Egypt’s middle-class cyberheroes

 
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By Osama Diab

Social networking and blogging voices the dreams and aspirations of the young and middle-class in Egypt, leaving other underrepresented groups as marginalised as ever.

Friday 25 November 2011

News of the prominent and outspoken Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy’s arrest and assault, which left her with two broken wrists, spread around the twittersphere at something approaching the speed of light, and then was picked up and covered by most major news outlets. Of course, this level of attention is unsurprising as Eltahawy is not only a brave journalist and campaigner, she is also well-known and admired both among Arab secularists and among liberals in the West.

When Alaa Abdel-Fattah, the Egyptian political activist and blogger, was arrested, my Facebook newsfeed, in a matter of minutes, was dominated by posts condemning his arrest. Profile pictures were changed to a Guevara-style silhouette version of his picture in solidarity with the young activist. He was quickly portrayed as the ultimate freedom fighter and the symbol of resistance. He indeed is. Abdel-Fattah comes from a family of political activists and has been an active force of resistance against Mubarak’s tyrannical rule for nearly a decade. He extensively blogged and participated in numerous protests against the ousted and the current regimes.

Despite my empathy with Alaa Abdel-Fattah as a fellow blogger who fell victim to his opinions, he is neither the only nor the most vulnerable victim of Egypt’s successive ruthless regimes, including the current transitional military junta. Khaled Said, Mina Daniel, Maikel Nabil Sanad, and now Abdel-Fatah, have all caused online uproars following their arrest or killing. They are most definitely and without doubt victims, but so are tens of thousands of others whose cases go unreported because Egypt’s middle-class, educated online activists fail to identify with them.
Egypt’s internet demographics explain the selectivity of victims, heroes and symbolic figures in the country’s online struggle for democracy. The internet penetration rate is still a low 20%, which means that if you are a member of Egypt’s online population, you are most likely a member of an educated middle-class in a big metropolis, mainly Cairo and Alexandria.
There is also about a 65% chance that you’re a male, and about a 90% chance you’re aged between 13 and 34. In order to be an active contributor in cyberspace, you also require a certain level of technological expertise, such as video-editing and blog-managing skills, which again would probably be higher among educated, male and young users.
Even among active internet users, there are still different levels and shades of contribution – not everyone contributes equally or has the same impact. In 2006, a study carried out by Forrestry Survey found that only 13% of internet users are active creators or users generating, rather than just viewing, content, while the majority of users were described as ‘passive spectators’ (33%) and ‘inactive’ users (52%). In other words, the majority of internet users are there to view content with a very minimal contribution of opinion, information, etc.
What this means is that people who play an active role online are a tiny percentage, not just of the population at large but even of internet users. They are mainly young, middle-class, urban and predominantly male. Looking at these figures, it is no surprise that the revolution’s cyberheroes match the profile of the typical Egyptian Facebook user.

The background of the majority of social networkers dictates the narratives and views you find in Egyptian cyberspace.  This explains why it is very hard to find accounts of  other victims from different backgrounds in Egypt’s shanty towns and rural areasAge, gender, residence and social status are all factors that confine online participation and lobbying power to certain groups.
Online activism did undoubtedly play a big role in educating, raising awareness and mobilising people in the build-up to the Arab revolts of earlier this year. But if we have more men than women, urban  than rural people, young than old online, then these groups are better-positioned than others to mobilise, express their opinion and lobby policy-makers, even if young people have yet to make it in large numbers into mainstream politics. This poses a challenge to the whole idea that new social media are more empowering compared to traditional media outlets.
If empowerment is restricted to certain groups of people, then social media kind of loses its perceived altruistic nature. Even the very idea of media empowerment was also introduced in cyberspace by those very people empowered by the media. This participatory media was  utilised by educated online communities to make up for the lack of democracy in the real world. Being unable to vote or affect public policy for decades has made the internet a haven for those who long for political rights and desire to play an active part in shaping their own future and the public policy of their country. Therefore, an old, illiterate farmer’s wife in a Nile Delta village will probably be a lot more sceptical about how Facebook can empower her.
In a way, this is reminiscent to when only white male Protestants were allowed to vote in the United States – a strategy employed to shape public policy in favour of a certain privileged group. Even though it is logistically and practically impossible to connect every Egyptian to the internet and get them to participate equally, especially when the illiteracy rate is still as high as 30% and nearly half the population lives below the poverty line. However, we can still find some consolation in the fact that more and more people are coming online every day. The number of internet users is expected to rise exponentially by 2012, which will enable more people to learn some of the 21st century’s tricks of grassroots, bottom-up campaigning.

This article is published here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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  • Josephine McCarthy

    Interesting points. I’m going to be in Egypt (south) next week so it will be interesting to hear what the ordinary person on the street has to say.

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