(Amplified) Voices for the Voiceless
Issue 11, Summer 2010
Protesters sympathetic to Egypt's Baha'is hold up enlarged copies of a Baha’i ID
“Still, it cannot be denied, based on the observation of recent processes of sociopolitical change, that access to and use of wireless communication technology adds a fundamental tool to the arsenal of those who seek to influence politics and the political process without being constrained by the powers that be.”
-Castells et. al.
There are, generally, five kinds of newspapers in Egypt: the government-owned dailies, the opposition dailies, the party newspapers, the regional papers, and newspapers published from abroad.1 Public discourse is still dominated by government-owned or controlled media, such as the newspaper giant Al-Ahram and the state television. Independent newspapers such as Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Dustur have changed this equation, but the circulation figures still favor the government-owned and aligned media outlets. Egypt’s press environment can best be described as somewhat free. Rugh recently classified Egypt’s press environment as “transitional,” by which he means “these systems were quite complex, containing strong elements of government control and influence, alongside elements of freedom and diversity.”2 Rugh argues that while journalists have much more freedom than in the past in such countries (he includes Tunisia, Jordan and Algeria in the category) the government still retains certain privileges, and that there are “red lines” that journalists dare not cross. In a practical sense, this means there appears to be a lively press environment, with copious criticisms of regime practices and policies – even in the government-owned papers – but with a great deal of self-censorship occurring still. In Egypt, the process of obtaining a license to publish a newspaper is a daunting obstacle to any entity or individual who wishes to pursue one. Black3 details the ordeal that awaited the would-be publishers of El-Badeel in 2007, who had to wait months upon months for their license.
As one might expect in such an authoritarian regime, many groups and individuals have difficulty accessing the public sphere. This exclusion might be due to social factors, as in the case of religious minorities such as Coptic Christians and Baha’is, or it might be due to political exclusion, as in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood. Whatever the source of exclusion, such groups have had great difficulty having their voices heard as part of a robust public sphere. Since the growth of the Internet in the mid-90s, scholars have looked for signs that the digital world might provide a haven for the growth of alternative public spheres for such groups, sometimes conceptualized as “electronic public spheres”, explicitly borrowing the concept of the public sphere from Habermas and applying it to the Internet. They do so in recognition that, as Palczewski argues, “Social movement and counterpublic sphere theories have recognized the importance of identity creation and self-expression to the disempowered.”4 Blogs themselves have long been posited as “the voice of the voiceless”, a way to democratize public life and add the voices of ordinary people to those of the elites.
In addition to blogging, the rise of Web 2.0 has given rise to the creation of what some scholars have called “social media”, what Shirky refers to as “social tools” and what I refer to as Social Media Networks (SMNs). Social Media Networks encompass Weblogs (i.e. blogs), social networking sites such as Facebook, niche-networking sites such as LinkedIn (for professional networking), crowdsourcing content such as Digg5 (a site that allows users to rank and control media content), text-messaging services (by which mobile phone users can send written messages to one another), micromedia services such as Twitter (a many-to-many communications service that allows users to send messages to each other or post them to blogs), picture-sharing services such as Flickr (which allows users to mark or “tag” their photos and self-organize the content), and event-planning sites like Meet-Up. Much of what these services do is allow people to share information and to form groups, at a very low cost, with a very large number of people, and to do so interactively.
Online social networks are of critical importance when seeking to understand the impact of blogs. A single blog is simple a node in the vast network of the Internet. But not all nodes are created equal. In fact, the readership of blogs is governed by power laws, the idea that certain nodes in these networks have virtually no limit on their potential size or scale.6 The nodes of ordinary networks – a street grid, for example – have a more even distribution of connections, but networks governed by power laws can have wildly uneven distributions. Gladwell and Barabasi, among others, have noted that while most people tend to have roughly the same number of acquaintances, a small number of people (those Gladwell termed “connectors”) have an extraordinary number of social connections.7 In network terminology those connectors are hubs, and according to the law of preferential attachment, hubs are much more likely to attract new connections than other nodes in the network. The application of power laws to cyberspace was made when scholars tried to “map” the Internet and found that while there are millions of Web pages, only a few have more than a handful of links to other pages, while a select few (the hubs) have thousands and thousands. Again, as Watts argues, what distinguishes such a network from most of these ordinary networks is that a tiny minority of “nodes” will have an extraordinary numbers of connections, while the vast majority have few or none.8 This finding has proven to be quite robust.9 Understanding that readership is governed by power laws in the world of Social Media Networks will help us determine exactly how digital activists may and may not have an impact in authoritarian countries.
