This is so much more than a ‘webolution’
Egyptian bloggers talk exclusively to spiked about why an uprising takes more than technology.
Can a regime be toppled in 140 characters or less?
You might get that impression from listening to all the commentators hailing the ‘Twitter uprising’ in Egypt. Indeed, over the past few weeks, many observers trying to fathom the unique historical moment unfolding in the Arab world have hesitated to use the word ‘revolution’ without prefixing it with the words ‘social media’.
So after the Tunisian people kicked out their moribund president of 23 years, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Al Jazeera’s Riz Khan asked Arab journalists and activists whether social media was driving reform in the Arab world. And when things had really kicked off in Egypt, CNN interviewed delegates at the World Economic Forum in Davos about whether ‘social media-led popular unrest’ is a trend that’s here to stay. Others claimed that the uprising against Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-long, freedom-quelling regime is the work of a ‘Facebook generation’ which, by virtue of being online, has managed to stay in touch, connected and streetwise (unlike the octogenarian Mubarak). And if we are to believe self-styled cyber-warrior Julian Assange, Wikileaks has played a key role in the protests in Egypt ‘by creating an attitude towards freedom of expression’.
In the face of a historical rupture, and with events unfolding at dizzying speed, some find this a comforting thought: Egyptians have long suffered in silence, experiencing increasing levels of poverty and denial of basic freedoms. Then along came the start-up saviours of Twitter, Facebook and the rest, and finally there was change Egyptians could believe in.
But this Facebook fetishism gets things the wrong way around. There is no such thing as a ‘social media-led revolution’. What’s happening in Egypt today is a people-led upheaval, and it was not inspired or sparked by some Web 2.0 gizmo. As Wael Abbas, an Egyptian blogger and human rights activist, told spiked: ‘We’ve been using social media for years, but the decision to take action now was taken by the people… It cannot be credited to the internet. What’s taking place on the streets today is completely the role of the Egyptian people. The internet is used as a tool only – to campaign, to spread information, to call people to protest.’ Abbas believes that the internet has facilitated political activism: ‘It has enabled people to communicate without using traditional means of communication that are controlled by the regime.’
Similarly, a young protester in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the Egyptian uprising, told a Swedish documentary film team that, ‘[T]his is not just a Facebook revolution or an internet revolution… Hundreds and thousands of people are on the streets even though the phone lines were shut… People still came out and demonstrated because this is not about the internet, this is about the needs and the demands of the Egyptian people.’
It seems blatantly obvious that the impressive feats accomplished in the streets of Tunis, Cairo and elsewhere over the past few weeks cannot be ascribed to the internet, but rather to the people who have carried these feats out. Just like any other technology or tool, the internet is only as good or as impactful as the people who use it. Surely, most people would recognise this as a truism – you don’t have to have internet access to affect political change, but it could be helpful. After all, the concept of revolution does actually predate Twitter. Yet still, outside observers keep harping on about the ‘social media revolution’. Why?
It seems the tendency to fetishise the technical side of uprisings satisfies the needs of those on the outside, looking in. We’re enthralled by the barrage of tweets, Flickr photo albums, Facebook groups, YouTube videos, realtime trend-mapping and the rest because it makes us feel somehow involved. And apparently it makes the likes of Assange feel important, as if he and his fellow cyber-warriors have played some sort of role in inspiring struggles for freedom elsewhere, as if they are providing Arab citizens with a lifeline to the outside world, as if it is them who are preventing Egyptians from being silenced and who are ‘giving them a voice’.
But as Sami Ben Gharbia, a Tunisian blogger based in the Netherlands, told Riz Khan on Al Jazeera: ‘Regarding Wikileaks, I don’t think it added a lot of information to what people already knew, but it confirmed that common knowledge of this corrupt system [in Tunisia].’ Ben Gharbia insisted that ‘the real actors are the people on the ground, the people with the courage and bravery…’
Of course the internet is a powerful tool and young Egyptians are making excellent use of it. Importantly, beyond spreading information to the outside world, IT technologies have provided new means of subverting state censorship and of organising and communicating, even in the face of the internet shutdown imposed by the increasingly desperate regime in Egypt.
For Egyptian journalist and social media expert, Jasmine Elnadeem, the blackout was a clear sign that the regime fears the people self-organising and the truth of what’s happening in Egypt getting out. ‘Social media tools are making our voice louder’, she told spiked. But she added that social media in themselves ‘are not useful except if people use them’: ‘People need to understand that behind the social media are the Egyptian people themselves.’
The idea that it took the likes of Wikileaks for Egyptians to realise the value of free speech is insulting and inaccurate. While Egyptians have in the past week been widely described in the Western press as normally passive, submissive and not given to protesting, Elnadeem says she does not recognise this view of her fellow countrymen. Instead, she suggests Egypt’s heavy-handed police force and the authoritarian regime’s intimidation tactics better explain why people may so far have been reluctant to take to the streets.
For a majority of Egyptians, it seems, it was witnessing people around them defying such intimidation tactics and affecting change through collective action that proved the turning point. Sure, at the outset middle-class Egyptian activists used Facebook and Twitter to rally support for the big Day of Wrath protests on 25 January – but it’s worth remembering that only around 21 per cent of Egypt’s population of 80million have access to the internet. For the majority who are joining the protests, it is not, it seems, ‘the power of social media’ that has encouraged them to do so, but the force of ‘people power’ and their own desire and need for change
Now, with people of all ages out on the streets day and night and reports of growing lack of food and petrol, it is remarkable that some are still obsessed with the mechanics of the ‘social media revolution’. Apparently, to some it is comforting to imagine that not only the desire, but the capability, to have free speech was somehow awakened by technology and knowledge brought in from the outside.
But it was not Twitter wot done it. It is citizens in the real world, not cyber netizens, who have sent members of the cut-off Arab elite scurrying off on private jets. It is citizens who are facing down military might in order to rally for freedom and democracy. It didn’t take Twitter to get the historical upheaval going in Egypt, but 30 years of undemocratic rule, material depravity and oppression, as well as a generation of fed-up young people who are willing to take personal risks to spark change – and an older generation willing to join them.
So yes, Egyptians ought to be let back online ASAP – the internet blackout is an outrage – but let’s also get real about the technology fetishism behind all this social-media revolution talk.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.