Egypt’s eRevolution: How Bloggers Changed the 21st Century

by Lindsey C. Holmes on November 30, 2011

Since Egypt’s uprising against its oppressive militant government in recent years, popular Egyptian blog Manal and Alaa’s Bit Bucket has depicted the crackdown on the wave of anti-regime protests. The blog has provided a vivid play-by-play of sorts as Egyptian opposition activists were jailed, beaten, and murdered in the streets during their quest for freedom.

Former president Hosni Mubarak’s decision to resort to such brutal actions was a clear indicator of the regime’s intolerance for opposition, though he would argue that the ability to protest was “evidence of democracy.” Trivial arguments like these would often mask the rising tension between Egypt’s youth and government.

Blogging for Justice

Bit Bucket’s Manal Hassan did the blogging that bloody week in early May 2006. Though her husband, award-winning blogger Alaa Abdel Fatah, was in jail, he would help by passing notes to her through his cell. Just three days before, Abdel was arrested at an opposition protest in downtown Cairo. He was one of 300 oppositionists, about six of them bloggers, who were beaten and held under Egypt’s 25-year-old “Emergency Laws.” These laws allowed for the detention of oppositionists for a period of 15 days that could be, and often was, renewed indefinitely.

Abdel and other activists were accused of blocking traffic, assembling illegally in public, and insulting President Mubarak. According to Abdel, however, the real attack was on blogging.

Young Egyptians had started to use social media tools, mainly blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and mobile applications like the live-streaming app Bambuser, to send graphic videos, pictures, and news in real time to carefully built and cultivated networks, mostly in the United States. This newfound access, coupled with a regime intent upon keeping the perception of being a democracy for its democratic allies and a platform for information to spread rapidly, would lead to a five year revolution, overturning a tyrannical Mubarak and freeing an oppressed, yet determined, people. Mana and Alaa were there, and so was I – on Facebook and Twitter. And during this time, social media and social justice would find a clear and long-awaited partnership.

The Power of Facebook

Facebook’s power was evident to me early on. I was fresh out of college and searching for a way to make money, pay student loans, work in my major – theatre – and change the world. By then, however, social media technology had been integrated into my life with Facebook, which launched my senior year at Sarah Lawrence.

At the time, Facebook was only an intra-college tool, but a new way to communicate was clearly emerging. After graduation, when I was seeking a job or anything else, I quickly learned to consult my friends’ parents and their friends by way of Facebook first. A quick status update or a direct message whereby I could quickly contact databases of relevant people seemed much more productive than making a hundred phone calls or scouring newspapers.

I had already been heavily into IRC chat and other chat tools, arguably the beginning of online marketing, but Facebook seemed to be evolving rapidly and providing additional features and tools. The major difference was in 2006 when Facebook became open to everyone.

Facebook granted users the ability to communicate with different networks, created the Facebook ad platform, and implemented the “status update” feature that became a standard alert system for positive affirmations, gripes, or most importantly, the dissemination of information. The possibility to add video and photo media, as well as unite with causes through Facebook applications like the Causes App, was another major benefit.

Facebook was now becoming the standard for all types of communication, from personal, to business, to humanitarian. The seamlessness of the three made networking, and achieving any goal for that matter, possible. Twitter would later provide a platform for the quick, no frills communication that helps a campaign go viral, and YouTube would become the hub for harnessing the power of video.

From Social Networking to Social Justice

As the intimidation continued to peak in Cairo, I came across a picture of a blogger dead in the city’s streets. The juxtaposition of a friend’s daily anecdote with the picture of the young man – about my age with his head bashed in – was shocking, scary, and confusing. I was empowered by this opportunity to help these young people, and leveraging my network of natural activists, their networks, and beyond seemed both gratifying and necessary.

I commented on the picture and urged my friends to do the same. I, and millions of others, tagged, reposted, and blogged stories about Egypt. The graphic images and sentiments floated from Facebook to Twitter, using all of the benefits of the search engine to mobilize this cause. My involvement in this major event was not only satisfying, but it would set a precedent for my own passion for social media marketing with a social justice focus.

From Bloggers to Martyrs

Human Rights Activist Fadi Al Qadi continued to depict the ongoing climate of abuse in an interview with TIME Magazine. “The record of the Egyptian security response towards peaceful demonstrators recently has been really awful,” he said. “It is not legal, it is brutal, and it is a fundamental contradiction of the Egyptian government’s promises of reform.”

Through 2011, many bloggers using the Web to articulate Egypt’s desire for freedom would continue to be targets of abuse and arrest by security forces.

Blogger Mohammad Al Sharqawi claimed to have been beaten and sexually assaulted after being arrested during a protest. “The pain was terrible,” Al Sharqawi wrote in the statement. “I was screaming asking him to stop so that I can catch my breath. He took down my underwear, and tore it to pieces, and kept on hitting me on different parts of my body asking me to bend down. I refused, but they forced me.”

Sexual assault was also a new variety of torture being used against activists. Abuse had never been this bad, Sharqawi noted, since the government’s attack on Islamists 13 years ago. While blogging had become dangerous for many by 2011, at the height of the opposition protests, it had become the go-to tool to publicize the plight of Egyptians and gain support from online allies. Bloggers saw themselves as martyrs, making sacrifices for the good of their countrymen.

A Fight for Access, A Fight for Change

In January of 2011, in another attempt to stop the protests, which had grown much larger and more violent since 2006, the Egyptian government shut down all access to the Internet. Protestors filled Tahrir Square, handing out flyers, waving signs, and broadcasting the events on cellular phones. Through live streaming apps like Bambuser, live footage was streamed to Facebook and Twitter, spawning a renewed interest and support from the online community and demonstrating that even through the largest Internet blackout to date, Egyptians would fight for access and change. Google even helped, creating a “Speak to Tweet” app that allowed callers to use landline communication to speak their tweets.

In partnership with the broadcast media, Egypt made history overturning Mubarak’s oppressive regime and launching the first major eRevolution: a revolution propelled mainly by social networking, by Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and Youtube.

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  • JCraigDC

    Great piece on the power of social networking and the apps that provide instant video and information from wherever there is a cell tower.  This type of movement wouldn’t have been possible 10 or even 5 years ago.  Clearly, the revolution will not be televised — but those connected to social networks will know all about it.  Even more reason to get training on wise and informed use of these apps in the hands of disadvantaged people so they can tell their stories and work toward equality and justice.

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