The Open Net Initiative, which monitors the extent of government filtering of the Internet globally, argues that there are still no formal attempts to filter or block Web sites in Egypt (2009)10. Boas and Kalathil note that Egypt, in contrast to Saudi Arabia, has no formal mechanism to control or filter Internet content.11 What the Egyptian government does do quite effectively is harass and repress bloggers and other practitioners of online media. In fact all three of the journalists in prison at the time of writing are bloggers, and the regime arrested more than 100 bloggers in 2008 alone. Still, the lack of architectural control mechanisms means that individuals have still been willing to engage in activism online12, and in many cases seem willing to suffer prison time. If Social Media Networks can help minorities challenge authoritarian states, we should be able to see this effect in Egypt, with its relatively liberal policies on online dissent.
This article will explain the impact of social media on subordinated minorities in Egypt through the exploration of the case of ID cards for Baha’is.The case study will seek to answer two questions: 1) Are Social Media Networks creating electronic public spheres or counterpublics for these groups? and 2) What is the actual political or social impact of these efforts? In other words, while existing studies have usually merely documented the electronic activity of subordinated groups, this study treats such activity as sui generis and seeks to build theories about the conditions under which social media might alter the material political conditions for subordinated minorities. Such a recognition does not preclude an appropriate recognition of the importance of self-expression and identity for subordinated minorities, but argues that in addition to these important functions, Social Media Networks are the critical missing variable in explaining the impact of the Internet on minorities. The null hypothesis is that whatever their contributions to deliberation and building democratic values (and even these hypotheses are suspect given recent research by Sunstein13 and Hindman14, Egyptian social media practitioners are doing little to nothing to change the political environment for subordinated minorities like women, Baha’is and Muslim Brothers. The alternative hypothesis advanced here is that SMNs transmit information from electronic public spheres into larger spheres, either national or global, and thereby impact perceptions of subordinated minorities and, under certain circumstances, lead to mobilizations. They do so through critical “nodes” of elite blogger-activists and their connections to the mainstream Egyptian media. The competing hypotheses will be evaluated against the evidence presented below in the hopes of arriving at an explanation and further building theory.
Politics in the online public sphere
Since the rise of Internet advocacy in the 1990s, scholars have sought to categorize and explain the impact of electronic communities on politics and society, in the United States. and abroad. One of the most popular subjects of scholarly inquiry has been the use of the Internet by marginalized groups – diasporas, ethnic, religious and political minorities, and revolutionary groups. These inquiries are usually couched in language borrowed from Jurgen Habermas, in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Habermas defined the public sphere as “a domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed.”15 The public sphere as it developed in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries was imagined as a place where previously excluded groups and individuals could have their voices heard, through conversations in cafés, salons, and newspapers .16 Habermas called the people’s “public use of their reason” “peculiar and without historical precedent”17. It is the aspect of unfettered access that makes it so difficult to theorize online public spheres as Habermasian public spheres, especially in authoritarian or impoverished contexts. However, Habermas’s third element, that “ideas presented in the public sphere were considered on the basis of their merits, and not on the social standing of the speaker”18 does appear to apply to the Internet. Theorists of online public spheres are particularly apt to seize on this last point, since in theory blogs, chat rooms, and community Web sites are open to anyone – both for formation and participation.
