Revolution in Cairo

Interview Courtney Radsch

Courtney Radsch

A former journalist, Radsch studies cyberactivism and runs a blog called Arab Media. She's traveled to Egypt several times to study social media's impact on journalism there, and was in Cairo in 2008, as the April 6th Youth Movement's attempt to encourage mass protests in support of striking workers was crushed by the government. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 9, 2011.

What are you thinking when you all of a sudden see what's taking place [on Jan. 25]?

It was amazing, first of all, to see how many people came to the streets, because, in my experience, having been there and worked with the digital activists and studied how protest movements [emerge] over the past several years, basically the post-millennial era, there was a lot of fear about going into the street. And that was always one of the biggest obstacles for previous efforts to create a mass movement.

“It can't just be about liking something on Facebook. You have to have structures that will help mobilize people; you have to organize training.”

The April 6 [Youth] Movement didn't start on Jan. 25. They had grown out of other movements, like Kefaya. But one of the biggest obstacles that they had faced was getting that broad popular support in the streets as well.

So when I saw everyone coming onto the streets, I couldn't tear my eyes away. First of all, I was glued to the TV, to Al Jazeera -- because of course the U.S. media wasn't covering it at first -- and just watching the people come into the street. And you could tell it wasn't just youth; it wasn't just the middle class. It was a broad-based society. And it was not just the town centers, either. It wasn't just Cairo or Alexandria. You had it across Egypt. And it was just inspiring and hopeful.

What were the causes? Why was this occurring? What were the roots to these demonstrations?

How far do you want to go back, I guess, is the question. But I would say that the roots for the most recent kind of manifestations are economic discontent, continued economic stagnation, the fact that 30 percent of youth who have gone to college still can't find jobs; there's broad unemployment; there's a lack of opportunity, and really, a lack of a hope. I mean, it was sad when I was in Egypt in 2008, when this movement first emerged. There was really a lack of hope, and people didn't believe that change was possible, because for so long they've been stuck in this situation, and things weren't getting improved.

And then, couple that with elections that just took place that were fraudulent, that didn't allow broad-based support. In 2005, President Mubarak had opened the political sphere a little bit, so you had some Muslim Brotherhood opposition being elected. You had Ayman Nour running and actually gaining some votes, although he later got put in prison.

But in the 2010 elections, there were so many fraudulent claims, and there was just discontent with the inability to participate politically, and the continued clampdown on basic human rights, on basic freedoms, the inability to publish, an increased crackdown on bloggers and on digital activists. I think with [Mohamed] ElBaradei coming back and kind of inspiring a new, potential leader, and then couldn't get anywhere basically, and presidential elections coming up in a few months after the parliamentary elections. -- given what had happened in that context, I think there was just a lack of hope. And they realized change; this is the time for change. And I think Khaled Said, [an Alexandria businessman allegedly beaten to death by Egyptian police,] was one of the inspirational people of the movement.

But really, I think it's what happened in Tunisia. It was the fact that in Tunisia, the last place that anyone expected a revolution or for an authoritarian leader to [hightail] it out of the country, all of a sudden it worked. The mass protests worked. And I think that was really inspiring. ... The fact that the Tunisian uprising was covered across all media meant that that message was getting out to a broad-based public. It was not just in the cybersphere.

Jan. 25 was not a Facebook revolution; it was not a Twitter revolution. It was facilitated by social media, but it was, I think, inspired by a new ray of hope.

Who were the April 6 Youth Movement, and why are they important?

In March 2008, there were ongoing riots over the price of bread. There were severe economic problems, and that was happening across the world. In Egypt, it was very severe. People couldn't buy bread, and there were an increasing amount of labor strikes happening. There was a labor strike planned in the textile city of Mahalla [el-Kubra], which is the largest textile industry in the country.

And these kids, basically 20-somethings, decided to create a Facebook page in support of the workers. They didn't go out to plan to make a movement. They created this page, and all of a sudden it started attracting followers. And in a couple of weeks, basically, the Facebook group called for a strike in solidarity and sympathy with the workers in Mahalla and with the broader Egyptian public who are suffering under economic constraints.

But it was a little bit unclear in terms of what where they calling for. They were calling for people to wear black. They were calling for people to stay home. Others were kind of calling for people to go into the street. So there wasn't a really coordinated idea about what is the solidarity strike supposed to look like.

But it inspired people. So all of a sudden, you had 70,000 people following this group. And they really hadn't seen anything like that in Egypt before -- especially given that, at that point, I would say that about 12 to 15 percent of Egyptians were online, and most of those online are probably playing video games. The politically active are still a small segment in any society.

