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The Built-In Obsolescence of the Facebook Leader

[Composite image of [Composite image of "We Are All Khaled Said" Admins Wael Ghonim and Abdurahman Mansour with unnamed protester. Images from Jadaliyya and Wikimedia Commons]

In times like these, when the hopes of the 2011 Egyptian revolution seem to have faded away, it is imperative to understand what went wrong, and in particular what went wrong in the new forms of digitally supported organizations that were displayed in the course revolution and that became a source of inspiration for other activists around the world. The enthusiastic use of social networking sites among Egyptian activists has been widely celebrated, and to a great extent rightly so, given the importance Facebook political pages and Twitter channels have played as means of information and mobilization. However the dependence on social media as technical and organizational structures has also contributed in exacerbating the situation of political flux that has affected Egypt in the aftermath of the eighteen-day revolution of 2011, described by Adel Iskandar.

With great rapidity new groups and figures have been projected into the political limelight thanks to the springboard of popular social media channels, only often to disappear with the same speed, with which they had first appeared. Social media have proven to be a stage in which creativity and spirit of initiative of different radicalized sectors of the Egyptian urban middle class have found a powerful outlet of expression. One might say that they have to a large extent delivered on the techno-libertarian promise of being a meritocratic space, in which dedication and charisma could find the outlet that was not available in formal parties and NGOs and in the traditional intellectual public sphere. At the same time, activist' enthusiastic adoption of social media as a ready-made means of short-term mobilization has produced serious problems of organizational sustainability. Short-termist over-reliance on the power of social media has contributed to a neglect for the question of long-term organization, ultimately leading to the incapacity in constructing  a credible leadership for the revolutionary youth.

Since the aftermath of the January 25 Revolution, digital activism in Egypt has been hampered by what we could only call an built-in obsolescence, that closely resembles the obsolescence of the BlackBerrys, iPhones, Ophones, tablets and computers activists have utilized. Time and again we have seen the same bell curve of rise and fall for online political groups. The story goes more or less as follows: A Twitter account is opened, and tweet after tweet it gains terrain and fires enthusiasm in the activist Twittersphere. A Facebook page is created, and post after post it accrues support, until it becomes a focus of attention for thousands of people. The popularity of these social media channels rises like after like, follower after follower, share after share. The bubble grows and grows, sometimes reaching a critical mass stage, at which people move en masse from the screens to the streets, from the armchair rantings of Internet exchanges, to the all too real dangers of street action, as it happened on 25 January and several other occasions thereafter. Mobilization touches its peak, net popularity reaches its zenith. And then, as if due to some inevitable physiological law, these political ventures begin dissipating and fading away. Their name and images loses the freshness and urgency it once possessed. Their followers and likers start opting out or simply ignoring their tweets and status messages and turn their attention to new groups and personalities. What had gone up rapidly falls down precipitously, or possibly worse, it is progressively forgotten, slowly fading away from the radar of our everyday social network interactions.

If Warhol famously talked about fifteen minutes of fame, in the Egyptian political web 2.0, we are sometimes talking of few days, weeks, or months, during which emerging groups, leaders, revolutionary fads, are turned into instant “micro-celebrities," often only to soon end up into the dustbin of digital forgetfulness. Examples of this phenomenon abound. Just think about the Black Bloc, the ski-mask cladded youth, suddenly appearing on the streets of Alexandria and Cairo in January 2012, after a social media barrage, and since then rarely heard of again. Think back to the rise of Tamarrod (Rebel), a political group that rose rapidly to prominence and has now been progressively marginalized in the post-coup political equilibrium. Think of the several political Facebook pages that have appeared since 2011, from Ikhwan Kazeboon (Muslim Brothers Liars) to the tens of pages that have been opened from the different sides during the last four years of political conflict, and have then faded away from public attention. Looking at the evolution of these and other political social media, returns the image of the Egyptian political web as a sort of magmatic space: a space in which campaigns, groups, and personalities come and go, without managing to solidify into more durable organizational structures

This fluid rise and fall of digital groupings and leaders in Egypt raises an array of issues of concern for activists in Egypt, and for those in other countries who have drawn much inspiration from the new digital repertoire of tactics that has been developed in the country of the Nile. It shows how political evanescence is the inconvenient accompaniment of the open and meritocratic character of social media. In their allowing for the rise of new groups and charismatic individuals, many of them with little prior activist experience. Moreover, it highlights the difficulty in constructing long-term political ventures, and to create a sense of continuity in political action, in a context in which social media are problematically assigned the role of low-cost organizational structure and no durable organizational mechanisms are put in place. Last but not least, the political evanescence of social media activism raises issues of accountability and democratic control on the new emerging leaders of social movements, because of a certain opacity that accompanies the fluidity and partial anonymity of online interactions.

