Cyberactivism in the Egyptian Revolution: How Civic Engagement and Citizen Journalism Tilted the Balance
Issue 14, Summer 2011
An Egyptian protester acknowledges the role of social media, picture by Awais Chaudhry
“If you want to free a society, just give them Internet access.” These were the words of 30-year-old Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim in a CNN interview on February 9, 2011, just two days before long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down under pressure from a popular, youthful, and peaceful revolution. This revolution was characterized by the instrumental use of social media, especially Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and text messaging by protesters, to bring about political change and democratic transformation. This article focuses on how these new types of media acted as effective tools for promoting civic engagement, through supporting the capabilities of the democratic activists by allowing forums for free speech and political networking opportunities; providing a virtual space for assembly; and supporting the capability of the protestors to plan, organize, and execute peaceful protests.
Additionally, it explores how these new media avenues enabled an effective form of citizen journalism, through providing forums for ordinary citizens to document the protests; to spread the word about ongoing activities; to provide evidence of governmental brutality; and to disseminate their own words and images to each other, and, most importantly, to the outside world through both regional and transnational media.
In discussing these aspects, special attention will be paid to the communication struggle which erupted between the people and the government, through shedding light on how the Egyptian people engaged in both a political struggle to impose their own agendas and ensure the fulfillment of their demands, while at the same time engaging in a communication struggle to ensure that their authentic voices were heard and that their side of the story was told, thus asserting their will, exercising their agency, and empowering themselves. The article concludes that these aggregate efforts resulted in tilting the political and communication balance in Egypt in favor of freedom-fighters and political activists.
To better understand these phenomena, and how they played out before, during, and after the Egyptian revolution, a brief overview of the dynamics of the transformative Arab media landscape, with a special focus on the role of new media, is mandatory.
The Transformative Arab Media Landscape: The Impact of New Media:
For a number of years, the Arab media landscape has been witnessing a perplexing paradox, namely: a gap between the vibrant and active media arena, where many resistant and oppositional voices could be heard, on one hand, and on the other hand the dormant and stagnant political arena, which did not exhibit any serious signs of active change, popular participation, or true democratization. This puzzling gap, which was prevalent in many parts of the Arab world, was explained by some Arab media scholars (Seib, 2007; Khamis, 2007, 2008) by using the “safety valves” notion, i.e., that Arab media, especially the opposition press, were being exploited by the autocratic ruling regimes as a platform for people to vent their angry feelings and resentment towards their authoritarian governments, instead of taking decisive steps in the direction of radical reform and transformation, thus substituting words for action (Seib, 2007). It was not until the latest wave of political upheaval that swept the Arab region that Arab media, or more precisely new media in the Arab world, started to become effective tools for “public will mobilization” (Salmon, Fernandez & Post, 2010).