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From the Blogosphere to the Street: The Role of Social Media in the Egyptian Uprising

[Image from unknown archive] [Image from unknown archive]

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 online via Facebook, twitter, and within the Egyptian blogosphere. Working within these media, activists began to forge a new political language, one that cut across the institutional barriers that had until then polarized Egypt’s political terrain, between more Islamicly-oriented currents (most prominent among them, the Muslim Brotherhood) and secular-liberal ones. Since the rise of the Islamist Revival in the 1970s, Egypt’s political opposition had 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 has repeatedly encouraged and exploited over the last 30 years in order to ensure a weak opposition. What was striking about the Egyptian blogosphere as it developed in the last 7 or so years is the extent to which it engendered a political language free from the problematic of secularization vs. fundamentalism that had governed so much of political discourse in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The blogosphere that burst into existence in Egypt around 2004 and 2005 in many ways provided a new context for a process that had begun a somewhat earlier, in the late 1990s: namely, the development of practices of coordination and support between secular leftist organizations and associations, and Islamist ones (particularly the Muslim Brotherhood)—a phenomenon almost completely absent in the prior decades. Toward the end of the decade of the 90s, Islamist and leftist lawyers began to agree to work together on cases regarding state torture, whereas in previous years, lawyers of one affiliation would almost never publicly defend plaintiffs from the other.

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 on the basis of a common demand for an end to the Mubarak regime and a rejection of the Gamal Mubarak’s succession of his father as president.  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 insomuch as any direct criticism of the president or his family had until then always been taboo, and 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, they were 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 demonstrations, at the end of 2004, a handful of bloggers both participated and wrote about the events on their blogs. Within a year the number of blogs had jumped to the hundreds. Today there are 1000s of blogs, many tied to activism, street politics, solidarity campaigns, and grassroots organizing. Many of the bloggers who helped promote the Kifaya movement have played key roles in the events of the past 10 days.

One event highlighted the political potential of blogging in Egypt and helped secure the practice’s new and expanding role within Egyptian political life. It had long been known that the Egyptian state routinely abused and tortured prisoners or detainees (hence the US’s choice of Egypt in so called rendition cases). For its part, the state has always denied that abuse took place, and lacking the sort of 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, whose blog is titled al-wa’i al-masri (“Egyptian Awareness”), placed on his blog site a cell-phone recorded video he had been sent by another blogger that 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 placed on YouTube and spread around the Egyptian blogosphere, opposition newspapers took up the story, citing the blogs as their source. When the victim was identified and encouraged to come forth, 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 entire year that the case was being prosecuted, bloggers tracked every detail of the police and judiciary’s handling of the case, their relentless scrutiny of state actions frequently finding its way into the opposition newspapers. Satellite TV talk shows followed suit, inviting bloggers on screen to debate state officials concerned with the case. Moreover, within a month of posting the torture videos on his web site, Abbas and other bloggers started receiving scores of similar cell-phone 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: not only do many of the opposition newspapers rely on bloggers for their stories; news stories that journalists can’t print themselves without facing state persecution—for example, on issues relating to the question of Mubarak’s successor—such stories are first fed to bloggers by investigative reporters; once they are reported online, then journalists then proceed to publish the stories in newsprint, citing the blogs as source, this way avoiding the accusation that they themselves invented the story. Moreover, many young people have taken up the practice of using cell-phone cameras in the street, and bloggers are constantly receiving phone film-footage from anonymous sources that they then put on their blogs.

This event played a key role in shaping the place that the blogosphere would come to occupy within Egypt’s media sphere. Namely, bloggers understand their role as that of providing a direct link to what they call “the street,” conceived primarily as a space of state repression and political violence, but also as one of political action and popular resistance. They render visible and publicly speakable a political practice—the violent subjugation of the Egyptian people by its authoritarian regime—that other media outlets cannot easily disclose, due to censorship, practices of harassment, and arrest. This includes not only acts police brutality and torture, but also the more mundane and routine forms of violence that shape the texture of everyday life. For example, blogs frequently include reporting on routine injustices experienced in public transportation, the cruel indifference of corrupt state bureaucrats, sexual harassment encountered in the streets, as well as the many faces of pain produced by conditions of intense poverty, environmental toxicity, infrastructural neglect, and so on.

The blogosphere was joined by another powerful media instrument in 2008. On April 6th of that year a general strike took place in Egypt, an event which saw vast numbers of workers and students stay home from their sites of work or school. 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. In the month leading up to the strike, however, the aim of the action enlarged beyond the scope of the specific concerns of the factory workers. 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, and particularly against the regime’s complete inaction in the face of steadily declining wages and rising prices. Most stunning about the event, and most worrisome to the Egyptian state, was the way the idea of a general strike had been generated: Esra’ ‘Abd al-Fattah, a young woman with little experience as an activist who lived just outside of Cairo, had 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 the time the 1st of April came around most of the political opposition parties had been brought on board and were vigorously trying to mobilize their constituencies. When the 6th 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.

Egyptian Facebook activists and bloggers took up and extended the political platform that the Kifaya movement had introduced into Egyptian political life, the same exact platform that has brought millions of Egyptians into the street these days. Four issues have defined a common moral stance: a forceful rejection of the Mubarak regime and a demand for its end; a stand against tawrith, or “succession,” specifically Gamal Mubarak’s succession of his father as president of the country; a demand for the expansion of political freedoms and the creation of fair and democratic institutions; and a condemnation of routinized state violence. Although those who forged this common ground online have done so through different institutional experiences, and have brought with them different conceptions of the place of religion within politics, they write and interact as participants in a shared project. While they recognize the difference between their political commitments and those of other online activists, they engage with an orientation toward creating conditions of political action and change, and therefore seek to develop arguments, styles of writing and self-presentation that can bridge these differences and hold the plurality together. As one secularist blogger put it in commenting on the protocols of online engagement: “The atheists reign in their contempt for religion, while the religious bloggers—who would not even accept the existence of non-believers in the first place—can now see some shared values.”

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 stultified authoritarian system, and therefore, with the development of a political discourse capable of responding to the requirements of this task. This political reorientation can be seen in a statement made few years back by Ibrahim Hodeibi, an important voice among the new generation of Brotherhood members, and a well-known blogger. 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 is indeed the call we hear today rising up above the streets of Egypt.

These online activists have played a key role in transforming the conditions of political possibility in Egypt during the last decade, and of paving the way to Tahrir Square today. They have sought out and cultivated new forms of political agency in the face of the predations and repressive actions of the Egyptian state. They have 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. From the latest news reports, it is clear that many of them are now being arrested and beaten for their efforts. The regime has again shown itself implacable in its disregard for the people of Egypt.

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