Social media & Egypt: is the revolution happening in the streets or on the web?

..That`s the one million dollar question I have been hearing all around: from newspapers,TV stations, media analysts and even from the social networks themselves. Is Tunisia, Egypt happening because of Twitter and Facebook?

I know how much the Western media get excited about this thought, which is “sexy”  and  might sell really well in Westerns TV talk shows and newspapers. Since the Tunisian “revolution” (although the Egyptian one is still referred to by somebody as “crisis” or “clashes”) has started, I have been receiving calls for books on the topics, invitations to conferences or to contribute to special issues of magazines. I know what this means for the West, as I am a Westerner myself.

But I have been living at the hearth of the Middle East for a while, I have been speaking Arabic with Arabs, sitting with them in cafes and restaurants, going out to concerts, literary clubs,  university meetings, conferences, talks. I have been travelling all around in the Region and experienced different places, from refugee camps to TV meeting rooms, and was lucky enough to have met with youngsters of different social classes and education levels.

The Twitter and Facebook revolution looks very different from where I am sitting now, a place where the daily Internet connection starts with a big question mark, if it is gonna be ok, if there will be enough speed, enough power supply , enough security to talk about the issues you want to talk about.

Egypt is not happening because of new media, Egypt is happening because of starvation, unemployment, injustice, corruption that have reached a limit.

Yet, new media has been playing a role, an indirect role in it. New media, the so-called “social media“, is all about communication among people. It`s about getting closer to people you already know and feeling that you are getting closer also to people you dont know but you get to know them, at least remotely, and they are living different lives, undergoing different challenges, having problems different from yours. And then you learn, and you become aware.

In places like Egypt were the education system is so rotten, where learning has never been put in its right context -which means criticizing, contextualizing or expressing doubts about something- social media have replaced a very key social function. And this was done through peer-learning and peer-cooperation. No old generation telling you the story the way the regime wants you to be told the story (and the History), but you learning with peers.

Egypt is a generation clash, and Westerners sometime dont think of how many youngsters are there out in the Arab world. I have been growing up in a country where young people simply don`t count which is a common “Mediterranean mentality”. But the difference between Italy, Greece, Spain and other Southern-EU countries that share this kind of mentality is that we dont have young people enough. It`s just a minority and can be ignored. But what about Egypt and all the other Arab countries, where more than 65% of the population is under 25? can we really ignore those folks?

Can we really do as Omar Suleiman was doing, few hours ago, on Egyptian TV, talking to the “nation” like a “father” who`s telling his kids that he will forgive them if they come back home after the bad things they did, just because they are young and kind of unconscious?

Is this really still a valid discourse in front of your audience when your audience is all made up by those people that you are blaming at, pretending to know how to guide them into the world?

Well, they know their world much better than Omar Suleiman or Mubarak do. And social media has contributed to this indirectly, by bringing the added value of learning through other peers.

Technology is scary: you just cant give the toy to your kid and pretends he plays the way you would play with it.

Young techies and engineers have already started building cooperative efforts to overcome governments` or any other repressive entity`s efforts to shut down the Internet when they feel not too comfortable about the “technology revolution” that they have previously encouraged for purely business and commercial reasons. In few hours and days, Open Mesh Egypt and  Alive in Egypt initiatives are born. Even Google has set up a web initiative to overcome the authorities` censorship in Egypt over the Internet.

The Arab world is not going to be the same after this. The entire world might not be the same after this. Many of us do hope so, even if we are not as young as the shabbab #jan25.

On Khaled Said and his effects on Egyptian bloggers and activists..

Those days my Twitter feed is only two things: the World Cup and Khaled Said.

I prefer to focus on the latter, which is an outrageous episode in Egyptian modern state history, while its consequences on social web and human rights activism are becoming huge among Egyptian online users. Huge mobilisations happened all across the country in the past days, some of them being organised and coordinated online. I liked Mona Elthawy`s piece on Huffington Post which I would like to re-post here below.

I have to say that we recently had a similar case to Khaled in Italy. Stefano Cucchi was arrested by Italian police on 16th October 2009 because he illegally carried 20 grams on marijuana. He died in prison 6 days later, his body bearing evidence of heavy torture. Trial is still open and his family still asking for justice. Torture is something that unfortunately happening everywhere, including the alleged “First world” (Italy still supposed to fall in this category?!).

At least, as I can read from my Twitter feed and from Mona`s article,  Egyptian are very actively reacting on this even using social networks and protests are moving from electronic weblogs to the streets on the country.

