The Revolution Beyond 140 Characters

A Pharaoh was the most important and powerful person in the kingdom of Ancient Egypt. He or she (but mostly he) was the head of the government and the highest rank of everything, including religious temples. The people of Egypt regarded the Pharaoh as a divine character to be followed, he was perceived to be a half-man, and half-God. After thousands of years, there was a difference in the divine role of the modern Pharaoh and change in the entitlement from a “Pharaoh” to the “President of the Arab Republic of Egypt.”

“Al Sha’ab Yourid Isqat Al Nizam” (The People Demand the Downfall of the Regime) were the words that I chanted along with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir square during the 18 days of uprising starting the 25th of January 2011. Egyptians tell a joke about a man who dares to vote against the government in a parliamentary election. On his way home from voting, the man starts to imagine all the terrible things that could happen to him and his family if the authorities find out, so he hurries back to the polling station and speaks to the policeman in charge. ”I’m very sorry,” he says, ”but I think I made a mistake on my ballot paper.” ”Yes, you did,” replies the policeman, ”but not to worry. Fortunately we spotted your mistake and have already corrected it. Please be more careful next time.”

This was part of Brian Whitaker’s Guardian article a week after the 2005 Egyptian elections that was unsurprisingly won by Mubarak with 88.5 percent of the votes. The carrot and stick approach is used by governments both to offer rewards and threaten punishments. This joke can tell a lot about Egypt’s long authoritarian history that has mainly limited its way out with “the stick” – and forgetting all about the carrot. Anyone who has been to Tahrir square (which is literally translated to the “Liberation square”), during the first 18 days, that only mark the start of the ongoing Egyptian revolution, would not find a better way to describe the square and its ambiance, but by calling it a Utopia. I have seen the wrinkled faces, the new born children, the fully covered faces, and the women with their long dark hair all untied in the same place sharing united demands of “Bread! Freedom! Social Justice!”

Various people from all over the world, whether students, journalists, or just knowledge seekers ask me about my opinion regarding the role of social media in the Egyptian revolution, and my answer has always been that it takes more than a keyboard and a 140 characters tweet to move a nation. “Is Egypt About to Have a Facebook Revolution?” was the title of a TIME’s article on the 24th of January 2011 which has probably contriubted in shaping the idea of crediting facebook for the uprising, in addition,  the exaggeration of the West after the 11th of February 2011 in the victory of the revolution,  and coining the term “social media revolution” only made things worse.

After Mubarak stepped down on the 11th of February 2011, the main chant was “Erfa’a Rasak Foq, Enta Masri” (Raise you head up high – You are Egyptian!). If these words reflect anything, it is the dignity factor that the Egyptians have been missing out on and never felt under decades of authoritarian rule. Egyptians were so proud of how the world regarded them. We heard about leaders from Western countries claiming that the Egyptian revolution should be taught in schools or similar other news that glorified the peacefulness of the Egyptian uprising. Sadly the majority of Egyptians by then believed that by toppling Mubarak the revolution was over, and they forgot about the real battle and the unfinished business they had with the incumbent regime. Western media has collaborated in the misconception that the revolution was over after the first 18 days of the uprising, an idea which is highly challenged by the number of monthly protests, marches, and even massacres against those who still demand the downfall of the regime, in the battle field – and not on twitter. I personally believe that the revolution’s only success so far is the breakage of the chains of fear and the courage to stand up for ones’ basic rights as a human being. This was a victory for the people of Egypt and not social media.

The Myth of the Twitter Revolution
In a BBC poll about the “Trust In Media” among urban Egyptians, the most important sources of news in a typical week are television (mentioned first by 72 percent), newspapers (17 percent), and the Internet (6 percent). According to Internet World Stats statistics in December 2011, nearly 22 million Egyptians have access to the Internet out of a population of nearly 83 million. And according to a report by the Dubai School of Government about social media in the Arab world, there are around 130,000 Twitter users in Egypt. Are these numbers – literally translating to 1,5 per mille of the population – really effective enough to make a young Egyptian protester stop in front of an armored police vehicle that was shooting water on the protestors in Al Qasr Al-Aini on the 28th of January? I do not think so.

