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Twitter's role in revolutionary Egypt - isolation or connection?
Ahram Online speaks to 10 of 2011's most famous Egyptian revolutionary 'tweeps' about whether Twitter is detached from the common people, and what the role of the social network will be in the coming months
Zeinab El Gundy, Monday 30 Jan 2012
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Twitter in Tahrir during the early days of the revolution
Twitter in Tahrir during the early days of the revolution (Photo:Reuters)

The role of the internet and social media in the January 25 Revolution is undeniable; despite this, some observers believe that Twitter is isolated from the mainstream of Egyptian society and that tweets (Twitter posts) represent only a small segment of the population.

Only 27 million Egyptians have access to the internet, according to the latest official numbers, out of a population of nearly 83 million. According to a September report by the Dubai School of Government about social media in the Arab world, there are around 130,000 Egyptian Twitter users (“tweeps”).

At the time of the January 25 Revolution, the social network in Egypt was dominated by pro-revolution users. This year, however, has seen an increase in pro-Mubarak supporters and pro-SCAF supporters using Twitter.

This year, tweets became one of the most important sources of news in Egypt, as well a tool for coordinating activism and protest. In Ahram Online’s special report, we asked ten of the most famous Egyptian Twitter users about whether Twitter is a different realm separate from the real world, and what the role of Twitter and social media will be in 2012, especially after the increase in anti-revolution Twitter users and Facebook users.

 

Alaa Abd El-Fattah

@alaa

109,063 followers

A blogger and political activist as well a software developer, Abd El-Fattah is regarded as one of the godfathers of Egyptian social media and the blogging scene in Egypt. Among the many social media initiatives Abd El-Fattah supported in 2011 was the “#TweetNadwa” or “tweet lecture,” when over the summer Twitter users met offline and held lectures to discuss a certain topic and then transfer the resulting discussion onto Twitter.

Abd El-Fattah made headlines when he was detained on charges of inciting violence and attacking military personnel during the Maspero clashes. He refused to cooperate with the military prosecution and to be interrogated in front of a military judge, because of his stance against military trials.

Top tweets

One of the top tweets Abd El-Fattah posted in 2011 was retweeted many times when he was summoned for interrogation in front of military prosecutor in late October 2011:

Dear friends and comrades the best way to help me is raise a lot of noise about the injustice of civilians facing military trials in Egypt.

Is Twitter a closed realm?

There is nothing isolated in the world; it is circle of relations after all and there are journalists on Twitter who consider it one of the news sources; yet on Twitter you can find one class of Twitter users unlike on Facebook. You can find a mainstream of revolution supporters on Twitter, while on Facebook you will find a different range of groups representing different political powers, classes and backgrounds.

What will Twitter be like in 2012, especially with the increase of the anti-revolution Twitter users?

Twitter will be the same but it may have bigger influence. Regarding the anti-revolution Twitter users, up until now their numbers are not big or organised as on Facebook, where they are highly organised and can reach a higher audience; yet they can increase in the future.

 

Nawara Negm

@Nawaranegm

171,813 followers

A prominent figure in the revolution, an activist, television personality and journalist.

Negm used to have two Twitter accounts: “@Nawaranegm” and “@Oshaohktelmeligi”, but a couple of weeks ago her Twitter accounts, as well the rest of her social media accounts including her email and Facebook account, were hacked. She was able to restore one of her Twitter accounts and the rest of her social network accounts, however.

Top tweets

One of Negm’s most recent tweets was on January 22, 2012:

I want my country free, I will not accept any comprises.

Is Twitter a closed realm?

Not at all. Twitter is actually a reflection of society; after all, those Twitter users are humans who represent society and interact with humans in the end.

It is not isolated, and the proof of that is how the pro- SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces], pro-Mubarak supporters and those following the security apparatus joined social media networks like Twitter and Facebook to interact with the public.

