The metaphorical use of the word ‘marathon’ in the title is intended to contrast the situation in Egypt during the January 25th 2011 uprising with the present state of affairs in the country. To continue the metaphor, revolutions are akin to sprints; they utilize the powerful energy of sudden mass mobilizations to amplify popular dissidence and drive for (what can appear to be) immediate change. However, the problem with sprints is that they are not meant for running very far. The energy in popular uprisings cannot be sustained on the long haul, and social change that is both desirable and lasting is a matter of long-term endurance against intransigent and anti-democratic forces. The Egyptian revolution is far from finished, and the drive for true democracy will take a lot longer than the 18 days it took to topple Mubarak’s regime. Considering the key role new communications technologies played in the Egyptian revolution, it is important to question how sustainable this role is in the drawn-out struggle for true democratic reform.
The Egyptian uprising did not happen in a sociopolitical vacuum where the only driving force is what could be instantly observed in a shallow analysis: the fundamental desire for revolt against oppression, which is a universal human imperative. For such a revolt to result in a sustainable drive for change, it needs to be preceded by and rooted in a rich social dialogue. It also needs to be channeled into challenging the status quo through focused activism. In a society where active political participation was stifled in the conventional spaces where power is contested and challenged (what I call here ‘real’space), a vibrant social discourse on change was transplanted in ‘virtual space’ by politically active and tech-savvy Egyptian youth (a demographic minority in Egypt). The ‘boots on the ground’ manifestation of such virtual form of activism came to being on January 25th 2011 in Tahrir Square. Creating a false dichotomy between social interactions in virtual space and popular confrontational action in real space hinders our understanding of the dynamic between both. It could be argued that the only new thing about ‘digital social media’ is the ‘digital’ part. The means for fueling the popular drive for social justice have not changed much historically. Conversely, the forms these means take that have changed.
The comparison in the first paragraph between revolutionary and post-revolutionary contexts frames the analysis of the role of digital activism in an enduring drive for genuine democratic reform. I use the term ‘digital activism’ as opposed to ‘social media’ because the later is not necessarily descriptive of the use of digital social networks for activism. Social networks existed long before the internet. Political activism aided by digital social networks is what is we are concerned with herein. Digital social media is a term that describes a set of different yet related tools that, in the context of grassroots political activism, have disparate sub-roles in subverting political coercion. These roles alternated between helping reanimate a grassroots-level debate on change, to popular mobilization and organization for taking the fight from the networks to the streets. During the early days of the revolution, one of the most important roles of digital social networks was acting as a distributed truth engine (an analogical term to distributed systems in computing, where multiple machines communicate with each other over a network to achieve a common goal), providing real-time information validated and confirmed by individuals at the epicenter of events, in effect providing a robust alternative to the propaganda presented by the largely state-controlled media. Once this umbilical cord of reliable news was severed (when Egypt went offline on orders from Mubarak’s government on January 27th 2011,), the streets were flooded with even more people seeking out the truth and bolstering the revolutionaries’ stance in Tahrir Square.
Presently, all indicators evince that if any kind of change came about in the year since Mubarak was ousted, it is arguably a relapse. There is outrageous military persecution of dissent, freedom of expression and association is heavily stifled, until last week emergency laws remained in place and the use of disproportionate violence and torture against activists and protesters continue by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). Amidst all of this, online social networks still provide the spaces where the now-sentient discourse on democracy is revitalized, and activism is channeled from the virtual to the real. This is far from claiming that this is still a medium where the regime is out of its element. The SCAF frequently arrests and intimidates activists with loud online voices. Even Mubarak’s regime Gestapo, the now defunct State Security, used European digital infiltration technology that was used against bloggers and online activists. What is important to keep in mind, however, is that such coercive countermeasures have a diminishing effect in a post-revolutionary society. The real-time and distributed characteristics of digital social network technologies make complete control of information activism impossible. Scare tactics only add fuel to the revolutionary fire as news of the violations are transmitted through the networks with unprecedented rapidness.
It would be naive, even condescending, to reduce the Arab Spring uprisings to the face value of the technological tools that catalyzed them. By the same token, it would be equally unwise to downplay the true role of digital activism tools in all stages of the popular quest for change. It is important to think of technologically-driven political dissidence as taking place on a continuum of activism that traverses through real and virtual spaces of power contestation. The digital in ‘digital activism’ necessitates both going beyond the boundaries of conventional paradigms of conceptualizing political unruliness, and a more thorough understanding of the different forms of emerging digital communication technologies and how they influence social interactions that lead to cultivating indigenous discourses on change.
Hani Morsi is a PhD candidate within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.