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January 26, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 659

The Middle East Crisis Part II - Social Networks Harnessed by Protest Movement in Egypt

January 26, 2011 | By Y. Yehoshua*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 659

Introduction

On January 25, 2011, Egypt's Police Day, various political bodies declared a "day of rage," marked by demonstration rallies the likes of which had not been seen in Egypt since 1977. Tens of thousands attended the rallies, which were held simultaneously throughout the country, and in the course of which three people were killed, dozens hurt, and numerous others arrested. The opposition organizations called on Egyptians to continue protesting, however, the Interior Ministry announced that it had banned any further marches or demonstrations.

Protest leaders used social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to plan and organize the demonstrations, while emphasizing its apolitical nature. In anticipation of the rallies, dozens of Facebook accounts were opened both in favor of and against them. Leaders of the opposition organizations in Egypt responded to calls on Facebook to participate in the mass demonstration while refraining from displaying their party and organization symbols.

It should be noted that the April 6, 2008 general strike and civil revolt in Egypt (which led to the establishment of the April 6 Youth Movement by the opposition) was also organized through the internet, using email, Facebook, and Twitter.[1] On the following day, it was reported that numerous Facebook and Twitter accounts in Egypt had been shut down.

Following is an overview of the protest movement's use of social networks in organizing the recent demonstration.

Protestors Organize the Demonstration Using Facebook Pages

Organization for the demonstration was largely conducted using Facebook pages, having been initiated by the Facebook page "We Are All Khaled Sa'id," which has more than 400,000 members, and which was launched following the death of 28-year-old Khaled Sa'id in Alexandria in June 2010 as a result of police brutality.[2] The account that administers the page launched an additional page devoted to spreading word of the January 25 demonstration, calling the page "The Day of Revolution against Torture, Poverty, Corruption and Unemployment." As of this writing, the page has more than 100,000 members.

The organizers of the demonstration used Facebook to circulate an online leaflet, which described in detail the goals of the demonstration and how it was to be staged. The document stressed the importance of the demonstration as an apolitical show of protest. It explained that the Facebook page "We Are All Khaled Sa'id" is not affiliated with any political party or movement and that "the call to demonstrate is spontaneous, and was not planned by any political or popular force." They added that their call had been "answered by all the political powers [participating in the demonstration] because [its] demands are identical [to theirs], and because the political powers defend in practice the rights of [all] Egyptians."

The online leaflet provided a list of those slated to participate in the demonstration, and included the April 6 Youth Movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Al-Wafd party, Mohamed ElBaradei's National Association for Change, and the Ayman Nour branch of the Al-Ghad party.[3] Later, the Kifaya movement (the Egyptian Movement for Change)[4] announced its plans to participate, while Mohamed ElBaradei said he had decided not to participate in order not "to rob the people who have called for the protests of their victory,"[5] a decision for which he was harshly criticized by Muslim Brotherhood senior officials present at the rallies.[6]

Explaining the reasons behind the demonstration, the online leaflet stated that "Egypt is in one of its worst stages in history," and that going to the streets on January 25 would "end the silence and the submissiveness regarding what is happening in our country." It emphasized that the demonstration did not aim to stage a military coup, but to send the Egyptian government a message to the effect that the people had taken their fate into their hands and were demanding all of their rights. It also listed the many problems facing Egypt's citizens, including depression, suicide attempts, extreme poverty, the squatting by homeless people in graveyards, government corruption, unemployment, the high rate of child mortality and serious diseases, the state of emergency, and the forged ballots purportedly cast in the recent parliamentary elections.

It also delineated the protestors' demands on the government: that it limit the president to two terms in office, address problems of poverty, cancel the emergency law, and impeach Interior Minister Habib Al-'Adli for the security chaos in Egypt and for the security apparatuses' crimes against Egyptian citizens. They also provided the telephone numbers of the demonstration organizers so protesters in various provinces of Egypt could coordinate their efforts.[7]

The Facebook Page Launched to Organize the Demonstration: The Date – January 25, 2011; The Place - All Provinces of Egypt

The Twitter Account of the Facebook Page "We Are All Khaled Sa'id" with the Demonstration Date in Its Profile Picture

Facebook Accounts Launched in Support of the Demonstration

Facebook Page Depicts Photos of Egyptian Leaders as Devils

Twibbons on Twitter Accounts Show the Demonstration Date

Apolitical Slogans and Calls to Refrain from Violence

In anticipation of the rallies, the demonstration organizers disseminated detailed instructions and stressed the importance of abiding by the law, refraining from violence, and avoiding disrupting street traffic. Protestors were instructed to wave only the Egyptian flag and not to carry any banners supporting political parties or other organizations. The organizers asked that any slogans chanted during the demonstration be uniform and even provided a list of 19 approved slogans, including: "Long Live Egypt," "O, Tunisian People, Sun of the Revolution That Will Never Set," and "In Spirit and in Blood We Will Redeem You, O Motherland."[8]

Regarding the choice to stage the demonstration on Egyptian Police Day, the organizers wrote: "We chose Police Day because it is a symbol of unity between the police and the people, and we are asking today that the honorable [police] officers unite with us, because we share the same problem."[9]

