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Debate Continues Over Social Media’s Role in Egyptian, Arab World Protests

February 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The role of social media continues to be discussed as a possible key factor in Egypt's ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we return to Egypt, where much of the action moved away from Tahrir Square to other kinds of protest.

With Egypt’s mass uprising having achieved its main goal of pushing President Hosni Mubarak from power, labor unrest today set off a new wave of smaller protests and strikes. Transportation workers marched in front of Egyptian state television demanding better pay and working conditions.

ALI IBRAHIM, public transportation employee (through translator): Our wages are so low. There are no incentives for prospects, no medical cover.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ambulance workers also joined in the protests with similar concerns. And the Egyptian police, who had been criticized for their violent crackdown on demonstrators, today marched to defend their actions and show their support for the revolution.

MARWAN AL-HUSSENEY, police officer (through translator): We are marching to retain the good image of the police force in Egypt. Some of us made some mistakes. And we are calling for the execution of the former interior minister. He is the reason all this happened.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many in the tourist industry are desperate to return to their jobs, so much so, they’re begging foreigners to visit and enjoy the historic sites.

SHAHINDAR ADEL, tour guide: Just to tell everyone that Egypt is safe. And come back. We are ready to — to host a lot of people, maybe millions and millions that we used to have. So, we are ready. Please, come to Egypt.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, a day after dissolving Parliament and promising other moves toward holding free elections, Egypt’s military rulers called for an end to the latest round of strikes and demonstrations, saying the country needs a calmer climate in what they called a — quote — “critical stage.”

In the meantime, in the aftermath of the drama that played out in Egypt over 18 days, the role of new media continued to be discussed in the region and beyond. For several years, online blogs and social media have been increasingly important tools used by activists in Egypt, a country with five million Facebook users.

In 2008, for example, the April 6 youth movement used Facebook to gather supporters and raise awareness for striking workers. More recently, that page and others called on Egyptians to take to the streets on Jan. 25, the first day of protests.

In Cairo last week, Gameela Ismail, a prominent activist, told Margaret Warner she believes that social media was a spark to many who had been reluctant to join past protests.

GAMEELA ISMAIL, Women for Change: You see several hundreds of people together, which was very strange. It was very strange. And then, you know, we start marching. People are joining for the first time, as if the ground is — is producing human beings.

JEFFREY BROWN: One galvanizing force for the protest was clearly this brutal photo shown on Facebook of Egyptian businessman Khaled Said. In June, he was detained in an Internet cafe and beaten to death by two plainclothes police officers for trying to expose corruption.

Within days of the beating, Google’s regional marketing manager for the Middle East, Wael Ghonim, set up a Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Said” that included other photos and videos of police brutality and within months attracted half-a-million followers.

MAN: Bless Mark Zuckerberg for creating Facebook.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last Friday, as protesters celebrated, Ghonim spoke with CNN.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN: First Tunisia. Now Egypt. What’s next?

WAEL GHONIM, Google Executive: Ask Facebook.

WOLF BLITZER: Ask what?

WAEL GHONIM: Facebook.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN: Facebook.

WOLF BLITZER: Facebook. You’re giving Facebook a lot of credit for this?

WAEL GHONIM: Yes, for sure. I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him, actually.

JEFFREY BROWN: Going further, in an interview last night on “60 Minutes,” Ghonim said the Egyptian government’s decision to cut off Internet access had backfired.

WAEL GHONIM: They have told four million people that they are scared like hell from the revolution by blocking Facebook. They forced everyone who was just, you know, waiting to read the news on Facebook, they forced them to go to the street to be part of this. So, really, like, if I want to thank one, thank anyone for all the — for all of this, I would thank our stupid regime.

JEFFREY BROWN: Older media, television, also clearly played a huge role in the uprising, both within Egypt and outside.

NEWS ANCHOR: Nine o’clock in Cairo.

JEFFREY BROWN: Satellite TV, in particular Al-Jazeera, offered Egyptians a view of events that was in stark contrast to government-monitored newspapers and state television.

Al-Jazeera provided wall-to-wall coverage, finding ways to continue to transmit even as the Mubarak government shut down its Cairo bureau, seized equipment and arrested members of the staff.