[This post is part of an ongoing Profile of a Contemporary Conduit series on Jadaliyya that seeks to highlight distinct voices primarily in and from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.]
Jadaliyya (J): What do you think are the most gratifying aspects of Tweeting and Twitter?
Bassem Sabry (BS): At the risk of sounding cliche, the most remarkable thing about Twitter is the ability to just engage directly with the entire world, especially within your field of interest. Within months of seriously taking on Twitter, I found myself in direct communication with internationally recognized politicians, writers, pundits, activists, public figures from around the world and my country, even a few pop culture celebrities from childhood, and, of course, some incredible non-famous people from around the world with whom I am lucky to have crossed paths or even become friends. My writing also flourished; the wealth of opinions and material that became accessible to me was infinite, and every day still manages to bring some sort of a surprise.
J: What are some of the political/social/cultural limits you have encountered using the platform?
BS: Well, there are essentially times when I would think of engaging in more controversial topics and stirring up debate around them, though often for the sake of improving the dynamics of debate in Egypt and the region rather than for the sake of that particular topic. But given how heated the popular climate is right now, and how much I try at the moment to be more of a calmer voice rather than a trailblazer of some sort, I find myself at times too self-restraining. The idea that every little thing you do could be recorded to your credit or against you for all eternity, and that some ill-thought innocent comment could lead to an unintended avalanche of some sort, can shackle you if you are too self-conscious. You are also at times confused by how every person from every different culture you speak to often has different values and traditions that you need to keep in mind while addressing them.
J: How have you used Twitter as a writer/blogger?
BS: At first it was more of a companion and a tool to spread my work, to network, and to share quick commentary. Later on, it started to have some negative effect on my previously regular longer blogging pieces, as I found myself more inclined to just tweet rather than sit down and blog and hope people open the link. The downside is that I find myself giving less argued and structured opinions, but they often travel around faster and more instantaneously, and sometimes increase your reach more effectively.
J: Has the role of social media in Egypt changed since Mubarak was overthrown?
BS: Definitely. Before Mubarak fell, it was more of a mundane chatter area. There were also some activists, often from the left, with common causes and who often seemed harmonious to a larger extent, at least as I saw it. It also began showing signs of its organizational capabilities and helping put together some protests and sit-ins, but on a much lesser scale than now. Since February 2011, and with the massive growth of social media users in Egypt, it has become a tool for national debate, shaping public opinion, supporting massive political and grassroots organization, and becoming a primary source of news and punditry and a wellspring of information that you would not find elsewhere. It also became a searching ground for new talent in politics, media, and punditry.
J: In what ways have the Muslim Brotherhood used social media as a political tool?
BS: I think Facebook and Twitter seem to provide different strategies for them. The Brotherhood appears to me to engage the local public more strongly on Facebook, with greater reach, at least ostensibly. As for Twitter, there is an Arabic account, but with less popularity and footprint. The English account, @IkhwanWeb, has a larger audience, and often features more politically-correct tweets in English that are clearly more oriented toward a foreign audience. The dynamics of the differences between the discourse in Arabic and English are quite interesting to observe, to be euphemistic.
J: How often do you resort to social media for information on Egypt?
BS: Interestingly, it has become my main source of information, especially as most leading journalists are on Twitter already and break the news there before anywhere else. All newspapers are online as well, and Twitter makes it easier to go through the day`s headlines and see how things developed chronologically. You also get angles on news stories that you wouldn`t get from the official sources. Also, Twitter allows you to get a second-by-second accounts of major events taking place on the ground, often from different angles and perspectives at the same time simultaneously.
[Bassem Sabry tweets at @Bassem_Sabry and blogs at An Arab Citizen.]