But Facebook was growing in popularity. Twitter had just kind of emerged, and it inspired people. There were several other digital activists and cyberactivists who had been part of Kefaya that saw what was happening on Facebook, and they joined the group. They didn't necessarily buy into the idea that there should be street protests, but they joined the group, and it became this broad movement.

A couple days before April 6, the Egyptian media came out very strongly against a strike. The Rose el-Youssef newspaper warned people not to demonstrate, not to go into the streets. And there were severe warnings from the government about potential ramifications if people did protest.

So on April 6, I went to Tahrir Square, which is kind of the central area where political protests takes place. I'd been there in 2006 during demonstrations against the Lebanon war. And it's really the heart of Egypt and of the people.

There were rows of police, three deep, 10 across, surrounding Tahrir Square. And the streets were empty. I don't know if you've been to Cairo, but the traffic is insane. And there were no cars on the street.

But they also weren't letting anyone act, be activist on that day. They weren't letting them go into the streets to take pictures. They would take your cell phone, warn you that you'd get arrested if you tried to take pictures.

So cyberactivists and the Facebook groups -- Israa [Abdel-Fattah], for example, was one of the founders of the Facebook page, along with Ahmed Maher, and she had posted on Facebook where she was going to be that day. And the Egyptian police came and arrested her.

So all of a sudden, there was all this publicity, because what you had among the bloggers and among the activists who had kind of already been trying to engage the broader public in these protests was sympathy for each other. So as soon as anyone got arrested, whether it was a liberal blogger, a Muslim Brotherhood blogger, anyone, there was immediate solidarity.

So when she got arrested, it went out on the social networks, it went out on the blogs, Twitter feeds, everything, SMS, and they started looking for her. And she became this symbol. And the Facebook group became this symbol.

[What does it say that the activists became targets?]

Israa was the administrator of the Facebook page. One of the drawbacks of social media is that it's public. Facebook is a semipublic forum, but the security forces could very easily see who the administrator was. And because this Facebook page seemed to be at the root of the popular strike and the protests, they assumed that she had organized it.

I think that the Egyptian government didn't really understand what Facebook was all about at that point, so that's why they targeted the administrator. She really wasn't an activist. She hadn't been that involved before. And they kind of made her into one. They arrested her. She became a cause célèbre for the cause.

And concurrently, you had -- in Mahalla you had the death. There was a child who was murdered, mass riots, a lot of violence and arrests.

During the demonstrations.

During the demonstrations in Mahalla. ...

These demonstrations that had taken place, this one and ones that followed afterward, they were not considered to be very successful, were they? ...

In terms of April 6, 2008, it's difficult to define success or failure, because the objectives were never clearly laid out. Was the objective to get everybody to stay home? Was the objective to get people on the streets? It really wasn't clear. And of course, you didn't have the Muslim Brotherhood officially endorsing it, even though many of the Muslim Brotherhood bloggers did.

I think that in some sense it was a success, because people did stay home and they did support it, at least by clicking "Follow" or "Like" on Facebook. But it did propel this broader movement.

Now, there was actually also, directly after that, a call for a May 4 demonstration, which the Muslim Brotherhood ended up endorsing, but which completely fizzled because it wasn't linked to anything. It was just a Facebook strike, whereas April 6, 2008, was a Facebook strike in solidarity with real strikers in Mahalla.

Does the government's arrest of the folks that started the Facebook page and such define a misunderstanding of what the movement was all about?

I think that probably the government's arrests and crackdown helped create a movement. It gave them a figure. It gave them a figurehead, right? She didn't see herself as starting a movement. They were just starting a page out of solidarity. People create pages every day. There wasn't a concerted effort to create a movement.

But afterward, when they saw that "Wow, we mobilized thousands of people to stay home; we got 70,000 Facebook fans," what is a Facebook fan is another question, perhaps, but they saw that there was this interest and there was this support. And there was a lot of media attention during that time, briefly, to what had happened.

And I think that to some extent the Egyptian government was kind of shocked by their ability to get all of these people to buy into something just via social media. The Egyptian government, up until then, really had been quite unsophisticated in their approach to how they would deal with digital activism and the social media that digital activists were using to organize and mobilize and publicize.

You didn't see, for example, pro-government blogs, pro-NDP [National Democratic Party] blogs. They didn't have Facebook pages or Twitter accounts, etc. Now they've gotten a little bit more sophisticated. They understand what they're playing with. But, you know, this is several years later.

