March 2011

Revolution 2.0

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Online social media became the driver of a revolution in Egypt that stunned the conservative Arab world

By Dhirendra Pratap Singh, eGov Bureau

Afew days after the fall of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, a Jordanian newspaper printed a joke apparently doing the rounds in Egypt: “Why do the Tunisian youth ‘demonstrate’ in the streets, don’t they have Facebook?” Only six days later, protests across Egypt co-ordinated by a loose coalition of opposition groups – many of which were organised through Facebook – proved this cynicism wrong.

Hosni Mubarak has stepped down as President of Egypt, after weeks of protests by anti-government demonstrators in Cairo and other cities. If unemployment and poverty were the causes of the mass uprising in the North African states of Tunisia and Egypt, it was Twitter and Facebook – the two pillars of online social media – that became the drivers of a revolution that shook the conservative Arab world.

Social media has played a crucial role in the unrest in Egypt with many of the protests organised through Facebook. The Egyptian government reacted quickly by blocking social media sites but this act of censorship was spectacularly unsuccessful.

Egypt, a low Internet-penetration country, saw only 1.22 lakh tweets uploaded between January 16 and January 23 this year. From January 24 (the uprising began on January 25), the number of tweets went up nearly 11 times more to 1.35 million. Given that only 14,642 Twitter users identified their location as Egypt, it was a figure that had the power to change the course of a failed regime.

Every mass movement needs spaces where political alternatives can be debated and organisation can take place. In the 1940s, the last time that Egypt saw mass protests on a similar scale, radical bookshops, underground newspapers and illegal trade union meetings played this role. For the current generation, some of these spaces have been Facebook and Twitter.

Google’s Middle East and North Africa Marketing Head Wael Ghonim was held in captivity by Egyptian police for 11 days before he emerged free. After release he told the world: “We will not abandon our demand and that is the departure of the regime.” He soon became the face of the uprising.

Meanwhile, Google helped the Internet deprived Egyptians by starting a telephone-to-twitter service. This new service helped Egyptians transmit Twitter messages by using a phone.  This was made possible after Google’s acquisition of a company called SayNow which enabled conversion of telephone messages to a real time tweets. This helped Egyptians to turn into citizen journalists and gave them the kind of access to the world that even the Iranians during their 2009 uprising could not have experience.

In fact, the mass revolt itself began because of a video posted by Asma Mahfouz, an ordinary citizen who urged her countrymen to rise up against the state’s police following the self-immolation of four Egyptians to “protest humiliation and hunger, poverty and degradation they had to live with for 30 years.”

Technology Shaping the New Arab World

  • Google offered a new service to help Egyptians transmit Twitter messages by using a phone. The offering rests in part on engineering talent Google acquired when it bought a company called SayNow. When a message left on the service, called Speak To Tweet, it instantly tweeted the message using the #egypt hashtag.
  • Anyone could tweet by simply leaving a voicemail on one of these international phone numbers (+16504194196 or +390662207294 or +97316199855) and the service would instantly tweet the message using the hashtag #egypt. No Internet connection required for this service. People could listen to the messages by dialing the same phone numbers or going to twitter.com/speak2tweet.
  • ‘We are all Khaled Said’ website became a rallying point for a campaign against police brutality. For many Egyptians, it revealed details of the extent of torture in their country.
  • LibyanYouth Movement are a group of Libyan Youth both in and out of Libya. They can be followed on Twitter @ShababLibya. Libyan Youth Movement is also present on Facebook.

In the video that became a YouTube and Facebook sensation within hours of posting, Mahfouz told Egyptians, “I am making this video to give you one simple message. We want to go down to Tahrir Square on January 25, we will go down and demand our rights, our fundamental human rights, the entire government is corrupt – a corrupt President and a corrupt security force if you think Google’s Wael Ghonim (left) was held captive for 11 days.”

