Yesterday, after 17 days of protests, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak gave a speech to the Egyptian government that made it seem like he would not be stepping down. This led to many people on the ground in Egypt and elsewhere feeling depressed, a series of humorous jokes being bandied back and forth on Facebook and Twitter and one Twitter employee commenting to me,“Well, we can only do so much.”
It has become fashionable amongst Western media and armchair foreign policy experts (hi Malcolm) to dismiss the idea that what happened in Egypt was a digital revolution mainly because most people associate Facebook and Twitter with the mundane over-sharing of what you ate for breakfast. That and the fact that its been pretty damn hard to pin down what exactly causes revolutions. This belief isn’t helped by the truth that a ton of social media noise did not actually lead to a regime change in Iran during #IranElection.
But the many who said that social media was no match for Mubarak’s stubbornness and the fact that his dictatorship had been there for thirty years overlooked one key thing. #Egypt wasn’t just about Facebook and Twitter, it was about the Internet as a whole.
I started writing about Egypt because I was moved by an email we received on January 27th, with only a subject line, “Re: URGENT: Egypt blocks text messaging as well” and no body. It was from a Canada-based Egyptian, Mohamed El-Zohairy who was trying to get the word out about what would eventually be a complete Internet blackout in Egypt on that day. El-Zohairy’s email led to the following post, “Egypt Situation Gets Worse, People Reporting Internet And SMS Shutdown” and countless others on my part.
Over the next couple of days El-Zohairy would ping me with updates, eventually deciding that he would fly back to Egypt — Sending me a quick email along the lines of “This will be our last communication.” The Internet was still being blocked so I called him immediately and expressed my concern. After Mubarak announced that he would not seek another term in office and the country’s connectivity returned on February 2nd, I received this:
I have been in Egypt since Feb 2nd, and as you can imagine things have been moving really fast. This is the first chance I have to write you an email. I have been going to Tahrir Square every day since I arrived, and thankfully I have been safe and in one piece so far. The government has used every violent trick at their disposal, short of using the army, to kill this revolution. Recently they decided to switch strategies, they are using government controlled TV and press to win the public opinion and turn the people against each other. They are instilling fear into the average Egyptians, fear from foreign invasion by spreading rumors of infiltrators and people with foreign agendas leading the revolution. The truth is that the revolution is lead by the educated middle and upper-middle class Egyptian youth.
Right now, we are using social media to win back most of the public opinion, one friend at a time. It is a tough job, because only 5 million ppl are on facebook and Egypt is a country of 80 million. However, we believe we can educate the people on social media and eventually they will help in educating the rest of the population. The gov’t is making it easy for us though, by using rumors that are REALLY easy to debunk (i.e. The foreign threats are coming from: The US, Iran, Israel, Qatar, Europe. So the whole world has decided to unite in a conspiracy to topple the Egyptian regime)
This email, from an immigrant who flew to Egypt to take part in protests that culminated successfully today, is micro-proof that this was indeed an Internet revolution. And Zohairy says there were hundreds of activists like him, which was one of the main reasons his cause succeeded.
Pulling a country of 82 million people, around 17 million Internet users, 60 million cellphone subscribers, 7 million home phones, and 5 million Facebook users offline essentially created the largest flashmob ever, with around 8 million protesters in the streets across Egypt today according to reports. Says Zohairy, “Shutting down the Internet was the most stupid move this regime has taken. It gave the revolution huge media attention that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.”
From posting videos on YouTube, to using PhotoShop to create symbolic logos for the opposition, to using Facebook to organize protests, the events of the past 18 days undoubtedly played out online.
Aside from the more highly publicized manifestations like Khaled Said’s Facebook page, the Al Jazeera YouTube livestream, Speak2Tweet and of course #Jan25, #Mubarak and #Egypt, I have seen webpage memorials built in testament to the protesters, a group texting service centered around #Egypt, a person who took it upon themselves to become their own news network and a forum created to discuss wireless solutions in case an Egypt-style Internet takedown happened again. There are many others.
To those that think that social media functioned merely as an Evite service to Tahrir square: I have heard that the protesters used Google Realtime Search to view tweets when the Egyptian government shut down Twitter, because government officials did not know that Google functionality existed. In addition, activists Googled things like “How to deal with tear gas” and wrote anti-Government propaganda notes on Facebook, tagging all their friends. When the Egyptian government tried to convince its constituents that the protesters were being paid $50 and a bucket of KFC to sit at Tahrir, this image immediately went viral, countering the lies.
Today opposition leader and Googler (need any more proof of my headline?) Wael Ghonim publicly thanked Zuckerberg for Facebook’s role in supporting the protest. This might be the first time in recent history that Google and Facebook have come together on anything. And then there’s this http://www.ismubarakstillpresident.com/.
Do I think the Internet is partially responsible for Mubarak’s resignation? Yes, I do as naive as that might seem to some. But hey don’t ask me, ask the people who organized the movement to take him down.
And in case you need those answers asap, you can find Mohamad Zohairy on Twitter at @elmasry.