30 jul / MA Thesis “The Egyptian Revolution, Al-Jazeera, Twitter and Facebook”

Evgeny Morozov de beaamde expert op het gebied van digitaal activisme en auteur van “The Net Delusion” deelde gisterenavond de link naar mijn masterscriptie via Twitter. Dit bracht mij op het idee om voor de geïnteresseerden mijn scriptie ook via mijn blog te delen. De thesis is in het Engels, maar ik heb hem geprobeerd zo toegankelijk mogelijk te maken zodat een breder geïnteresseerd publiek toegang tot de inhoud heeft. Een korte samenvating + een deel van de inleiding treft u hieronder. Voor de hele scriptie ga naar:

Ma Thesis The Egyptian revolution, Al-Jazeera, Twitter and Facebook: The interaction effect of new media on the Egyptian revolution


This thesis investigates the role of new media on the revolutionary movement(s) in Egypt. Investigated time spam is the birth of the first small revolutionary movements in 2004 – when the revolutionary spark of the Colored Revolutions of Eastern Europe first crossed the Mediterranean Sea – till the historic “18 days” of 2011 which resulted in former president Hosni Mubarak resigning from office. Central argument is that the so-called “New Media” – i.e. pan-Arab satellite-TV and social media – represent but also contribute to and facilitate these social developments. Al-Jazeera and other pan-Arab satellite-TV channels have changed the way the Arab public view social and political events in their own region and have given them a voice of their own. These channels provide digital activists with a platform and break through the monopoly of state-controlled news. New Media played an indispensable role in connecting people and places, transforming loose activists into organized groups, and finally bringing the masses to the streets resulting eventually in the fall of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak. This research is a cross-over of several fields of study including political science, communication studies and international relations. It applies political theories on social movements (Tilly et al) and modular revolutions (Beissinger et al), as well as Katz and Lazarsfield’s theory on the two-step process of opinion formation and several theories on media and democratization.

1. Introduction: Revolution 2.0 or Facebook fallacy?

Never has the power of the people appeared so humane, so inspiring, so personal, so determined as in Tunisia, so daring as in Syria, so diverse as in Yemen, so humble as in Bahrain, so courageous as in Libya, or so humorous as in Egypt. If, as one keen observer noted, every joke is a tiny revolution, the Arabs, and most notably the Egyptians, are revolutionaries par excellence.
Marwan Bishara – The invisible Arab: Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolutions (2012)

1.1 The “Arab Spring” and the revolutionary wave in the Middle East

If anything, the year 2011 was marked by the revolutionary wave1 in the Middle-East. The region-wide uprising – soon known as the so-called “Arab Spring” – which spread from Marrakech to Sana’a, and from Cairo to Damascus, surprised policy makers and analysts alike. The revolutionary wave started off with the remarkable death of Mohamed Bouazizi – a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010 – after a municipal official and her sides confiscated his goods, humiliated and supposedly harassed him. As a result, a massive wave of protests erupted all over Tunisia. Frustrated young Tunisians called for social and political reform and an end to the reign of President Zine El-Abidine Ben-Ali, who has held a 23-year long dictatorship over the country. Unable to crush the demonstrations Ben-Ali was left with no other choice but to resign on January 14, 2011 (Ryan, 2011).
Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria followed suit, resulting in the fall of President Mubarak in Egypt and President Khadaffi in Libya, whereas (violent) clashes between protesters and security forces in Syria, Yemen and to a lesser extent Bahrain, are still ongoing. News of major protests were also reported from Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Oman, while minor protests erupted in Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Saudi-Arabia, Sudan and the Western Sahara.
No revolutionary movement did capture the lenses of the international cameras as much as the “January 25th Revolution” 2 in Egypt (not in the least because Al-Jazeera maintained a 24/7 live stream, which provided the world with vivid images of the events at Tahrir square in Cairo on its “Al-Jazeera Mobasher”). Watching the million+ masses in the streets of down town Cairo, commentators and policy makers referred to the historic events of 1989 – when the Berlin Wall fell down and Eastern Europe broke free from the iron fist of Soviet control.
Then (in 1989) it would have been thanks to the Western efforts to smuggle photocopy machines, broadcast Radio Free Europe-bulletins, and supply the East-German citizen with the tempting images of American soap series, which were believed to have brought down the Berlin Wall (Morozov, 2011: 46-50) – now the revolutionary events in the Arab world3 and especially Egypt were ascribed to American social media enterprises like Facebook and Twitter.
Yet despite the strong emphasis initially put on the importance of communications, ‘the end of the Cold War was triggered not by a defiant uprising of Voice of America listeners but by economic change’ (Shirky, 2011: 4). “It’s all about the economy, stupid!” as former President Bill Clinton once famously said. It was not the distribution of fax machines and photocopiers but the fell of the price of oil, the soaring price of wheat, the lack of freedom and creativity so necessary for economic development – combined with the heavy burden of Communist bureaucracy – which resulted in the collapse of the Soviet-Union. The presence of printing devices did not create a revolution, it only facilitated the work of revolutionary activists – perhaps.