It should be noted that the day before the demonstration, the chief of security forces in Cairo warned those who planed to demonstrate that the security forces would vigorously oppose any attempt to violate the law, in accordance with orders from the interior minister.[10]

A List of Approved Slogans on the Facebook Page of the Demonstration

The Influence of the Events in Tunisia

The protest organizers pointed out that the demonstration had been inspired by the recent events in Tunisia, which they said they regarded as something that "encouraged all Egyptians to participate [in the demonstration] and to spread [the spirit of protest]." Many Facebook users changed their profile pictures to a picture combining the Egyptian flag, the emblem of the Tunisian flag, and the number 25, marking the date of the demonstration (see picture below). Likewise, members of the most popular Tunisian Facebook page 'Aja'ib Wa'ghara'ib, which has close to a million members in total, expressed support for the demonstration in Egypt.[11]

Facebook Accounts Showed Numerous Pictures Implying the Tunisian Inspiration for the Demonstration

Image: "Tunisia Did It on January 15, and on January 25, Egypt Will Do It [Too]."

Counter-Campaign by Regime Supporters

Supporters of the regime opened Facebook accounts expressing opposition to the demonstration, but on a smaller scale than those supporting it. On its Facebook pages, the campaign for the reelection of President Mubarak in 2011 declared January 25 the "Day of Loyalty and Support for Mubarak." The campaign printed and displayed posters in various districts, expressing support for the president. Campaign coordinator Marwa Hudhud said: "We will organize many protests to express our opposition to any destructive conduct on January 25 on the part of the opposition toward the state institutions. We will not let Egypt become like any other country where destruction is taking place."[12] By January 26, 2011, only 166 members had joined the group. On the page dedicated to the event, 610 people had announced that they would participate.[13]

Page Created for the "Day of Loyalty to the Commander and Leader [i.e., Mubarak]"

Other political forces, such as Al-Tagammu', Al-Gil, Al-'Adala, and Musa Mustafa's branch of the Al-Ghad party, expressed their opposition to the demonstration. It is noteworthy that Yasser Al-Brahimi, the Salafi sheikh from Alexandria, called to refrain from taking part in the demonstrations "in order to maintain the safety of the people in these difficult times, and in order to thwart the goals of the enemies, who wish to spread civil strife... There is a difference between Egypt and Tunisia."[14]

Authorities Temporarily Block Access to Facebook and Twitter

On the evening of January 26, 2011, a day after the demonstration was held, the Egyptian authorities temporarily blocked access to Facebook and Twitter from Egypt. A short time earlier, the administrator of the Facebook page "We Are All Khaled Sa'id" said he was attempting to gather as many member email addresses as possible, in order to facilitate further correspondence and inform them of plans for future demonstrations. He called on Egyptians abroad to continue corresponding about events in Egypt through this page, as well as through the page dedicated to the January 25 demonstration.

In any event, some members managed to find an application that enabled them to circumvent the authorities' block and continued using Facebook, and the page was back up and running within a short period of time.

Government Press: What Happened in Tunisia will Not Happen in Egypt

Following the demonstration, Egyptian government representatives and the government press stressed that comparisons should not be drawn between Egypt and Tunisia or the other Arab countries. Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hussam Zaki said: "One should not assume, from what is happening in Egypt at present, that the Egyptians are preparing themselves for a different [regime] model, along the lines of the events in Tunisia." Samir Ragab, columnist for the government daily Al-Gumhouriyya, said: "Egypt is not Lebanon, Tunisia, Iraq, or Sudan... If these peoples, or most of them, are angry [at their governments] for one reason or another, this does not apply to us, even if there are people spreading false rumors and attempting to describe matters not as they really are."[15]

There were, however, calls for Egypt to draw lessons from the events in Tunisia. Al-Ahram daily columnist Sharif Al-Shubashi wrote that the will of the peoples or their ability to vent their pent-up anger at any moment should not be taken lightly. According to Al-Shubashi, "Ben Ali's big mistake was to silence people in the era of open means of communication, the Internet, and other modern means of communication, such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook." He called on the Arab leaders to attune themselves to the sentiments of their public and to accord them the liberties they deserve: "[We] must inject new blood into the political bodies of all the Arab countries, and get rid of the old faces, with which the peoples are fed up. It is necessary to stop the provocative declarations made by some senior officials in the Arab world vis-à-vis their public, without any awareness of the long-term results."[16]

Cartoon: "The Weapon of the Uprising in the Third Millennium"

Source: Al-Amarat Al-Yawm (UAE), January 25, 2011

*Y. Yehoshua is Director of Research at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.434, "Egyptian Opposition Call Again for General Strike, Civil Revolt," May 2, 2008, Egyptian Opposition Call Again for General Strike, Civil Revolt.

[5] www.spiegel.de/, January 25, 2011.

[6] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 26, 2011.

[10] www.islamonline.net, January 24, 2011.

[12] Al-Misrawi (Egypt), January 17, 2011.

[14] www.islamonline.net, January 24, 2011.

[15] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), January 26, 2011.

[16] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 26, 2011.

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