What will Twitter be like in 2012, especially with the increase of the anti-revolution Twitter users?

Any change in social media reflect the changes in the society itself... thus whatever happens in 2012...in Egypt politically and socially will be reflected through the Twitter users. Already in 2011 there was a noticeable increase in use of social media by security apparatuses and their electronic departments [cyber security agents] which follow the legacy of the infamous electronic committee of the National Democratic Party (NDP) and its methods of spreading lies and attacking activists and revolution supporters online.

 

Hossam El-Hamalawy

@3arabawy

58,004 followers

A journalist and blogger as well revolutionary socialist activist.

Top tweets

One of the top tweets El-Hamalawy posted during the first 18 days of the revolution, which was  retweeted by hundreds, was on 3 February:

This is people's power. This is democracy from below. This is the most beautiful thing i have ever seen in my life.

That tweet was posted right after the end of the “Battle of the Camel” on 2-3 February 2011, when Tahrir protesters were attacked by Mubarak’s thugs.

Is Twitter a closed realm?

Twitter is a social network that is useful to spread information about actions we organise on the ground. It should not be mistaken as representative of all sectors of society. But at the same time, it should not be ignored at all, and on the contrary it is booming in terms of new usage in Egypt at the moment.

What will Twitter be like in 2012, especially with the increase of the anti-revolution Twitter users?

The role of social media in 2012 will continue similarly to 2011 and before that. Social media platforms provide a channel for citizens to report events on the ground in a faster way and without the editorial interference of newspapers’ managements and the state. It is the only completely free and independent outlet to spread information.

 

Gigi Ibrahim

@Gsquare86

36,405 followers

A socialist activist and blogger.

Top tweets

One of Ibrahim’s most famous tweets was on 29 January:

So many people have died, hospitals are in need of blood, please tell everyone u know to donate blood at hospitals.

Is Twitter a closed realm?

No...Twitter is only a medium of communication that activists or people who are on Twitter choose to use to discuss whatever is happening in the real world. I think Twitter reflects whatever topics
are being discussed at any given moment and in Egypt it happens to be topics related to the revolution moment.

Now we see stories breaking out as headline news with Twitter being the source, whether in Egypt or globally. The perfect example of this is the virginity-checks case. It first got broken  by activists talking about it on Twitter after it happened. Then Amnesty International wrote about it in March 2011, as it was first leaked by activists on Twitter who were present (Rasha Azab), then in May  2011 CNN wrote about it, and that's when local media and officials had to respond to the incident. The fact is Twitter now can make stories.

What will Twitter be like in 2012, especially with the increase of the anti-revolution Twitter users?

The role of social media tools like Twitter in 2012 is more of the same role it played in 2011 in the case of Egypt. As long as we have a biased, censored media, which is not just in Egypt but any mainstream media, alternative outlets like Twitter and others will be the tools used by the people and activists to expose the truth.

The many different anti-revolution groups only got Twitter after the revolution because of the importance everyone gave to these tools; therefore, these groups are finding that they have to be part of it to try to have an influence...to compete with opposing views.

 

Mahmoud Salem

@Sandmonkey

63,184 followers

Salem is a liberal blogger, as well as a member of and unsuccessful parliamentary candidate for the Free Egyptians party.

Top tweets

This tweet, from 11 February when former vice president Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak had stepped down, has been retweeted over a hundred times:

Hosny quit. We won. We won :) #jan25

Is Twitter a closed realm?

I don’t believe Twitter to be a closed realm, because it has everything.  Every opinion, every type of account and all the types’ news you can handle. It grew so big very quickly as well, so I don’t think it’s a closed realm. It’s just the Twitter revolutionaries who all know each other. So, you talk to those you know, and when you share your opinion which they agree with, they retweet. It really is that simple.

What will Twitter be like in 2012, especially with the increase of the anti-revolution Twitter users?

The role will be that of support group, the way it always has been. It's where you get hope, where you know you have people...who share similar views, no matter what those views are, all over Egypt.

