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[liberationtech] Nancy Messieh on "Why Egypt wasn’t waiting for WikiLeaks to ignite a revolution"

Pranesh Prakash pranesh at
Mon Jul 11 09:02:08 PDT 2011

While this isn't new to anyone on this list, I think this is a useful

From The Next Web:

July 10, 2011, Nancy Messieh
Why Egypt wasn’t waiting for WikiLeaks to ignite a revolution

Ask any Egyptian how much of an influence the Internet was in the
nation’s uprising, the first thing they’ll probably do is roll their
eyes at you. I’ve certainly mentioned it countless times – International
media found the perfectly convenient package of the Facebook revolution
fueled by a Google executive. A better lede couldn’t have been written
if they had made it up themselves.

But the thing is, there is as much fiction in that phrase as there is
fact. Yes the Facebook page We Are All Khaled Said, created by the
Google executive Wael Ghonim, was instrumental in mobilizing a certain
demographic in Egypt. But long after Hosny Mubarak was toppled, figures
have emerged to prove that calling the uprising in Egypt in any way,
shape or form, a Facebook Revolution, is almost as ridiculous as the
short-lived name, the Lotus Revolution, a name which had absolutely
nothing to do with the movement.

In case you’re curious, the Lotus Revolution was a name that followed
the just as ill-thought out name for the Tunisian uprising, the Jasmine
Revolution. Both names were no doubt dreamed up by journalists who had
visited the countries once upon a time, and were enamoured with the
exotic, oriental, incense-filled alleyways of Cairo and Tunis. The
reality of these uprisings couldn’t be further from the Orientalist
postcard snapshot that is continually forced down our throats.

The reality of the uprising in Tunisia is that it was sparked by a young
man, Mohamed Bouazizi, who lit himself on fire, because that was the
only form of protest he had left to use. The reality of the uprising in
Egypt is that it was sparked by a young man, Khaled Said, who was
brutally beaten to death in an alleyway, while people watched, helpless
as he begged for his life.

So with that in mind, it’s no surprise that the Wikileaks parody ad that
seemed to be taking a bit of credit for the Egyptian revolution has
sparked outrage among Egyptian activists.

Mosa’ab El Shamy, an Egyptian activist and photographer who spent the 18
days of the uprising in Tahrir, told The Next Web, “I thought we would
only have to counter all the local corporates here, which were trying to
claim credit for the revolution and share a ride on the bandwagon, but
Wikileaks, is to me, the worst of them all.”

Many local companies have been accused of playing both sides in Egypt,
bowing to the regime before the uprising, and in a lightening quick
chameleon change, their colours were suddenly an entirely red, white and
black display of supposed patriotism and pride in Egypt’s revolution.

El Shamy goes on to explain his views on Wikileaks conceding, “I believe
it’s changing the world in its own way and their effort is a prime and
noble one, but it’s ludicrous to hear Mr. Assange in the ad declare with
a cheeky grin as he watches the imagery of protesters pushing police
forces back from Kasr el Nil Bridge that ‘the world changing as a result
of his work is priceless.’”

In fact, as Egyptian blogger Zeinobia pointed out in her response to the
parody ad, most of the Wikileaks cables relating to Egypt were never
translated or published in local media for a variety of reasons, ranging
from a fear of retribution to simply a matter of bad timing, with more
important issues taking the attention of the Egyptian media and its

Ironically, much of the information that the Wikileaks cables revealed
about the Egyptian authorities was already common knowledge. Egypt is a
country that saw bloggers and journalists imprisoned for voicing their
opinion. Egypt is a country where questioning the president’s health was
punishable with imprisonment. It is not a country which was waiting for
Wikileaks cables to spark a movement that was years in the making.

El Shamy points to another ad that saw an even bigger backlash from
Egyptian activists, bloggers and tweeters. A Vodafone ad which had
originally been released a few weeks before the January 25 protests, was
re-released online, with a newly added introduction, in which the
telecom company seemed to be attempting to take a bit of the credit for
mobilizing the masses.

Comparing the two, El Shamy says of the Wikieaks ad, “I find it more
dangerous, and ‘under-attacked.’ Assange is an international, popular
figure and millions are ready to follow his steps and take his word; and
here lies the danger of ‘brainwashing’ more masses than the ones who
believe that it was all his work.”

