CYBERSPACE, EGYPTIAN REVOLUTION and DEMOCRACY.

24 Mar

The recent revolution famously dubbed Egypt spring showed that cyberspace provided secure and relatively uncensored platform for the people who successfully toppled the dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak. The role played by social media in Egyptian revolution has been hailed across the world as success of cyberspace in bringing civic participation, mobilizing popular protest for democracy. 

The term cyberspace was first used by Canadian writer William Gibson, a science fiction writer.Hesuggests that cyberspace should be regarded as a qualitatively new world-a frontier in which electronic communication becomes a place. Cyberspace demanded a new set of metaphor a new set up of rules and behaviours. Space created by cyberspace allows people to communicate with others; as Sterling notes, this place is not real but it is serious and earnest.

Cyberspace proved useful in Egyptian revolution mainly because of four important factors which are not applicable to traditional mass media: 1) Anarchic nature of internet;  2) Interactive features which allow direct feedback to individual articles and opinion; 3) Longevity of material; and 4)  Citizen journalism i.e. possibility for website to create  contents through contribution of its readers or common citizens. Cyberspace bridged the gap between resentment against government in people and inability of traditional controlled mass media to effectively mobilize people against government by providing them much needed communication space. This revolution is considered by many as Facebook or twitter revolution. These scholars and media persons cite the importance and valuable contribution social media in Egyptian revolution as a proof for their hypothesis. However the cyberspace- virtual world is not the only factor which led to thisrevolution. On the contrary social media was only an effective tool and technical platform which helped Egyptian to communicate with each other, organised and mobilize peoples without much control of government. However entire credit of this change is rested with fearless people rather than social media as such.

 In Egypt during the Hosni Mubarak regime, traditional mass media was controlled and censored by the government. No dissent whatsoever was allowed against Mubarak regime. However ironically, social media internet and mobile phones were not only allowed even effort was made to increase their penetration in society in order to boost the national economy. In Egypt 15% to 17% of the population who are active internet users are mostly youths, who were the driving force behind the Egyptian revolution.

 

Internet played a very important role in the mobilization of people by spreading their resent against regime among and making them confident enough to protest.This was important as earlier participation was low due to the fear of police crackdown. But when it became evident that a large number of people were against the regime, people’s participation increased; they felt secure in large numbers. Cyber activism wasalso a major trigger for street activism.

Egypt was experiencing protest movements and street marches even before Tunisian revolution. The most vivid failure of previous protest and marches was theirinability to mobilize public on massive scale. A group called April 6 movement realized in their first effort the trouble of using social mediaalone as medium for democratic movements i.e. many online sympathisers but unable to organise them offline. There was a need to find missing link between public anger and actual public mobilisation to bring about real change.

 

Cyber activism during Egyptian revolution:

The National Coalition for Change used a well organised communication network that includesFacebook, Twitter and YouTube to spread the message about protest. Facebook’s largest impact was in the mobilization of protesters.  April 6movements“We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page invited people to join the protest to be organized on January 25, 2011. More than 50,000 people responded. Facebook enabled organizing the protestor by spreading information to of people and in an instant and this shared between their friends. Facebook was far faster than leaflets with added benefit that receiver is trusted source. Google Moderation and Tweeter allowed anyone to comment on the subject and voting on subject. Tweeter allowed users to create a subject for discussion and post a comment. The “We all are Khalid said” Facebook page become the important sources of information and advice for protester’s. Face book was used as an advocacy and press management tool by certain opposition groups. For example protester used their hand held mobile devices to document any incident of suppression and to upload them immediately to face book and attracting attention and rolling support. Twitter was used for citizen journalism and mobilisation during the revolution. On Tweeter images were posted showing satellite maps marked with arrows indicting where protester could go to avoid pro-government mob. As Mary Joyce stated Egyptian activist used digital technologies to broadcast general information, mobilise protester and evade censorship and surveillance.