1 The use of the term ‘revolution’ in the context of the popular uprising in Egypt is (of course) highly contested. Many wonder if it is not too early to speak of a ‘revolution’ in Egypt, especially because many elements of the old regime are still in place. In defense of its usage however one should note that the Egyptian demonstrators have succeeded in reaching their primary objectives – bringing down the 30-year presidency of Hosni Mubarak, and preventing his son Gamal Mubarak from taking over his father’s position (an achievement that is revolutionary in itself). As a general rule of thumb the author has used the same names and indications as used by international quality newspapers (like “Facebook Revolution” and “Egyptian Revolution”) – putting here and there a question mark by too over-simplistic use of terms.

2 January 25 refers to the first day of protest on January 25 2011, which marked the start of the 18-day revolt that eventually brought down Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. This day is traditionally a national holiday of the police, and was therefore chosen by activists to protest against the regime’s brutality.

3 The Arab world refers to the 22 Arab-speaking countries also member to the Arab League, expanding a region from Mauritania to Iraq and from Syria to Somalia.

1.2 Social media: cyber-utopianism or revolution through communications?

The revolutionary wave in Egypt is not the first uprising to be viewed through the spectacles of what Morozov cynically calls cyber-utopianism, i.e. ‘a naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside’ (2011: xiii). The unsuccessful popular revolts in Moldova and Iran (both 2009) were quickly branded “Twitter Revolutions”. While Iranian demonstrators were arrested and the backbone of the revolutionary movement was broken by the Revolutionary Guard, the Internet community was celebrating the victory of tweets over bullets. Knowing now that after quick government reprisal the number of active Twitter-users spreading news over the demonstrations in Tehran dropped to six active accounts, and the Green Movement was brutally crushed by government security forces, this Twitter-ecstasy seems premature if not repulsive (Morozov, 2011: 15).4
Other scholars also mention the 2001 Manila protest in the Philippines, the 2004 demonstrations in Spain, the 2006 uprising in Belarus and the 2010 Red Shirt uprising in Thailand as instances of social media revolutions (Shirky, 2011: 1-2). These uprisings did not make use of open digital communication networks however, but relied on peer-to-peer text-messaging and direct e-mail instead. Thus, despite the use of new technology, these revolutionary movements could not be considered social media-revolutions.
Although the Internet enables people to read and learn more about abuse and suppression in their state or society, it also opens up the ‘gates of entertainment while globalization opened the gates of consumentism’ (Morozov, 2011: 72), It is an utopian ideal to believe that open internet or better access to information goes hand in hand with increasing political activism. On the contrary; the more open the Internet, the easier the search for entertainment and porn. In many authoritarian states the Internet is used as an escape, or distraction from daily life. In conservative societies with strict gender-segregation this is only more so. Thus it might come to no surprise that out of ten countries searching for sex the most, six are predominantly Muslim. Egypt ranks second of Google’s hit list of sex-related searches in countries worldwide – including all sorts of animal sex and gay porn (Pakistan ranks first). Cairo has ranked the number one city in the world Googling for “sex” most often, whereas Egypt as a whole ranks fourth (Google Trends, 2011).
One should indeed mind for drawing too hasty conclusions; using euphoric terms like “Facebook Revolution” for what was first and foremost a popular mass uprising. This is not to say that the introduction of new types of media, such as social-networking sites, web forums, (micro) blogs and content-sharing websites (i.e. YouTube and Flickr), played no role in the 2011 revolutionary movement in Egypt. Quite the opposite; new types of media provide for ways of communication once unimaginable in for long shielded, isolated and oppressed societies.
