Beyond Egypt’s “Facebook Revolution” and Syria’s “YouTube Uprising:” Comparing Political Contexts, Actors and Communication Strategies
Issue 15, Spring 2012
Activists coordinate online from Cairo's Tahrir Square / Photograph by Sarah Sheffer
There is no doubt that social media has played, and are still playing, a crucial role in the calls for political change that have swept, and are still sweeping, the Arab region. However, their role as catalysts for political change and mobilizers for political action must be contextualized within the broader political and social structure in each country, with all their respective complexities and unique qualities. Therefore, in comparing and contrasting the role of cyberactivism in the Egyptian revolution and in the Syrian uprising, one year since they began, it is important to compare and contrast the underlying nuanced social, political and communication structures unique to each country, as well as the different roles of their various political actors and the types of online and offline communication strategies they deployed.
This necessitates avoiding the technologically deterministic approach that privileges the tools of social change over the actors that employ them, thus inappropriately elevating social media above face-to-face mass action as agents for bringing about political change. We contend that social media may be necessary, but are not sufficient, tools for pursuing and achieving sociopolitical transformation. For example, describing the Egyptian revolution as the “Facebook Revolution” or calling the Syrian uprising the “YouTube uprising”, as some analysts and commentators have named them, glosses over the sheer material and moral force of millions of Egyptians and Syrians who took to the streets, risking injury, disability, or death, to fight for self-determination, basic human rights, dignity, and freedom.
We must also consider what revolutionary phase Egypt and Syria have reached, which dictates the role of social media, i.e. how and why they are being used, by whom, and for what purpose(s). For example, the fact that Egypt has crossed over to the post-revolutionary phase means that the role of social media in Egypt can be classified under three distinct phases, namely: the mobilization role in the pre-revolutionary phase; the coordination and organization role in the revolutionary phase; and the nation-building and consensus-building role in the post-revolutionary phase. Only the first and second phases can be analyzed in the Syrian case so far.
In this article, we shed light on the communication struggle that accompanied the political struggle in both Egypt and Syria. On the one hand, we describe how political activists used new forms of communication, especially digital and online social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and the video-sharing portal YouTube, as tools for highlighting the regimes’ abuses of their citizens, promoting citizen journalism, shaping public opinion, and organizing and mobilizing citizenry to combat repression. We show how activists integrated these online activities with offline activities, such as staging demonstrations and protests and launching on-the-ground campaigns. On the other hand, we also shed light on how the regimes in both Egypt and Syria used communication tools to protect their interests and to counter the political activists’ efforts, whether via traditional, state-owned media avenues or new media tools. In doing so, we highlight the similarities and differences, or the overlaps and divergences, between the Egyptian and Syrian cases.
Cyberactivism and Political Transformation: The Case of Egypt
During the early 1950s in Egypt, and specifically between the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 and the popular uprising of 2011, successive Egyptian presidents, namely Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, exercised tight control over media ownership and content, albeit to varying degrees, and used state-owned, national media to disseminate local and regional public opinion campaigns (Rugh, 2004; Boyd, 1999; Mellor, 2007).
The margin of media freedom allowed under these three leaders was constantly stretching and shrinking, leading to a highly ambiguous state-media relationship (Khamis, 2007, 2008). This resulted in a paradoxical situation whereby a relatively expanding margin of freedom granted to the opposition press, especially under Mubarak, was not matched by an equal margin of true democratic practice. This led some scholars, such as Seib (2007), to contend that the media were being used as “safety valves” to allow the public to vent their anger at dictatorship, corruption, and violations of human rights, without having to resort to more radical measures, such as protesting, demonstrating, or revolting.
The Egyptian government under Mubarak played an active role in facilitating and accelerating the spread of the Internet, allowing it to become a very effective weapon used by protesters and political activists to topple the regime in 2011. This is in line with Khamis and Sisler’s (2010) observation that even though many Internet websites and blogs are used to defy and resist autocratic governments and dictatorial regimes in the Arab world, a number of these governments took steps to encourage Internet proliferation and accessibility, mainly in order to boost economic development. The Egyptian government under Mubarak was no exception.
Widespread access to the Internet and the emerging concept of blogs (Atia, 2006; Iskandar, 2006) meant that a whole new arena became available to the public in general, and to political activists in particular, in which to express their views, ideas, and criticisms, to comment on everyday issues, and to discuss cultural, social, and religious topics. In brief, it meant a shift from a tightly controlled and monolithic media system to a much more pluralistic and diverse media arena.
A few years before the 2011 revolution, a small but influential group of urban, highly educated, middle-class, primarily young Egyptian activists, coordinating and operating through multiple social media platforms, formed an array of loosely affiliated grassroots activist networks throughout the country (Ishani, 2011). These networks developed and deployed strategies that, compared to conventional approaches, were (a) more diffuse than consolidated; (b) more divergent and adaptive than uniform; and (c) more interactive than monolithic.
Over time, these networks expanded in number, size, and location through snowballing recruitment of activists, thus preparing a foundation for credible mass action sufficient for regime overthrow at some future but unknown point in time. These Internet-savvy actors, comprising a very small proportion of the Egyptian population, went on to exert an outsized influence during an extremely brief period of time (18 days), succeeding in drawing millions of ordinary Egyptian citizens into a monumental grassroots revolt that brought down the Mubarak regime.
In the few years prior to the 2011 revolution, Egyptian political activists specifically sought out strategies through new media tools to (a) educate citizens to recognize their unjust social circumstances; (b) achieve consensus that the lack of justice must be redressed; (c) mobilize large groups of citizens to demand their rights and exercise their public will in street protests (Salmon, Fernandez, & Post, 2010); (d) achieve and maintain discipline during protests and to respond to police brutality with nonviolence; and (e) inform the international community about the regime’s debasement and suppression of ordinary Egyptian citizens.
By 2008, activist groups had successfully coordinated complex and sophisticated operations, both virtually and on the street. For example, leaders of the Egyptian April 6 Youth Movement, an opposition group comprised of young tech-savvy activists who staged their first massive labor strike on April 6, 2008 in el-Mahalla el-Kubra, used cell phones, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to organize meetings and protests, document police brutality, and obtain legal representation for members arrested by security forces (Ishani, 2011; Nelson, 2008).