Patrice Riemens on Sun, 13 Feb 2011 11:52:10 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Charles Hirschkind: From the Blogosphere to the Street: The Role of Social Media in the Egyptian Uprising (

original to:
bwo iac2009 list (I believe)

>From the Blogosphere to the Street: The Role of Social Media in the
Egyptian Uprising
by Charles Hirschkind
Feb 9, 2011.

While the uprising in Egypt caught most observers of the Middle East off
guard, it did not come out of the blue. The seeds of this spectacular
mobilization had been sown as far back as the early 2000s and had been
carefully cultivated by activists from across the political spectrum, many
of these working online via Facebook, twitter, and within the Egyptian
blogosphere. Working within these media, activists began to forge a new
political language, one that cut across the institutional barriers that
had until then polarized Egypt?s political terrain, between more
Islamicly-oriented currents (most prominent among them, the Muslim
Brotherhood) and secular-liberal ones. Since the rise of the Islamist
Revival in the 1970s, Egypt?s political opposition had remained sharply
divided around contrasting visions of the proper place of religious
authority within the country?s social and political future, with one side
viewing secularization as the eminent danger, and the other emphasizing
the threat of politicized religion to personal freedoms and democratic
rights. This polarity tended to result in a defensive political rhetoric
and a corresponding amplification of political antagonisms, a dynamic the
Mubarak regime has repeatedly encouraged and exploited over the last 30
years in order to ensure a weak opposition. What was striking about the
Egyptian blogosphere as it developed in the last 7 or so years is the
extent to which it engendered a political language free from the
problematic of secularization vs. fundamentalism that had governed so much
of political discourse in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The blogosphere that burst into existence in Egypt around 2004 and 2005 in
many ways provided a new context for a process that had begun a somewhat
earlier, in the late 1990s: namely, the development of practices of
coordination and support between secular leftist organizations and
associations, and Islamist ones (particularly the Muslim Brotherhood)?a
phenomenon almost completely absent in the prior decades. Toward the end
of the decade of the 90s, Islamist and leftist lawyers began to agree to
work together on cases regarding state torture, whereas in previous years,
lawyers of one affiliation would almost never publicly defend plaintiffs
from the other.

The most successful experiment at reaching across Egypt?s political
spectrum came in 2004 with the emergence of what is called the Kifaya
movement, a political formation that brought together Islamists, Muslim
Brothers, communists, liberals, and secular-leftists, joined on the basis
of a common demand for an end to the Mubarak regime and a rejection of the
Gamal Mubarak?s succession of his father as president.  Kifaya was
instrumental in organizing a series of demonstrations between 2004 and
2007 that for the first time explicitly called for the president of Egypt
to step down, an unheard of demand prior to that moment insomuch as any
direct criticism of the president or his family had until then always been
taboo, and met by harsh reprisals from the state. Kifaya not only
succeeded in bringing large numbers of people of different political
persuasions into the street to protest government policies and actions,
they were also the first political movement in Egypt to exploit the
organizing potential of the Internet, founding a number of blog sites from
which to coordinate and mobilize demonstrations and strikes. When Kifaya
held its first demonstrations, at the end of 2004, a handful of bloggers
both participated and wrote about the events on their blogs. Within a year
the number of blogs had jumped to the hundreds. Today there are 1000s of
blogs, many tied to activism, street politics, solidarity campaigns, and
grassroots organizing. Many of the bloggers who helped promote the Kifaya
movement have played key roles in the events of the past 10 days.

One event highlighted the political potential of blogging in Egypt and
helped secure the practice?s new and expanding role within Egyptian
political life. It had long been known that the Egyptian state routinely
abused and tortured prisoners or detainees (hence the US?s choice of Egypt
in so called rendition cases). For its part, the state has always denied
that abuse took place, and lacking the sort of evidence needed to
prosecute a legal case, human rights lawyers and the opposition press had
never been able to effectively challenge the state?s official position.
This changed when a blogger named Wael Abbas, whose blog is titled al-wa?i
al-masri (?Egyptian Awareness?), placed on his blog site a cell-phone
recorded video he had been sent by another blogger that showed a man being
physically and sexually abused by police officers at a police station in
Cairo. (Apparently, the clip had been filmed by officers with the
intention of intimidating the detainee?s fellow workers).

Once this video clip was placed on YouTube and spread around the Egyptian
blogosphere, opposition newspapers took up the story, citing the blogs as
their source. When the victim was identified and encouraged to come forth,
a human rights agency raised a case on his behalf against the officers
involved that eventually resulted in their conviction, an unprecedented
event in Egypt?s modern history. Throughout the entire year that the case
was being prosecuted, bloggers tracked every detail of the police and
judiciary?s handling of the case, their relentless scrutiny of state
actions frequently finding its way into the opposition newspapers.
Satellite TV talk shows followed suit, inviting bloggers on screen to
debate state officials concerned with the case. Moreover, within a month
of posting the torture videos on his web site, Abbas and other bloggers
started receiving scores of similar cell-phone films of state violence and
abuse taken in police stations or during demonstrations.

