The viral uprising of Egypt
The revolution was televised — as well as tweeted, updated and blogged. It began nineteen days ago with the “day of anger“, as thousands of Egyptian protestors, young and old, took to the streets of their country calling for the ouster of the current regime; and culminated yesterday when Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, finally stepped down from office. Revolution had spread through the Middle East, with this uprising falling on the footsteps of those in Tunisia and Yemen — visible instantaneously for public view through Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, all ablaze with up-to-date news of the protests.
Frustrated with growing unemployment rates and dwindling financial resources, a Tunisian man named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in December — a spark that triggered the revolutions of the three nations. Protesters uploaded pictures to Facebook and Twitter, and the rumblings of social change via social networking had begun.
But the Egyptian revolution was, in contrast, larger in scale and very viral. Facebook users organized meeting places for the protests and uploaded pictures of the demonstrations. Twitter users created hash tags providing immediate and timely information for those heading out to the streets — shortly after the protests began, #jan25, #egypt and #tahrir began trending. Egyptians and other citizens the world over immediately turned to social networking sites in the first few hours to get up-to-date information of the unrest in the Land of the Nile. Newscasts began referring to tweets during their reports on Egypt, journalists tweeted live updates from Tahrir Square, and Egyptian youths posted pictures of protesters linking arms in solidarity. Gripping pictures of Christians forming a human shield around praying Muslims went viral. The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof frequently turned to his Facebook page to update his followers on the events unfolding in Egypt.
The borderless internet
Then, by the end of the third day of protests, most people in the country didn’t have access at all, as the Egyptian government had effectively “turned off” the internet — many residents of Egypt reported via Twitter that their text messages weren’t going through — an attempt to stifle the osmosis of information to the outside world and to halt the anti-government movement’s momentum. It was a virtual media blackout, a communication black hole.
By essentially blocking off internet access, the Egyptian government acknowledged the power to be had and harnessed in the virtual realm. However, this did little to deter those involved.
As 26-year-old Egyptian Ahmed Eldemerdash put it, “Revolution comes from people’s feelings, whether there is Internet or not.” He has been actively sharing links on his Facebook page since January 25th. In an interview over Facebook, Eldemerdash said that since he lives abroad, he relied on his phone to get up-to-date information and to communicate with family and friends when Egypt “turned off” the Internet.
Online communities formed during this revolution, where members kept tabs on their own, for safety. If a prolific user went silent, his or her followers began wondering about their whereabouts.
Google executive Wael Ghonim anonymously created a Facebook page, called “We are All Khalid Said” after a young Egyptian who was reportedly beaten to death by police after publicizing a video showing police members splitting the spoils of a drug bust. When there was a lull in Ghonim’s steady stream of tweets, his followers noticed. He had been detained by the Egyptian authorities, which lasted for 10 days. Upon his release on February 7th, Ghonim, a “reluctant hero,” tweeted: “Freedom is a bless that deserves fighting for it. #Jan25”
Ghonim’s emotional TV interview with Egypt’s Dream TV reportedly electrified protesters — and he became the face of revitalized protests. In the interview, Ghonim refused to take any credit for the revolution, giving credit instead to the Egyptian people, “This revolution belonged to the internet youth, then the revolution belonged to the Egyptian youth, and then the revolution belonged to all of Egypt.”
Egyptian-Americans have been active as well. Zaid Saleh, president of the New York chapter of the Egyptian Association for Change, has been utilizing social networking sites for over a year in order to galvanize younger members to become more active. “There’s no way revolution happened without internet, without Facebook and Twitter. It took a long time to fuel the energy. All this energy didn’t come from one day or just from Tunisia, the young people were getting charged up every day.”
Sree Sreenivasan, a professor of digital media studies at Columbia University, has been keeping a close eye on the revolution. “It was much more directly tied to social media. It’s something the government and protestors have all acknowledged: the role of what happened with a single Facebook posting.”
But Saleh remembers the difficulty of organizing protests before the days of the Internet. “When I grew up,” said Saleh, “there was no such thing as Facebook or Twitter, so the maximum thing we did was just listen to Al Jazeera but we couldn’t express ourselves. Now because of expression and joining other people for the same message, this generation had more opportunities than us. We didn’t have this opportunity.”
While the Internet provided virtually limitless possibilities for organizing and grouping, many Egyptians worried about government watchdogs rounding up online activists because of their visibility — something that happened to a group on February 3rd. Nevertheless, young revolutionaries continued creating groups calling for change in their government, advertising via Facebook and Twitter. An example of this is the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, which currently has roughly 95,000 members and counting.
These tools of the people did not exist in the 1990’s, when the internet was scarcely available in the Middle East. This week, however, viral activism, coupled with organic, people-fueled demonstrations, proved lethal to Egypt’s regime. Hours after hearing of Mubarak’s decision to step down, Eldemerdash posted this on Facebook: “Egyptian youth are the owners of this revolution, and we are the owners of our future.”
After the events of the last 19 days, where a regime of 30 years toppled as the world watched, listened, searched, tweeted, shared, and linked, hardly anyone can disagree.