Dahlberg, however, offers a full set of reasons why online public spheres fail to meet the standards delineated by Habermas.19 Such reasons include the increasing commercialization of the digital world, the lack of civility and deliberation online, the difficulty of ascertaining the veracity of information, and the exclusion of certain groups and individuals because of unequal access to digital communications. One might add Hindman’s finding that the American blogosphere has merely crowned a new elite, since many prominent bloggers and activists are the graduates of Ivy League universities, are well-known journalists, or can be thought of in other ways as elites. Many such inquiries have involved delineating the terms and conditions of what might constitute such an online public sphere, and whether certain sites, communities, or groups meet those standards.
Other scholars have characterized the use of the Internet by subordinated groups as “virtual counterpublics” or “cyber-movements”20. Counterpublic theory may be a particularly appropriate way to analyze the use of Social Media Networks in Egypt. Fraser (1992) defines counterpublics as “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs”21. Counterpublics are theorized as operating in distinction from, and opposition to, the bourgeois public sphere of Habermasian theory, inasmuch as the public sphere itself can be exclusionary. Asen and Brouwer note that counterpublics have a dual nature – on the one hand they operate as sites of debate, identity-formation, and refuge from the public sphere, while on the other, they serve as sites of training and resistance for activism in the broader public sphere22. Ideas of exclusion, oppression, and resistance are key for counterpublic theory. In Egypt, Baha’is are struggling to constitute identities in the face of powerful state and corporate interests that seek to impose conceptions of identity and action upon them. And for all, the digital world of Social Media Networks offers the possibility of, at minimum, a discursive arena largely, though not entirely, free of state interference, where ideas and practices of resistance can be developed and senses of community fostered.
Blogs also might offer a kind of updated literary public sphere. Habermas outlined two kinds of public spheres – the literary and the political. The former emerged through the development of novels out of letter-writing, and led to the development of interiority. Habermas argued that the development of novels in 18th-century Europe restructured “the intimacy of the private realm”, which came to be seen as “the authentic space of human existence”23. The public nature of the novel meant that no one with the means to purchase them could be excluded from reading them. Similarly, one of the animating goals of bloggers from subordinated minorities is precisely to humanize the Other, to allow access to the interiority of demonized groups, and to give them an “authentic space of human existence”. At the same time, those blogs offer not only a glimpse into the inner lives of the Other, but they also provide their authors with the ability to critically comment on the affairs of the state. Social Media Networks increase the "carrying capacity" for public debate. Maratea argues that "the emergence of social problems results from a competitive process in which claims-makers vie for public attention by promoting problem claims in public arenas"24. However, the public has limited attention, and traditional avenues of leveling claims in society have traditionally been limited - newspaper op-ed pages, demonstrations, and the mainstream media. The blogosphere, however, has been able to introduce new claims-makers into the public arena (what others might call the public sphere), by offering citizens publishing tools at very low cost25 . The introduction of new claims-makers often takes the form of blogs providing journalists with "a trove of available claims"26. While Maratea was writing strictly about the blogosphere, the rise in importance of other Social Media Networks since 2008 only serves to provide elite journalists with more potential "troves" of claims and claims-makers. And in authoritarian contexts such as Egypt, the carrying capacity of traditional public arenas is even lower, due to repression, censorship, and self-censorship. So SMNs might play a particularly important role in such societies, transmitting claims from groups such as Baha'is to elite journalists, where they reach the public sphere. This study argues, again, that it is the links between elite journalists and SMN activists in Egypt that explains a great deal of the impact of these technologies on Egyptian public life.
Bahai’s and virtual identity-formation
1 Salih, Khalid. “Huriyyat al-Sahafa.” Cairo Center for the Study of Human Rights, 2007. pp. 13-15
2 Rugh, William A. “Do National Political Systems Still Influence Arab Media?” Arab Media & Society (May 2007). P. 9
3 Black, Jeffrey. “Egypt’s Press: More free, still fettered.” Arab Media & Society (January 2008). P. 11
4Palczewski, 2002. Palczewski, C. Cyber-movements, new social movements, and counterpublics. In R. Asen & D.Brouwer (Eds.), Counterpublics and the State (pp. 161-186). New York: State University of New York, 2001. P. 165.