Egyptian revolution was not only a political struggle but also a communicationstruggle between government and activist. On January 28, 2011 Egyptian government shut off the internet and mobile phone service for entire country that lasted almost a week. It forced activist to find more innovative solutions such as setting up fine transfer protocol, using landlines to connect internet services to neighbouring countries for posting tweet, Mores code, fax machine and ham radio. They also posted ground reality on ISP Noor, the Egyptian stock exchange website. In every case protestors wereresilient and creative in circumventing these blockages. The outside world mainly US NGO, other internet groupshelpedEgyptian protester to circumvent blockages. Citizen journalism also played a major role in Egyptian uprising. Idle andNunn’s noted that activist were not only tweeting to other Egyptian but also to international community. Protesters uploaded rawvideos of police brutality to YouTube and other videos sharing site. The events which traditional journalists werehesitant or unable to report citizen journalist, bloggers and tweeters report them correctly. Therefore cyber activism, civic engagement and citizen journalism played a very important role in Egyptian revolution.

Cyber activism after Egyptian revolution:  Transition to democracy.

Cyber activism did not end even after Mubarak stepped down; in fact the referendum for new amendment to constitution is vivid example for ongoing online activism. Though many online activists were opposing this referendum the voters overwhelmingly passed it. On 7th September 2012, in general election people elected Mr. Mohammad Mors as their new president. He enjoys the support of Muslim Brotherhood, biggest political organization that survived Mubarak regime. Egypt’s new president Mr. Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood are going in direction that is opposed to democracy in Egypt. The growing influence of MuslimBrotherhood,radical Islamic extremism, stronghold of military elite and delayed transition to democracy put the success of revolution in doubt. Women, who played important role in revolution, are being pushed back into their traditional role and now largely absent from the public sphere.

There is growing demand by extremists and fundamentalists to implement “Shariat” law. Mohammad Morsi government is facing protests and these are being met with heavy hands of state. These protesters demand the gradual transition to democracy and it does not appear to happening. Military elitists are striving to maintain complete control over power.

Thoughcyber activism is up in arms against these recent developments it unfortunately seems to be ineffective in controlling these slow but firm footsteps towards extremism. Economic structure of post revolutionary Egypt is mainly influenced by corporate and military elitists. This control is depriving Egyptian educated youths from achieving their potential. European economists are in favour of open economy with special industrial zones for revival of Egyptian economy. This will never allow Egyptian youths to achieve their potential as it will establish strong hold of International and national business groups and elites on Egypt government which will focus on economic growth and profit making rather than employment generation. Egypt is an important ally for US to safeguard its own interest in the Middle East. Therefore US intervention in newly elected Morsi government is just a matter of time. There is strong fear that this US intervention will eventually undermine the capacity of Egypt government to address problems of Egyptians as it happen in many regimes where US intervene. This all draw very gloomy picture about future of Egypt after revolution. Online activism is proving increasingly inefficient to direct post revolutionary Egypt towards what they aspired during revolution.

Is Cyberspace the new place of protest?

Cyberspace is considered as an alternative to traditional institution of political mobilization. It is non-hierarchical, anarchic in nature and canundermine real world exclusionary criteria and rigid differences. It is a platform for public participation, for civic engagement and hailed as competent to revive vibrant democratic culture in the world.  Jasmine revolution in Arab world and role of cyberspace inform of cyber activism which toppled totalitarian regime in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are now widely consider as a success story of cyberspace. Some of the scholar’s called this as a Facebook revolution.  However this revolution cannot be called as a Facebook revolution as such. As aptly shown by many scholars in Middle East and from across the world it is the grievances of people, their ability to withstand suppression by the regime, readiness to sacrifice for the freedom and bravery is the leading factor in Jasminerevolution and not the Facebook as such. Social media, no doubt, provided the much needed link between public anger against regime and actual mobilisation of people but it is flawed to considered social media as the catalyst of change. Virtual worldcan play and do play a supplementary role in transformation. However, it is naive to label virtual world as amedium of revolution or transformation.