In a society that is bound to be more isolationist due to fear, Twitter provides a safe mechanism to interact and meet like-minded others and find comfort in that. We will need all the comfort we can get.

 

Wael Khalil  

@wael

43,157 followers

A socialist activist and co-founder of the Masrena movement.

Top tweets

One of the tweets Khalil posted during the parliamentary elections, on 14 December:

The elections are today’s battle; the battle tomorrow will be the powers of the SCAF; next week will be the military trials, and next month the battle will be for the presidential elections...The revolution continues.

Is Twitter a closed realm?

I think Twitter is not representative of the wider society, but it's not always wrong. You can gauge consensus from Twitter but not count on it 100 per cent; plus it is a consultation and consensus-building platform like no other.

What will Twitter be like in 2012, especially with the increase of the anti-revolution Twitter users?

Twitter is more immune to infiltration and/or electronic committees of security apparatus; when someone from them replies to you he/she can't really reach out to others not following him/her, so it's very hard to create a false consensus or dominant opinion as with Facebook comments and the like.

 

Mohamed El-Dahshan

@TravellerW and @eldahshan

11,382 followers

A blogger and journalist.

Top tweets

One of the famous tweets of El-Dahshan was on 9 October during the Maspero clashes between mostly Coptic Christian protesters and military police:

The issue is extremely dangerous and we need to communicate to the people in their homes that it is not a sectarian war.

Is Twitter a closed realm?

The internet as a whole is closed to less than 30 per cent of the Egypt population anyway. Among those, only a handful use Twitter.

The infrastructure of Twitter is only mildly conducive to exchange of ideas with people outside of our immediate list of friends; accessing strangers' ideas on a given topic is only a hashtag click away but how often do we do that click? It's more comfortable to only follow discussions among people we've pre-approved.

Effectively then, there are cliques on Twitter. It's like high school, really. There are the liberals and the Islamists and the communists and the activists and the Arabic-speakers and English-speakers and the monologuers and the one-track-minded ones. And of course there are those who hate everyone.

They're not exclusive circles, however, and the overlap is where the openness of Twitter - the default publicness of conversations - leads to interesting results. However, it is weak, because often those conversations are limited to hostile arguments, seldom constructive ones.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Twitter is now more open than it was a year ago; the number of users has climbed madly and every day I am exposed to people with drastically different perspectives than mine.

What will Twitter be like in 2012, especially with the increase of the anti-revolution Twitter users?

I don't think it's mostly used by anti-revolution groups though - they recently emerged, which is why it may appear to us that they're very active. They're barely mildly so. But undeniably, the pro-revolution community is more skilled when it comes to using social media.

Since the first revolution we can say that we're seeing more Twitter-conversation than Twitter-organisation. But I predict we'll see more of a reversion to the organisation use at some point, as the battle with the enemies of democracy intensifies.

What we should also see - what I hope we will - is an evolution of our use of social media. We are using the same tactics and often get bogged down in the same discussions as we used to a year ago. We need to use social media to cross over to the other Twitter cliques. We need to market the revolution and in that we'll need to teach ourselves how to conduct a constructive Twitter conversation, one that doesn't end in people blocking each other.

 

Mosa’ab El-Shami

@mosaaberizing

12,879 followers

A professional photographer and activist.

Top tweets

One of the most interesting tweets El-Shami wrote during the early weeks of the Tahrir Square sit-in on 5 February, when state television as well other Egyptian television channels were spreading lies about the protesters in the Square:

Listening to some discussion going around, many fear how other Egyptians might slowly lose hope and turn against them. Could be a problem.

Is Twitter a closed realm?

I think the Egyptian Twitter community has expanded and became more “mainstream.” I don't think it should be looked at as one bloc anymore. Maybe before the revolution it could have been treated as such, but the role it played and the attention that was paid to it afterwards attracted not just revolutionaries but even the anti-revolutionaries and people who are just there to observe others, not to mention official figures.

