. Yet given the majority of users are based in the gravity centres of Cairo and Alexandria, it would naturally be cause for concern to the authorities.