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Egypt: Too soon to analyze, so here’s my outbox

Protesters stop for prayer during January 28th demonstrations in Cairo (possibly 6th October Bridge.) Twitpic posted by @ollywainwright

Like many people, I’ve spent the day glued to Al Jazeera English’s coverage of the protests that have taken place all across Egypt. Egyptian friends had made it clear to me that today would be pivotal – the day the revolution took place, or failed to catch fire. I’m stunned by the bravery of the people who took to the streets, knowing they’d face police willing to use tear gas and rubber bullets to drive them back. I’m fascinated at how effectively protesters mobilized with communications (not just internet, but mobile phone and SMS) cut. And I’m deeply moved by the photos that show protesters praying in the middle of demonstrations, sometimes with police joining them, sometimes, as above, with water cannons trying to disperse them while they pray.

And like everyone else, I’m waiting to hear Mubarak speak… or to hear the news that he’s disappeared and that the military has taken charge of the country. It’s too early for analysis, of how the protests managed to be so massive, of the role (or lack of role) of social media, of implications for the broader region. Or maybe it’s the right time for more nimble pundits than me. All I can do is share my outbox with you – here’s some email I’ve sent to friends and colleagues answering questions that have come in today:

In response to a reporter’s question about the importance of Internet to the movements in Egypt and Tunisia, and whether internet access is a human right:

Both Tunisia and Egypt have experienced broad-based popular revolutions. The people who’ve taken to the streets aren’t just the elites using social media – they’re a broad swath of society, heavy on young people, but including a wide range of ages, incomes and political ideologies. It’s a mistake to link the protests too tightly to factors like Facebook, Twitter, Wikileaks – at the root, these protests are about economics, demographics and decades of autocratic rule.

But because they’re popular movements, it’s very much worth asking how they’ve been organized, and what’s convinced people to take to the streets. In both Tunisia and Egypt, it’s pretty clear that these protests have not been organized by existing political parties. (The Brotherhood in Egypt helped turn people out for the protests today in Egypt, but they are not the core organizers, and have been very careful not to claim leadership.) What motivates tens of thousands of people to take to the streets, knowing that they’re going to face severe reactions from security forces.

Media plays a role here. In Tunisia, protests started with the immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, and initially were confined to Sidi Bouzid, a small and relatively disconnected city. The protests got attention across the country and throughout the Arab world via Al Jazeera, which aggressively covered the protests, despite the fact that the network’s reporters had been banned from the country. Al J leaned heavily on social media, reproducing images and video from Facebook, which is widely used (19%+ percent of Tunisian population uses Facebook) in the country. Al Jazeera is widely watched in Tunisia, and images of people taking to the streets in Sidi Bouzid helped spark the protests that spread throughout the country and eventually to Tunis, where they toppled the government. I don’t think social media was the prime actor, but social media amplified by broadcast helped tell Tunisians that their fellow citizens were taking
to the streets.

The success of Tunisia’s revolution (and let’s pause to point out that, while they removed a hated dictator, it’s still not clear what comes next) has inspired people throughout the region, in ways that are good an bad. There’s been a rash of immolations, people following in the footsteps of Bouazizi, which is truly tragic. But there’s also a pervasive sense that change is afoot throughout the region. The success in Tunisia mobilized existing activist groups in Egypt, like
the April 6 Youth movement, Kefaya and the Brotherhood, who used a wide variety of tactics to bring people to the streets on the 25th and now on the 28th. Everyone knows that Egypt is not Tunisia – the Egyptian security forces are a much nastier beast, in no small part because they’re well trained and well armed, with extensive US support. But the possibility of victory in Tunisia, heavily amplified on Al Jazeera and other international media, has helped people decide to take to the streets.

It’s clear that social media had at least some impact in organizing the Egyptian protests – we saw tens of thousands of people signing up to participate on Facebook groups used to organize protests. It wasn’t the chief medium used to plan protests – SMS and even paper flyers were likely more important – but it did give people outside the region a chance to see what was coming. On 1/23, we were reporting about the forthcoming 1/25 protests in Cairo – that’s why it was so surprising to see much of international media, including Al Jazeera, caught flatfooted that day. By 1/28, plans had been widely disseminated, online and offline. When Mubarak ordered mobile phone networks and the internet shut off late last night, it was too late – people knew where they were going, what they were going to do and the interruption in
comms wasn’t sufficient to stop the protests.

