Peculiarities of Cyberspace

Internet as medium and domain of social movement

The digital pharaoA lot of people still believe that the internet is a medium with a large democratic potential. This conviction is based on a number of conclusive arguments. First of all, internet is an easily accessible medium, allowing all citizens to bring up their views and desires. The only necessity is a computer and internet access. Secondly, it is a global medium, with which in principle everybody can be reached quickly. Geographic boundaries between continents, countries and regions and between social classes, professional, income or status groups would vanish into the thin digital air. Thirdly, it is an interactive medium, enabling us to communicate in every possible way. Via internet we can communicate both synchronously (chat, video conferencing) and asynchronously (website, weblog, web forums, etc.). Besides, we can communicate one-to-one, but also one-to-many, many-to-one and many-to-many. These are almost ideal conditions for the forming of democratic opinion.

Every self-respecting interest group, political party or social movement manifests itself on internet nowadays. They try to disseminate their aims on internet, they articulate their group specific interests, desires and aspirations, they agitate against other social or political groups that stand in the way of their options. And they use the internet to inform, expand and mobilise their own supporters.

To participants of social emancipation movements or political mobilisation movements internet is a communicative space in which they can discuss their political options and plans, exchange their experiences and pass on information to each other. By ‘communicating globally’ and ‘acting locally’ social movements can substantially extend their public nature. Here lies the actual potential of the internet public nature: it creates new communication spaces for processes of opinion and decision-making of social, emancipatory and national movements that, in their turn, can complement and correct institutional politics.

So the internet indeed offers new opportunities for a democratic and just society. But such society does not arise automatically. Internet is not an ‘inherent democratic medium’ only generating positive effects. In the course of the years internet itself has also become a political arena in which opposing social forces are fighting for power. More than that, internet can also become a new channel with which the guardians of the status quo protect their positions of power. So, on the one hand internet is a powerful instrument for democratisation and individual freedom but it can, on the other hand, also be used to maintain and legitimise exploitation, oppression and discrimination. “And so, the control of communication and manipulation of information have always been the first line of defense for the powerful to get away with their misdeeds” [Castells 2011:347]. Het internet biedt dus wel degelijk nieuwe mogelijkheden voor een democratische en rechtvaardige samenleving. Maar zo’n samenleving komt niet vanzelf.

In countries in which the rulers completely monopolise the traditional media (newspapers, radio, television) via the state, as in Iran, the opposing powers completely rely on the internet for their internal and external communication.

Repression via internet

Hard figures
De Afrikaanse telecommunicatiemarkt groeit in een sneller tempo dan in de rest van de wereld. Maar tegelijkertijd is de internetpenetratie in Afrika beperkt in vergelijking met de rest van de wereld [source].

Besides, there is a sharp digital dividing line between the African states. The best infrastructure and most internet activities are concentrated in South-Africa, Morocco, Egypt and in a few smaller economies such as Mauritius and the Seychelles. The ADSL services in Egypt belong to the cheapest of Africa. Apart from South-Africa and Morocco Egypt has the most internet providers (more than 200). All in all the ICT sector in Egypt shows a permanent growth. In 2008 $ 9.8 billion was spent on ICT and this is expected to increase to $ 13.5 billion in 2011.

The internet has a modern infrastructure in Egypt and the internet use shows a sharp upward trend. In 200 a commercial broadband internet access was introduced. In the period 2000-2008 the number of internet users in Egypt increased by none less than 1815 percent: from 450,000 internet users in 2000 to 8,620,00 in 2008. The internet penetration in Africa is on average 5 percent, in Egypt 15.4 percent. So Egypt is ahead of nearly the whole of Africa, but lags behind a lot of countries in the Middle East.

For the government of Egypt access to a free information flow by the people is a challenge to its legitimacy and power. The government considers the internet to be a direct threat to its existence, and to the stability of the dictatorial state. The Egyptian government has been trying to keep control of the internet for years. In a country in which well over 15 percent of more than 81 million citizens have access to this internet it is not easy to make this control complete. The Egyptian authorities monitor all television and radio programmes and nearly all newspapers that publish independent opinions are forbidden.

The only medium that allows Egyptian citizens some freedom of speech is the internet (and the mobile phone). Egyptian citizens use the internet to be informed and to inform others and to freely associate and protest. Thanks to the internet the Arabic citizens were no longer passive consumers of traditional media. Internet gave them a chance to speak more freely about subjects that matter. They gradually discovered that the internet is an instrument for social-political changes. Blogging was introduced as a user-friendly but very powerful method to express themselves independently (without the filters of the traditional media). This is how new voices of citizens could be heard, distinguishing themselves by making hard-to-access (or censored) information available, by providing clear analyses of the social state of affairs, and by shrewdly criticising distressing social inequality, injustice and lack of freedom. It would soon prove that the free-thinking bloggers were starting to step on the extremely long toes of their autocratic rulers. The bloggers were threatened, thrown into jail and tortured.