This new relation between bloggers and other media forms has now become
standard: not only do many of the opposition newspapers rely on bloggers
for their stories; news stories that journalists can?t print themselves
without facing state persecution?for example, on issues relating to the
question of Mubarak?s successor?such stories are first fed to bloggers by
investigative reporters; once they are reported online, then journalists
then proceed to publish the stories in newsprint, citing the blogs as
source, this way avoiding the accusation that they themselves invented the
story. Moreover, many young people have taken up the practice of using
cell-phone cameras in the street, and bloggers are constantly receiving
phone film-footage from anonymous sources that they then put on their

This event played a key role in shaping the place that the blogosphere
would come to occupy within Egypt?s media sphere. Namely, bloggers
understand their role as that of providing a direct link to what they call
?the street,? conceived primarily as a space of state repression and
political violence, but also as one of political action and popular
resistance. They render visible and publicly speakable a political
practice?the violent subjugation of the Egyptian people by its
authoritarian regime?that other media outlets cannot easily disclose, due
to censorship, practices of harassment, and arrest. This includes not only
acts police brutality and torture, but also the more mundane and routine
forms of violence that shape the texture of everyday life. For example,
blogs frequently include reporting on routine injustices experienced in
public transportation, the cruel indifference of corrupt state
bureaucrats, sexual harassment encountered in the streets, as well as the
many faces of pain produced by conditions of intense poverty,
environmental toxicity, infrastructural neglect, and so on.

The blogosphere was joined by another powerful media instrument in 2008.
On April 6th of that year a general strike took place in Egypt, an event
which saw vast numbers of workers and students stay home from their sites
of work or school. The strike, the largest anti-government mobilization to
occur in Egypt in many years, had been initiated by labor activists in
support of striking workers at the Mahalla textile factory who had for
months been holding out for better salaries and improved work conditions.
In the month leading up to the strike, however, the aim of the action
enlarged beyond the scope of the specific concerns of the factory workers.
Propelled by the efforts of a group of activists on Facebook, the strike
shifted to become a national day of protest against the corruption of the
Mubarak regime, and particularly against the regime?s complete inaction in
the face of steadily declining wages and rising prices. Most stunning
about the event, and most worrisome to the Egyptian state, was the way the
idea of a general strike had been generated: Esra? ?Abd al-Fattah, a young
woman with little experience as an activist who lived just outside of
Cairo, had initiated a group on Facebook calling for a sympathy strike
with the textile workers. Within two weeks, close to 70,000 Facebook
members had signed on. Political bloggers also began to promote the
strike, and by the time the 1st of April came around most of the political
opposition parties had been brought on board and were vigorously trying to
mobilize their constituencies. When the 6th arrived, Egypt witnessed its
most dramatic political mobilization in decades, an event that brought
together people across the political spectrum, from Muslim Brotherhood
members to Revolutionary Socialists.

Egyptian Facebook activists and bloggers took up and extended the
political platform that the Kifaya movement had introduced into Egyptian
political life, the same exact platform that has brought millions of
Egyptians into the street these days. Four issues have defined a common
moral stance: a forceful rejection of the Mubarak regime and a demand for
its end; a stand against tawrith, or ?succession,? specifically Gamal
Mubarak?s succession of his father as president of the country; a demand
for the expansion of political freedoms and the creation of fair and
democratic institutions; and a condemnation of routinized state violence.
Although those who forged this common ground online have done so through
different institutional experiences, and have brought with them different
conceptions of the place of religion within politics, they write and
interact as participants in a shared project. While they recognize the
difference between their political commitments and those of other online
activists, they engage with an orientation toward creating conditions of
political action and change, and therefore seek to develop arguments,
styles of writing and self-presentation that can bridge these differences
and hold the plurality together. As one secularist blogger put it in
commenting on the protocols of online engagement: ?The atheists reign in
their contempt for religion, while the religious bloggers?who would not
even accept the existence of non-believers in the first place?can now see
some shared values.?

For Islamist activists and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, this agenda
marks a radical shift. Until quite recently, Islamist political arguments
have focused on the importance of adopting the shari?a as a national legal
framework, and on the need to counter the impact of Western cultural forms
and practices in order to preserve the values of an Islamic society.
Granted, an earlier generation of intellectuals linked to Islamic
political parties had since the mid 1980s emphasized the necessity of
democratic political reforms. Leading Islamist writers such as Fahmi
Howeidi, ?Abd al-Wahhab al-Messiri, and Tarek al-Bishri had attempted to
build a movement that would bring about an end to the rampant corruption
afflicting Egypt?s political institutions and establish a solid basis for
representative governance, but their viewpoints generally remained
marginal within Islamist political currents, and the organizations they
tried to establish were largely undermined by the state. For many of those
making up the new generation of Islamist activists, however, the goal of
creating a flourishing Islamic society must start with the reform of
Egypt?s stultified authoritarian system, and therefore, with the
development of a political discourse capable of responding to the
requirements of this task. This political reorientation can be seen in a
statement made few years back by Ibrahim Hodeibi, an important voice among
the new generation of Brotherhood members, and a well-known blogger.
Writing in the context of a debate with fellow Brotherhood members about
the future of the organization, Hodeibi suggested that the Brotherhood
slogan, ?Islam is the solution,? should be replaced by the
religiously-neutral ?Egypt for all Egyptians.? This is indeed the call we
hear today rising up above the streets of Egypt.

These online activists have played a key role in transforming the
conditions of political possibility in Egypt during the last decade, and
of paving the way to Tahrir Square today. They have sought out and
cultivated new forms of political agency in the face of the predations and
repressive actions of the Egyptian state. They have pioneered forms of
political critique and interaction that can mediate and encompass the
heterogeneity of religious and social commitments that constitute Egypt?s
contemporary political terrain. From the latest news reports, it is clear
that many of them are now being arrested and beaten for their efforts. The
regime has again shown itself implacable in its disregard for the people
of Egypt.

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