New Media and The Middle East – Challenging Authority in EgyptSeptember 26, 2009
New media, especially social media, are playing a significant role in challenging authority and states in the Middle East. This is the first post in a series I will publish on examples of how new media are being used toward this end. Egypt will start off this series.
Egyptians have begun using online social-networking tools like blogs, Facebook, and YouTube as tools of dissent against the existing authority. This is significant given that the reigning president, Hosni Mubarak, is seen as a dictator—in fact, one of the world’s ten worst dictators—and his reign has been marked by human rights abuses and acts against freedom of expression that have warranted calling him one.
Freedom House’s 2009 “Freedom in the World” report that evaluates political freedom in countries listed Egypt as “Not Free”, and their 2008 “Freedom of the Press” report that evaluates press freedom labeled the country “Partly Free”. However, this “Partly Free” score came with a caveat demonstrating what expression is up against in Eqypt:
Egypt’s status improved from Not Free to Partly Free in recognition of the courage of Egyptian journalists to cross “red lines” that previously restricted their work and in recognition of the greater range of viewpoints represented in the Egyptian media and blogosphere.
This progress occurred in spite of the government’s ongoing—and in some cases increasing—harassment, repression, and imprisonment of journalists. While Egyptian journalists succeeded in expanding the diversity of media coverage by pushing back the “red lines” that previously restricted their work, press freedom continued to suffer owing to the government’s repressive laws and the extralegal intimidation of journalists. The Emergency Law, the Press Law, and other provisions of the penal code circumscribe the press, despite constitutional guarantees of press freedom. Even after the 2006 amendments to the Press Law, dissemination of “false news”, criticism of the president and foreign leaders, and publication of material that constitutes “an attack against the dignity and honor of individuals” or an “outrage of the reputation of families” remain criminal offenses that are prosecuted opportunistically by the authorities.
These realities are no exception for online expression in Egypt. Committee to Protect Journalists called Egypt one of the ten worst countries in the world to be a blogger, and describes a rather bleak reality for the battle ahead:
Authorities monitor Internet activity on a regular basis. Traffic from all Internet service providers passes through the state-run Egypt Telecom. Authorities regularly detain critical bloggers for open-ended periods. Local press freedom groups documented the detention of more than 100 bloggers in 2008 alone. Although most bloggers were released after short periods, some were held for months and many were kept without judicial order. Most detained bloggers report mistreatment, and a number have been tortured.
Despite this bleak reality, people are using new media to challenge Mubarak and his government’s authority. One significant example of this is the “6 April” strike inspired by protests against skyrocketing food prices. A Facebook group “6 April Youth Movement” was created in 2008 to call for this strike, and has since become a youth movement for political action, that as of this writing had over 76,000 members. Taking this one step further, the group is also spreading its viewpoints through the blog shabab6april.wordpress.com.
Another method of challenging authority is to show evidence of it abusing its power. A very important way that this is happening in Egypt is through YouTube. Anyone in the world with a decent Internet connection and a political establishment that does not block YouTube can watch videos, shot on cell phones, of Egyptian police brutally beating and torturing Egyptians, for instance.
In fact, IFEX reported that Egyptian bloggers had planned a festival of online torture videos for late 2007 to show “controversial acts of torture allegedly committed by the security authorities”. IFEX even reported that two policeman had been sentenced to three years in jail as a result of nationwide and international outrage in reaction to YouTube videos depicting their crime.
Online video sites are not the only way to gather evidence on abuses by Egyptian authorities. Flickr, a social-networking website for sharing digital photographs, is another tool being used. Go to http://www.flickr.com and type “Egypt protest” into the search box, and you will find a bevy of digital evidence. This has tremendous possibilities for raising awareness, and creating advocacy campaigns, in real time considering that it is possible to upload photos to Flickr using a cell phone.
Finally, one other example of new media being used to challenge Egyptian authority came when James Buck, a student from Berkeley who was in Egypt to photograph protests, used Twitter to “Twitter his way out of jail”. He was arrested by authorities, and tweeted the word “Arrested” to colleagues and Egyptian blogger friends, who then contacted his university and the US Embassy on the matter, which helped him out of jail just 24 hours later.
This is especially significant given that Twitter has become the technology de jour for communicating globally during times of unrest, as we saw in Dubai and Moldova. Egypt is another member on that list, with Egyptians taking to Twitter as another way of spreading information on protests.
Egyptians might live under a dictatorship, and see their freedom of expression constantly threatened. However, the reality is that social media are making it increasingly difficult for authorities to mitigate (as we will see in the case of Iran, as well) the ability for the public to spread information that threatens and ultimately weakens the strength of that dictatorship. After all, information uncontrolled is the enemy of authoritarianism. Ideas spread, seep in, disturb status quo, and motivate people to take action as they see they are not alone in their unrest. Social media make disturbing status quo and communicating with motivated people easier than any other technology we’ve seen yet.