North Africa, West Asia

Shifting tides for Egypt’s bloggers

Egypt's blogosphere and twitter world was buzzing with reminders of how the army and the ministry of interior violated human rights on various occasions. On the other hand, the mainstream media was buzzing with songs cheering the army and the Minister of Defense.

Nadine El Sayed
18 December 2013
Alaa Abdel Fattah

Alaa Abdel Fattah in Tahrir Square. Wikimedia/Lilian Wagdy. Some rights reserved.

When prominent blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah got arrested during the Maspero events in Egypt in November 2011, a wave of support from the mainstream media and a large part of the audience erupted calling for his release. 

Two years later, Abdel Fattah and more than 40 others were arrested for peacefully protesting military trials for civilians on November 26 after a law regulating protests was passed. The media uproar of 2011 was non-existent this time around, in fact, the media applauded the arrests and criticized the activists and bloggers for causing unrest. Twelve female activists, including prominent bloggers and Tweeps, were arrested, physically assaulted and then left in the middle of nowhere. The reaction from the media and a vast majority of the public was far less than supportive. 

Bloggers and online activists had become the faces of the January 25th uprising, they tweeted the revolution, they were the key players in many events as they documented violations, broke news and acted as watchdogs for the online and offline spheres.

During the months before and following January 25th, 2011, the state media had lost credibility and there was little room for alternative and community media. This is why the blogosphere and social media became platforms for dissident voices in the first place, without the traditional pressures of mainstream media, whether those are legal, financial or the obligation to cater to a mass audience.

Before January 2011 

Before January, 2011, bloggers largely remained alternative media sources that didn’t often intertwine with mainstream media. They represented dissident voices that discussed issues mainstream media didn’t necessarily pick up on because they didn’t want to or couldn’t, due to censorship. Bloggers are the ones who broke stories like the case of mass sexual harassments in 2007 and shed light on police brutality, circulating horror videos of torture and violence inside police stations. 

But at large, they remained on the dissident margins, read by the educated elite who had access to the internet and kept largely separate from mainstream media. The sole relationship pertaining between mainstream media and bloggers was that on occasions mainstream media used bloggers’ videos without accrediting them.

After January 25th, 2011

After the January 25th uprising, however, the situation changed drastically for social media and the blogosphere.

Social media started gaining a burgeoning popularity. The internet penetration rate grew from 24.5% in December 2010 to 30% in 2011. On February 2, the first day internet was availed after being cut off on January 28, 100,000 new users from Egypt registered on Facebook. The Facebook penetration growth rate in Egypt has increased from 12% in the period from January 25 to April 5, 2010 to 29% in the same period the following year.  Facebook users grew from 4.7 million in December 2010 to over 9 million in January 2012. Twitter hosted over 35,000 tweets on February 11, 2011, the day Mubarak stepped down, up from an average of under 15,000 tweets before the protests.

With this change in status of social media, came a drastic change in the status of bloggers. Close study of three Egyptian newspapers and two political evening talk shows prove that the status of bloggers in Egypt shifted dramatically compared to during the months leading up to and following January 25. Bloggers and micro-bloggers took centre stage of news and current affairs and so they were brought under the spotlights of mainstream media and introduced to the offline audience. They became faces of the revolution and turned from outlaws disrupting public peace to heroes.

April Sixth bloggers and activists like Asmaa Mahfouz became the international faces of January 25th. Bloggers like Alaa Abdel Fattah and Sandmonkey started developing a face and a name outside the realm of the blogosphere. Asmaa Mahfouz, for one, has been named one of the most influential Arab women by Arabian Business and received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Ahmed Maher and Esraa Abdel Fattah of April Sixth movement and Wael Ghonim were nominated for a Nobel Peace prize.

Popular evening political talk shows started hosting and quoting them, newspapers started reporting from their social media accounts and quoting them on current issues.

Even their arrests became the centre of attention where just a few months earlier it would have passed unnoticed and ignored. Their arrests moved from being totally ignored or mentioned in the crime section of the state’s newspaper, if mentioned at all, to being presented as a human rights case that deserved front pages, no less.

A blogger like Alaa Abdel Fattah, for instance, had been popular on Twitter and the blogosphere before January 25th. But that didn’t help him much when he was arrested in 2006. Yes, the blogosphere buzzed with calls for action to support the detained blogger, but the story remained under the mainstream media radar. By contrast, his arrest in the Maspero events in October 2011 caused a major uproar online, but also in mainstream media that instantly reported the incident. Although there were over 20 others detained with Abdel Fattah during those events, his arrest was the only one publicized during the Maspero events and no other detainee’s names were mentioned. 

Similarly, during the same events, over a dozen lost their lives, but late blogger Mina Daniel became the poster child of the Maspero victims. His death was highly publicized, the public came to learn his name and face by heart whereas other victims remained largely unknown to the audience.

A newspaper like Al Masry Al Youm, for instance, started dedicating whole articles to the pulse of social media, quoting from and reporting on bloggers, Tweeps and regular social media users.

Bloggers also started being sought after by mainstream media outlets, for instance, Sandmonkey started contributing regular columns to the Daily News Egypt, an English language independent newspaper. Similarly, Alaa Abdel Fattah started contributing to Al Shorouk newspaper and Esraa Abdel Fattah and Nora Younes write for Al Masry Al Youm. Sandmonkey even ran for the 2011 parliamentary elections on Al Masreyin Al Ahrar’s party list.

Post June 30th 

Bloggers and Tweeps continued being watchdogs, influencing the online sphere, which is a key segment of opinion-forming as they are mostly upper and middle class, educated youth. They tweeted their opinions, communicated them through mainstream media, whether being quoted or writing for them, and so also reached the offline sphere.

But this position changed drastically post June 30th of this year.

The mainstream media adopted a certain political position that conflicted with that of the majority of Tweeps and bloggers. With the exception of Reem Magued, Mona El Shazly and Yousry Fouda, mainstream media — influencing the larger part of the mass audiences — supported the army. The blogosphere and Twitter world was buzzing with reminders of how the army and the ministry of interior violated human rights on various occasions. On the other hand, the mainstream media was buzzing with songs cheering the army and the Minister of Defense, Abdel Fattah El Sisi.

Bloggers contributed plurality to the public discourse in Egypt, which was previously  dominated by a few channels that faithfully echoed the same opinions. They broke news and issues that mainstream media failed to report on and forced them into the mainstream news agenda. They helped present opposing views and they have helped to counter the one-opinioned conversation that had once dominated the Egyptian sphere.

However, if they fail to reestablish the bond they once had with the public, the public discourse in Egypt might relapse into a pre-January 25th state of monologue and state propaganda.

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