In a country where no one dared to talk politics on the street, young adolescents (age 18-30) found a safe-haven on the internet. There they could share their opinion and express their frustration for the first time and often anonymously. Blogging became extremely popular. Egyptian weblogs and civil journalist news networks have grown into the most professional of the MENA-region. Egypt is leading in blogs worldwide, hosting according to an official government report more than 160.000 active weblogs (2008 est. – recent data not available). Three out of four Egyptian bloggers is male in the age of 20 to 30 (OpenNet Initiative, 2009).
More than 700.000 Egyptians signed up for the January 25th Facebook page (Ghonim, 2011: 146). Another Facebook hit, the “We are all Khaled Said’-Facebook page was launched, in the Summer of 2010 and soon turned into the largest dissident group of Egypt with over 479,000 members (Preston, 2011). Earlier (in a time when hardly anyone knew about “Facebook”), some 70.000 people had joined a Facebook page calling for a national strike on April 6, 2008 (Ghonim, 2011: 56-7; Pintak, 2011: 57, 59).
Over the last couple of years and in the buildup to the revolutionary “18-days” of January 25 to February 11 2011, Egypt witnessed a “buzz” of online activity. While more and more bloggers started to blog about their frustration with the Egyptian regime, youth groups organized themselves on Facebook-pages, and activists discussed the latest tactics via Skype or MSN Messenger (Ghonim, 2011: 36-7, 43). Even when the Egyptian government decided to completely lock-down the Internet by shutting down the entire country’s international internet access points at January 27 2011, activists still managed to post updates on Twitter, upload videos on YouTube, and provide ‘independent’ news (that is to say; not government controlled) on civil journalist news networks such as the on January 25th established RASD news network in Egypt (Solayman, 2011).
For once not only western governments and internet users cherished the role of social media, but also Egyptian demonstrators and activists themselves. Right after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak the streets of Cairo were covered with banners and graffiti stating “We love Facebook”, “Thank you Facebook” and “Facebook = January 25”. Online activists such as Google-manager Wael Ghonim and Nobel prize-nominee Esraa Abdel Fatah (alias the Facebook-girl; Pintak, 2011: 57, 59) talked about a “Revolution 2.0”, claiming that now (thanks to the internet) “the power of the people is greater than the people in power” (Ghonim, 2012).

4 The number of active Twitter-users in Egypt between January 1 – March 30 2011 stood at 1,312,040. Trending topics on twitter in the MENA-region in that same period were (in number of mentions): 1. #Egypt (1,400,000) and 2. #Jan25 (1,200,000), 3. #libya (900,000), 4. #bahrein (610,000) and 5. protest (620,000) (Seksek, 2011).

1.3 The digital divide and the advent of pan-Arab satellite-TV

Despite its impressive number of blogs, online activists and people joining revolutionary Facebook-pages, the MENA-region is still part of the global digital divide. Internet access ranges from only 5% in Libya to 34% in Tunisia (Hunter, 2011). Despite Egypt’s status as one of the most connected countries in Africa, it is still a middle-ranker with internet access estimated at about 24,5 percent in 2009 (OpenNet Initiative, 2009).5
This is not too say that the other 75 percent of the population is completely sealed off from the World Wide Web.

‘Most Internet use in Egypt occurs at public terminals, schools, and Internet cafes, and not inside the home. The flourishing of Internet cafes in Egypt has helped expand Internet access. By interviewing hundreds of Internet café owners in 2004 Deborah Wheeler found that Internet cafés are patronized by all classes of societies, including college students, tea boys, and secretaries’ (Price, 2010: 3).