All the Power to the Facebook Admin: From "We Are All Khaled Said" to Tamarrod

The political evanescence of digital activism in the Egyptian revolution needs to be understood in connection with the libertarian ideology of “leaderlessness” and “horizontality” that has provided a cultural framing for social media use among activists. The claim that we have often heard about the Egyptian revolution is that it was “leaderless,” and, largely precisely as a result of has precisely to do with the activist use of social networking sites supposedly bringing about a situation of “horizontality” in which everyone is equal. Among others, Wael Ghonim–the Google executive who played an instrumental role in organizing the social media campaigning that eventually launched the 25 January protests, and has now been forced into exile after the return of the Army in power–has contributed to this myth narrative, by talking. He has talked of the revolution as a “wiki-revolution,” or of a revolution in which “none is a hero,” because “everybody is a hero.” Despite these claims, coming from Ghonims and many other key figures in the revolution, and scholars such as the sociologist of the network society Manuel Castells (see a critique by Christian Fuchs), it is apparent that the Egyptian revolution, as any great upheaval in history, was not completely spontaneous and leaderless. Rather it bore the mark of complex direction exercised in concert by multiple leaders, from grassroots groups on the ground as the April 6 Youth Movement, to organized forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Left opposition parties and NGOs, to end with digital activists responsible for spreading revolutionary information, recruiting online communities of supporters and publicizing protest events. As I have argued in my book Tweets and the Streets, Digital activists, including celebrity tweeps, and the "admins" of popular Facebook pages, have become in their own peculiar way leaders capable of influencing the course of events. Yet at the same time they have been reluctant leaders, that is, leaders who for the most have denied of being such. 

[The "January 25 Event" on "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook Page]

The story of Wael Ghonim and the "We Are All Khaled Said" (Kullena Khaled Said) Facebook page has been a textbook example of the creative possibilities and political opportunities opening up in the sphere of social media. But also of the limits of the forms of leadership exercised through social media. The remarkable success of the page (as of January 2014, 3,656,000 likes) has demonstrated the possibility for individuals and small groups–often with little organic connection to the activist community and the political opposition–to acquire great visibility and to possess the influence that derives from controlling a Facebook page with tens of thousands of likes, or an equally popular Twitter account. While Ghonim had some basic activist experience, having done some digital campaigning in support of the presidential campaign of Mohammed el-Baradei in 2010, he was little known within activist circles. From the distance and safety of Dubai where he was working for Google, he collaborated with activists on the ground including Mohammed AbdelRahman Mansour who acted as co-admin on the page, and Ahmed Maher of the April 6 Youth Movement, the group that pioneered digital activism in Egypt. It was only after he was released from prison in the midst of the eighteen-day insurrection, that he suddenly became a famous and respected figure. Yet, Ghonim did not manage, neither he tried, to turn the great influence he had exercised during the revolution into any form of structured political leadership during the transitional phase. Ironically the Facebook fanpage he founded has discontinued its communications with a status message celebrating “the power of the people” on 3 July 2013, the day of the anti-Morsi coup. Ghonim has recently left the country for voluntary exile after a streak of attacks on the news media.

Since the example set by the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook page and the revolution of 2011, Egypt has seen a proliferation of new groups and leaders making their presence first felt on social media. Liberal and leftist Activists have created Facebook pages and Twitter channels to campaign against the SCAF, the Supreme Council of Armed forces that took power after the fall of Mubarak, and against the Muslim Brotherhood as it progressively acquired state power between 2011 and 2013. These pages include Askar Kazeboon (The Army Are Liars, 930,163 likes) and Ikhwan Kazeboon (The Brothers Are Liars, 374,942 likes) and a number of other “anti-” Facebook pages, with various targets and objectives. These and similar pages, making up the highly conflicted Egyptian political web, have circulated internet memes, news denouncing the behavior political opponents, and have also called, alone or in collaboration with others, for various protest events. Yet, they have often been hampered by ebbs and flows of enthusiasm and participation, mirroring the exploding and fading of revolutionary confrontations, and by periodic infightings and splits. These pages and the collectives maintaining them have managed to acquire visibility and online influence only for short periods of time, as ad-hoc campaigns with a by-gone date or passing revolutionary fads.


[Black Bloc Internet meme circulated on various Facebook pages]

Possibly the most spectacular example of the meteoric rise and precipitous fall of campaigns initiated through social media is the case of the Black Bloc, or, as it is called in Arabic, the kutla el-sawda. This loose grouping that adopted the identity originating in Western autonomous movements, made a sudden appearance during the protests in occasion of the second anniversary of the revolution in January 25. Before the group rose to public view the very term Black Bloc was one that was unknown even among some of the most militant sections of the movement and the Ultras that eventually became its most enthusiastic adherents. Yet, in a few short weeks, thanks to a social media barrage campaign waged through some YouTube videos, Black Bloc styled channels and dedicated Facebook pages (the main one now counting 25,176 likes), the collective name of Black Bloc became an irresistible revolutionary fashions. This collective identity became an object of fascination for those in the revolutionary camp, and at the same time the target of accusations and suspicions among Brotherhood supporters. But as rapidly as the movement had come to the fore, so rapidly it also declined. Its online visibility and influence progressively waned and besides some minor showings during the protests against the Muslim Brotherhood Headquarters in Moqattam, and at the presidential palace in Ittihadeya in the early months of 2013, the Black Bloc largely disappeared from the scene.