Preliminary skirmishes

  • From the moment the internet became popular outside the universities and governmental institutions in the 90s the Egyptian authorities have been trying to control the internet. The government particularly tried to curb the lively blogosphere by demanding that bloggers had to apply for a licence. Egypt was placed on the list of ‘enemies of the internet’ by Reporters without Borders, because bloggers who make a plea for democratic reforms risk imprisonment and torture. Yet, the Egyptian blogosphere is one of the most extensive and active ones in the whole world. The number of active Egyptian blogs increased from 40 in 2004 to over 160,000 in July 2008. In a country in which the press is chained so tightly to the choke collar of Mubarak’s government, internet offers a way out to obstructionists, dissidents and opponents. Internet is not only a medium of nearness, but also a medium of contradiction. Alaa Abd El-Fatah
  • One of the most prominent bloggers and fighter for the free word is Alaa Abd El-Fatah. Together with his wife Manal he runs the blog BitBucket, which won the prize for ‘Best of the Blogs’ in 2005, presented by Reporters Without Borders. In 2005 he was arrested for the first time because he had joined a demonstration against the government. On 7 May 2006 he was arrested again together with 10 other people after he had participated in a demonstration against the regime. A group of Egyptian human rights organisations condemned the arrests: “There is an urgent need for more serious and hard work, not only to release the detained pro-democracy activists in Egypt but also to hold the perpetrators accountable for these savage practices” [The Guardian 8.5.2006] After 45 days Alaa was released from prison. Before that demonstrators were also arrested, but usually released after a few hours. The regime had decided to uphold the public order in a harder way.
  • Language, age and sex
    More than three-quarters of the Egyptian bloggers only writes in Arabic, 20 percent writes both in Arabic and in English, and only 10 percent only writes in English. Over 30 percent of the blogs written in Arabic are Egyptian. Most Egyptian bloggers are young men, whereas a little over a quarter is female. More than half of the Egyptian bloggers are between 20 and 30 years of age [Meghan 2008].

    Abdul Kareem Suleiman
  • Another well-known activist is Abdul Kareem Suleiman. He used his blog to air his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the Egyptian society. He particularly turned against the doctrine of the islam and the bad treatment of women according to the islamic sharia. He started his blog in August 2005. Two months later he was arrested because he had attacked the islam on a blog ‘The Naked Truth About Islam As I Saw it in Muharram Beik’. In this blog he describes how his fundamentalist father forbids his two 10-year-old sisters to go to school any longer and compels them to cover themselves from head to toe. His analysis was designated as anti-religious and as an insult to president Mubarak. In the early morning of 25 October 2005 non-uniformed units of the state security service (Amn al Dawla) assail his house in Alexandria. He is carried off handcuffed and blindfolded and during endless interrogations he is confronted with printed texts of his blog. After having been confined in the notorious Tora prison in Cairo for 11 days, he was released by order of the Home Secretary. After renouncing his faith he was sent away from Al-Azhar university and in November of the same year he was arrested and interrogated again. His self-willed comment was: “If death is a must then it’s a sin to die a coward.” On 22 February 2007 he was arrested once more and sentenced to 3 years imprisonment for insulting the islam and Mubarak. In prison he was beaten up by his guards, and released on 17 November 2010. The campaign to free the brave Egyptian blogger has been beautifully documented in the YouTube Gallery Fee Kareem.

  • Attempt to be in control: all international connections go via one gateway which is monitored by a telecom state monopoly.

  • As early as June 2008 the government of president Hosni Mubarak considered blocking the access to Facebook. Facebook had become a popular meeting place of dissatisfied young Egyptian people. The 6 April movement had succeeded in mobilising more than 80,000 demonstrators against the absurd rise of food prices. The network built up in Facebook played a crucial role in expanding the support of these demonstrations and company occupations. Under the exception law it was not allowed to assemble with more than five people without permission in Egypt. The Facebook generation violated this ban on a large scale. The internet seemed to be the safest political space (and thus seemed to take over the role the mosque played in the past). Secular young people met each other on Facebook. There they could freely communicate, set up virtual networks and communities, and exchange their opinions. The government warned the traditional media that they were not allowed to report about this phenomenon. The websites of the 6 April movement were put in a bad light and visitors were discredited.

Digital darkness – Enlightment of people’s protest Digitale duisternis

On the day large demonstrations were planned the government completely cut off the internet traffic at 01:00 a.m. On 28 January 2011 the internet providers were ordered to break off all connections. Only a small provider, the Noor Group, which serves only 8% of the Egyptian internet users, remained available (although this provider was also taken off the air on 31 January). All other providers (such as Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt, Etisalat Misr and all their partners) went off the air. Companies, banks, internet cafes, educational institutions and government services were disconnected from each other, their customers and the rest of the world.

During the night of 27 to 28 January the researchers of Arbor Networks saw the following occur:

Internet traffic blocked in Egypt.

It was the day a part of the internet died. The internet in Egypt was cut off. But the pharaoh wouldn’t sleep soundly. A deafening, dazzling and amazing public resistance was his share. As a thief in the night he had to flee Cairo.