Downsides to these public cafes are their sometimes women-unfriendly atmosphere (especially in poor urban neighborhoods) and lack of privacy and security. Computers could be monitored and fellow Internet users might report ‘suspicious’ activities to the police or secret services agents. Another issue hindering universal Internet access is that of high illiteracy, especially in the rural areas of Egypt. Use of the Internet requires some sort of literacy. UNICEF (2012) has reported a total adult literacy rate of 66 percent over the period of 2005-2010. That is to say that still one out of three Egyptian adults is illiterate.
The Internet penetration rate of among Egypt’s youth is significantly higher than other age groups ‘since they have grown up socialized into Internet usage in ways their elders have not. Given the low cost and literacy barriers, a sizable portion of the 40 million Egyptians between the ages of 10 and 25 have at least basic familiarity with the Internet’ (Price, 2010: 3).
Internet access might still be unavailable to a portion of Egyptian society, some 86 percent of the Egyptians watches television. In a country with about 84 million inhabitants, total newspaper circulation is not more than about one million copies a day, ‘but everyone, from the richest real estate mogul to the poorest fellahin (peasant) watches TV. For the equivalent of $3 or $4, Egyptians can tap into a wasla (shared satellite dish), that gives them access to hundreds of channels’ (Pintak, 2011: 7-8).
Not only did the introduction of satellite-TV in the 1980s provide more independent and objective news – compared to the tightly controlled state-TV in the Arab world itself – these channels also connect Arab migrants worldwide. ‘The satellite package that provides Arabic television reception 5,000 miles away from its source also provides Arab families with a “real” connection to their favorite Arabic programs’ (El-Nawawy & Iskandar, 2003: 5). The most popular programs were soap operas and Egyptian movies. Until the late 1990s for news the elite would watch CNN and BBC World, whereas less-privileged citizens were left to BBC Arabic, Arabic broadcasts of Voice of America and some European broadcasters.
In 1991 Saudi entrepreneurs launched the first Arab news channel; the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC). But treating the Saudi government (and its allies) with ‘kid gloves’ (Pintak, 2011: 34-5), the channel was hardly trusted by anyone. The arrival of the highly professional but also controversial Al-Jazeera news network in 1996 changed the Arab media landscape forever. ‘By questioning everything, Al-Jazeera had opened a window to issues avoided and restricted by the Middle East’ (El-Nawawy & Iskandar, 2003: 12).
In the last couple of years Al-Jazeera not only grew more critical of Arab monarchs and presidents, it also provided a platform for a growing number of online activists, opposition leaders and even convicted ‘terrorists’ (El-Nawawy & Iskandar, 2003: 132-3). Al-Jazeera’s programs are provocative to the point of controversial, but are also the most professional transforming the satellite TV-channel into ‘the most-watched satellite-TV network in the Arab world’ (El-Nawawy & Iskandar, 2003: 49).

One of Egypt’s most famous online activists, Wael Ghonim, acknowledges the impact of Al-Jazeera.

‘The channel’s talk shows offered heavy criticism of many Arab leaders. Within a few short years, Al-Jazeera became the most viewed channel in Egypt and the entire Arab region. The network set an example that has been followed by many channels throughout the Middle East’ (2012: 38).

It is the combination of traditional-meets-digital media which enables activists using social media to find a way to the Egyptian audience. An example of this was seen in the days before the January 25 (2011) in which ‘Facebook pages with times and dates of Cairo protests were printed out and disseminated by hand between Egyptians without Internet access’ (Hunter, 2011). Handing-out copies and prints of Facebook pages are local and small-scale initiatives. A much bigger impact lies in the interaction of different types of “new media”, i.e. social media plus highly professional and interactive satellite-TV of which Al-Jazeera (and to a lesser extent Al-Arabiyya) are by far the most popular – and thought-provoking.

‘Social media (…) was a successful catalyst when combined with myriad methods of digital and traditional media. Technological advances like cell phones, video cameras, blog posts and Facebook, in conjunction with more traditional media outlets like Al-Jazeera, created the circumstances for such effective information dissemination’ (Hunter, 2011).

5 Perhaps more precise; The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has estimated 24,26 Internet users per 100 inhabitants for Egypt in the same year (ITU, 2009).

  • Peter

    Dank, ik ga je scriptie zeker lezen. Op,mijn tablet, op een terrasje in de zon..

  • Peter

    Verder: de parallellen van de ‘Arabische Lente’ met de Val van de Muur in 1989 zijn mij ook opgevallen, ja. Ik zat daar indertijd middenin, zie de dissertatie ‘Over de Muur’van Beatrice de Graaff. daar staat mijn naam niet in, maar ik was wel (bijna) overal bij.. Als je wilt, kan ik er wel meer over vertellen, maar het is teveel voor dit korte bestek.


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