Tahrir Square Was a Foreseeable Surprise

Tracing the history of Egyptian online activism.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. A Future Tense conference on the promise and limitations of using technology to spread democracy will be held at the New America Foundation on July 13. (For more information and to sign up for the event, please visit the NAF website.)

Over the last several months, there has been seemingly endless discussion about how social media activisms have changed the political landscape of Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

But for all the headlines, there is very little research devoted to deepening our understanding of this phenomenon. A more thorough investigation on these movements in Egypt shows that the historical movement that happened in Tahrir Square was actually an imaginable surprise. It was tightly connected to the ongoing consolidation of disparate opposition groups and the expansion of online activism networks over time. To fully understand the Tahrir revolt, we need to look beyond January 2011, past the usage of Facebook and Twitter, and focus instead on how the protest networks emerged, expanded, and were translated into a momentous collective action—and how the Internet and social media became entangled in these processes. The social media activism in the recent mass protests is anchored in the burgeoning online activisms that have been happening in the region for years.

I would like to take you through the years preceding Egypt’s revolution to demonstrate how years of technological innovation and social networking—online and off—laid the groundwork for Tahrir Square. The very genesis of online activism started in 2004 with the emergence of the Kefaya (“Enough”) movement, followed by the emergence of oppositional activists in the Egyptian blogosphere.

Watch a 3-D timeline of the history of online activism in Egypt:

Kefaya: The Genesis

Built on the strands of the anti-Iraq-invasion protests in March 2003 held in Tahrir Square, Kefaya became the central force behind the first public demonstrations against President Mubarak. It was also thefirst oppositional nonpartisan coalitional movement without physical headquarters or permanent meeting place.Instead, one of Kefaya’s major organizing spaces was Misr Digital, the first digital independent newspaper in Egypt. This Kefaya movement informed and inspired the emergence of youth activism online on Facebook and, after 2008, on Twitter.

Learning from the 2003 anti-Iraq-war protests, Kefaya made use of emails and text messages to mobilize. Kefaya published its campaigns online—to strategize around the control of the authorities—and propagated online banners and political cartoons on its website and through supporters’ blogs. Kefaya also used digital images and videos to document state abuses and police brutality, disseminating them online through Flickr and YouTube. Kefaya made the connection between offline and online, from the Internet to the streets, routine.

The Growth of Egyptian Blogging

Beyond mobilization—campaigning, advertising, announcing, and reporting the movement and the scheduled protests—blogging enabled the inner circle of blogger/activists to deliberate on various important issues and contentions. It also allowed the creation of oppositional networks and for actors from different ideologies—e.g., leftists, liberals, Islamists—and backgrounds to connect.

While the number of Egyptian bloggers/activists increased significantly from 2005 to 2007, conversations and ideas were circulated only in a limited network. In the Kefaya era, there were only about 6 million Internet users in Egypt, or roughly 7 percent of the population. With such a limited network, Kefaya struggled to survive the government’s intimidation, attacks, and abuses—including arrests on bloggers. Though Kefaya took advantage of regional and global media such as Al Jazeera, the movement’s use of the limited Internet was not enough to fight against the state-controlled mainstream media. Despite being the most important model of dissent, Kefaya failed to reach beyond “an exclusive, Cairo-based intellectual crowd.” High-minded bloggers focused on human rights and democracy, not the problems Egyptians faced on a daily basis. Kefaya also struggled with fragmentation and conflicts from within. By 2007, the movement was on the decline had been declined. The network, at that moment, was simply not big enough to make the mass revolt happen.

Though the influence of the movement itself waned, Kefaya’s spirit of online activism endured. Its bloggers continued to communicate with one another and to post information online. As the increasingly repressive authorities deemed street protests illegal, and police brutalities dominated the Egyptian streets, the blogging network flourished. By mid-2009, the Egyptian blogosphere comprised the largest structural cluster of the Arabic blogosphere.

Number of postings with topics related to democracy + freedom, protest, and (anti) Mubarak among Egyptian blogger-activists (2003-2011) (Source: Lim & Kumar’s Blogtrackers, 2011)

The blogosphere’s anti-Mubarak discourse (as illustrated above) persisted. But the dominant narratives used to mobilize the oppositional networks shifted. After 2005-2007’s abstract discussions of “democracy and human rights” (judicial independence, labor issue, religious violence/discrimination, and women’s rights), the conversation from 2008 to early 2011 began to address concrete, shared injustices (corruption, torture, police brutality, poverty, and unemployment) that everyday Egyptians endured.