On the contrary, I believe that December 17th 2010 acts as an important catalyst for the regional uprising more than any kind of social media. On this day in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, amidst growing anger and outrage over high unemployment rates, Mohammed Bouazizi, a young university graduate, set himself on fire after police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling illegally in an effort to earn a living. His act of self-immolation was the starting point of the chain of events that led to Ben Ali’s departure on January 14th 2011. The victory of the Tunisians was the hope of millions of Arabs living under dictatorships. When I was in Tahrir on the 12th of February celebrating the first step of the revolution and Mubarak’s departure, I saw a man carrying a sign that said, “Thank you, Facebook youth!” I, at this moment, realized that some Egyptians themselves, due to the Western pressure, believed that this was a social media revolution, which later on, only caused isolation between social media users, and the actual situation and the average Egyptian mindset. I feel bad whenever I hear western media referring to the revolution with names such as the “twitter revolution” or the “facebook revolution” because if anything keeps this revolution going it is the blood of the martyrs, and the enormous number of people who are ready to die for the freedom of an entire nation.

However, I do give social media the credit for spreading the photos of  28-year old Khaled Said’s distorted face after being allegedly beaten up to death by police officers in June 2010. A Facebook page was accordingly created called “We are all Khaled Said. A call went out on the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page for a protest planned for the 25th of January 2010 (The annual Police day) demanding an increase of the minimum wage, an end to the state of emergency, and an end to presidential terms that exceeded two consecutive terms. The annual “Police Day” in 2011 marks the first day of protests against the state’s brutality and corruption. Thousands calmly took to the streets in cities across Egypt at the announced demonstration sites. Police were prepared and began firing water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds. In the meantime, Egyptian state TV was talking about all sorts of things irrelevant to any of the protests that were in the country, while protesters plead for more media coverage of what is happening by using Facebook and Twitter. However, by midday Twitter and Facebook became inaccessible and even Bambuser confirmed that it its live mobile broadcasting service was also blocked inside the country. Many Egyptians turned to proxies to bypass blocks so they could continue to share news. Of course not everyone who used the Internet at the time in Egypt knew how to use a proxy, however, later at night a large crowd has amassed at Tahrir Square.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were definitely used as tools that enabled better communication and mobilization, in addition to function as a relatively credible source of news from the ground instead of a corrupt media that propagated for the regime’s stability. Just like TV, radio and newspapers, social media is a medium – and not the message. McLuhan was wrong. Social media augmented the situation because it gave a few citizen journalists a way to show and tell others what they were seeing and experiencing, but I believe that no one is benefiting from calling this a social media revolution but the owners of the networks themselves. Even if social media helped circulate information, the tipping point of the uprising happened on Friday the 28th of January, mostly known as “Friday of Rage” in Egypt and occurred when the incumbent government decided to turn off all means of communications including the Internet and mobile lines. I think by doing this, Mubarak shot himself in the foot. More people were flowing into not only Tahrir square, but in squares in Alexandria, Suez, and other big Egyptian cities. In doing so the government encouraged the population to take to the streets to find out what was happening, and as such an old fashioned popular uprising was born as the citizens (by being in public amongst those with a similar mindset) realized just how strong the level of dissatisfaction was.

I believe without this tipping point we would have seen ongoing unrest in the social space – but nowhere near enough to mobilize a population. Talking to people on the square, in marches, or in public transportation, I asked them about how they felt about the use of social media in Egypt. The opinions varied a lot, but the majority agreed that the ”twitter world” was more or less isolated from the “Egyptian street”, a term used to describe the majority of the public opinion. Twitter users during the first three days of the revolution – from the 25th of January until the Internet and communications were shut on the 28th – were all most dominantly supporting the revolution and mobilizing the flow of the protests by tweeting and exposing what the media was hiding from the people. After the Internet was back on the 2nd of February and Mubarak’s supporters were everywhere on Facebook and Twitter, a Facebook fan page was created to support the stability of Hosni Mubarak’s regime by the name of ”I’m Sorry Mr. President”, in addition to new twitter users trying to promote a counter revolution.

