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Egypt’s Unrest and the Impact of Social Media

Photo: Alex Teague 2009

On January 25th, protests in Egypt began after a call for a “Day of Rage” was generated on Facebook to coincide with the national holiday of Police Day throughout Egypt.  The ousting of  Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and following unrest in Tunisia is credited to have helped spark the protests in Egypt.  Egypt has been under the authoritarian rule of President Hosni Mubarak for the past thirty years.  Since the day that Mubarak became President, Egypt has been under a constant state of emergency that suspended the civil liberties of Egyptian citizens.

The Egyptian Emergency Law is a significant law that the state uses to control and manage opposition demonstrations and protests.  The law suspends the constitutional rights of citizens and grants wider powers of arrest, allowing protesters to be imprisoned for any period of time without reason.  Human rights groups have been after the Egyptian government to repeal this law for years, most recently in May 2010.  Political parties exist within the Egyptian parliament, however their freedoms of expression have historically been very limited under the Mubarak regime.  Although demonstrations and protests have continued to occur in spite of the emergency law, it has still contributed to widespread fear of police brutality and public apathy.  On January 28th, the UN Human Rights Chief Commisioner Navi Pillary again called for the end of the emergency law.

Social media is not new to the protesting game in Egypt.  It was used for the first time in a major way in the April 6th Youth Movement in 2008 when they organized activities using Facebook that supported a general strike north of Cairo, in Mahalla, that shutdown daily activity in Cairo and other parts of Egypt.  In 2009, the group attempted to plan a follow-up strike, however the state cracked down on demonstrators and organizers in such a fierce way that the follow-up attempt failed.  Only a small percentage of people own their own computers, and the government tightened regulations of internet cafes.  Despite the failure of the follow-up strike, the attempt was significant because it demonstrated a new and substantial tool that could be used to disrupt the regime.

Egypt protests: the country's internet has been offline since last night. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP

Initially, the regime made a move to shutdown access to Facebook and Twitter.  Although it was successful at first, Google and Twitter joined together to enable Egyptians to tweet using the phone.   Now, the internet has been shut down in its entirety.  You can view Bill Gates’ remarks to Katie Couric about the move here.

Stay tuned for more protest updates!

-Alex.