Facebook and the April 6 Youth Movement: Expanding the Network, Embracing Participatory Culture

Egyptian blogger/activists began embracing Facebook when it became available in 2006. One of the very first Egyptian groups to strategically employ Facebook was the April 6 Youth Movement. The group initially was formed in March 2008 to support workers in the industrial town of El-Mahalla El-Kubra who were planning to strike on April 6, 2008. It later became the most dynamic anti-Mubarak movement. Carrying on the strategy of Kefaya Youth for Change, the April 6 Movement employed blogs, Flickr, YouTube, emails, and text messages, plus the important new tools Facebook and Twitter. As of January 2009, the movement’s Facebook page had 70,000 members, most of whom were new to political action. At the time, the total number of Facebook users in Egypt was less than 900,000. Through Facebook the movement bridged the gap between the inner circle of activists and young Egyptian urbanites.

The April 6 Youth Movement was also the first known Egyptian group to use the Twitter hashtag in its operation. As part of the September 2010 Orabi (“No to succession”) demonstrations, which protested President Mubarak’s plan to hand power to his son Gamal, the group utilized the #orabi2010 hashtag as a code to organize and recruit protesters. The April 6 movement leaders reportedly learned about the importance of Twitter from Iranian protesters. Cracked down on before demonstrations even began, the Orabi2010 protest was not successful. However, it successfully introduced Twitter as a new tactic to the landscape of oppositional activism in Egypt.

We Are All Khaled Said: Symbolic Representation, Iconic Figure, and Shared Emotion

The launch of Arabic Facebook brought the number of Facebook users in Egypt from around 900,000 in January 2009 to nearly 3 million in April 2010. In June of that year, Wael Ghonim launched the pivotal Facebook group “We are all Khaled Said,”. This group called public attention to the death of a 25-year-old man beaten by Egyptian security forces. The story and visual representations of Khaled Said embodied the injustice and brutalities of the Mubarak regime and helped intensify the emotional component of the oppositional movement. The availability of social networks is crucial for mobilization, but events of injustice are ones that provoke resentment and anger—the shared emotions—that inspire far more people to participate.

The Momentous Revolt: Tunis, Muslim Brotherhood, and Global Audience

The Jan. 25 protest in Tahrir Square was not caused by the January 2011 Tunisian uprising. Activists had already planned to hold that protest even before Tunisian President Ben Ali was overthrown. However, the Tunis revolthelped inspire the decision to make “bringing down Mubarak” an aim, and to bolster the hope among Egyptians that such a goal was achievable.

In the days leading to Jan. 25, the mobilization was geared toward reaching more regular Egyptians not only through online campaigns like online banners and viral videos, but also through text messages and offline means such as pamphlets and word of mouth. By Jan. 25, the oppositional network was large enough, and the connection between online activism and the streets of Egyptian cities was established. But activists still had to sustain the movement and to survive the crackdown and physical attacks from authorities. Domestically, the Muslim Brotherhood’s experience in surviving the suppression of the Mubarak regime and in providing social services to Egypt’s poor were key to holding the revolution’s infrastructure together. Mobile phones and more traditional media helped coordinate the actions. Beyond Tahrir Square, and even beyond Cairo and Egypt, the activists used the global audience on Twitter and global television/media to win international support. The global audience was able to hear the voice of the Egyptian opposition, not just the state’s point of view.

By the time the Egyptian government shut down the Internet, the movement didn’t need it—the protesters had reached a critical mass and gained international support. Turning off the Internet merely ignited more resistance, domestically and internationally, allowing it to actually contribute to Mubarak’s dethroning.

The common narratives about social media and the Arab uprising tend to focus on “the moment”—the Tahrir Square moment, as if the movement came from nowhere, ignoring key components of history. Every moment has its history. By delving into the historical context, we understand the ingredients—massive social networks, solid shared narratives, strong unifying symbol, ongoing online-offline connections, and international support—that made up the Tahrir revolt are the product the ongoing struggles against the Mubarak regime. Social media and the Internet were just part of that history.