Governments, Revolutions and Social Media

The following is an argumentative essay that I wrote for my English 1302 (Research Writing) class. Although I focus mainly on events that occurred in Egypt, the themes and key points that I make are incredibly relevant to young Americans today, and I'd really appreciate if y'all could give it a read and a ponder and then give me some feedback. :] (WARNING: It's pretty long, so you might have to commit like 15 minutes to reading it. Otherwise, just read the last 4 or 5 paragraphs to get the gist.)

The Egyptian Revolution: Social Media and Government Response

As Americans, many of us love social media.  We love the quickness and ease with which we can communicate with our friends, share pictures and videos, and even share and discuss viewpoints of global issues, but many Americans may be unaware of social media usage in other parts of the world.  Particularly, just how highly useful social media has been in the Middle East in the past few years.  In what has been called “The Arab Spring”, several nations in North Africa and the Middle East have recently undergone dramatic revolutions and social media played more critical of a role than the average American may have guessed.  Specifically in Egypt, social media was vital to several different aspects of the people’s overthrow of President Mubarak in 2011.  However, as with any other revolution, the government in power at that time had a response to the uprisings.  In this essay I will argue that President Mubarak’s responses to the protests were extremely inappropriate attempts to maintain civil order, and on top of that, they were downright inhumane.

In the past three years Egypt has undergone extreme political revolution and national turbulence.  Beginning in 2011 with the mass mobilization of the public assisted by social media, which led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, followed shortly after by the election of Mohammed Morsi, and then barely a year after that, the opposition and attack on the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi and the military’s takeover of the government, Egypt has seen incredible volatility in the struggle for true democracy (Coates 1).  Because each of these events could be analyzed as a separate movement within a revolution, this essay focuses on the events surrounding the mass mobilization and overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, the government’s incredibly brutal response, and how substantively social media was involved.

After years and years of political discontent, disproportionate economic prosperity for the people, and a general stagnation of politics, the time was ripe in early 2011 for the people of Egypt to take matters into their own hands.  This however, was not a spontaneous outburst, it was a result of a culmination of dissatisfaction of the people and a strong desire for reform.  The people of Egypt banded together, assisted by social media in spreading and coordinating their movement, and through the sheer power in numbers were able to overthrow their own President, despite his desperate and violent attempts to quell the rebellion.

In order to fully understand the impact of the protests in January, 2011, I have provided some background information in this paragraph.  In Emad El-Din Shahin’s article “The Egyptian Revolution: The Power of Mass Mobilization and the Spirit Tahrir Square”, he asserts that although Egyptians have revolted numerous times throughout the modern age, none of those uprisings had the sheer power of numbers behind them like the 25 January Revolution (2).   Stefan Simanowitz asserted that when a group of people become fearless and empowered to change the politics of their nation through working together as a group, they are more disposed to becoming active and fervent about protesting to effect the change they desire (Editorial 1).  This was demonstrated in the mass mobilization of the January 25, 2011 uprisings.  The aggregate number of people estimated to have participated in the 18-day protests is around 15 million (Shahin 15).  The protests began in Tahrir square in Cairo on 25 January, 2011, and although they were mostly peaceful protests, Mubarak was forced to resign from his office on 11 February, 2011 (Coates 1).

Another reason the protests were so efficient and successful in ousting Mubarak was because of the diversity of the participants and the peaceful nature of the movement. It was essentially a “classless revolution” (Shahin 3).  Egyptians from all demographics and even adversarial political groups were able to successfully join together to overthrow Mubarak’s regime.  That may have to do with the usage of social media which would have made it possible for Egyptians far and wide to participate in the protests.  Also the protesters were able to agree to try to maintain peaceful protests at all times in order to garner sympathy for their cause,  “Peaceful… Peaceful” was their slogan when faced with the regime’s anti-riot crackdowns.  Now that I’ve explained the factors that made the protests so successful, I’ll extrapolate on another factor which surprisingly also secured their success:  Mubarak’s inappropriate and truly inhumane response.

Mubarak’s regime’s response to the movement was full of cruel violence and disregard for human rights, and fundamentally unsound reactions that instead of hindering or halting the revolution, catapulted it into success.  The first of these was Mubarak’s underestimation of the power of the people, and therefore, slow response to the uprisings.  According to Shahin, it took President Mubarak 4 days (29 January 2011) to publicly address Egypt and discuss measures to counter the movement (Shahin 19).  This was due in part to the fact that Mubarak’s advisors had convinced him at first that the protesters posed no threats, that they were just “Internet kids” (Shahin 19) and that the protests would disperse themselves in a few days.  This is a blatant example of the kind of arrogance and ego-centrism that is character to most dictatorships and corrupt regimes.  The inability to realize the potential power of the people and the lack of fear of mobilization of the people. Thomas Jefferson said "When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” I believe that ideology is applicable to all forms of government and President Mubarak ignored and refuted that idea and that eventually led to his downfall.

