Egypt’s failed virtual protest

A little over a week ago came the anniversary of a domestic protest in Egypt, for which a group of students and activists attempted to organise a nationwide day of action. The April 6th 2009 protest was widely regarded as a failure, but raises questions about the use of new media in democratic movements and their coverage by the mainstream media in both the Middle East and the West.

The Iniative for an Open Arab Internet paints an optimistic view of the protest in its planning stages:

“A call went out in 2009 for 6 April to become a day of “anger”. Every means of communication has since been pressed into service to spread the message far and wide, including slogans scrawled on bank notes and thousands of text messages sent to random phone numbers. The young Facebook users have no political experience and their real numbers are unknown. But that is their strength. Since any type of meeting is banned under the state of emergency law which the country has been under for 28 years, the Internet allows meetings to be held through a computer.”

Similar sentiments are echoed by the SHABAB April 6th Youth Movement:

“We Youth April 6 movement believe that the change and reforming of Egypt will not happen by claims or petitions,we will achieve it by providing real alternatives and real solutions to find a real alternative for political, economic and social Renaissance in Egypt that provides stability and security of the Egyptian citizen.
And we Youth April 6 movement believe that this will happen only by the move of young people – as they are the real one who will benefit from the change when it happens, as they exceed 60 % of the Egyptian population..”

Eman AbdElRaham, on Global Voices Online, reflects on the differences with last years strike, pictured after the quote:

“In comparison to last year’s spontaneous movement and the worker’s strikes and demonstrations, especially in El Mahalla, this year’s initiative was met by the fictitious approval of the opposition parties and opposition from the workers themselves; and so the few protests that took place were almost only held by students in Egyptian universities, along with another one in front of the journalism syndicate.”

A protest in Manhalla, Egypt in April 2008

A protest in Manhalla, Egypt in April 2008

Despite stating that the movement recognises that change will not happen through merely claims and petitions, they have been criticised by Jack Shenker at the Guardian, among others, for not expanding those involved in the protest:

“Facebook groups might grab the attention of social-networking-hungry global news outlets, but they mean a lot less in a country where only about 10% of the population are internet users. That’s not to say the web doesn’t have a vital role to play in providing a much-needed space for political expression, but it does mean that those seeking mass mobilisations against the regime must find ways to reach out and co-ordinate with those beyond their own middle-class circles.”

It’s worth asking whether or not the protest would have attracted as much attention from Western media outlets had it been planned by trade unions (such as they are in Egypt) and the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than by English-speaking, internet savvy students. Much of the Anglo-Saxon media seems unable to go more than a few days without having a story about Facebook, Twitter or the next big thing. We saw this with the so called ‘Twitter Revolution‘ (France 24) in Moldova recently – would it have achieved the same level of albeit short prominence was it not associated with the tweeting service?

The excellent Babylon to Beyond LA Times blog was at one of the few demonstrations in Egypt that took place:

“Many observers blame Egyptian apathy on more than five decades of military rule and political oppression.

“People cannot find a good leadership to follow. The state has destroyed all institutions, including active political parties,” said Diaa El-Sawy, a leader of the April 6 youth group. “We, as April 6 youth, try to advance a new leadership for the people.”

Despite the low turnout of protesters, El-Sawy said he believed his group’s call chalked up some success. “The arrest of students reflects our success in terrifying the state. April 6 strike is just a step on the way to a general civil disobedience which we believe is the only way to bring change.””

In effect, a dictatorship which lasts for so long with little opposition and limited media freedom creates a ‘de-politicised’ state, in which opportunity for discourse and engagement is virtually null. Gulf News also blamed widespread apathy for the failure of the protests. What the internet and new media tools then enables is access to outside ideas and a stage for discussion which is harder to contain – but only for 10% of the population, a minority which will inevitably be disproportionality educated, English-speaking, Western leaning and without any institutional power bases.

However, there has been an explosion in the use of new media in Egypt and it’s calls for social justice and democracy are undoubtly a form of development journalism. Although the many bloggers are well-meaning, their form of journalism is hardly partcipatory and due to the apathy of the nation, and the low internet usage, this looks unlikely to change soon.

Egyptian bloggers will keep trying. Marwa Rakha highlights a Facebook campaign for a silent demonstration on April 18th on the subject of harassment. With any luck, it will spread beyond those who can access the group.

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