Not the social media revolution you think

Portland consultant and Egyptian Noha Elbadawy challenges the accepted wisdom of the impact of social media on the Egyptian revolution

You perceive the news differently when a story is personal. To me, the Egyptian revolution was more than a political phenomenon to be analyzed and evaluated, but a transformation that would inevitably affect the wellbeing of my family and the future of my country.

I have read countless articles seeking to ‘explain’ the revolution, most of which give significant credit to social media. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are praised for instigating the revolution and ‘freeing the Egyptian people’.
As a person whose family and friends spent innumerable hours demonstrating in Tahrir Square, facing tear gas and police brutality, I get exasperated seeing so much credit go to a technological tool.
Contrary to popular opinion, the most important impact of Facebook and Twitter on the revolution was not in those few weeks, directly inciting the revolutionaries to go out and protest. Instead, social media have fundamentally transformed Egyptian society over a number of years. By altering social relations and the traditional frameworks through which society has operated, they made mass demonstrations a political possibility and eventual reality.
New media platforms have been instrumental in changing the dynamics of social relations. In a country such as Egypt, where traditional society is rigidly stratified, social media vastly lowered the barriers for any individual to enter the public sphere. It blurred the boundaries of authority, giving individuals a sense of empowerment they had previously lacked. It created space for individuals to share information and debate potentially controversial issues. This unfettered space gave people the authority and conviction to become active participants in the social and political arena.
Before this recent surge of political activism, people in Egypt were marked by their apathy towards politics. Most people did not engage in political debate, accepting the Mubarak regime as the status quo. Those opposed to the political reality were too intimidated to protest actively.   Just as people had the right to freedom of speech, the Government was equally free to arbitrarily detain.
Social media created a new public sphere,  allowing people of all backgrounds  to express themselves  in a way that wasn’t possible before. This led to the creation of a new political reality  where everyday citizens could stand up to the regime and establish  a new political calculus for Mubarak to contend with.
As time progressed, it instilled a sense of solidarity amongst the people and laid the groundwork for what ultimately became a collective struggle.
Too much of the commentary on Egypt has focused on the ability of these new tools to organize people, speed up the process of communication and enable the revolutionaries to transmit their messages. But  the fact that only 20% of the 80 million Egyptians have ever used the internet gives the lie to the notion that a few tweets led to a mass uprising. Although they did play a part in the revolution, and in generating international interest in our struggle, social media served like any other media in spreading information
Technology has been used for centuries as a tool for mass mobilization, from the printing press to the telephone and the radio. Activists and revolutionaries have used technology throughout history in order to galvanize people and stimulate political change. In this sense the game has not changed, simply the tools available.
It is also important to account for other traditional forms of media that played a part during the revolution. Technological advances like cell phones and video cameras, in conjunction with more traditional media outlets like Al Jazeera, created the circumstances for such effective information dissemination.
Finally, the fixation on new media platforms has detracted attention from the real focus of the revolution: the people and the message they were trying to convey. The Egyptian revolution was motivated by human beings whose dissent was a mark of both frustration and empowerment.  Quality of life in Egypt had been steadily deteriorating over the past decade. Corruption was rampant, bribery and nepotism were institutionalized. The gap between the rich and poor had grown enormously and was made worse by increased inflation and widespread unemployment. One particularly poignant sign in Tahrir Square read, ‘I’m hungry – I want to feed my family’.
That is why the truly remarkable aspect of the revolution is not in the way people communicated, but in the impact this communication had on people’s mind-sets, perceptions and interactions. Prior to the advent of social media, the overall sentiment in Egypt was characterized by disillusionment and helplessness. Apart from sporadic and marginal mobilization attempts by movements such as Kefaya, people were overcome with a defeatist attitude. Real change was not only unheard of, but unthinkable.
In that sense, social media did play a transformative role, but not the one that should receive the most attention. It was really the people who risked their lives that brought an end to the Mubarak regime. Social media has changed the world, but it does not account for the human drive and determination that can overthrow dictators and instigate unprecedented change.
Noha Elbadawy is a member of Portland’s new Government Advisory practice.