Another way in which we can see how clearly inappropriate the government’s response was is the stark contrast between the peaceful protesters and the violence of the regime’s response.  The regime used several different tactics varying in the degree of bloodthirst to attempt to suppress the movement.  This included everything from anti-riot police brutality utilizing tear gas, rubber bullets, live bullets, and even mowing down protesters in police vehicles to unleashing government paid thugs armed to the teeth to mutilate, attack, and even kill the protesters.  These militia-type forces were not part of the Egyptian military or the police.  Apparently they were paid by the government to infiltrate Tahrir square and appear to be supporters of Mubarak, protesting against the protesters.  However these “protesters” were armed with knives, machetes, swords, Molotov Cocktails, and an assortment of firearms. They were encouraged to dispel masses of unarmed, peaceful protesters by using any means necessary, even deadly force.  It is reported that even the neighborhood thugs of Cairo took up arms against the government’s thugs and defended the unarmed protesters and helped push back the opposition (this struggle became known as the Battle of the Camel) (Shahin 19).  This type of anti-rebellion tactic is possibly the most egregious way for a government to suppress its people; by seeking out the poor and homeless not involved with the protests, and arming them and offering them money or food in exchange for their pledge to attack their own people. Fortunately, due to sheer masses the protesters were able to overcome all of the regime’s forces.  

This was due in part to another one of Mubarak’s blunders:  cutting off internet and wireless phone service.  This was done in an attempt to disrupt communications between the protesters but in actuality, it crippled Mubarak’s own police forces as they could not organize their efforts without using walkie-talkies and cell phones (Shahin 20).  Finally, another fatal mistake of Mubarak’s was attacking and attempting to shut-down foreign media correspondents such as Al-Jazeera, there was also reason to believe that the regime’s supporters had attacked and even sexually assaulted a female U.S. journalist who was covering the protests in Tahrir square (Shahin 4).  All of these actions by the regime only fueled the fire for the protesters and earned them more sympathy and support from the rest of the global audience.  They were desperate, violent attempts to hold onto power by a President, who did not see the power of the people coming.

The government’s supporters at that time might say that Mubarak’s reactions to the protests, albeit violent, were a necessary exercise in maintaining control and stability within a country.  However, if true democracy is the goal of Egypt, then a movement by the people of that magnitude would trump and override any policy or legislation put into place, because it would be a direct communication straight from the people to the government, expressing their dissatisfaction with the current government and their demand for change.  That is the pure essence of democracy.  The voice of the people, united as one group, calling the shots and taking their government into their own hands, and, result of the revolution notwithstanding, there are few other movements in history which exemplify the spirit of unity and democracy the way that the 25 January movement did in Egypt.  Personally, I think that many countries, even the US, could do with taking a leaf out of Egypt’s book in that regard.

As far as social media’s involvement in the Egyptian revolution, there are a few different viewpoints.  Author Johnny West asserts that the western media’s hype of social media in the Arab Spring is actually valid.  He argues that social media, aside from enhancing communications and organization of the protests, actually helped ignite the revolution because it opened the people’s eyes to the fact that everyone else was unhappy with the current regime as well and encouraged the people to take action.  (West in Haerens and Zott 34). 

  On the contrary, Evgeny Morozov claims that although he personally attended workshops in Cairo where activists were collaborating on ways to circumvent government censorship, the utilization of Facebook and other social media was only an additional tool for spreading word of the protests, and that the motivation and organization behind the protests had been formed and cultivated for years before the 25 January 2011 movement actually occurred (Morozov in Haerens and Zott 45).  Many others are of the same mind and claim that social media, like any other development of technology, is only a tool and there must be a human, organic motivation behind any action.  Technology is only what the user makes of it, meaning it can be used for good or evil.  Social media specifically, follows the same rules: a person can use Facebook to play Farmville, post statuses about their life and activities, chat with friends, look at other peoples’ profiles, pictures, events, etc. all these actions promoting and maintaining an idle, envious materialistic lifestyle.  Conversely, Facebook can also be used (and this is what we saw much of in Egypt) to share news stories, blog posts, links all promoting a person’s political views and/or spreading information and exposing crimes of a regime, as well as coordinating events and gaining support for a cause.  This was primarily the way that social media was used to assist in the escalation of the Egyptian revolution.  