5 The term “crowdsourcing content” is borrowed from Brian Solis and his graphical illustration of the social media world “The Conversation Prism”.
6 The unfortunate and misleading term “scale-free” has been applied to networks that exhibit these characteristics. The term is misleading because such networks certainly do have a scale, just one that differs from other kinds of networks.
7 Barabási, Albert-László. Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life. New York: Plume Books, 2002.
8 Watts, Duncan. 2003. p. 107.
9 Hindman, Matthew. The Myth of Digital Democracy.
11 Kalathil, Shanthi, and Taylor C. Boas. Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, 2003. P. 122.
12 Faris (2008) for example outlines the use of digital media by the April 6th Youth Movement in Egypt. Radsch (2008) details the long history of politically-motivated Egyptian blogging.
13 Sunstein, Cass. Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge. New York, NY. Oxford University Press, 2006.
14 Hindman, Matthew. The Myth of Digital Democracy.
15 Al-Saggaf, Yeslam. “The Online Public Sphere in the Arab World: The War in Iraq on the Al Arabiya Website.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12 (2006): 311-334.
16 Poor, Nathan. “Mechanisms of an Online Public Sphere: The Website Slashdot.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 10/2 (2005).
17 Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989. P. 27.
18 Ibid., p. 7.
19 Dahlberg, L. “Computer-mediated communication and the public sphere: A critical analysis. “ Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 7/1.
20 Palczewski 2002, 165.
21 Fraser, Nancy, 2002. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in Craig Calhoun ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 1992. pp. 109–142
22 Asen and Brower 2001, 7.
23 Edgar, Andrew. The Philosophy of Habermas. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2005. p. 37
24 Maratea, Ray. “The e-Rise and Fall of Social Problems: The Blogosphere as a Public Arena.” Social Problems 55/1: 139-160. p. 140
25 Maratea 2008, 142.
26 Ibid. 147.
27 “Baha’i Faith: Early Days in Egypt.” Baha’i Faith in Egypt. June 6th, 2006. http://www.bahai-egypt.org/2006/06/bahai-faith-early-days-in-egypt.html
28 “State to Appeal Ruling that Favors Egypt’s Baha’is.” Daily News Egypt. May 5th, 2006. http://www.dailystaregypt.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=1394
29 Bayoumi, Amr and Mohamed Azzam. “Baha’i twins receive first national ID card with a “blank” for religious affiliation. Their father considers it a rescue from “civil death.” Al-Masry Al-Youm. August 9th, 2009. http://www.almasry-alyoum.com/article2.aspx?ArticleID=221981
30 Interview with Samir Shady. Cairo, Egypt, April 21st, 2008.
31 “On the Baha’is and the Crusades.” Egyptian Baha’i. February 23rd, 2008. Author’s translation.
32 “Ya Shaykh?” Egyptian Baha’i. January 29th, 2008. http://egyptianbahai.wordpress.com/2008/01/29/oh_sheikh/#more-110
33 “Introduction.” Wijhat Nathar Ukhra. August 3rd, 2006. http://fromdifferentangle.blogspot.com/2006_08_01_archive.html
34 Castells, Manuel. The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture Vol. 2: The Power of Identity. P. 6.
35 Castells, Manuel. “Communication, Power and Counter-Power in the Network Society.” International Journal of Communication 1 (2007), 238-266. p. 248.
36 Ibid., 249.
37 “The Radwan Holiday in Egypt.” Egyptian Baha’i. April 28th, 2008. http://egyptianbahai.wordpress.com/2008/04/28/ridwan_in_egyp/ Author’s translation.
38 “Egyptian Bah’ais and ID cards.” Baha’i Faith in Egypt. June 2nd, 2006. http://www.bahai-egypt.org/search?updated-max=2006-07-09T19%3A01%3A00-05%3A00&max-results=50
39 Barabási, Albert-László. Linked: How Everything Is Connected To Everything Else. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.
40 Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. 2008.
