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In Egypt, Social Media Tools Act as Protest Catalyst Despite Government Meddling

January 31, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
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The Egyptian government has not limited its crackdown on protests to security presence in the streets. Ray Suarez speaks with two analysts about how the battle over phone and Internet service has highlighted the role of communication technology in organizing and fueling the demonstrations.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now another key player in Egypt and beyond: the Internet and other kinds of communications technology.

Ray Suarez has our look.

RAY SUAREZ: From the beginning, technology has been a crucial part of the uprising. Protesters signaled their intentions and plans on social media like Facebook and Twitter that helped organize mass demonstrations. But the government has tried to choke off access by blocking cell phones and shutting down the Internet.

We talk to two people watching this closely. Mohammed el-Nawawy studies Arab media at Queens University of Charlotte. He is the author of several books on the subject, including “Islam.com.” And David Keyes is the director of CyberDissidents.org, which advocates on behalf of political dissidents who write and blog on the Web.

RAY SUAREZ: Mohammed el-Nawawy, did personal computers and smart phones accelerate the current unrest in Egypt?

MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY, Queens University of Charlotte: I think they did to some extent. There’s no question that they did instigate change. They encouraged young people in their 20s and 30s to go out on the streets.

But I always say that new media and social media do not topple governments. People have to do that. And that’s what we are seeing today. Those people were instigated by their fellow bloggers, who many of them are fed up and sick and tired of the corruption and the emergency law — law that has been in effect for 30 years.

And they want to see change. They started the message on their blogs, on Facebook. And now the people are taking it to the streets, from the virtual world to the real world.

RAY SUAREZ: David, do these technologies create a momentum of their own, or are they just a new set of tools to do the same thing that oppositions and street movements have done, well, since there have been oppositions and street movements?

There was no Twitter at Tiananmen. There was nobody in the Prague Spring sending pictures of tanks from their smartphones, but still, the work got done.

DAVID KEYES, director, CyberDissidents.org: Well, I think Mohammed is absolutely right. Twitter, Facebook, social media can be a catalyst. It can help. I don’t think that it can create revolutions.

We have seen mass movements without social media before. But, that said, it’s a — it’s a unique tool in the hands of democratic dissidents. It allows them the ability to reach unprecedented audiences in the West. Soviet dissidents, once upon a time, had to rely on samizdat, underground literature that was passed from hand to hand that was photocopied.

But even they could galvanize a lot of support in the West. What social media and the Internet allows dissidents to do is to speak among themselves and to speak to Western audiences with unprecedented reach.

So, I think it has a lot of potential to galvanize people on the ground, to give them the feeling that there are — there are people abroad who are watching them. And that’s a very important feeling for dissidents.

RAY SUAREZ: David, embedded in this new technology, is there also a risk, that you can be tracked, infiltrated, spied upon with the mastery of the very tools you’re trying to use to create dissent by the people who run things?

DAVID KEYES: Absolutely. Every single autocratic regime in the Middle East is struggling mightily to stop the flow of information, to arrest bloggers, to censor Web sites.

And it varies from country could country, of course. Iran memorably set up special police units that were used just to track and infiltrate these online systems. Dissidents and people on the ground know this. And it’s a risk that they run.

But that said, I would choose the side of the people over the regime, because for every Web site that can be blocked, people come up with ways to circumvent them. People are extremely resilient, and information is an extraordinarily difficult thing to stop.

So, of course there are drawbacks to utilizing the Internet, but there are immense advantages as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Mohammed, have we seen cases of that in Egypt in these latest demonstrations?

MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: Yes.

As a follow-up to what David said, I think, without political suppression, we wouldn’t have seen many of the political bloggers. The ones I talked to at least said that it’s the suppression that has caused them to blog and to voice their opinions online.

Now that the government, the Egyptian government, has decided to cut off the Internet totally, in a total blackout, I think that has left those bloggers and political activists with only one option, which is actually going out on the streets.

So, I think it’s backfiring against the government right now.

RAY SUAREZ: But once — once street action gets well-entrenched and backed by the social media, is there a point at which it’s too late? The last Internet service provider in Egypt was shut down this afternoon, according to reports coming out of Egypt. But have things taken on a life of their own by that point?

MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: That’s absolutely right. It’s too late now for any such measure.

It’s no longer Facebook that is going to play a role. I think it’s the people’s book right now. The people on the streets are trying to dictate their own will. They are trying to voice their opinions to the whole world. They are not leaving their spots the main streets and squares until they see real change.

So, the fact that the Internet is down right now doesn’t really make a big difference in the case of Egypt.

RAY SUAREZ: David, is new technology leaky? Can you really shut off a country now in 2011?

DAVID KEYES: It’s nearly impossible to do that. You can do it for a short period of time, but I hope that the international community really forces the Egyptian regime to turn the Internet back on as it were.

North Korea limits Internet access almost completely. And there’s a handful of states in the world that can do that. But as I said previously, it’s exceedingly difficult to stop the flow of information. And what the Internet allows dissidents to do is to get their message out.

There are a million ways around censorship. And we should be on the side of helping those who are trying to circumvent their government’s censorship of Web sites and social media.

RAY SUAREZ: Mohammed el-Nawawy, I know that you have done special research into the Al-Jazeera effect in — in the Arab world. These are images that can be plucked out of the air if you have the right equipment.

Certainly, the regime has tried to shut down Al-Jazeera. Have they been successful? And what has having this service both online and on satellite, meant for places like Egypt?

MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: There has always been some tension between Egyptian government and Al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera has always — has always been very aggressive in covering unrest in Egypt, and especially with this crisis, that Al-Jazeera has really focused on the people’s voices and in a way that has made the Egyptian government so furious, that they decided yesterday to close down the Al-Jazeera bureau and to confiscate licenses from its reporters on the ground.

Despite that, of course, Al-Jazeera is finding its ways to cover the incidents and talk to its own sources on the ground. So, the people, some people now say they cannot get Al-Jazeera on their satellites through Nilesat, but they have been finding other ways, like going to HOT BIRD to get a signal for Al-Jazeera.

So, as a follow-up to what David said earlier, I think the government is trying, but the people are having their own ways of — of getting the signal.

RAY SUAREZ: David, do you have — is there a risk in exaggerating the effect of modern technology here? Really, it’s just in many cases analogs to older forms of resistance. It just happens to be with these new tools. But really you don’t create or sustain these kinds of movements with these new technologies.

DAVID KEYES: There’s definitely a risk that activists remain behind the screen and don’t get out into the streets. And I have heard a lot of Egyptians tell me that. A lot of bloggers say that they fear that the ubiquitous nature of the Internet and the ease and the facility with which one can become a dissident may in fact have a long-term detrimental effect on dissent itself and the power of opposition to autocratic regimes.

But at the same time, I think there’s an unmistakable effect that the Internet has had on dissident communities, that it has emboldened them. I recall when I was in the Islamist slums of Cairo, a friend of mine that I started to talk politics with silenced me immediately and said in Arabic (SPEAKING ARABIC) “The walls have ears.”

There was a sense of fear in daily life in Egypt. And what I believe the Internet has given to dissidents is the — the feeling that there are those in the West who care about them, an ability to talk with other people. So, it’s a really — a very empowering feeling that — that nothing can take away.

It is similar in some ways to samizdat and other forms, faxes and telephones, et cetera, but this has given dissidents unprecedented power, I believe.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Mohammed, the ubiquity of cell phones, the cheapness of cell phones in the developing world, has it — has it made everyone part of this revolution, and in effect taking it out of the hands of the intelligentsia, out of the hands of the university-educated, out of the hands of the wealthy?

MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: I would — I would be cautious about that. I think the cell phones, particularly in Egypt, have been so ubiquitous, but the question is what are they using the cell phones for?

You know, the Internet penetration in a country like Egypt doesn’t exceed maybe 15 to 18 percent. So, at the end of the day, it’s a small group of people who are accessing these blogs.

But the — the — the issue here is the ripple effect. The people who are actually blogging, the message has started to get across to the people who are — who don’t have access to computers, who don’t have access to the Internet. And that’s what we are seeing today, to a large extent.

RAY SUAREZ: Mohammed el-Nawawy, David Keyes, thank you both.

MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: Thank you.

DAVID KEYES: Thank you.