Online networks are only relatively “safer” from repression: Khaled Said, a 28-year-old Egyptian from the coastal city of Alexandria, Egypt, was dragged out of an Internet cafe and beaten to death by policemen last summer. The Egyptian security forces set up a special unit to monitor activists. However, in Egypt of today, there are vast numbers of people online, that made it far more difficult for the state to track them. Even in poor urban and rural areas people accessed the Internet through shared connections. The Facebook group set up to protest at Khaled Said’s death is ‘liked’ by nearly 6,00,000 people and was a key organising centre for the current protests.

Tunisia Turmoil

As mentioned, the catalyst in Egypt’s revolution was fellow Arabs in Tunisia successfully overthrowing their autocratic ruler, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, with a popular uprising on 14 January. Internet users in Tunisia and neighbouring countries hailed the sudden departure of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali following widespread street protests.

Tunisians used Facebook and YouTube to keep each other abreast of developments. The popular Facebook page ”We Are All Khalid Said” (named after the Egyptian allegedly beaten to death by police) created an online, Tunisia-related event, which was attended by 7,000 people by early.  Until recently, Tunisia – a popular tourist destination – had been seen as a haven of stability and relative prosperity, albeit one ruled with an iron first.

In Tunisia, too, the revolution was sparked by the self immolation of a vegetable vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi whose cart was confiscated by a corrupt police force. When the message was put on Facebook, it took less than a month for the country to rise as one and for the Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country and seek asylum in Saudi Arabia.

Says Rafat Ali, founder of paidcontent.org, “Facebook helps organise people, such as detailing how and where to gather physically, while Twitter is for ‘amplification,’ enabling people in real time to share news and comment.”

In Egypt, mobile phone use has grown exponentially in the past few years, reaching around 80 percent of the population according to recent figures. Social media also became a substitute for traditional media, much of which in Egypt is state-controlled. Even though Ghonim operated the Facebook page anonymously as an administrator, Egyptian authorities seemed to have tracked his role. A few days after the protests began, Ghonim was detained, blindfolded, for 10 days. Authorities interrogated him about how the protests had been organised, with the focus on foreign involvement.

After release, Ghonim posted on Twitter: “Freedom is a bless that deserves fighting for it.” Another Facebook page appeared, with hundreds of thousands of people backing him as the spokesman for the revolt. “This is an Internet revolution,” he says. “I’ll call it Revolution 2.0.”

His employer also played a role. After the Internet was cut off, Google created Speak2Tweet, allowing Egyptians to leave voice messages that were posted to Twitter.

The events in Egypt reflect different roles for different kinds of social media. Pro-democracy leader Mohamed ElBaradei said on his Twitter page: “My dream has come true. Egypt has been going down the drain for the last few weeks and we need to get it back to where it should be … We need a democratic country
based on social justice.”

Libya Revolt

In Libya, an Iranian Twitter activist called Arasmus has created a map of the  few uncon- firmed Internet reports that were coming out of Libya. Violent  protests surged throughout the North African country of Libya, as protesters  clashed with security forces in an attempt to end Moammar Gadhafi’s 42-year rule. Media sources have tallied more than one thousand protester deaths from  regime security forces so far.

Like similar uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt — which are said to have inspired the  people of Libya — the Internet and social media have played their roles in  the unrest. Websites like Facebook, Twitter and news provider Al Jazeera have  been intermittently blocked, and on February 18 internet access in the country was blocked entirely. Six hours later, the web was mostly back.

Protesters in the country are now taking full advantage of their restored  connectivity by posting reports and accounts on Twitter. Arasmus takes the  most pertinent, and trustworthy, reports and places them on a Google Map on
the country.

Actually, none of the reports and accounts can be verified because Libya has a  stringent lockdown on independent reporters in the country. As a result,  observers have to rely even more closely on firsthand reports and social media accounts than any of the other recent Middle East revolutions.

Revolutions have always been social and involved media. In the American  Revolution, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense,” published in 1776,  galvanised the colonists and became the most-read publication after the Bible.  John Adams later said: “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

Social media via the Web is unprecedented and unpredictable. The current  Arab revolutions reveal that, for authoritarian leaders used to controlling  media and events, time and technology are not on their side. Web revolutions cannot just be pushed aside in today’s world, they are deemed to bring in the  desired  change in the social order.

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