Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On the Egyptian protests and social networking's role

The events in Egypt are starting to look revolutionary.

The headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party were ablaze in Cairo on Friday night, shortly after a curfew came into force, live footage carried by Al Jazeera television showed.

State television confirmed the building was set on fire.

NDP branch offices in several other cities around the country were also set on fire or attacked during the day, witnesses said.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in his capacity as head of the military, announced a curfew in main cities starting from Friday. “According to what some provinces witnessed in terms of riots, lawlessness, looting, destruction, attack and burning of public and private property including attacks on banks and hotels, President Hosni Mubarak decreed a curfew as a military ruler,” a state TV announcer said.

The curfew is to last from 6 p.m. (local time) to 7 a.m. in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez.

The live feed from al Jazeera is spectacular. The YouTube channel also has some good footage, like the below Dan Nolan street reportage in Cairo.

The interesting news comes from outside of Cairo, where protests are continuing in cities like Alexandria and (below) Suez. And yes, the curfew is being completely ignored.

Foreign Policy;s Blake Hounsell has photos from Suez.

If I'm to trust in my understanding of the media coverage, the event seems to lack leadership as such, although figures like Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei are emerging as focuses. al Jazeera's critical coverage of Arab regimes played a major role from the conventional media perspective, but from the social networking perspective social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have played a critical role in letting information escape and permeate the Internet user population in Egypt, with effective bypasses letting social media continue, using third-party apps like my own Hootsuite. Malcolm Gladwell was quite, quite wrong about the weakness of online social networks' real-world networks.

Jeff Jedras has some nice coverage of the background.

In the countries where they don’t have the democratic freedom we take for granted, where they don’t have the free press we enjoy, where they live daily under oppressive and dictatorial governments, their perspective on social media was very different. For them, social media is a vital tool of empowerment and democracy promotion.

For countries without a free press, blogs are their free press, with actual citizen journalists reporting on events the government wants censored, and that wouldn’t be reported otherwise. And Twitter is their rapid response and organizational tool. Small handheld cameras and video sharing tools like YouTube add another layer, bringing video that would never be shown on state television.

[. . . A]s I read about the amazing events in Tunisia and Egypt, and as I watch the gripping live coverage from Egypt on Al Jazerra English, the speaker I keep thinking back to is Egypt’s Wael Abbas. Before Abbas’ presentation [at the World Blogging Forum in Bucharest in 2009], like many in the West I didn’t know much about Egypt, but I though it was a fairly friendly, free country, particularly compared to many of its neighbours.

Jedras' report is here.

[T]he situation in Egypt described by the next speaker, Wael Abbas, was completely new and shocking to me. Abbas is a blogger and human rights activist who was named Middle East person of the year by CNN in 2007.

In Egypt, said Abbas, there’s no protection for journalism, there’s censorship on supposed security grounds, copies of papers are often confiscated and presses delayed or closed, tapes confiscated from videographers, TV stations raided by security officials and tapes seized, all leading to an environment of self-censorship by the media to avoid confrontation with the government.

As a result, he said there was a dire need in Egypt for an alternative form of media to support civil society and provide real, uncensored news to the Egyptian people. The government had been blocking the Web but ended that practice when it wanted to encourage telecom investment. Instead, said Abbas, the government doesn’t censor blogs, but instead harasses, detains and arrests bloggers within the country instead in an attempt to intimidate then into ceasing their activities.

Blogging and citizen journalism first came into its own in Egypt when the mainstream media weren’t covering protests against President Mubarak, election rigging and police violence. Bloggers stepped in to fill that gap and while sometimes the barrier between blogging and activism blurred, the objective approach bloggers tried to take found public support. They presented video and pictures of what was happening and asked people to draw their own conclusions. The media were actually spurred-on by the bloggers, being encouraged to report more of what was actually happening, and publishing blogger content. Opposition parties also reached out to the new media.

Abbas himself drew negative government attention when he published photos of hired thugs that arrested female protestors, and exposed paid pro-Mubarak protesters, and posted controversial video. He has had his Facebook, YouTube and Yahoo accounts shut down under government pressure for his activities, and the government has accused him of being a criminal, a homosexual and having converted to Christianity in attempts to discredit him.

While at its peak around 2005, Abbas said bloggers helped push the envelope for press freedom and political freedom by the opposition, its still under attack and the government’s counter-attacks are working, causing him to lose optimism that real change will happen in Egypt.

Wael Abbas' blog is here.
Tags: democracy, egypt, facebook, middle east, politics, social networking, twitter
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