Posted: June 25, 2010 10:02 AM on Huffington Post

by Mona Eltahawy

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for (i = 0; i Generation Mubarak/Generation Facebook

NEW YORK – When a young Egyptian died from what his family, activists and witnesses say was a savage police beating, many of his peers – the generation of Egyptians who have known no other leader than President Hosni Mubarak – protested and mourned in the way they know best: by going online.

Generation Mubarak is also Generation Facebook.

Two young Egyptian Facebook friends alerted me to Said’s death with a link to the page”I am Khaled Said” which was set up on June 11, five days after he died. It now has more than 225,000 fans.

Many Egyptians on Facebook changed their profile picture to one of Said alive – bright eyed, clean cut, looking barely old enough to shave despite his 28 years. Others switched to a picture of his corpse – teeth missing, lip torn, jaw broken and blood pouring from his head. His family has confirmed it is indeed his shattered body.

But Generation Facebook doesn’t just vent online. Facebook, Twitter andYouTube aren’t just for party pictures or flirting but have become slingshots aimed at a regime Generation Mubarak never imagined they could take on.

Social networking sites connect activists with ordinary people who are joining demonstrations in numbers unheard of in Egypt: a protest outside the Interior Ministry in Cairo was the largest jn living memory against police brutality.

In Alexandria, Said’s hometown, up to 8,000 Egyptians wearing black protested along the corniche; some recited verses of the Koran and Bible.

Generation Facebook moves to fill in the holes of mainstream media. Blogger and citizen journalist Mohamed Abdelfattah, recorded an on-camera interview with witnesses to Said’s death (it was picked up by an independent Egyptian daily) and filmed that Alexandria silent protest (it has gone viral).

Generation Facebook’s embrace of the social networking site has made Egypt its number one user in the Arab world and 23rd globally. Egypt has the highest number of blogs in the Arabic-speaking Middle East.

The Interior Ministry claims Said died after swallowing a pack of drugs. Activists say undercover police beat him to death after he posted an Internet video, which his family said showed police sharing the profits of a drug bust.

After the public outrage, including at his funeral in Alexandria which at least 1,000 people attended, a new autopsy was ordered but it just confirmed the ministry’s initial claim. Generation Facebook went into action: the Khaled Said Facebook page urged Egyptians to dress in black and to hold silent protests across the country.

Many Egyptians replaced their profile pictures with banners announcing the place and time of the protest they would be attending.

At anti-police brutality protests on June 12, activists held banners with a picture of Mubarak next to one of Said before and after his death. In power 29 years, Mubarak is the longest serving ruler in Egypt’s modern history. For every one of those years Egypt has been under a state of emergency that has turned it into a police state where torture is systematic and where there are an estimated 12,000 to 14,000 detained persons.

That juxtaposition of pictures of Said alive and dead chillingly brought home for Generation Mubarak what living under Emergency Law their entire lives has meant. If any thought arbitrary arrests and detention happened to others – political activists or the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood – they learned that Said was involved with neither.

If they imagined police brutality was confined to criminals or the poor, such as 13-year old Mohamed Abdel-Aziz whose battered body brought prosecutors to tears in 2007 as they examined his family’s allegations that he was beaten and electrocuted by police who arrested him for allegedly stealing four packs of tea, then Said’s shattered face was their wakeup call.

Occasionally a few officers are convicted of torture but they usually return to their jobs after cosmetic sentences. That won’t change as long as Emergency Law is in effect. A month before Khaled Said’s death it was extended for two more years.

Blogs and social networking didn’t invent courage – activists have been protesting against Mubarak for years – but have connected Egyptians and amplified their voices.

In 2007, two police officers were sentenced to three years in jail for sodomizing a bus driver with a stick. Evidence used against them included video the officers shot of the assault that blogger Wael Abbas posted to his site.

Dozens more videos exposing police brutality have gone online. There’s an anti-torture website with a hotline to report incidents. There’s another with advice on what to do if you’re tortured or beaten up by police.

Egyptians make another link – between Mubarak and successive U.S. administrations which for years have been his biggest ally and whose support has been vital for his 29-year political survival.

It’s not just U.S. administrations that have ignored Mubarak’s oppressive rule. U.S. media focus on Iranian demonstrators and online activists who deservedly garner headlines for their courage but those same media outlets largely ignore Egyptians because Mubarak is “our friend” and stands stalwartly against the kind of Muslim fundamentalists who run Iran.

“Khaled is our Neda,” Generation Facebook says, citing the young Iranian woman whose death in a post-election Tehran demonstration last year was captured by mobile phone.

If she was the everywoman whose on-camera demise shook our eyes open to the Iranian regime’s brutality, then Khaled Said’s shattered face could belong to any one of Generation Mubarak.

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