Switching off internet connections as a reaction to sensitive political events is a form of just-in-time blocking. In this case access to information is blocked during important political moments when this information has major consequences for elections, protests or commemorations of revolts.

  • “Facebook and Twitter helped connect thousands of frustrated Egyptians and united them under the single goal of overthrowing the regime. By underestimating a bunch of privileged, opinionated and fed-up vanguards, the Egyptian regime overlooked their impact on the rest of the people, and didn’t guess that crowds of middle- and lower-class Egyptians would follow their lead and unshackle the system’s long, strong grip.
    But when the ruling system realized the magnitude of what’s happening, they took no chances. Our entire communication system was shut down; Egyptian websites disappeared from the global Internet. Cell phones were no longer working. Same goes for texting, Internet, and Blackberry services. [...] — the services where shut down and we were walking in complete darkness” [Abu-Samra 2011].

Nevertheless, by completely disconnecting the communication channels used by the opponents the revolt wasn’t silenced. On the contrary, it was seen as a desperate measure of a dying regime, making a last attempt to keep going. So it stimulated the opposition and actually gave it an incredibly clear mission: Mubarak’s regime had to disappear.

However, this didn’t imply that the opponents benefited from the disconnection of the internet.

  • “And yet, while the Internet cut-off boosted our will to fight, it hurt us in ways that the government and even we may not have expected. Stranded in Tahrir, the center of Cairo, we were simultaneously so together and alone. With no access to information, we became susceptible to rumors. News about the international reaction and the White House response didn’t matter; but the whereabouts of loved ones and whether or not snipers were gunning down protesters were much more pressing concerns. We were left to wonder, and by the end of each night at Tahrir we would be worn out by doubt, uncertainty, and a deluge of conflicting reports. One prominent sign in Tahrir covered the entire front of a KFC joint and simply said WE WANT INTERNET” [Abu-Samra 2011].

We want internet

The demonstrators on the Tahrir square were at the same time together and alone. Without access to reliable information the crowd became sensitive to rumours. In this darkness the participants often had no idea how their family and friends were doing. For a week they often they didn’t know if they had been caught by the police or beaten up. Besides, it was often unclear to the demonstrators when and where to regroup, or how to protect the revolt against the violent provocations of the hoodlums that Mubarak unleashed on them on horses and camels.

The fact that the internet was cut off for a week didn’t prevent the Egyptians from bringing forward their objections and demands in the streets, loudly protesting. The activists who had joined forces on the internet hadn’t forgotten how to use the physical public spaces to make their point — Mubarak had to go, and as far as they were concerned immediately.

After a week of severe social unrest and political protest internet traffic slightly got started again. Since then all main providers and websites have been accessible for the rest of the internet again [source].

Internet traffic shut down in Egypt.

Disconnecting the internet was extremely damaging to the Egyptian economy every day. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) published an estimation of this damage: 13 million euro ($18 million) per day. In all it would have cost the country 65 million euro ($ 90 million). This doesn’t even include the secondary economic consequences, for example for the tourist industry. In the long run the effect might even be much larger, because it will be more difficult to attract foreign companies in the future and to assure them that the networks will remain reliable.

In 2008 the ministers of the Egyptian government had signed an OECD-statement, in which open internet was advocated as a crucial factor in the growth of the national economy. In their anxious haste to break the people’s resistance the authoritarian rulers not only forgot the principles of free information and freedom of speech, but also how strongly the internet and mobile phone have been integrated in the economic system in the meantime. Governments of technologically developed nations cannot disconnect the telecommunication system without causing substantial economic damage and disrupting the regular social traffic. Internet is so firmly rooted in nearly all aspects of our personal and social existence, that a disconnection immediately results in a dramatic disruption of society. Meanwhile internet has also become a medium of mass disruption.

Precedents: Nepal and Burma

What happened in Egypt was not completely unprecedented. Two other states nationally disconnected the internet in reaction to political events.

In February 2005 Nepal closed all internet connections in the country after the king had proclaimed martial law. At that time less than 1% of the Nepalese population of 23 million made use of the internet. Nepal belongs to the least developed countries in the world. For a week the media were shut down and the country was deprived of internet [Glaser 2005].

On 29 September 2007 the Burmese government disconnected the internet in the whole country during the saffron revolution. This was a reaction to the floods of images and videos documenting the violent action of the government against the demonstrating citizens. Before that the Burmese junta blocked more and more sites, and this shifted to popular social media such as YouTube and Blogspot, and to international news sites. This is how the government tried to prevent more information from coming in and going out. By regulating or shutting down access to communication technologies repressive regimes tried to restrict the social mobilisation surrounding political key issues.

Slipping through the (inter)net

An increasing number of dissidents opposes this repressive internet policy of the Mubarak regime. Again and again they succeed in slipping through the control system and in finding secret paths that try to get round this system. For Egyptian citizens there were only very few possibilities to express themselves freely. They started to vent their criticism and visions where the most freedom was: on the internet.

