Social networking, political action and its real impact in Egypt

Social networking, political action and its real impact in Egypt

A group of young people dubbed the 6 April Youth movement drew national and international media attention in 2008, when it used Facebook to organize what was called the first nationwide protest in Egypt. This was the first time social networking had been linked to political action in such a way in Egypt.

When the 6 April Youth took up the cause of a labor strike in the Nile delta town of Mahalla, Facebook was relatively novel in Egypt, with around 800,000 users. Within one week of its creation, the 6 April Facebook group had over 70,000 members: approximately 1 in 12 of the total Facebook users in Egypt. The movement, and particularly the simultaneous protests across the country caught the government completely by surprise.

As the development of ‘new media’ – Facebook, Twitter, and blogging – continues, the question arises of how real its impact is on politics and public opinion in Egypt. Was April 6 a fluke, successful only because the government didn’t see it coming? Or is new media significantly changing something in Egypt’s political scene? While by no means a primary factor in Egyptian politics, social networking and new media are substantially changing the dissemination of information and subsequently public opinion and politics in Egypt.

According to Mirette Mabrouk, the former publisher of The Daily Star Egypt – now The Daily News Egypt – the greatest impact of new media in Egypt is that “it has given rise, or has seen the reemergence, of a state of dissention and questioning,” which has not existed in Egypt for decades. This factors into what Egyptian politician Ayman Nour says is one of the most fundamental changes in Egyptian opposition politics since 2004: the movement of politics from political parties to the Internet, to taxi drivers, and to the Egyptian street.

According to a study released by the government-run Information and Decision Support Center in May 2008, blogging provides Egyptian youth “with a refuge where they [can] easily express themselves and their beliefs without restrictions.” The study also asserts that “from 2006 to 2008, a number of demonstrations and expressions of real political protest were associated in one way or another with cyber-protests on the Internet, tapping into the massive public mobilization of youth on political blogs.”

The study estimated that as of 2008 there were approximately 160,000 Egyptian blogs, which accounts for approximately one in four internet subscriptions in the country. The content of the blogs was broken down as follows: 30.7 percent covered a variety of topics, 18.9 percent were political, 15.5 percent personal, 14.4 percent business and culture, 7 percent religious, 4.8 percent social, and 4 percent focused on science and modern technology.

The study also showed a significant increase in blogging during major public events, such as around the 2005 presidential elections, suggesting a strong correlation between politics and blogging activity in Egypt. The question of which is cause and which is effect would likely be a chicken-and-egg conundrum, but the link between the two is clear: blogging and social networking in Egypt are inextricably linked with political and social events within the country in particular and the Arab world in general.

The impact of these forms of new media is not always direct. Blogs in particular reach a direct, and usually fairly small, audience. According to Mabrouk, what often happens is a blogger will write about a story which is then picked up by newspapers and from there is covered on satellite television – something more Egyptians have access to than the Internet. In this way, bloggers are facilitating a new flow of information.

A prime example of this was in 2005, when women were harassed on the streets of downtown Cairo during the Eid holiday. The government flatly denied any such incident had taken place, but the stories and images posted by bloggers prompted the traditional media to investigate further, and despite the government’s protestations, it was clear the incidents had actually taken place.

Traditional media in Egypt is still a main source of news for many Egyptians. The institution of al-Ahram cannot be ignored, says Mabrouk: “al-Ahram is in everyone’s home, every day.” Those who do not read al-Ahram likely read another of the major papers. In addition, only 25 percent of Egyptians, at best, have access to the Internet. Even so, the way in which people get their news has fundamentally changed. Satellite television is even more accessible than the Internet, and means the average Egyptian has access to media other than the major state-run or even independent papers.

The reach of new media is spreading: as of December, 2009, there were over 2,300,000 Facebook users in Egypt. That’s 184 percent growth over the previous twelve months. While Twitter has yet to become the rage in Egypt that it is elsewhere, it has become a popular means for Egyptian activists to alert their friends and followers of arrests and intimidation by security forces.

Twitter caused much hype last year during the Iranian elections. While Twitter was clearly important during the events in Iran, Mabrouk suggests that it was important “not in the way Iranians conduct business; it was important in the way the outside perceived what was happening in Iran.” Twitter allowed the outside to glimpse what was happening, but did not change the government’s reaction to protesters in Iran. The situation is perhaps different in Egypt: it is harder for the government to save face and deny arrests when detainees are tweeting from inside their cells.

Social networking and new media have become a part of Egypt’s political scene and have an ability to disseminate information and influence public opinion in a capacity more traditional media cannot. Yet the constraints of new media must be considered: while some journalists do blog, the vast majority of bloggers are not journalists. They may have the ability to cover stories which state-run or independent media in Egypt wouldn’t – or couldn’t – touch, but they also have no editor, no deadline, and no obligation to check the facts. As for Facebook, joining a group supporting ElBaradei may be the same as becoming a fan of Cairo Jazz Club for many users.

Even so, the ties to politics cannot be denied. ElBaradei’s main fan page has over 74,000 fans, slightly less than the 6 April Youth page. Facebook played an important role in the 6 April protests of 2008, and Facebook was the first platform of support for ElBaradei. Whether Facebook is the instigator or a reaction, the impact of social networking and new media in Egyptian politics is unlikely to abate any time soon.

 Republished with Permission from Bikya Masr