The Role of Social Media in the Egyptian Uprising

While the uprising in Egypt caught most observers of the Middle East off guard, it did not come out of the blue. The seeds of this spectacular mobilization had been sown as far back as the early 2000s and had been carefully cultivated by activists from across the political spectrum, many of these working via Facebook, Twitter, and within the Egyptian blogosphere. Working within these media, activists forged a new political language that cut across the institutional barriers that had, until then, polarized Egypt's political terrain between more Islamic-oriented currents (most prominently the Muslim Brotherhood) and secular-liberal ones. Since the rise of the Islamist Revival in the 1970s, Egypt's political opposition have remained sharply divided around contrasting visions of the proper place of religious authority within the country's social and political future, with one side viewing secularization as the eminent danger and the other emphasizing the threat of politicized religion to personal freedoms and democratic rights. This polarity tended to result in a defensive political rhetoric and a corresponding amplification of political antagonisms, a dynamic the Mubarak regime repeatedly encouraged and exploited in order to ensure a weak opposition. What was striking about the Egyptian blogosphere as it developed in the last seven or so years is the extent to which it engendered a political language free from the problematic of secularization vs. fundamentalism.


The most successful experiment at reaching across Egypt's political spectrum came in 2004 with the emergence of what is called the Kifaya movement, a political formation that brought together Islamists, Muslim Brothers, communists, liberals, and secular-leftists, joined around a common demand for an end to the Mubarak regime and a rejection of Gamal Mubarak's "right of" succession to the presidency. Kifaya was instrumental in organizing a series of demonstrations between 2004 and 2007 that for the first time explicitly called for the president of Egypt to step down, an unheard of demand prior to that moment as any direct criticism of the president or his family had always been taboo and were met by harsh reprisals from the state. Kifaya not only succeeded in bringing large numbers of people of different political persuasions into the street to protest government policies and actions, it was also the first political movement in Egypt to exploit the organizing potential of the Internet, founding a number of blog sites from which to coordinate and mobilize demonstrations and strikes.


When Kifaya held its first demonstration at the end of 2004, a handful of bloggers participated and wrote about the events on their blogs. Within a year the number of blogs had jumped to hundreds. Today there are thousands of blogs, many tied to activism, street politics, solidarity campaigns, and grassroots organizing. Many of the bloggers who helped promote the Kifaya movement played key roles in the events of the past months.


One event in particular highlighted the political potential of blogging in Egyptian political life. It had long been known that the Egyptian state routinely abused and tortured prisoners or detainees—hence the U.S. choice of Egypt in so-called rendition cases. For its part, the state has always denied that abuse took place and lacking the evidence needed to prosecute a legal case, human rights lawyers and the opposition press had never been able to effectively challenge the state's official position. This changed when a blogger named Wael Abbas put a cellphone-recorded video sent by another blogger on his website. The video showed a man being physically and sexually abused by police officers at a police station in Cairo. (Apparently, the clip had been filmed by officers with the intention of intimidating the detainee's fellow workers.)


Once this video clip was shown on YouTube and spread around the Egyptian blogosphere, opposition newspapers took up the story. When the victim was identified and encouraged to come forward, a human rights agency raised a case on his behalf against the officers involved that eventually resulted in their conviction, an unprecedented event in Egypt's modern history. Throughout the year, bloggers tracked every detail of the court case and the police and judiciary's handling of the case. Their relentless scrutiny of the state's actions frequently appeared in opposition newspapers. Satellite TV talk shows followed suit, inviting bloggers on screen to debate officials involved with the case. Moreover, within a month of posting the torture videos on his website, Abbas and other bloggers started receiving scores of similar cellphone films of state violence and abuse taken in police stations or during demonstrations.


This new relation between bloggers and other media forms has now become standard. News stories that journalists can't print themselves without facing state persecution are first fed to bloggers by investigative reporters. Once they are reported online, journalists then publish the stories in newsprint, citing the blogs as sources, avoiding the accusation that they invented the story. Moreover, many young people have taken up the practice of using cellphone cameras in the streets and bloggers are constantly receiving footage from anonymous sources. Bloggers now understand their role as a direct link to what they call "the street"—i.e., a space of state repression and political violence, but also of political action and popular resistance.


The blogosphere was joined by another powerful media instrument on April 6, 2008 when a general strike took place in Egypt, an event which saw vast numbers of workers and students stay home. The strike, the largest anti-government mobilization to occur in Egypt in many years, had been initiated by labor activists in support of striking workers at the Mahalla textile factory, who had for months been holding out for better salaries and improved work conditions. Propelled by the efforts of a group of activists on Facebook, the strike shifted to become a national day of protest against the corruption of the Mubarak regime, particularly against the regime's complete inaction in the face of steadily declining wages and rising prices.


Most worrisome to the Egyptian state was the way the general strike had been generated by Esra Abd al-Fattah, a young woman with little experience as an activist, who initiated a group on Facebook calling for a sympathy strike with the textile workers. Within two weeks, close to 70,000 Facebook members had signed on. Political bloggers also began to promote the strike and by April 1 most of the political opposition parties were vigorously trying to mobilize their constituencies. When April 6 arrived, Egypt witnessed its most dramatic political mobilization in decades, an event that brought together people across the political spectrum, from Muslim Brotherhood members to revolutionary socialists. Four issues defined a common moral stance:


>    Rejection of the Mubarak regime and tawrith or "succession"


>    Expansion of political freedoms


>    Creation of fair and democratic institutions


>    Condemnation of systematic state violence


Although those who forged this common ground did so through different institutional experiences and brought with them different conceptions of the place of religion in politics, they write and interact as participants in a shared project. While they recognize the difference between their political commitments and those of other activists, they are trying to create conditions for political action and change. They, therefore, seek to develop arguments, styles of writing, and self-presentation that can bridge these differences and hold the plurality together.


For Islamist activists and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, this agenda marks a radical shift. Until quite recently, Islamist political arguments have focused on the importance of adopting the shari'a as a national legal framework and on the need to counter the impact of Western cultural forms and practices in order to preserve the values of an Islamic society. Granted, an earlier generation of intellectuals linked to Islamic political parties had, since the mid-1980s, emphasized the necessity of democratic political reforms.


Leading Islamist writers such as Fahmi Howeidi, Abd al-Wahhab al-Messiri, and Tarek al-Bishri had attempted to build a movement that would bring about an end to the rampant corruption afflicting Egypt's political institutions and establish a solid basis for representative governance, but their viewpoints generally remained marginal within Islamist political currents, and the organizations they tried to establish were largely undermined by the state. For many of those making up the new generation of Islamist activists, however, the goal of creating a flourishing Islamic society must start with the reform of Egypt's authoritarian system and, therefore, with the development of a political discussion capable of responding to the requirements of this task. This political reorientation can be seen in a statement made a few years ago by Ibrahim Hodeibi, an important voice among the new generation of Brotherhood members. Writing in the context of a debate with fellow Brotherhood members about the future of the organization, Hodeibi suggested that the Brotherhood slogan "Islam is the solution" should be replaced by the religiously-neutral "Egypt for all Egyptians." This was indeed the call heard in the streets of Egypt.


These activists pioneered forms of political critique and interaction that can mediate and encompass the heterogeneity of religious and social commitments that constitute Egypt's contemporary political terrain.


Charles Hirschkind is associate professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (2006) and co-editor (with David Scott) of Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and his Interlocutors (2005).