As an information activist working in Zimbabwe, I’ve found the role of digital technologies in Egypt’s revolution fascinating. Here are some observations surrounding the 18 days of protest, which successfully challenged President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30 years of rule.
1. People at the heart.
Whilst information and communication technology (ICT) provided critical channels to mobilize and magnify the revolution, it was the motivated, driven activists, such as the leaders of the April 6 Movement who effectively and deliberately used these tools to organize the protests. Millions of brave, determined demonstrators took action and met on the streets. Thus, it was the Egyptian people — not the tools they used — who need to be given credit for successfully demanding political change.
2. Kick-started by social media.
Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing manager administered the We are all Khaled Said Facebook page that — amongst others such as the January 25 Facebook page — were the initial tools that enabled and enhanced the January 25 demonstration. Soon Twitter followed Facebook, with the #Jan25 hashtag spreading virally online.
As Ghonim told the AP: “This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook…This is the revolution of the youth, of the Internet and now the revolution of all Egyptians.”
3. A combination of tactics.
The organizing capacity of social media was the impetus for the revolution and it continued to play a pivotal role throughout, recording events in real time for all with Internet access to see. However, other combined and coordinated tactics were used, including demonstration invitations delivered face-to-face and via email and SMS.
Hotline numbers, such as those of Front to Defend Egypt Protesters, were used to receive citizen reports. Blogs and photos were posted online, bambuser.com was used for live video streaming, Google created the Crisis Response page for Egypt and videos were posted on YouTube, Storyful, and CitizenTube.
Here’s one such video highlighted on YouTube’s CitizenTube page:
Arab satellite television, such as Al Jazeera, was also a particularly powerful force for intensifying participation both locally and internationally. For instance, Wael Ghonim was interviewed on television, after he was imprisoned for 12 days by the secret police. He wept for the 300 Egyptians killed and it is widely believed that this emotional moment turned up the movement’s heat and led to a large swell in the number of protesters in Tahrir Square the day following his interview. It was broadcast on television, uploaded on YouTube, subtitled, and then circulated widely on Facebook and Twitter.
Even when the government disrupted and blocked Internet and mobile phone communication, activists were inspired to be even more resourceful in their use of cross-platform strategies. Researcher, Alix Dunn gives examples of these hybrid techniques and how they spread: satellite news broadcast of tweets, transmission from satellite television to radio, and leaflet distribution by people on the ground.
The impact of this coordination is proof that the Egyptian revolution was both a people’s movement and a tech-centric uprising.
4. Censorship led to further innovation.
During government disruptions of Internet/mobile communications, citizens and journalists continued to use social media via third party applications like Hootsuite and TweetDeck and they transmitted videos via satellite devices.
Full Internet/mobile censorship by the government led to further communication innovation, with Speak2Tweet being developed by Twitter/Google, so that Egyptians could send news without being online. Egyptians could call in to advertised numbers to leave voice messages, which were then tweeted via the #Egypt hashtag, with a link to the audio message. Small World News subsequently organized translation of the Arabic messages into English.
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo warned autocrats that censorship doesn’t prevent protesters from using Twitter completely, “you’re just challenging them to find another way to use it. People will always find a way to communicate.”
5. The importance of external allies.
Twitter and Al Jazeera English service were key avenues for Egyptians to communicate with the rest of the world, including with international NGOs, bloggers, and media. Once the world is paying attention and there is solidarity with the uprising, citizen protests become more difficult for dictators to ignore.
6. Corporations should be held more accountable.
According to Pyramid Research, the government used Vodafone Egypt, in which it has a 36 percent ownership stake, to send pro-government SMS messages to the Egyptian citizens. According to sources on the ground, Mobinil was used for this purpose as well. Later Vodafone, other mobile operators and the country’s major Internet service providers, were forced to suspend their networks by the government.
Telecommunications providers and ISPs, which have physical assets, usually need a country license to operate. Thus, they are more susceptible to government pressure than corporations like Facebook and Google, which do not have to build infrastructure in a country to be accessed by its citizens. Yet despite pressure from repressive regimes, surely corporations like Vodafone have some responsibility to citizens and should be held accountable for their actions in Egypt and elsewhere?
7. A question of access.
Egypt is blessed with a relatively solid ICT infrastructure. According to Pyramid Research, there are three mobile operators, providing nationwide coverage and 3G services, with cellular penetration having reaching 78 percent of the population by the end of 2010. According to 2009 data 21 percent of Egyptians are online and 5.1 million are on Facebook.
In other countries, where access to ICT is considerably less, building up this type of political momentum may be more difficult.
Conclusion and next steps
ICT and particularly social media definitely lubricated and sped up the revolt in Egypt and, as Ethan Zuckerman states, it will be interesting to see how these tools will be used to help form a new democratic government in Egypt.
When Wael Ghonim was asked what’s next in revolutions in the Arab world, he told CNN: “Ask Facebook.”