Not too long ago, I was riding with a revolutionary taxi driver that had the ”January 25” stickers all over his car and pictures of the martyrs from the first 18 days of the revolution. I was very curious about his opinion regarding the role of social media, and if it was the reason for him that he went to Tahrir. Firstly, I asked him if he knew what Twitter is, and the answer was no. I even tried to make him guess, and he innocently thought it was some American clothing brand. Subsequently, I asked him if he had a Facebook account or even heard about the protest via “We Are All Khaled Said”. He answered by saying: ”I have two kids, I am illiterate, and I went to Tahrir so my kids won’t end up like me.” He resumed by telling me that Tahrir is quite an important square, and that he has to drive by on his way in and out of downtown. On the 26th of January he witnessed a huge crowd and clashes around Tahrir, and without referring to any electronic source, he simply asked people about the purpose of the protest; parked his taxi, and joined the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir demanding freedom and social justice.

Twitter users in Egypt are often referred to as “tweeps”. I personally responded to a friend’s invitation to join Twitter in late 2010, but only posted my first “tweet” on the 25th of January 2011. With the lack of media coverage of the ongoing actions that were taking place in Tahrir at the time, I decided to use my Facebook “status” and tweet instant updates about the events in Tahrir in three different languages (English, Arabic and Swedish), and using the hash tags #Tahrir and #Jan25 so the world would have an idea of what was going on in Egypt. At first, I was not present on the square, yet I felt responsible for translating Arabic tweets so that the world would understand the uprising of the Egyptians. I believe that many other “tweeps” have used Twitter for the same purpose. I asked my Twitter followers and Facebook friends the following question: “How do you feel when someone refers to #Jan25 as the ‘Twitter/facebook revolution’? “ The answers in my case did not vary from one another. “What a ridiculous term!” said an Egyptian facebook friend, “the uprising has been always there, it goes back to tens of years, maybe the new generation has benefited from the social media tools as a way of citizen journalism, but a Facebook event did not topple Mubarak.” One of my Arabic speaking twitter followers managed in 140 to express his discontent with this term by saying, “This is unfair, by using this term we undermine the effort, blood, and losses of many people that are illiterate and don’t even have access to Internet.” Shortly after Mubarak stepped down, Wael Ghonim ( admin of the We Are All Kahled Said facebook page) spoke with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and credited Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg for the success of the Egyptian people’s uprising. Ghonim has been percieved as an icon of the Egyptian revolution by the West, however he has  received lots of attacks from activists and revolutionaries for his statements, I believe that ever since he hasn’t been really present in the revolutionary scene.

“When you go into an exam, you do not credit the pen for how well you have done, or the quality of the paper you are writing on, your pen might help you write faster, and write more, however in the end, one can never credit the tools for the actual action,” said Noor Noor, a friend, a fellow revolutionary, prominent political activist in Egypt since 2008 – and a “must-follow” when I asked him about the role that social media played in the revolution over a cup of coffee in downtown Cairo. Noor owns the twitter handle @NoorNoor1, his twitter followers increase as one refreshes the web page, but at this moment, Noor has 42,702 users following his updates on Twitter. Noor believes that social media in Egypt is used by elite, and a minority, and therefore it never depicts the public. “I strongly believe that any statistics or polls that have been taken from social media are absolutely irrelevant to Egyptian culture,” he added. Noor rather referred to Twitter as an “echo chamber” where social media activists only listen to each other. Noor, however, recognizes an important role that Twitter played on the 15th of May 2011, during the clashes at the Israeli embassy in Cairo. He mentioned that later that night, lots of people joined Twitter principally to find their lost family members or friends. “I realized the power of Twitter when families told me that they signed up to twitter that night just to find their kids… but a population does not revolt because of the internet, they revolt because of a series of factors that they have endured for decades.” Noor then asked me the following question rhetorically, “do you think that there was a revolution in the past that was referred to as the posters revolution?”