6 April Movement

In the spring of 2008 the 6 April movement started as a Facebook group in support of the labour strike in the industrial town Mahalla al-Kurba. In this town, 100 kilometres north of the capital Cairo, the largest textile factory of Egypt is located. One of the largest strikes took place here, with workers demanding higher wages and better labour conditions. They occupied the company and closed down the production. Some tens of thousands of labourers gained serious victories, but the prices kept rising. Therefore a new strike was planned on 6 April 2008.

These plans were supported by the opposition party ‘El Ghad’ (Morning), which was established by Ayman Nour [1964]. Together with other members of the party youth Esraa Abdel Fattahstarted a Facebook group in 2008, in which she announced this protest action and incited the Egyptian youth to come and support the labourers of Mahalla al-Kurba on 6 April. Demands for the government were: minimum wages, antitrust measures, corruption control and release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. She was arrested by the security service and locked up in prison. A number of Egyptian newspapers objected against this state censorship. It made Esraa a symbol of resistance and invincibility against corruption and injustice. After two weeks Facebook Girl was set free. Afterwards she declared in a public statement that she would refrain from political activities in the future. But during the revolution of January 2011 she incited to end Mubarak’s regime. She was not only active on the internet, but also provided Al Jazeera with the latest news on the opposition.

Esraa Abdel Fattah is a 27-year-old Egyptian woman who ran the Facebook site. She was arrested in April 2008 in a coffee house close to her work. On 23 April, however, she was released again after a personal plea from her mother addressed to Mubarak. At that time her Facebook group had more than 73,000 members. The regime started to feel the threat of Facebook.

Spokesmen of the regime summoned everyone to go back to work again and to refrain from demonstrating. The presence of security troupes in the cities was reinforced. In Mahalla al-Kurba the police used tear gas and rubber bullets against 7,000 demonstrators.

During the actions members of the Facebook group organised legal support, reported on the strike and passed on messages about the police actions. More than 89,000 mostly young and well-educated Egyptians joined the movement. Through Facebook a snowball with effect got going in a very short time. More and more young people started to believe that something could really be changed in Egypt. However, an opposition that wants to realise far-reaching reforms needs leadership. As soon as someone was brave enough to take on this role, he was quickly removed from the political arena, even if he ‘merely’ showed himself in the virtual political arena of the network sites and blogs.

One of the founders of the anti-government group on Facebook ‘strike on April 6’ is Ahmed Maher. This 27-year-old engineer was in no time summoned by an officer of the security service to come and have a cup of coffee. But Ahmed repeatedly refused the invitation. He definitely did not intend to give in to the pressure the officers of the security service exerted on him. To the BBC he said: “If we allow ourselves to fear them, we won’t do anything. Then I would consider myself a partner in the crimes taking place in Egypt.”

But on 7 May 2008 he was dragged out of his car on his way to his work in Cairo. A private van crashed into his car and three other cars forced him to stop. Approximately 12 non-uniformed members of the state security service forced him to leave his car, handcuffed and blindfolded him and took him to a police station nearby. There he was insulted, undressed and beaten by the police officers. Afterwards he was transferred to the main building of the security service in Lazoghly. He was tortured and his feet were bound. Then he was pulled across the floor on a rope. They threatened to rape him with a stick and he was beaten all over his body. In between he was interrogated about the Facebook group. They tried to fish his password out of him. When this rigorous method proved to be unsuccessful his torturers used a gentler method: merely threats and an appeal to patriotism. This wasn’t successful either. After having endured torture for 12 hours Ahmed was released. But his story about this grievous bodily harm and pictures of his battered body were immediately published on internet.

There were demonstrations against the rising food prices in Mahalla al-Kurba for two days. The security troupes killed three citizens and arrested hundreds of people. In December 2008 22 demonstrators were sentenced to 3 and 5 years imprisonment by an Egyptian court in Tanta. No appeal was possible against these sentences. Hundreds of supporters of the convicts shouted anti-government slogans outside the court.

The 6 April youngsters called all Egyptians out on strike on 6 April 2009. That day the police were mobilised in great numbers to prevent a national strike by democratic activists. The police were ordered to arrest anyone participating in the strike. The organisers had asked to dress in black on the day of the strike and incited to organise sit-ins in companies and educational institutions. The call for strike was distributed through the country via social network sites and text messages. The protests weren’t massive. Yet, the consequence was that about 100 of the 454 members of parliament left the house of parliament as part of the protest.

One of the activists of the movement tried to convince the American government to exact reforms in Egypt by putting pressure on the Mubarak regime, by threatening to release information on Egyptian civil servants and their illegal foreign bank accounts. He hoped that the USA and the international community would freeze these accounts. But from the outset American government circles were very sceptical about the “highly unrealistic goal” to replace the Mubarak regime with a parliamentary democracy prior to the 2001 presidential elections [Telex van 30.12.2008 - Wikileaks].