In fact there are enough evidence to show that commercialization of virtual world is gaining pace. Manyextremists’organisations utilize cyberspace for spreading its own agenda. In virtual world, national boundaries, ethnic and cultural status, economic interest, political and ideological inclination, historical events are creating new forms of hierarchies andstrengtheningexisting hierarchies of real world. Deliberation and serious discussion in cyberspace is relatively much smaller in quantity than expected. Pornography, cybercrime, identity theft, cyber bullying are indications of undemocratic nature of cyberspace.

Though many scholars still believe that cyberspace have potential to revive vibrant political and democratic culture but the event in Egypt especially after revolution, America and world over proved otherwise. In America, president Barak Obama’s innovative methods of e-campaign and public support gathered by it was also held by many as success of cyberspace in democracy. Obama’s e-campaign was far more active and vibrant in compare to other presidential candidate’s campaigns.  His popularity and opinion reached to general public via internet where deliberation and two way-direct communications via video-conferences and town hall meetings. This trend was a proof of civic engagement and itmade Obama a president who acts in accordance with public opinion. However this Obama administration is not an anti-establishment in nature. In fact it supports and strengthen the establish pattern.Obama’s choice of Chuck Hegel as a new Secretary of State, a known supporter of War on Terrorism, increased drone attacks in many parts of the world, continued support for totalitarian governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya until the rise of strong anti-regime sentiment, covert attempts of regime change in Libya and Egypt under the guise of NATO intervention, deliberate escalation of internal conflict in Syria, hesitation to increase level of taxes on super rich in America, coming under the influence of various business associations and interest groups, adoption of not so people friendly economic policies in US shows  how Obama successfully pretends to act in accordance with public opinion. But in reality he serves the interest of establishment. This indicates that cyberspace may generate strong civic engagement and people participation on various important issues but is not effective in converting that success in form of policy formation in accordance with public opinion. Events in post revolutionary Egypt also indicate similar failure of cyberspace.

Cyberspace is coming under increasing threats of censorship all over the world. Many governments, democratic and totalitarian alike, are striving to censor and control cyberspace with various legal and statutory provisions. New and advanced technology isallowing governments to censor and control the so called ‘anarchic’ cyberspace more and more. The cyberspace or internet make over centralization possible, rejecting decentralised region specific governance in the world as Internet enables thecentral authority the ability to evade geographical and territorial obstacles.  Further itenables governments across the world to constantly surveillance citizen and thus making them as a subject rather citizens. Cyberspace also provides a tool to control and interfere in the privacy of citizen to an unimaginable level; with each passing day it is gradually becoming a medium which serve the interest of establishment rather than bringing back vibrant democratic culture in the world.

Cyberspace and virtual world is necessarily depends upon the real world for its existence. Any change in virtual world is necessarily flown from the real world and not vies versa. Virtual World by definition cannot exist without the support of and influence by real world. Therefore it is wrong to consider cyberspace as a medium to revive a democratic culture.

Transformation and change in existing exploitative power structure must happen in the real world. Virtual world may encourage and supplement real world activism but cannot supplant latter and exist without it. This phenomenonwas aptly shown by the study of Egyptian revolution. Political change is therefore a must and technology cannot solve the problem. In fact the idea that technology can bring about change is part of neo-liberalism which depoliticizes the issue and glorifies technical solution to political problems.

References:

 

1)    Dr. KhamisSahar and Vaughn Katherine, “How Civic Engagement and Citizen Journalism Tilted the Balance” http://www.arabmediasociety.com/articles/downloads/20120313094800_Khamis_Cyberactivism_updated.pdf.

 

2)    Phelps Edmund, “Corporate Threat to Arab Spring”, http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-corporatist-threat-to-the-arab-spring#BGKrBfpfU1dYyTtg.99.

 

3)    SaadEddin. Ibrahim, “Historic Elections in Egypt”, at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/historic-election-in-egypt-#jSgLLQ224B7KcrCT.99.

 

4)    Shlomo Ben-Ami, “Egypt’s Revolutionary Coup”,http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/egypt-s-revolutionary-coup#Fdc0KXZjv5fOQ7UV.99.

 

 March 18th 2013 is last date of accessing both http://www.project-syndicate.org  and http://www.arabmediasociety.com/articles/downloads/ websites.

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