It cannot be denied that Facebook did play a role in the build-up to the protests, as the first call for protests was posted by the “I Am Khalid” Facebook page which had 400,000 members in 2010 and had participated in several protest activities. Several other Facebook pages of similar groups as well as tens of thousands of blogs exposing the corruption of the regime sprang up in years leading up to Mubarak’s overthrow (Shahin 16).   The 25 January revolution “was probably the only revolution in history that determined its commencement and announced its date to the world online” (Esam Al-Amin qtd. in Shahin 16).  Therefore it is undeniable how vital a role social media was to this revolution.

Similar to Facebook’s usefulness in organizing and carrying-out the protests, Twitter had a particularly large role in broadcasting and communicating the development of the protests as they were happening, which in turn, garnered even more external support for the revolution, no doubt having an impact on its success.   “Social Media Evolution of the Egyptian Revolution”, an article by Alok Choudhary, William Hendrix, Kathy Lee, Diana Palsetia, and Wei-Keng Liao, published by Communications of the ACM, uses graphically displayed data to argue that while some people may not consider Facebook and Twitter to have been critical to the Egyptian revolution, the facts show that social media was used to bring the fervor of the revolution to a zenith (Choudhary, et al. 1).  The authors analyzed over 800,000 tweets related to the Egyptian revolution in order to gauge the trending impact and evolution as the protests continued. (Choudhary, et al. 2)  Twitter was particularly vital to provide rapid spread of news, updates and details to those in and outside of Egypt who otherwise may not have received the news due to Mubarak’s attempted shut-down of phone and internet services (Choudhary, et al. 7).  

To conclude, in the aftermath of Mubarak’s resignation there have been additional protests and overthrows within Egypt’s new and unstable military-controlled government (Al-Hourani 1).  It can be assumed that there are even more factors contributing to the motivation of the protests, and social media’s involvement in the subsequent turmoil of Mohammed Morsi’s ejection from his democratically elected office and the subtle militant government takeover that Egypt is now entrenched in (Coates 1). However, it is clear that the 25 January movement which initiated all these events, regardless of the long-term effect, was a fantastic example of mass mobilization of the people and a revolution that was considerably strengthened with the use of social media to empower the people and that President Mubarak’s cowardly responses to the protests were not at all an appropriate means of maintaining civil order.

I am aware that some Americans of the social-media generation might be of the opinion that Facebook/Twitter is “not the place for discussing politics, religion, etc”  and would rather everyone “kept their opinions to themselves” in such social media forums.  But I would argue that if those people could see the potential power that social media has given the people to affect change in these revolutions in the middle east in only the past few years, they would realize that we have even more potential to use social media to that same end here in the U.S., since social media is vastly more frequently used by the American people.  I would also argue that the idea that in order to maintain a peaceful society, people should “never discuss religion or politics” is the most cowardly excuse for staying complacently uninformed and comfortably uninvolved in the control of our own future.  Furthermore, it is that very idea which, when put into practice, becomes an act of essentially handing over the rights of the people to a tyrannical government, an unfortunate result that is seen in many countries all over the world today.  I do concede, however, that each country is different, and each government may have different degrees of censorship over wireless communication and social media.  Therefore, the way social media were used for social activism in Egypt may not be feasible or at all similar to social media’s potential usefulness for activism in any other given country. But, if we can all come together and join forces peacefully and use social media like the Egyptians did in 2011, we could possibly turn the tide and, in the future, prevent more dictator-controlled governments from enforcing brutal police violence and heinous disregard for human rights on innocent people like President Mubarak’s regime did in 2011.

Works Cited
Coates, Ashley. “Egypt: Timeline of unrest; The optimism of the Arab Spring has given way to a fresh wave of violence and dissent”. The Telegraph. Wednesday 13 Aug. 2013. Web. 15 Aug. 2013.

Haerens, Margaret, and Lynn M. Zott. The Arab Spring. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2013. Print. 3 Sept. 2013.

Shahin, Emad El-Din. "The Egyptian Revolution: The Power Of Mass Mobilization And The Spirit Of Tahrir Square." Journal Of The Middle East & Africa 3.1 (2012): 46-69. Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Sept. 2013.

Sharaf Al-Hourani, et al. "HOW THE MILITARY WON THE EGYPTIAN ELECTION. (Cover Story)." Time 180.2 (2012): 28-34. Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Sept. 2013.

“Watching a Drama Play Out in Egypt” Editorial. The New York Times. Saturday, 6 Jul. 2013. Web. 14 Sept. 2013.

"Social Media Evolution Of The Egyptian Revolution." Communications Of The ACM 55.5 (2012): 74-80. Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Sept. 2013.

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