It does, at the end of day, display some form of elitism, no doubt. Despite that, many Twitter campaigns were launched to extend the reach of Twitter beyond cyber space, and I have to say some were quite successful and impressive.

It will always maintain the “bubble” form, which doesn't have to be bad; at the end of the day it's a platform for youth who many times find no other alternative.

What will Twitter be like in 2012, especially with the increase of the anti-revolution Twitter users?

I think the role remains as it has always generally been; a social media platform for discussion and expressing opinions. The campaigns, mobilisations, cyber wars, and funny hashtags will still be there and it is a form of the development that Twitter is seeing after the revolution.

It isn't just about forming an opinion or expressing one anymore; but to win over people and “defeat” others like the groups you mentioned. It will continue to play an important role in citizen journalism as it has always done, and delivering independent media to counter the official one.

With it comes the responsibility, or rather the risk, of diffusing rumours and faulty reports. The revolution and its revolutionaries were badly portrayed and have been subjected to intensive campaigns of defamation, despite all the efforts on social media to provide another narrative and defy the propaganda. Maybe it worked; maybe it still needs to do so.

 

Tarek Shalaby

@tarekshalaby

24,121 followers

 An activist and blogger.

Top tweets

On 2 February, during the Battle of the Camel when Shalaby was in Tahrir Square and witnessed the attack of the Mubarak regime’s thugs on the protesters, he tweeted:

This is OUR revolution, and no one can take it from us. #jan25

Is Twitter a closed realm?

Twitter has been, and remains, a social network closed off to a bit of elite within the Egyptian society. Having said that, it can still be effective in spreading information to the masses via mainstream media. That's because, especially after the start of the revolution, media outlets rely on Twitter to stay on top of events on the ground throughout the major cities in Egypt. In fact, almost all newspapers and TV channels will make daily references to news spread through Twitter one way or the other.

What will Twitter be like in 2012, especially with the increase of the anti-revolution Twitter users?

It has become obvious that the role of social media is growing. Let us not forget that Facebook probably boasts over 10 million Egyptians now - roughly the same number that took to the streets during the 18 days (besides the labour strikes, of course). Therefore, Facebook is a tool that is reaching a large enough minority capable of bringing about social and political change.

The fact that anti-revolutionary groups have also embraced Facebook does not take anything away from it. In fact, it gives the social network more credibility - few would trust a one-sided platform.

 

Hassan Hamed

@seksek

9,909 followers

An activist and founder of “Tweet Shara’a” or “Tweet the Street” initiative.

Tweet Shara’a started last summer, when a small group of Twitter users decided to go to the streets in different governorates to discuss the revolution with people outside Twitter, and to spread the revolution’s ideas directly, outside the usual media channels.

Top tweets

One of the top tweets for Hamed during 2011 was on 23 March, 2011, when the government issued a law to criminalise strikes and sits in.

The reality on the street is very different from reports on Twitter. Why don’t you go to the street and speak to the people instead of crying online? The people are happy with the law because they think that it will bring stability.

Is Twitter a closed realm?

Twitter is indeed isolated from the street; it is like there is an ocean between them. On Twitter you have these opinion leaders who have thousands of followers. These opinion leaders are usually activists who have their own political and ideological beliefs from the start, and they tweet what they believe is right whether it reflects the street or not.

These followers retweet it and believe it, creating a gap between them and the street, which includes every political and social group and class in society. 

What will Twitter be like in 2012, especially with the increase of the anti-revolution Twitter users?

It will be different, yet in a positive way. It will grow in the numbers of users like Facebook. It can attract many people who will turn to it from a mainly political discussion forum isolated from the street in to a social network where people discuss all sort of issues representing society.

If many people join Twitter from different classes and groups to represent the Egyptian street, we can discuss for real what the Egyptian people in the street want.



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