Wikileaks parody ads aside, no matter how many times the theory is
debunked with statistics and personal stories, the Internet revolution
keeps rearing its ugly head. El Shamy comments, “It’s always
entertaining to see the media to rinse and repeat stories about how tech
savvy our revolution was, how Facebooked, YouTubed and Twittereized it
is, but I believe it is taken out of context this way, and is an
insistence on showing a small, rather unrepresentative aspect of the
Egyptian revolution. The huge majority of Egyptians who took to the
streets weren’t on Facebook or didn’t mind on missing on the Twitter
fad, the impoverished and underfed and ragged clothed certainly weren’t
motivated by a Facebook event or some videos they saw on YouTube. That
should be acknowledged sooner or later or else I think it’s a huge
injustice to them, and an elitist perspective.”

The Egyptian revolution was an incredible coming together of men and
women, from different backgrounds, different religions, different
cities, and throughout the country, they stood side by side and called
for one thing. To even attempt to credit that to the Internet, to
Wikileaks, or to anything else other than the perseverance of the
Egyptian people is to ignore the facts.

The role that the Internet did play was to get the story out. El Shamy
was one of many who tweeted his way through the revolution. Asking him
how he personally used the Internet during the 18 day uprising, he says,
“I used it to tweet, tweet, tweet and tweet. I reported everything as I
saw and answered people’s questions and tried chronicling what it felt
to be in Tahrir for over two weeks. I interacted with fellow activists
who were away from the square or other parts of Cairo and tried
convincing as much people who supported and followed our news through
the internet but feared for their safety. It was an amazing experience.”

El Shamy does give credit to the Internet where credit is due. “I think
the Internet played a fine role during those 18 days, but did the
revolution come to a halt or lose mobilization when the service was cut
off the whole country? Definitely not. It was useful that we let the
world know, and gradually increase pressure on the regime from outside,
and it acted as an anti-propaganda tool when the media was spreading all
kind of lies, and I think we made the best of it. But it simply
shouldn’t be overstated.”

As Egyptian state TV televised calming images of the Nile, YouTube and
Twitter were witness to brutal violence and tear gas-filled shots of a
struggle for freedom. As Egyptian state TV broadcast stories of a Tahrir
infiltrated by foreign spies from the four corners of the world, hell
bent on bringing Egypt to its knees, YouTube and Twitter told of men and
women who stood against snipers, thugs, and even a raid of camels and
horses, to come out victorious.

When it comes to the actual figures, Facebook penetration in Egypt in
April 2011 stands at 7%, with Tunisia’s penetration rate far higher at
22%. And let’s not forget that not all Facebook users in the region were
automatically supporters of the uprising. Facebook arguments in the
post-January-25 world were common. The number of photos of Hosny Mubarak
that appeared as profile pictures on Facebook after the former President
stepped down is proof of that. Country-wide protests were not waiting
for Facebook members to take to the street.

Yes, activists used Facebook and Twitter to coordinate among themselves,
even far before January 25. Yes, Flickr and YouTube were essential in
disseminating information to the wider public. But the number of people
who took the streets because of a call on Twitter cannot be compared to
the number of people who took to the streets because of the
on-the-ground efforts of activists who ventured into areas of Cairo, and
Egypt as a whole where Twitter was virtually unheard of, and spread
awareness. Not in a country where the number of Twitter accounts didn’t
exceed 130,000 in April 2011. In fact, the number of people who joined
the protests as they watched from their balconies as hundreds and
thousands of protesters passed in the streets, chanting “Come down”
probably exceeded the Twitter effect as well.

On January 28, I watched minutes before a similar crowd passed beneath
my balcony, as a young man quickly passed out fliers to people in the
street. He handed the sheets of paper to men standing in the street,
threw them at the feet of a crowd of women who were gathered at a street
corner, ducked quickly into shops and ran right back out again. I never
saw what the flyer said, because by the time I ran down into the street,
his fliers were nowhere to be seen, as he disappeared into a crowd of
protesters who had fast approached, accompanied by a large crowd of
helmeted riot police and police cars, pacing alongside them, peaceful
for the moment.

It is men like him who are truly to be credited with mobilizing the
Egyptian people. It is men like him who made the Egyptian people take to
the streets, knowing there was a possibility they would not be coming
home. To say that Facebook can be equated with each and every person’s
effort on the ground is to take a little bit of credit away from men
like him.

## About the Author
Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh is an Egyptian writer and
photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Follow her on Twitter, Flickr, or get in touch at nancy at

Pranesh Prakash
Programme Manager
Centre for Internet and Society
W: | T: +91 80 40926283

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