42 Interview with Ehab El-Zalaky, Cairo, Egypt, April 11th, 2008.
43 Az Ad-Deen, Akhmed. “Leaders of American Baha’is demand the implementation of administrative court ruling on ID cards…and estimate the number of Baha’is in Egypt at 2000.” Al-Masry Al-Youm, August 21st, 2008. Author’s translation.
44 “Today’s Baha’i Protest.” Rantings of a Sandmonkey. December 17th, 2006. http://www.sandmonkey.org/2006/12/17/todays-bahai-protest/
49 “Court denies Ba’hais legal recognition.” The Arabist. December 17th, 2009. http://arabist.net/archives/2006/12/16/court-denies-bahais-legal-recognition/
50 El-Zelaky himself later admitted that there were errors in the coverage of his paper, but argued his reporters were doing their best. Interview with Ehab El-Zelaky, Cairo, Egypt. April 19th, 2008.
51 El-Hamalawy, Hossam. “Bigotry and sectarianism par excellence.” 3Arabawy. December 16th, 2006. http://arabist.net/arabawy/2006/12/16/anti-bahaais-bigotry-and-sectarianism/
52 Drezner, Daniel and Henry Farrell. “The Power and Politics of Blogs.” Public Choice 134 (January 2008): 15-30.
53 Whitaker, Brian. “Egypt’s step toward freedom of belief.” The Guardian. March 17th, 2009.
54 Stack, Liam. “Egyptians win right to drop religion from ID cards” Christian Science Monitor, April 20th, 2009. P. 6
55 Slackman, Michael. “Hints of Pluralism Begin to Appear in Egyptian Religious Debates.” The New York Times. August 31st, 2009. P. 6.
56 “Majma‘ al-buhuth al-islamiyya: al-baha’iya haraka suhyuniyya tas‘a li-nashr al-fasad wa-l-radhila” Al Masry Al-Youm, May 30th, 2009. http://www.almasry-alyoum.com/article2.aspx?ArticleID=213030
57 “Ahmed ‘Abd al-Mu‘ti yaktub: mushkilatuna ma’a al-usuliyyin.” Al-Masry Al-Youm. May 7th, 2009. http://www.almasry-alyoum.com/article2.aspx?ArticleID=210026
58 Basha, Ahmed. “Ghazil al-Baha’iyin, al-Aqbat, wa al-Sa‘idi. Ayman Nour: Shoo?” Rose Al-Yousef, September 3rd, 2005. p.27.
59 Abdal Rahim, Gemal.“Ayn al-qanun salamat al-ghatha’a?” Al-Gumhuriyya. October 6th, 2009. P.16..
60 See for instance Abd al-Rahim, Gamal. “Shahidat al-hijab fi duwal al-irhab”. Al-Gumhuriya. July 7th, 2009. P. 14.
61“al-Hurriyat al-Diniya al-Amrikiya tutaalib Obama bi itharat qadaaya al-Aqbaat wa-l-Bahaa’iyin.” Al Masry Al-Youm, August 13th, 2009. http://www.almasry-alyoum.com/article2.aspx?ArticleID=222433
62 Castells, Manuel, et al. Mobile Communication and Society: A Global Perspective. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007. P. 209.
63 Lovink, Geert. Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture. New York, NY: Routledge, 2008.
64 “Egyptian blogs and the Baha’is.” Wijhat Nathr Okhra. December 13th, 2006. http://fromdifferentangle.blogspot.com/2006_12_01_archive.html. Her site does not provide stable URL links to each blog entry.
65 Hindman, 2008.
66 See for example: Wheeler, Deborah L. The Internet in the Middle East: Global Exectations and Local Imaginations in Kuwait. Albany, NY: State University Press of New York, 2006; Calfano, Brian Robert and Emile Sahlieyeh. “Transmitting Reform? Assessing New Media Influence on Political Rights in the Middle East.” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 17/1 (spring 2008): 63-77; Hofheinz, Albrecht. “The Internet in the Arab World: Playground for Political Liberalization.” Internationale Politik und Gesselschaft. (March 2005): 78-96
67 Al-Saggaf, 2006, 312.
68 Rutherford, Bruce K. Egypt After Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the
Arab World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.