On the 19th or March 2011, Egyptian went to vote in the constitutional amendments referendum, hoping for a new revolutionary start for the country. The proposed amendments were limited to nine articles, and many legal experts and revolutionary forces believed that those amendments would fail to limit the power of the next president, but rather bring another Mubarak. Consequently, a “NO” to constitutional amendments campaign was launched and demanding an entire redrafting of the constitution. A week earlier, Egyptians started to change their Facebook profile pictures and Twitter avatars to “YES” or “NO” as a way of showing their political stance towards the referendum. The optimism of social media activists – including myself – was high due to the visible online domination of the red “NO” over the green “YES”. I was personally struck by the official results of the referendum which illustrated that 77 percent of voters in the referendum strongly backed the constitutional changes and said “YES” to pre-Mubarak stability. That was the day I recognized that social media acted in more or less public isolation, hence the “echo chamber” that Noor pointed out in our conversation.

“Our investment in Twitter reaffirms our ability in identifying suitable opportunities to invest in promising, high-growth businesses with a global impact,” said Twitter’s latest major investor, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, to The Telegraph in December 2011. Not too long after, on the 26th of January 2012, Twitter struck its users by announcing the following: “Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country – while keeping it available in the rest of the world.”  Twitter has defended its decision very myopically adding that it is mainly for historical and cultural reasons, for instance, restricting pro-Nazi tweets from France or Germany. But my question would be, who exactly would decide on what is an appropriate tweet content, and what is not? Will Twitter now, for instance, block messages in dictatorships at the request of repressive governments?  Dictatorships all around the world would most probably then ban any tweets opposing their policies under the ‘cultural and historical’ excuse. So if Twitter was really an essential tool in the revolutionary process in the region, what happened to their values of freedom? The answer is all likely money. Surprisingly coinciding with the date when the Internet was cut off in Egypt a year earlier, several “tweeps” decided to boycott Twitter as a way of expressing their opposition to Twitter’s censoring plan. Hash tags such as #TwitterBlackout and #TwitterCensored were created to promote the electronic boycott. As for myself, I tweeted on the January 27th 2012 (@MariamKirollos): “#TwitterCensored needs to know that when internet was cut off in Egypt, more people decided to go on the street and protest.”

After the brutal crimes committed towards Egyptian protesters on a nearly monthly basis after the departure of Mubarak from office, the media failed to expose any sort of violations and turned the victim into the enemy. In addition, activists realized the limited number of people that can be approached through social media, and decided to widen their scope. ‘Kazeboon’ (or Liars) is, for example, a decentralized grassroots campaign that uses videos and pictures of violent crackdowns on peaceful protesters and sets up street screenings in districts all around the country. The Daily News Egypt has conducted an interview with Ramy Shaath, who is a member of the Revolutionary Forces Alliance, which founded the Kazeboon campaign. In the interview Shaath pointed out that “polls show that the majority of Egyptians do not know the truth and another majority believes in the ‘third party phenomenon’ and the smear campaigns against activists or peaceful demonstrators who are calling for their rights.” It was never easy for the volunteers in Kazeboon to carry out screenings and they have been frequently threatened or attacked by the regime’s supporters, or simply by people who believed the state media’s anti-campaign towards the revolutionary forces. Kazeboon turned out to be a huge success, and managed to spread awareness to some alienated areas in Egypt. Moreover, there were some Kazeboon screenings in different countries in Europe and in the United States.  Such a campaign has succeeded away from the internet and has shifted the social media world back to its original plan of actual actions on Egyptian streets.

