Egypt

Egypt's Virtual Freedom of Expression: The Revolution of Nowhere


Social media has overwhelmed the Arab world for over a decade, where Independent, active means of online communications have appeared, and the number of users has significantly increased over the past five years.

Egypt could be one of the countries where social media has been intensively debated, especially after the outbreak of the revolution in January  2011. Since then, much has occurred with respect to online freedom of expression through social media.  

After having been regarded as a means of entertainment for the youth, who constitute the major sector of internet users, social media has become a powerful pressure tool on the regime, beginning with the events of January 25th and continuing through the various developments of the revolution. Social media is a recent technology, which appeared in Egypt with the turn of the new millennium. The use of social media has developed over the past 10 years, witnessing the appearance of a group of tools like blogs and social networks.

Virtual media appeared with the spread of new tools of knowledge, like the internet and social networks, among which are:  Facebook, Twitter, Google, Giant, YouTube, Blogger, Wordpress, MySpace, Tumblr, Goodreads, Vimeo, and Linkedin.
 
The Observer
Since it appeared, social media has tried to be a tool for watching the performance of government officials and criticizing them, with the aim of correcting the administrative and political process in the country. It has been particularly used this way by the youth who lacked access to the traditional mass media and decision-making processes.  This role has clearly manifested itself in Egypt, which is considered a leading country in the reliance on traditional mass media and later on social media. [1]

After the uprising of 25th of January, many organizations and public figures tried to connect with the youth via social media in order to understand their demands after the revolution. As a case in point, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces created –at that time – a Facebook page to communicate with citizens.

In March 2011, the protesters raided the State Security offices. They found documents which revealed that police cooperated with an American company, using spy software  called FinFisher. Moreover, the company trained police officers to use the software to tap phones and monitor Internet conversations. [2]
This attitude soon developed in a different direction, as anti-revolution electronic committees emerged to watch over Facebook activists and got into virtual fights. [3]

Is It Freedom or Chaos?
False stories are sometimes broadcasted and/or controversial issues, rejected by many citizens in the real world, are raised. Also raised are issues related to sex, permissiveness, religions, religion contempt as well as issues having to do with extremism, racism and advocating the violence.

In 2012, the incident of the feminist activist Aliaa Al Mahdy, who published her nude photo on her own blog, received a lot of attention from the media and internet users. The record of users who had visited her blog reached more than 1.5 million users in a short time, in such a manner that the number of visitors overwhelmed the page in the next 24 hours in a nonstop re-tweeting and posting.[4]  

The incident incited activists from other countries to express their support. Forty Israeli women, for example, took off their clothes and had themselves photographed naked in solidarity with the Egyptian blogger.[5] Furthermore, she was honored by a Swedish organization on the International Women’s Day, a means of supporting of freedom of expression. [6]

On the other hand, there are no laws that control the way states handle internet activists. The whole issue is in the hands of the regime which possesses the authority to arrest any activist or release him/her without a benchmark. This is a question that needs to be answered by the state officials who act differently depending on the conditions.

Hence, we need to get back again to the electronic committees which are observing the activists tweets and posts on the social platforms and could report against them to state security. Due to the debates that occurred online among activists who think it is not righteous to be censored in such a virtual space and in such revolutionary environment which enables the limitless space of freedom.

Salah Abdel Sabour, the head of the Electronic Syndicate of Journalists mentioned in one of his articles that according to social-bakers Company, Egypt has the largest number of fake accounts on social media platforms which may be used for hacking or make it for a certain purpose – like political –  and then change this purpose [7].

Mubarak supporters created their own pages on Facebook and then their E-committees started spreading news and thoughts about the ousted president to wash the masses brains. Supporters of the deposed President of the Muslim brotherhood Mohamed Morsi did the same.

However, such practices – brainwashing techniques or the falsifying news – do not stop the development of democracy and freedom of expression in cyberspace. The most prominent experience in this regard came out in the Philippines in January 2001.

Thousands of people in Philippines managed to overthrow their president Joseph Estrada. Text messages were used by the revolutionaries to mobilize millions of protesters against the ruler who was ousted by the people in a matter of days.This is the first incident recorded in history where social media help bring down a regime.  Nevertheless, other similar movements did not succeed, examples of which include Belarus in March 2006, Iran in June 2009 and Thailand in 2010.
[8]
Generally, there is no final result for this question, between the freedom and chaos there is a very fine line. Social media could be a very good tool for spreading the word of democracy. On the other hand, it could be used in spreading false information and misleading the masses.
 