The Egyptian internet users gave the social network site Facebook a new role: a platform for political activism, such as propagating demonstrations against the Mubarak regime. Necessity is the mother of invention – young Egyptians were forced to express themselves politically and socially and to associate (Mona Elthahawy). To them Facebook became a natural vehicle for and continuation of their social-political activities.

On the websites and blogs of Egyptian citizens more and more messages appeared in which the immense corruption and oppression of women were brought up. Mubarak’s followers were challenged and a number of higher civil servants were forced to resign. For the keepers of the Arabic republic it became increasingly difficult to nip these protests in the bud via the not completely controlled new media.

Open Mesh Project

Immediately after the Egyptian government had blocked access to the internet in the entire country, hackers in the whole world started to cooperate to develop some sort of detour. A group of hackers developed software which could change laptops into cheap internet routers to allow the demonstrators to organise themselves. Self organisation via internet. The Open Mesh Project started when Shervin Pishevar, an internet entrepreneur from Palo Alto in California, published a message on Twitter. In this message he asked for help to bring software to Egypt with which ordinary laptops are changed into small-scale internet routers. This way a “mesh network” can be formed, enabling any computer to pass on messages via the other computers. Such a mesh network would anyhow enable people to communicate with other people nearby. The laptops can communicate with each other and together form a kind of secondary internet which cannot be blocked. If one laptop breaks down, the messages are simply dispersed by the cluster of machines via another route. It is an ad hoc mobile network with a limited range, but it works. “At the very least, people inside Egypt will be able to communicate with each other and organize” [Pishevar]. And when somebody in this mesh network of interconnected laptops succeeds in connecting to the outside world, he or she can share this with the other participants in the network.

  • Mesh networking, by the way, is an old idea. The very cheap XO laptop of $ 100, which was built by the One Laptop Per Child organisation (OLPC) was designed with a built-in option for mesh networking. The idea behind this XO machine was that many children would use these laptops in rural areas without reliable internet connections. But the laptops could be connected to each other. If only one person in a village had an internet connection, it could be shared with everyone.


When the internet was brought to a standstill in all of Egypt, Google and Twitter invented a way in which the Egyptians can use their regular telephone or mobile phone in order to tweet. Technology converts spoken words in a voicemail message into text messages which are distributed via Twitter. Everyone can leave a message at one of the designated international phone numbers (+16504194196 of +390662207294 of +97316199855). Next, this message is immediately converted into a tweet message with the de hash tag #egypt. An internet connection is not required. People can also listen to the message by calling the same phone numbers or by going to te gaan.

Internet is not only an essential channel for trade, entertainment and information anymore. It is also a stage for state control and for the rebellion against it. So the internet has increasingly become a political arena, where conflicting social powers clash, where they fight each other openly with digital means, and fight for the attention of internet citizens (netizens). These days the social-political and cultural-ideological combat is fought out with modern digital means. The struggle for power in society is not only determined by the local mobilisation of physical power (=violence) but also and increasingly by the global mobilisation of virtual power (=voice on the internet). So the internet is not only a medium of social and political conflict but also the public domain in which antagonistic social powers clash. Once the techno optimists dreamt that internet would be a royal road leading us straightaway to democracy and freedom. But meanwhile the gatekeepers of dictatorial and military regimes have started the confrontation with opponents on the internet as well. Organisers and participants of the resistance are traced and localised via internet, after which they are violently arrested. Therefore the internet is also a very effective medium of oppression, of digital dictatorship [Morozov 2011].


Nomadic thoughts

Internet as the public domain
In many ways the internet is a more modern, much larger version of public spheres and forums which have enabled public citizenship through the centuries. Formerly these were the well-known physical third places: the squares and parks, the pubs and community centres, the dance halls and the weekly market [Oldenburg 1989; Benschop 2009/11]. Later the mass media took over their role, operating as relatively autonomous political mediation authorities, as ‘managers of the symbolic arena’ (H. Gans), who regulate access to the political public domain. And nowadays this role seems to be taken over by the internet in many ways.

“The internet has become the public space of the 21ste century - the world’s town square, class room, market place, coffee house and night club” [Hillary Clinton - 15.02.2011].

This leads to a number of far-reaching consequences for protest groups, social movements and collective conflicts.

  1. The new media influence the visibility and reputationof movements, of their programmes, of their leaders and their actions. Protest movements that want to reach their goals rely on influencing the political public domain. Without reporting no large-scale resistance can be established.

  2. Media determine the public agenda. In the traditional media dissidents have to break through the specific filters and selection mechanisms. Otherwise their message doesn’t emerge as a problem and theme on the political agenda. Formerly the principle was: the public opinion only counts in as far as it is published or broadcast. Changes in the public opinion itself usually develop underground and latently. Due to free access to the internet any citizen is nowadays able to air his or her opinion at once via this medium. Without intervention of filtering authorities individuals can exchange and share their opinions with others. This enables them to put problems and themes on the political agenda themselves, and to free themselves from the modes of the dominating discourse in the mass media.

