Internet role in Egypt's protests

Protesters use their mobile phones to photograph a burning police vehicle during clashes in Cairo on 28 January 2011 Footage of protests filmed on mobile phones has been aired back to the world by satellite channels

A few 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 are very largely organised through Facebook - seemed to prove this cynicism wrong.

Certainly, the Egyptian government reacted quickly: blocking social media sites and mobile phone networks before pulling the plug on Egypt's access to the internet.

This act of censorship was spectacularly unsuccessful.

Friday 28 January saw literally millions take control of the streets in an epic "Day of Rage". Nor did the blackout cut off news of the demonstrations and stop protesters communicating with each other.

Protest leaders had already agreed to call for demonstrations starting from key mosques, and marchers rallied at Friday prayers before heading for the city centres and key government buildings.

Satellite channels - particularly al-Jazeera - broadcast live coverage all day, constantly updated by telephone reports filed from landlines by its network of correspondents across Egypt.

Broad spectrum

The events of 28 January are particularly important, because they contain crucial clues to understanding the broader relationship between the media - both "new" and "old" - and the mass movement for change which has developed in Egypt over the past few weeks.

Firstly, the fact that an internet and mobile phone blockade failed shows clearly that this movement is not based on the web. In fact, the movement which erupted on 25 January has brought together many groups who have taken to the streets over the past 10 years.

A shop in Tahrir Square is spray painted with the word Twitter after the government shut off internet access on 4 February Protesters have been using a range of different media - including Twitter - for communication

They are varied socially and politically, ranging from workers to bloggers and democracy campaigners, to senior judges, to members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Coptic Christians.

This is the first time they have all demonstrated together, and the first time they have been joined by millions of their fellow citizens. But it is important to understand that this movement builds on a legacy of protest by many different activist networks, most of which are not primarily organised online.

Secondly, it is clear that the protesters use a range of different media to communicate with each other and to get their message across.

I was in Tahrir Square on Sunday: everywhere you look there are mobile phones, hand-written placards, messages picked out in stones and plastic tea cups, graffiti, newspapers and leaflets, not to mention al-Jazeera's TV cameras which broadcast hours of live footage from the square everyday. When one channel of communication is blocked, people try another.

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 online.

I asked Ahmed, a socialist activist in Tahrir Square, what role he thought the internet was playing in mobilising protest.

"Online organising is very important because activists have been able to discuss and take decisions without having to organise a meeting which could be broken up by the police," he said.

'Offline' political action

Online networks are only relatively "safer" from repression: Khaled Said was dragged out of an internet cafe and beaten to death by policemen last summer.

Tuesday's protest was boosted by the appearance of Wael Ghonim, a young Egyptian who works for Google

The Egyptian security forces reportedly recently set up a special unit to monitor internet activists.

But in Egypt today, there are vast numbers of people online, making it far more difficult for the state to track them all.

Even in poor urban and rural areas people can access the internet through shared connections.

The Facebook group set up to protest at Khaled Said's death is "liked" by nearly 600,000 people and was a key organising centre for the current protests.

Mobile phone use has grown exponentially in the past few years, reaching around 80% of the population according to recent figures.

Now footage of protests and police repression filmed on mobile phone cameras is being broadcast back to millions of Egyptians by the satellite channels.

Online organising does not automatically bring people onto the streets. In 2008, a Facebook group calling for a general strike attracted tens of thousands of members but only relatively small street protests took place in Cairo, largely on the university campuses.

Ahmed believes that Egyptian activists have developed sophisticated ways of knowing when online protest will generate offline political action.

"People learn quickly. They look at who is calling for a protest, and if it is someone they know and trust they are much more likely to take part."

They also learn by example. The fall of Mr Ben Ali showed people across the Arab world, and not just political activists, that popular protests could bring down a dictator.

It is that hope, and not the internet, which is driving this movement forward.

Anne Alexander is a Buckley Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Cambridge

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