The shutdown is significant because it means the pictures we’re getting of events on the ground are coming largely via journalists – i.e., our picture of the protests today are very much a pre-internet form of reporting. As I hang out on Twitter, my friends are doing what I’m doing – listening intently to Al Jazeera English and discussing what we see. The implications of this shutdown, long term, are pretty massive. Cutting a nation of 80m off the internet is a pretty clear
admission of fear and panic from the Mubarak government. The main implication, I think, is that it’s going to be very hard for things to return to “normal” in Egypt. The internet shutdown is a small, but telling, part of a larger picture: nothing will be the same tomorrow morning.

Is access to the internet a human right? The right to speak, to be heard, to organize, to air grievances are all rights protected under the universal declaration of human rights. When we defend those rights nowadays, we defend them online as well as offline, because the public sphere includes the digital as well as the physical. I think the notion of an internet shutdown is viscerally uncomfortable to US audiences because it suggests a thuggish government willing to silence all dissent if possible. But human rights are being much more enthusiastically violated by the riot police beating demonstrators, dragging them into vans and leaving them by roadsides in the desert. If an internet shutdown is what it took to get Americans to realize that Egypt – a nation we support with $1.3b of military aid a year – has a serious human rights problem, then we just aren’t paying attention.

To a group of political scientists who study politics and internet, looking for realtime coverage and analysis of what’s taking place in Egypt:

It’s been a pretty extraordinary couple of weeks. The events in Tunisia were a stunning surprise – it took a very long time for the protests in Sidi Bouzid to turn into a nationwide movement, and it wasn’t clear that the unrest would spread from that small, disconnected city to the whole nation. Now, it feels a bit more like watching an avalanche – there’s incredible instability and power, and it seems very clear that Egypt cannot return to business as usual
after today’s events.

My friends and I are staying glued to AJE, which is doing an excellent job of streaming coverage from Cairo, especially impressive as there’s been such a strong government crackdown on communications, and because it’s clear that the police have been targeting journalists.

Twitter was hugely useful in following the protests on January 25, but it’s much less useful today, as the internet is mostly shut down, and mobile phone networks are disabled in most areas where protests are taking case. Still, it’s worth paying attention to Alaa Abdel Fateh, an Egyptian dissident living in South Africa, who’s acting as an aggregator and router for reports from the ground. One of the most interesting initiatives is a project designed to get reports out via landline phone and onto Twitter – someone is literally taking phonecalls, translating and posting on @Jan25voices. I’m also getting some very
interesting news from friends who work for Jazeera, who’ve often got the best news from the ground – Mohamed Nanabhay (@mohamed), Abulrahman Warsarme (@abdu)

AJE’s liveblog is excellent –
Guardian and NYTimes also doing the same, but I haven’t found them as helpful.

As for deeper reporting and more context, I think Foreign Policy has done the best work thus far, especially on their Mideast Channel. I trust Marc Lynch’s analysis – he’s incredibly smart about both the region and the power of traditional and social media. Foreign Policy has been one of the main places we’ve argued about issues of media influence – here was my contribution to that debate, and a very smart reaction to that piece from Zeynep Tufekci.

Of course, Global Voices has been all over the story – we were able to predict the Jan 25 protests on Jan 23 based on what we were hearing in social media. Here’s the link to our Egypt coverage.

I’ll hope to take some of our upcoming meeting to talk through some of the theoretical issues these events raise. Some very quick thoughts on the relationship between new media, old media and mobilization:

– Understanding how protests spread from Sidi Bouzid through Tunisia probably means analyzing the relationship between social media and Al Jazeera. Jazeera covered the protests intensely and in detail, but as they’d had their bureau in Tunis shut down, and as the country prevented reporters from going to Sidi Bouzid, they leaned heavily on social media for footage of the protests. By broadcasting those protests via AlJ, which has very wide viewership, Tunisians got the
message that they could take to the streets – that it was risky, but could happen across the country. It certainly wasn’t a media led revolution, but it’s quite possible that social media plus broadcast helped reinforce the impulse to protest.

– There’s been a strong role for social media in planning protests in Egypt. It’s clearly not the only, or even main, tool for mobilizing, but we saw tens of thousands of people committing to the January 25 and 28 protests via Facebook groups, and the April 6 Youth movement, a Facebook-based movement, seems to be one of the prime actors.

– Censorship is the sincerest form of flattery. While Ben Ali lifted restrictions on the internet shortly before his government fell, Mubarak has gone in the other direction, and effected a pretty thorough internet shutdown late last night. Too late – the 28th protests were very well planned and couldn’t be stopped by shutting
down comms. But fascinating to think about the implications of taking the largest nation in the region offline.

Lots to think about, lots to analyze, but for now, just fascinated watching this unfold.

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