  3. Via the new media opponents and dissidents can influence the public imageand public perception of their actions and movements much more easily. Internet facilitates a broad and deep media coverage and offers a very extensive repertoire of presentation possibilities: labelling, formulation/visualisation and contextualisation. The information function of the new media is strongly connected to comments, public opinion and evaluation. In this respect they now actually have the same function as the old media claimed for themselves: window on the world.

  4. . The traditional media especially pay attention to the conspicuous and extraordinary events. In order to attract the attention of these media protest movements often choose conspicuous, extraordinary or spectacular forms of presentation and action. Eccentric and illegal forms of action almost guarantee the attention of the mass media, because they are very suitable for moving images. But because of this the ordinary and everyday problems and themes are often swept under the media carpet. With the new media any dissatisfied citizen can share his or her everyday complaints with other citizens, without being pressured to proceed to spectacular actions at once. This makes room for more attention for everyday problems of ordinary people.

Net war – Internet as public domain of social-political conflict

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” [Martin Luther King Jr.].

The Facebook revolution in Egypt has yielded new fuel for the discussion between cyber optimists and cyber pessimists. Cyber optimists believe new communication technologies are the vehicle of democracy, human rights and the democratic constitutional state. Cyber pessimists believe that the same technologies can be a new source of oppression and sustain authoritarian regimes.

The revolution in Egypt seems to put the cyber optimists in the right. Particularly by intensive use of internet a resistance movement could be organised, considerably accelerating the transition to democracy. Moreover, this Facebook generation was able to mobilise peacefully an extraordinary popular power which became a source of inspiration for all the oppressed in the world. But the history of this revolution at the same time illustrates that these positive results are in no way obvious, let alone inevitable. It has also shown how authoritarian rulers try to control their subjects by increased surveillance of all digital communications, by specific disconnection of internet services they don’t like, and by inciting their own supporters to build their own virtual networks and to penetrate the networks of their political opponents. So autocratic regimes do not only make a repressive use of internet to trace opponents; they also use it as an alternative to mobilise their own supporters and to reinforce the breeding ground of the regime. Besides, the Egyptian revolution shows that autocratic regimes don’t even shrink from completely disconnecting the national internet and mobile phone traffic as soon as they believe that the virtual battle on internet is being lost.

Internet itself has turned into an increasingly extensive and only because of this a more important public domain in which the social battle is fought. In this net war by definition opposing social powers meet and fight each other with all possible virtual means, methods and strategies. Cyber sociological realists attempt to analyse and theorise this virtual battle as precisely and sensibly as possible. In this process they try to be inspired as little as possible by (delightful) techno-optimism or (sad) techno-pessimism.

The digital era has a large potential to promote human rights and democracy. But this is no automatism. No more than it is an automatism that autocratic leaders use the internet to reinforce their dictatorship digitally. Also cyber sociologists know that technologies don’t do anything and have no effect whatsoever, except by what competent individuals do with it. The internet or the digital information and communication technologies do nothing at all — they are no competent let alone capable actors.

Nobody believes that the social media some way or another caused the good citizens to get suddenly so angry they start demonstrating in the streets. Social media are merely an instrument people use to inform each other, to discuss with each other and to coordinate collective —local and/or virtual— activities. People do not want a revolution because of the social media, but use these new media to inspire and organise their revolution. Therefore the Egyptian revolution of February 2011 is not a Facebook revolution, but it is a revolution started by the Facebook generation.

Delightful optimism and technological determinism
In the first generations of internet users a utopian vision on the future of online communities prevailed. In this vision the internet technology would automatically lead to the demolition of all borders and the decline of the power of nation states. In the idyllic vision internet appears as a ‘new frontier’ where people live in peace, with their own rules, liberated from the compulsiveness of an oppressive society and free of government interference. Internet was seen as an unstoppable moloch, completely disrupting the whole social and political organisation of society. Instead of industrial capitalism with its exploitation, its concentration and strong hierarchies, a completely lateral network society would arise, in which the freely associated citizens share all knowledge and insights (open source) and as they debate decide democratically on the future of mankind, united by internet. The utopian vision on internet was nourished by the hope that the world would improve substantially if each individual were able to communicate with each random other individual.

Behind these rather naive expectations hides a way of thinking known as technological determinism in technique sociology. This way of thinking can be summarised in two (pre)suppositions. First of all, the technological development is interpreted as an item that produces itself and follows only one trajectory. Technological innovations would develop according to their own logic and according to developmental laws that are merely technologically determined, not socially. Secondly, it is supposed that the technological process has univocal external or social effects. By definition internet would bring about more or less automatically emancipatory and democratising effects.

Technology facilitates human interactions and defines them at the same time. People make use of the technology they can dispose of, and then try to construct the world they wish to live in. Each technology comes into being within the context of an existing cultural configuration, and this cultural context is influenced by the technological development at the same time. Internet technology grows, comes of age and infiltrates into the culture it was created by. With such an approach we keep sufficient distance from technological determinism (reducing cultural phenomena to technological innovation) and cultural relativism (in which the cultural climate determines cultural developments) [Winner 1977; MacKenzie/Wajcman 1985].