But at the beginning, I think they didn't get it, so it was an opportunity, and it inspired young people to think that maybe, you know, maybe there was something they could do.

Needless to say, half of Egypt is under the age of what, 24, or something. The population being so young, what were the ramifications?

There's a huge youth bulge in Egypt, as there is in the rest of the Arab world. The implications of that are that there are a lot of unemployed, well-educated people. And they lack opportunities; they lack hope; they lack political opportunities. So there's really very few outlets for them to express themselves. And digital media, social media emerged during this time to really provide a venue for self-expression.

I don't think it's enough. And I think that's why you saw this, what happened on Jan. 25, and is still happening on the streets, is that they were finally able to express themselves. And that means going into the streets, because it's not enough just to write; you've got to put your feet where your pen is.

... One of the things they did is start looking outside of Egypt for an education on how these movements perhaps can be better put together. ... Where do they look, and what are the tenets that they grab hold of?

I would say that most people didn't look outside of Egypt. I think that there were a few key activists who took advantage of trainings being provided by international NGOs [non-governmental organizations]. A lot of European and U.S. NGOs were doing trainings about cyberactivism, about political protest. And Serbia was a successful example of a revolution.

But I think that maybe the lesson that they got from there is that you have to have a certain amount of organization. It takes a long time to overthrow an entire system. I don't want to say that their goal was to overthrow the system, although there was always this anti-Mubarak bent. Mubarak had been in power for more than two decades, approaching three decades, when they emerged.

So they did take some examples from other contexts, like Serbia, like Poland, what made those movements successful. And I think one of the things that they came away with is that you have to have cross-ideological, cross-political, -religious, -social solidarity and buy-in. It can't just be about liking something on Facebook. You have to have structures that will help mobilize people; you have to organize training.

So, for example, you saw election monitoring in the parliamentary elections really mobilizing for a purpose and organizing. So I think that's what they were able to take away from the Serbian example.

Did they always take away from the Serbian example the use of nonviolent actions?

I think that the April 6 Movement was always nonviolent. I think that the Serbian example highlighted the fact that movements don't need to be violent. And especially in Mubarak's Egypt, I mean, violence will backfire; the police are incredibly violent.

So there's the Serbian example. There's the example in the United States with the civil rights movement. There's Gandhi. There are examples around the world that they could look to. I mean, Egyptian youth love Che Guevara. He's also one of their heroes.

But I think most of all it was based on the Egyptian context. It's what's going to work in Egypt.

Who was Khaled Said? What happened? ...

Khaled Said was arrested, beaten and killed. And as they had done for other cases of abuse and torture, they created a Facebook page in his honor, and that immediately garnered fans. People posted campaignlike banners on their blogs and on their Twitter feeds and changed their profile picture to reflect Khaled Said. He became a symbol -- similar to [Mohamed Bouazizi of] Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, who set himself on fire -- of the discontent and the, again, hopelessness of their situation, ... and also something that they could rally behind. It was an example of the injustice of the Egyptian system. ...

... What was so gut-wrenching about the Khaled Said case?

Khaled Said was an Egyptian everyman, right? He was a young man, a young Egyptian. And to see such visible, disgusting, horrid pictures of torture to a young Egyptian, it was just too much.

So, as we now know, Wael Ghonim, who is an Egyptian based in Dubai, who works for Google, created a Facebook page in his honor. As I mentioned, this has been done before. This is a common tactic, I would say, used by a digital activist to raise awareness and draw sympathy. ...

Why was that such a motivating factor? ...

The power of a visual, of a video, of seeing in action someone being beaten and tortured and killed is incredibly powerful. It's something that probably words just can't convey in the same sense.

And when you can put that onto a forum where anyone can see it, where you can share it with your friends, where you can get this proof of what everybody knows -- everyone knows the Egyptian government does this, but you have visual/auditory proof.

And of course they're also connected to Western journalists who can put pressure on Western governments. So it's a powerful tool to, again, mobilize dissent and mobilize action to be taken against the Egyptian government.

And I think that April 6 Movement and others have been quite adept at understanding the political dynamics behind how things work in Egypt, right? I mean, the Egyptian people feel quite disenfranchised, but they realize that Egypt is the U.S.'s largest recipient of foreign aid, at least $2 billion a year. So they realize the U.S. has power to try to influence Egypt.

So if they can get the U.S. press interested in that, if they can get the embassy to pay attention, they can do that with these videos.