The leadership void and the situation of flux that have dominated the revolutionary movement have ultimately opened the door for the entrance of Tamarrod (Resist). The trajectory of this group, that more than any other, puts in stark relief the dark side of contemporary activism and how techniques and imaginary activists consider as their own, such as the use of social network sites, can be maneuvered by repressive forces. Also this grassroots campaign that mobilized the protests of 30 June that eventually opened the way for the coup d'etat of 3 July, made great use of social media as a mass mobilization platform. In truth, part of the novelty of this campaign, vis-à-vis previous ones since the fall of Mubarak, was the desire to overcome the online fixation of previous groups, and to construct on the ground networks, capable of mobilizing a population in local areas, especially those with low levels of internet connection and digital literacy. However Tamarrod also came to acquire a strong social media component that was decisive in sustaining its organizational efficacy and its legitimacy among the middle class youth. The group has made ample use of its Facebook page (currently at 303K likes) and Twitter account (84,860 followers) as channels to call supporters to participate in organizing the campaign locally, and to build up the mobilization towards 30 June 2013.

The case of Tamarrod demonstrates how the fluidity in the field of social media in the activist field, dominated by flexible groupings coordinated through social network sites can open space for opportunist groups. Both Wael Ghonim and the main leaders of Tamarrod were secondary figures in the activist scene in Cairo, despite the fact that some of them, had been previously involved in pro-democracy campaigns and in the Elbaradei presidential campaigns. Similarly to what happened with previous political groups it was a great extent this outsider aura that managed to gather so much enthusiasm from Egyptian youth. The group managed to build an extensive network across the country, collecting millions of signature (the exact quantity will remain unverified) to withdraw confidence from Morsi. However, it progressively became clear that Tamarrod was far from being simply a disingenuous and spontaneous citizens groups. It has been publicly confirmed that the campaign received substantial funding from a number of Egyptian entrepreneurs, including Naguib Sawiris. It is also reasonably suspected that the group received financial and operational support from the Egyptian army, and the so-called deep state, which saw in Tamarrod a sort of useful idiot to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood and create a favorable climate for the coup d'etat. Since the campaign of repression orchestrated by al-Sisi and the new post-coup government, the group has been marred by intestine fight between different factions, and seems to have lost much of its “street cred” among Egyptian youth. It was yet another group falling victim of its own precipitous rise.

The Mercurial Nature of Social Media Activism 

The trajectory of protest movements and of digital activism in Egypt, marked by the rise and fall of different groups points to the limits of the new forms of organization that have accompanied the adoption of social media among activists. On this question there has been in recent years an intense academic discussion about the political significance of this phenomenon and the risks that are involved in techno-utopian interpretations of digital activism. What appears clear in the four years since the revolution of 2011, is that the use of social media as key mobilizing tools has raised serious issues of organizational sustainability and democratic legitimacy. Despite acquiring much influence in initiating campaigns around specific protest events, digital activist groups have not managed to construct stable forms of organization and leadership that could help the revolutionary movement faced the double opposition of the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Naturally, this is not the whole story. A number of groups born in the field of digital activism have since managed to become more structured organizations. The April 6 Youth group, that was born online in 2008, to support a workers' strike in Mahalla, played a fundamental role in the revolution of 2011, and in its immediate aftermath, and has progressively developed a more structured and institutionalized presence, even though it has been affected by various splits. Since the coup of 3 July, Tamarrod has tried to organize itself as a political actor and intends to run candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Yet, for the most digital activism in Egypt has seen many meteoric rises and abrupt falls in a way that is reminiscent of the problems encountered by other social media-powered activists groups from the indignados in Spain to Occupy Wall Street in the United States.

The mercurial nature of contemporary activism supported by social media also raises another problem: the question of democratic legitimacy and accountability. We have often heard that new media would bring about a situation of transparency, in which the access to information allowed by the Internet would make common citizens more able to make their mind about different issues. However, what we find in the case of the Egyptian revolution is quite the opposite. In the operation of administration and community management performed by digital activists forms of leadership have emerged, which often lack any basic criterion of accountability and can thus raise the risks of maneuvering and facilitate the rise of new forms of authoritarianism. This is partly the result of possibilities for online anonymity, such as the ones used by Ghonim in administering the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook page, and partly because of the secrecy that surrounds online operations are also understandably a measure to avoid state surveillance and repression.

It is hard to deny that the use of social media opens great democratic possibilities for social movements. Social media have become a sort of elevator of political mobility, in which people with leadership skills can rapidly become leaders of sorts. While sympathizing for these democratic possibilities, we should also be aware of the limits of the new forms of leadership channeled through social media activism. The forms of flexible organization that develop in the use of social network site can end up exacerbating the lack of strong coordination in revolutionary movements and thus indirectly favor the prevailing of repressive forces. Ultimately it cannot be hoped that the use of social media in social movements will inevitably lead to a democratic situation of horizontality within social movements and of emancipation for all. If not accompanied by adherence to clear political values and the sense of a long-term project, the use of social media can as easily lead to new forms of organizational dysfunctionality and authoritarianism. 

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