One cannot expect internet to be something that is as such the cause of positive or negative changes in our society and culture. It is an information and communication medium influencing certain social patterns of action when it is used on a large scale. It offers formerly unprecedented opportunities for self organisation of large numbers of individuals over the whole world, and it offers new opportunities for cultural expression and articulation of ideas.

Flash mobs, digital activism and dilemmas of collective action

Virtual social association

The participants of collective actions are no isolated atoms or monads. They are socially associated in many different ways. This social association consists of social networks and interaction communities. They form the fundamental building blocks and cell structure of social movements. In larger collectives interaction and communication don’t solely or mainly proceed according to the model of direct interaction. Indirect and media directed communication can make direct interaction superfluous in many ways. This explosively accelerates the super regional and even global information and communication and this facilitates articulation and mobilisation processes. The manner of communication has always been a crucial factor for the scope and consequences of revolts and for the explanation of isolated incidents suddenly leading to massive resistance movements [Dooley/Baron 2001; Curran 2002].

Virtual connections and social networks contribute to (i) the (horizontal and vertical) coordination and feedback of information: isolated information bearers are connected and the information is thematically and temporally structured. They also contribute to (ii) the selection, direction and control of information: secret or inaccessible relevant information must be made public; selection should guarantee that participants don’t get an information overload; direction and control should warrant that relevant information reaches its addressees. And finally they contribute to (iii) the defence of (dis)information strategies of opponents: information flows that are misrepresented and deformed by asymmetrical power constellations, should be balanced by a virtual counter power. In a dictatorship independent journalism by definition becomes a form of activism, and distributing information is in essence an act of agitation.

Revolutionary movements can only dispel strong authoritarian regimes when the opponents are able to operate in a strongly decentralised, network like organisation form that is all the same capable of joining forces on one or more strategic goals at the right moment.

Opponents that associate on the internet develop distributed virtual organisation forms in which the leadership is distributed in mesh networks. Such virtual oppositional networks derive their special power from the combination of a far-reaching decentralisation of command and control and a broader view of the entire scene of action. This enables them to join the virtually associated forces at great speed and proceed to mass mobilisation in the local public domain, for example occupying streets and squares, radio and television stations, parliaments or palaces.

This can be compared to the phenomenon of the flash mob. Flash mobs are groups of people that are mobilised via internet and other electronic media to gather somewhere briefly at a certain point of time in order to do something absurd or provocative. The difference with the local actions of social-political resistance movements is not only their more limited size, but especially the sustainability and goal of the actions. Social-political resistance movements, mobilised via the internet, can suddenly show up in local public spaces to demonstrate for their joint demands. These are no absurdist staged provocations, but politically motivated collective actions organised by virtual mobilisation.

The leap from virtual discussion to local participation is not as simple as it seems. By endless internal discussions in the virtual public domain local collective actions can be blocked. By the large extent of decentralisation and heavy pressure of the rulers the opposition, trying to organise itself via internet, is often split up in factions fighting each other. Moreover, these factions can be set against each other by infiltration of the secret services and secret police. In merely virtual connections between opponents it is often more difficult to find out if you communicate with real opponents or with infiltrators trying to provoke and shatter the movement.

Yet, in Egypt and in other Arabic regimes the leap from virtual discussion to local participation was made. Before the opponents of a dictatorship hit the streets, they want to know to what extent their opinion is shared and how many fellow demonstrators there will be.

  • “What prevents oppressed people from protesting, is the fear that they will take part in an unsuccessful demonstration. Under such a regime it is extremely difficult to demonstrate if after this demonstration nothing changes” [Daron Acemoglu -VK 19.2.2011].

This indicates the dilemma of collective action under a dictatorial regime. Before the opponents of a dictatorship hit the road, they want to know to what extent their opinion is shared and how many other demonstrators there will be. If everyone who is against the regime actually shows up, the chance of success is big. But most people only participate if they know everyone will do so. If only few people participate in the actions the regime will be tough on them.

Via internet information was distributed in Egypt about the actions taking place in the country and people were called on to take part in these demonstrations. In this way also the sceptics gradually believed that their opinion was widely shared. Exactly by this virtual organisation the dilemma of collective action could be conquered. Virtual social networks facilitate the process of unification in the battle against social injustice and against political dictatorships. As long as the internet cannot be controlled completely by a dictatorial regime, individual citizens can meet each other in relative freedom in virtual social networks. There they can discover if there are sufficient like-minded people to take the risk of actually ‘going out’ in order to show their own face en masse.

Internet as medium of solidary nearness: “I an presebt”

Internet is a medium of nearness. Even if the participants of the virtual world stay in very diverse locations, via internet they can interact and via internet the (mutual) feeling of social presence occurs. Meaningful and personal social relations develop in each situation in which the social presence of the Other is experienced.