Though they didn't have too much success in the fact that if you look at the WikiLeaks reports that have leaked out, our government knew of the abuse of these individuals, and yet it didn't seem to change the policy. What is the dichotomy there that we're seeing?

I think the problem is that the U.S. is quite enmeshed in Egypt, and it can't quite figure out what to do there. Egypt is an important ally on Israel, on the whole war on terror. ... But at the same time, they're an incredible human rights abuser. They have evidential proof of the abuses that the Egyptian government carries out against its people.

I think that the U.S. has done a relatively bad job of putting its money where its mouth is, right? The embassy and the State Department have spoken out on behalf of bloggers being detained, activists being detained and abused and tortured. [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton has raised it. They've been mentioned in daily press briefings.

But those are just words. That's just rhetoric, right? Until you actually see a decline in aid or some sort of physical manifestation of these words, then I think the Egyptian government felt that it could get away with it. ...

How important was Tunisia? What did Tunisia prove could happen to the Egyptian people?

Tunisia was the last place anyone was looking for a revolution or anyone thought there would be a political upheaval. So the fact that Tunisia could oust their leader of 23 years, who owns massive amounts of the economy, as does Mubarak and his cronies, this was amazing I think not only to Egyptians, but to people throughout the Middle East. ...

So what leads up to the actual demonstrations? ...

I don't think we can attribute it to one video or one Facebook page or one picture. I think it was the fact that you had some groups organizing and mobilizing and saying, "We're going to go on the streets." And then they went on the streets. And people saw them going to the streets and joined.

I mean, you could look out your window and see people marching. There had been a lot of fear in Egypt. There's a lot of fear to go on the street. I've been in protests in Tahrir Square, where the police are coming in with their batons. Or not even the police -- the plainclothes guards, which are the scariest.

But you had all of these people who said: "We're going to go demonstrate anyway. We're going to take that risk." And it just blew up from there. I think when you had people actually showing up, and then you combine that with the use of social media to mobilize and organize -- prior, of course, to Mubarak cutting off the Internet and mobile phones -- it got things going.

But you can't attribute it to a YouTube video in a country where only, maximum, 20 percent of the country has access to Internet.

[What's] your position on the role that the Internet played, that social media played?

I think social media was a key ingredient in organizing the protests, the pre-organization of coordinating where some of the activities would take place and publicizing those across Egypt. So it wasn't just one location.

And it was incredibly important for publicizing to a broader audience in the West; also within Egypt, so that they could see what was happening in other places. But it's too reductionist to attribute what happened to social media. ...

Even when they cut off the Internet, they sent out SMS messages across on Vodaphone and France Telecom's lines saying stay home, and pro-Mubarak messages people still came to the streets. ...

How should we view the fact that Mubarak and the Egyptian government decided to cut off the Internet, to kill the ability to use cell phones?

I have to say I was surprised that he did that, because I've been studying digital activism in Egypt for a while. ... You have many private ISPs, Internet service providers, in Egypt, and because it's a private business and they're now adhering to WTO [World Trade Organization] standards, and there's this huge move by Mubarak, over the past several years, to expand IT infrastructure, etc., I thought it would be too politically costly and not possible to close down the Internet.

I was wrong, I have to say. I mean, he obviously realized pretty quickly how monumental these protests were, because to take a step like closing off the Internet and mobile phones -- I mean, people use the Internet for business. It's key to link Egypt's economy into everything else. You've seen huge economic impact on that decision, and I think you'll see ramifications in the future about doing business in Egypt because of that.

But I think everyone was surprised that he actually took that step, and that he could take that step.

So why did he do it?

I think he was scared. I mean, I think he also saw what happened in Tunisia. He saw mass mobilization in a way that he hadn't seen in his country. And I think he realized that fear wasn't working. People were going into the streets anyway. ...

When do you think it dawned on them just how much of a problem this was, and was it just too late by the time that they made the decision?

Apparently, it dawned on them pretty quickly, because they cut off -- I mean, first they blocked access to Twitter, which, in the scheme of things, wasn't that important for organizing the protests. It was more important as a way for activists to communicate with each other and with outside journalists and the outside world.

But I think that Mubarak realized pretty quickly that this was a protest movement of a different sort and a different caliber than what he had seen before. So he took that monumental decision of pressuring the private ISPs to shut off service. ...

Unlike Saudi Arabia and Tunisia and China, for example, which all have kind of a central Internet link into the country that's controlled by a state body, Mubarak had pressured private companies to close the Internet. So this is a different type of government action than you might see in other countries. ...

