Two big misconceptions have been circulated about the Egyptian revolution in January 2011: first in the international media, research, and policy circles, and second inside Egypt itself through the Egyptian media. In the international sphere, the misconception was that the Egyptian revolution was a “cute” Facebook, social media, social network, or internet revolution (in which scrappy youths banded together over the internet to create change). Inside Egypt, the second misconception is that it was a pre-planned, organized, orchestrated, well-led revolution. It is easy for those who followed the revolution from the inside and during years leading up to it to know that it was not at all as has been described by the second misconception. Neither was it as described in the first misconception, but rather more complicated: there was a very strong connection between the revolution in Egypt and the internet that could not be ignored. Even this article, which is an attempt to change such misconceptions, will not be able to track the path to the revolution without tracking the development of cyber activism in Egypt during the preceding ten years. This article does not attempt to impose one point of view, but rather to give a more precise explanation about what happened in Egypt from the perspective of a devoted follower, practitioner, and participant in making the events over the last years.
10 Years to the Revolution
Palestinian Intifada and Iraq War, 2000–2003
History is continuous, and we cannot say that something evolved from a certain point in history. However, for the purposes of this essay, I use the year 2000 as a starting point for the wave that generated the January 2011 revolution, its highest peak. In September 2000, after traditional political structures and Islamist movements filled the void vacated by the social secular mass movement, the second Palestinian Intifada in the Occupied Palestinian Territories provoked a wide solidarity movement inside Egypt, led by the last non-Islamist generation that had been active in the 1970s against the dictatorship of former President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by violent Islamists groups in 1981.
This movement generated a surge in activism among students in Egyptian universities, the first since 1979 when Sadat blocked political activities in these schools. It also spawned a group of social movements, one of the most prominent being “the Egyptian People’s Committee for Solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada.” This solidarity movement not only attracted the younger generation that supported the old guard from the 1970s and gave a youthful flavor to the movement, but also for the first time started to use the internet and new technologies (mainly email), which was very limited in Egypt at the time (45,000 users or 0.7% of the population), to spread the word and to organize the solidarity movement.
Another significant factor during this period was united opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, with wider segments of the Egyptian population and a greater number of youth joining the movement. Tens of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square (the same square of January 25th) on March 20, 2003 to protest the war on Iraq as it became clear to them, that Mubarak was serving his own agenda rather than an agenda that reflected the popular sentiment.
A large solidarity movement also grew out of this, marked by increases in both the presence of youth and students and the use of the internet and new technologies. The numbers of internet users was certainly still very low (600,000 users), but greater use of email groups, internet forums, and even the appearance of blogs was helpful for spreading the word and mobilizing more people. For the second time, the movement in the streets preceded the movement online and was led by the old generation of social activists.
Political Mobilization, 2004–2006
At the end of 2004, an overwhelming majority of those who participated in the movements supporting the Palestinian Intifada in 2000 and opposing the war on Iraq in 2003, along with other groups who opposed the regime previously as Liberals or Leftists and even non-violent political Islamists, decided to initiate the “Egyptian Movement for Change — Kefaya [Enough]” with the purpose of refusing to allow the extension of Mubarak’s rule or the succession of his son Gamal Mubarak.
While older generations continued the trends of earlier mobilization efforts and started the movement offline, hundreds of young people were also joining, giving the movement a very different flavor. This time, young people were equipped with new technologies. Though not well equipped, they used offline social networks to encourage the use of the internet (mainly blogs) to spread their ideas and organize their activities. The number of internet users in Egypt grew to over 4 million, creating a market big enough to sell the ideas of the change movement, whether to older generations (“Kefaya”) or a more youthful audience (“Youth for Change”).
During this period, the Youth for Change invented a distinct method of expressing opposition through their blog. They converted their blogs into online social networks even before the invention of Facebook. This online bloggers community and the movement on the ground were interdependent; the bloggers developed protest methods and ideas online which then transferred to the streets for implementation, creating greater success for those on the ground by giving a larger number of youths access to new tools. For example, when someone was harmed or arrested on the ground, they could use their blogs to publicize the event and gain support locally and internationally. For the third time, everything started offline, but efforts were now being consolidated online.
Social Mobilization, 2006–2008
After 2006, a wave of social protest throughout different segments of Egyptian society emerged with great strength, providing new inspiration for activists and pushing them to focus on the daily social and economic needs of society over abstract ideas like constitutions and democracy. Both the old and young activists failed to make the connection between democracy and the daily lives of ordinary people, creating a wide gap between “ordinary” people and “non-ordinary” activists. Such a gap caused the spontaneous organization of the poorer classes around their social and economic demands.
In 2008, however, came an important confluence of efforts wherein the political activists — on the ground — supported a call for strikes initiated by workers in Mahalla (a city in the middle of the Nile Delta in northern Egypt with a large labor population — 27,000 workers workers) for purely social and economic demands. At this time, the Youth for Change reached the peak of its abilities, using the internet for their cause as the number of internet users in Egypt exceeded 9 million. The most crucial qualitative change was that the youth here supported the workers’ social and economic demands by using the internet, including Facebook, to call for a nationwide general strike on April 6, 2008 to demonstrate solidarity with Mahalla workers. The result was a day in which about 50% of the working power in Egypt stayed at home, and hundreds of activists were arrested — an important day in the history of the change movement in Egypt.
Egypt on the Eve of the Revolution
After 2008, it became more common in Egypt to use the internet as a tool for political activism. However, we can consider the role of new media here as a natural development comparable to the role of the printing machine since the French Revolution or audio cassette tapes in the Iranian Revolution. In 2009, speaking of democratic ideals, Muhammad ElBaradei returned to Egypt and received strong support by the Youth. In 2010, Khaled Said, a young Egyptian man, was murdered by police officers (who already had a reputation for brutality). At the end of 2010, the Parliamentary elections, which many believed to be rigged, cut the last connection between the regime and the people. Then, at the start of 2011, a church in Alexandria was bombed and Tunisian President Zine El-‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali fled Tunisia following popular protests there. The cascade of these events caused a steady accumulation of anger and a desire for justice and freedom in Egyptian society, forming a strong potential energy that was easily converted by the Tunisian revolution into the spontaneous actions of January 25, 2011.
The most important thing to focus on here is that, in discussing the movement of change or the Youth of Change, it is clear that this movement has never had a significant hierarchical structure with a charismatic leader. Rather, it was always a very large, loose network of young and old activists that at one point decided to gather together for common action, then at another moment to separate and spread. Indeed, some small focal points emerged, some of which were identified by the media, but these focal points were never at the center, but rather acted as nodes in this loose network. The influence of factors (conditions, events, and timing) was much greater that the influence of actors (individual people) — even among individual actors, there were too many to identify a singular leader. The internet was one factor among many that sparked the eruption of the revolution in Egypt. It was not the most important factor in causing the Egyptian people to feel that they, too, could be successful in emulating Tunisia, as evidenced by the fact that activists’ use of the internet failed to achieve their objectives before the Tunisian revolution. It was clear that the movement offline was always preceding the movement online, and the movement online suffered when there was a wide gap between online and offline activism. As mentioned, the use of new media was a natural development, along the lines of the use of printing machines during the French Revolution or audio cassette tapes during the Iranian Revolution. Finally, the descent of the masses onto the streets of Egypt on January 28 was a direct result of the government’s decision to clamp down on information, preventing people from watching events unfold from their own homes.
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