If this were true, the internet would have to be pre-eminently a medium of solidarity. During the Egyptian revolution a Facebook group came into being, in which about half a million people launched the plan to organise a virtual solidarity march with the demonstrators in Egypt. The central slogan of this Virtual ‘March of Millions’ in Solidarity with the Egyptian Protestors was as clear as it was ingenious: “I am present.”

Demonstrating virtually for a just cause while you remain seated behind your pc or laptop. A sheer symbolic collective action. But this is what demonstrations were from the very beginning: joint symbolic articulations of joint discontent with the existing situation.

The organisers succeeded in creating a viral online movement, in which possibly millions of (mainly younger) citizens in the whole world could participate.

A young Egyptian, Samantha Haikal, wrote:

  • Please, let everybody share this with his or her friends. The least we can do outside of Egypt is keep showing solidarity with them and let them know that the rest of the world certainly hasn’t forgotten them! Their fight teaches the world so much about not leaning back while your rights are taken away from you. This is a lesson we have learnt well.”

By making creative use of new media the opponents in Egypt and other North-African states have been able to establish virtual power in the public domain of the internet. This is how the government monopoly on traditional media was broken. The symbolic power of the opposition was reinforced even more by the international solidarity actions. In the strategic interactions with conflict opponents this solidarity plays an important role. The conflict party receiving most encompassing international solidarity feels morally encouraged by this and can generally also count on monetary, medical, logistic and other support.

Solidarity with activists who risk their lives in the fight against ruthless and predatory rulers is of the utmost importance. We cannot virtually join them to support them, but we can virtually look after them via internet. And we can even, if only symbolically, be virtually present.

Only cynics (who invariably believe in the impotence of each form of activism) can arrogantly dispose of this activism as ‘clicktivism’, ‘slacktivism’, ‘retweet chatterboxes’ or as ‘Facebook Revolutionaries Without Balls’. Nowadays power doesn’t only come from the barrel of a rifle, but also from the movement of your finger tips.

As it should be, the real digital activist gets the final word:

Toetanchamon, a pharao of the 18e dynasty of the old Egypt.Digital activism is hard and difficult work“People really do underestimate the amount of work that has to be done for a digital campaign to really be effective, it’s incredibly difficult to cut through the noise specifically if your attempt is to generate international support on a channel as busy as the internet. This is no easy challenge to overcome, but many digital activists do overcome those challenges through creative ideas and tough, long hours to pull it off.

United4Iran United4Iran is a great example of that. These guys work around the clock. Sometimes it even becomes apparent that they’re exhausted, but they keep going knowing that the community is relying on their ideas, their efforts, their organizational skills to keep the movement running. That is an example of a mission with leadership. No idea can succeed without a leader really pushing towards making it happen.

This is the kind of work ethic that is admirable – and we at a href="">Mideast Youth have also tried to maintain that ethic. One editor per site is all that it takes to keep that site kicking through traditional media outlets – the papers, the news, the mainstream, being heard by the world, transforming ideas, inspiring new ones, etc. One hard working person can achieve what a billion RTs cannot, and those individuals are not clicktvists. However, let it be known that the people who “clicked” and RTed helped get the idea continue gushing through people’s screens, radios, etc. It’s really part of a huge, ongoing circle and every bit counts. It really does, because we witness it happening right here on our network of sites. We very much rely on our community to get the word out – once we built something, or created a new tool, or a video, or a new campaign, that’s where the “clicktivists” come in. Then we take the new readership and traffic and turn it into a movement. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but the attempt is always there.

Don’t be distracted by what anyone accuses you of, I have seen articles like these (slacktivists/clicktivists) discourage would-be activists who could have been influential leaders. Accept that digital activism is much beyond clicking/RTing and consider articles such as Micah White’s [Clictivism is ruining leftist activism] to be tips, a reminder of your greater potential perhaps. Just be sure to work hard if you are passionate for change. Don’t rely on RTs always, but if it’s literally all you can do, so be it. It does help in some little ways, but they’re never really the backbone behind a movement.

Don’t be scared at some point to be a leader of your own campaign to understand what it feels like to fail and to succeed, because you will undoubtedly experience much of both, but only if you are consistent with your efforts.

One final note, do what you can! But be the best at it. Clicktivist or activist, we are all relying on you to make it happen.” 
[Esra’a Al Shafei - Bahrein — Is digital activism ruined?]

Sources of information

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    A blog of the 6 April Movement, in which members of the Facebook grouppresent their visions on the developments.


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    A site that collects what young people in the region say on Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed and a diversity of popular websites. It offers an Middle East news feed, the latest news from the region, podcasts and a list of human rights groups in the Middle-East. There is also an iPhone App: Mideast Youth.. Founder and director is Esra’a Al Shafei, of whom no single picture can be found on the internet. She is very frequently threatened with death. But she can be heard in this splendid videovan Carmel Delshad.

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    Cherif Osman fights for Egyptian democracy.