Were any of the companies that he put pressure on to close down the Internet American companies?

No, the ISPs are Egyptian companies. And the largest one, TE Data, is state-affiliated, and they have about 60 or 70 percent of business there. So it wasn't, I guess, that difficult for him to do. And there was actually one ISP that remained open a couple of extra days, and there were messages that went out, urging people to keep their Internet connections open so that if you were a subscriber to Noor, which was the ISP that remained open for a couple extra days, anyone passing by could use it.

And then you had actually American companies, like Google and Facebook or Twitter, coming in and creating workaround solutions, putting up international numbers that people could dial in through old-fashioned landline modems, which of course makes it hard to upload videos and pictures, but nonetheless; and Speak2Tweet, where you could call in tweets. I don't think that was actually that monumental, because I listened to a bunch of them, and most of them are songs. But anyway, there were these workarounds.

And those digital activists, the April 6 Movement and those leaders, were very well connected to Western journalists, to Egyptian journalists, to Al Jazeera, to mainstream media. So even if you shut off the Internet or mobile phones, they still have those connections. And Cairo, unlike Tunisia, unlike most of the rest of the Middle East, is a media hub, so most media have foreign correspondents based in Cairo.

So I don't know, maybe governments that don't have that same mass of journalists based in their capitals, you would see something else as a result. But the media was going to cover it, regardless of whether the Internet or SMS was up.

Looking into your crystal ball, what kind of an Egypt do you think comes out of this?

That's a great question. I hope that a democratic Egypt comes out of that. But I think there are a lot of elements to a democracy that isn't simply about getting rid of a figurehead. I think that getting Mubarak out of office is critical, but you have systems of laws, you have election laws and regulations that are in place that will have to be tinkered with in order to really permit democracy to develop. ...

If we see some sort of representative government coming out of this, then you might see more political interest. I don't want to say we're going to see a democracy, but I think we will see some sort of representative government that will have members of the Muslim Brotherhood, other opposition parties, youth hopefully. And I think that what's the key is to have a broad-based representation that includes a variety of different groups and different interests. ...

We talked about [the activists] trying to push United States specifically to help in some way. The WikiLeaks document came out about the ambassador basically saying they were dreaming. ... Did they at some point come to the understanding that they were basically alone in this; that if anything was going to happen, they were doing it on their own?

Yes. I think that the Egyptian youth and the activists behind the April 6 Movement and other youth movements have always realized that it has to come from Egypt. It's going to be the Egyptian people that bring this change.

But the U.S. is an important ally of Mubarak and helps support him. So I think it's not that the U.S. is going to help them overturn the system; it's that they need the U.S. to back off of its support for Mubarak. ...

But yet they weren't taken very seriously on a higher level.

This was, what, 2008, right, was the cable. I'm not surprised. I don't think that they were not taken seriously, but I think that a complete change of the government and this idea of mobilizing around the elections was too ambitious.

And in 2008, 2009, there wasn't a lot of reason to think that you were going to see a broad-based mobilization. There weren't really, I think, signs pointing to that. Freedom House, for example, rates the levels of freedom and press freedom around the world, and you saw a downgrading of Egypt, because it had increased its repression against bloggers, against digital activists, against the press.

So I mean, it's not that surprising that they weren't ready to get onboard with one guy who had a Facebook group. ...

Why did you go there specifically early on?

Originally in 2006, I went there to study how satellite media was redefining journalism in Egypt. What I found were all these protests happening at the press syndicate, and they were being organized via social media. So that was really interesting to me.

And I got on Twitter and started following some of these activists, and I thought this is the new thing; this is going to be something.

And then in 2008, when I went back, there was this mass discontent, and a lot more people were blogging. Muslim Brotherhood had started blogging. It was just a really kind of interesting, emerging movement.

And so many people said, "Oh, well, you know, such a small percentage of Egyptians are online." I think back then it was like 12 percent. So what's the political impact? And I think that if you look at impact or success only as getting Mubarak out of power, it's far too narrow of a perspective.

But they've opened up realms of debate. You can now cover torture. Sexual harassment was huge. They set the news agenda. They helped create a whole new category of person, citizen journalists. I mean, they've done amazing things, and they're all devoted to this idea of freedom of expression, which is a key democratic value.

So I think that we have to look at a more contextual and just a more nuanced view of what the impact of digital activism has been than just getting somebody out of power.

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Posted Feburary 22, 2011

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