Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Online Activism Fights New Battles in Egypt

Social media still being used to protest against limits to freedom.
By Alaa Abd El Fattah
  • The large street campaigns may be over, but activists are continuing to press for change using online media. Here, a protester holds an Egyptian flag during demonstrations earlier this year. (Photo: Flickr/M. Soli)
    The large street campaigns may be over, but activists are continuing to press for change using online media. Here, a protester holds an Egyptian flag during demonstrations earlier this year. (Photo: Flickr/M. Soli)

Last week, we held a day of online activism to criticise military rule. There are still limits imposed on conventional media, with a mix of legal threats – two editors were recently called in for questioning by the army – and self-censorship.

So to protest the case of a blogger who had been sentenced by a tribunal, we organised a day where the idea was to encourage people to write a blog post criticising the army. More than 350 people took part in this, the vast majority of them long-term bloggers, although there were also some new voices.

This was basically a collective breaking of the rules. If they arrested one of us, they would have to arrest us all.

Organising a mass online protest had the additional benefit of giving the conventional media an excuse to broach the issue by covering our action.

This is what we used to do before the revolution, and it is quite sad that we still have to do it.

But there is still clearly a need for social media as a platform for activism, even if the nature of its use is changing. Before the revolution, the internet was used as a platform to inform people, to break certain informal taboos over politics, and to build a discourse to challenge the status quo.

What we see now, at this stage of the revolution, is a lot of debate and discussion. There is a sense that simply by discussing the intricate points of political reform, ordinary people can have an effect. We can even figure out how to have the best possible electoral system through these online discussions.

For instance, Twitter was never huge in Egypt before the revolution, although it was slowly growing. Now it is exploding massively. Twitter is being integrated with television talk shows, for example. They no longer take many calls as the switchboards are inundated, so they rely instead on Twitter for questions as well as responses.

Political candidates and media figures all have Twitter accounts, although right now – because the electoral scene is unclear and movements are still emerging – social media are being used as a tool for recruiting and informing people, rather than for actual campaigning.

The Muslim Brotherhood has a very heavy presence online, but as they are a very conservative bunch they have their own websites, chat forums and wikis.

As part of the pro-democracy movement, we have begun to see the Muslim Brotherhood – especially the younger and more liberal generation – interacting more with other groups and bloggers.

There are also millions of people with mobile phones capable of accessing the internet. Whereas before the revolution, they might have used them to download ringtones, more and more are using them to access social media or follow the news.

The picture now is that there is no real separation between what happens online and offline. Social and conventional media have merged, with bloggers invited onto chat shows to interview politicians and military leaders, or asked to write for newspapers.

The spaces for online and street activism have overlapped.

I was imprisoned for my activism in 2006, and back then I could never have imagined that the revolution would happen the way it did. In those days, we thought we would have to build up gradually to create a mass movement, that maybe we could rally a few hundreds of thousands and get factory workers to launch strikes, which would lead to a dialogue followed by some compromise with the state.

We didn’t imagine the movement would be so big or achieve the level of unity that it did, or that Mubarak would fall.

I think people still find it hard to believe he has gone.

Alaa Abd El Fattah is a leading Egyptian blogger and activist, now based in Johannesburg.

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