Mockery is a weapon but not lethal
In September 2014, social media went on fire after the Egyptian government depicted the Panama Canal in error on a postage stamp that was celebrating the New Suez Canal project.
Alarabiya channel website reported that “Egypt issues stamps of ‘new Suez Canal,’ but steals an image of the Panama Canal instead. Major fail,” wrote one Twitter user.

Another wrote: “Even with the new Suez Canal, they did not produce it with conscience.”[9]
The mockery somehow takes another form when it relates to your political opponent; it is harsh and very rigid, sometimes it is annoying and insulting. Here we must mention the very famous hashtag of #voteforthepimp.

This global trend overwhelmed social media days before the presidential elections in May 2014. People who did not trust the main front runner of the elections Abdul Fatah Al Sisi[10] called him the pimp, which is considered a very insulting description in the Egyptian culture according to BBC World [11]

One of the interviewees said to BBC, "The social network was the only arena where they can express their opposition because now it is extremely hard to do demonstrations in Egypt with all the police crackdowns". The pimp's hashtag triggered Al Sisi supporters to create a counter hashtag defending their Savior. Although the hashtag attracted international media, it did not make any sort of change in the real world and the ex-army chief won the elections.

The force of the law of protest
In 2013, the Egyptian regime was bothered by resumed protests following the dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in months before. The government made a law to gain control over the protest in the country. Activists opposed the law and held a protest against its implementation in November. The protest lasted for few minutes before being dispersed by water. Police beat the activists with hard sticks, spread tear gas and randomly arrested the protesters.

Social media users were provoked by this action and many users called for protests again. The farce happened when activists prepared for a protest and published an event online in June 2014 to release the activists who had been arrested months before.

The June protest was almost like the other one in November 2013, with random arrests and tear gas. One of the activists who was arrested in June 2014 is the sister of a prominent activist who was arrested in November. [12]

Conclusion
According to the Reporters without Borders 2014 index, Egypt is  ranked 159 in freedom of expression internationally. Eritrea, the country ranked in the last place, received a score of  180 [13]Freedom in the virtual world may seem wider than it is offline, but activity online has its own barriers and real limits.


Kandeel, Shaymaa, "Egypt Ranks First in the Arab world in terms of Facebook Users." Akhbar El Youm:  
1-  http://akhbarelyom.org.eg/news30751_10.aspx                                                                              2- Jamie Doward, « Crackdown on sale of UK spyware over fears of misuse by repressive regimes », The Guardian, available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/sep/09/block-on-exports-surveillance-equipment
[3]  "Pro- Mubarak Supporters and the Dismantled NDP Declare Online War":  http://www.france24.com/ar/20111026-egypt-internet-facebook-former-president-mubarak-supporters-pages
*Author note: E-committees are a group of Facebook and Twitter accounts created by the members of the dismantled, National Democratic Party, and the Egyptian security authorities to infiltrate and watch over the accounts, pages and groups of the pro-revolution activists.  
[4]-  Aliaa’s Al Mahdy’s blog “A Rebel’s Diary”: http://arebelsdiary.blogspot.com/?zx=1b9fe450438de170
[6]  A Swedish Organization Honors the Nude Aliaa Al-Mahdy on the International Women’s
Day: http://www.dp-news.com/pages/detail.aspx?articleid=114452    
6-Electronic committees, a phenomenon confuses the Egyptians, Salah Abdel Sabour, Masr Alarabiya website, 12 Feb 2014
7- The political power of social media, Clay Shirky, Foreign Affairs, Feb 2011.                    
8-Busted: Egypt’s ‘Panama Canal’ blunder goes viral, Alarabiya Website, 14 September 2014,  http://english.alarabiya.net/en/variety/2014/09/14/Oops-Egypt-s-Panama-Canal-blunder-goes-viral.html
9- the former minister of defense and now the president
10-Egypt Anti-Sisi hashtag  sweeps Twitter,  BBC,  30  March 2014  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26811376
11-Bread and Freedom Party demands release of all prisoners of conscience http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2015/02/11/bread-freedom-party-demands-release-prisoners-conscience/
12- http://rsf.org/index2014/en-index2014.php


Ahmed Zakaria is an Egyptian Multimedia Journalist and producer, working with the Turkish News Agency in Cairo. He graduated from the faculty of Economics and Political Science, Cairo University. He participated in producing documentaries about the Egyptian Revolution, moreover, he joins numbers of initiatives about development and youth empowerment in MENA and Europe with different cultural entities like The British Council and Goethe Institute and The European Play-work Association