Twitteratis & Revolutionaries – A Conclusion
Walking around the downtown area in Cairo surrounding Tahrir street, one can not miss the number of walls built by the army and the security forces, in an attempt to ‘protect’ public institutions and buildings from the ‘violence’ of the protesters. But those walls are now more than bricks made out of cement. In fact, revolutionaries have managed to turn them into another battle field using the most beautiful tool of resistance and protest – art. If the press is silent and misleading, the revolutionary walls speak. Omar El Zeftawy, generally known as ‘Zeft’ (@Zeftawi ) started using this tool not too long after January 25th 2011, and his first graffiti was commemorating the 11th anniversary of Muhammad al-Durrah’s death and in solidarity with Palestine. “The main message that I’m trying to convey to the public with my art is that the Egyptian revolution is not over, it did happen and it is continuing.” On the 9th March 2012, a group of Egyptian artists and activists launched a campaign by the name of “no walls” seeking the transformation of the seven walls built in downtown into virtual open spaces of what is actually at the back them. Zeft’s most prominent work is called the ‘‘Yesterday’ and ‘Tomorrow’ mural on the wall built on Mansour St., which was blocked by the security forces in February 2012. In his work, Zeft used the right side of the wall to resemble ‘Yesterday” by commemorating the martyrs of the Port Said massacre, while on the left side he intended to give the pedestrians hope for the ‘Tomorrow’ of Egypt despite the bleak present, and he did so by drawing a mother with a stroller, children on see-saw, and all under a big rainbow of optimism. “Definitely street art is 10 times more effective than the use of social media, especially Twitter,” said Zeft passionately, “Twitter is a circle that has been shrinking by time to turn into a limited group of people tweeting and retweeting the voices of each other, maybe facebook has a wider scope, but both are incomparable to the approach of a drawing on a public street in Cairo, I don’t pick who passes by and takes a look at my message.”

In the midst of this talk, a young political activist and Egyptian tweep, Mohamed Abd El-Hamid (@MohAbdElHamid) entered the conversation. “Social media is in fact very important, but I think we are using it wrong,” said Abd El-Hamid. He continued by explaining how people used to look at social media as a revolutionary platform, but as for now it has only been used for criticism, which became repulsive to the public. Abd El-Hamid then ended his argument with a glimpse of disappointment by saying: “before #Jan25, we used to use Twitter with the aim of criticizing the regime, not one other like what happens now … Twitter sadly turned into a vicious circle of criticism.”

Personally, I believe that Twitter has caused the creation of a circle of micro-celebrities that has been in the spotlight, perceived as a “representative” image of the Egyptian revolution. Most of those ‘twitteratis’ are privileged (with education – and twitter followers!), bilingual or multilingual, and they are often targeted for media appearances and talk shows, including international media. Some are always at clashes, marches, strikes and similar events to tweet from there, and some just criticize what is going and judge the actions of others. They do not necessarily have the same political ideologies, or share the same views. I am not at all abandoning their revolutionary actions and spirit. If it wasn’t for them, there would have been a serious global media blackout of what was happening in Egypt during the first 18 days of the revolution. However, their twitter-based fame has somewhat caused a stereotype of how a revolutionary should think, talk, and look like. Anti-revolution media sources find this a great opportunity to accuse those who do not look ‘revolutionary’ enough of being “rioters” or “thugs”. In November 2011, during the famous Mohammed Mahmoud St. clashes, I was highly inspired by the men and women of different ages in the frontlines of the clashes, casting back the poisonous tear gas canisters that were being thrown at them from the security forces. Their faces were covered by masks, scarves, goggles. They remained anonymous – although their acts were heroic. The same goes for the anonymous hundreds of martyrs; women, men, Christians and Muslims of different ages and backgrounds that have lost their lives and the escalating number of missing people. Gil Scott-Heron said it back in the 1970’s, and several Egyptian revolutionaries say it today – the revolution will not be tweeted.

Mariam Kirollos

Egyptian blogger and democracy activist