Egyptian Women of the Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution (Part 1)

Timeline of the Revolution

Mohamed Bouazizi and the Tunisian domino effect

On December 19, 2010, it could be said it was a day like any other, except for one man in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. On that date, a young fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi performed an act of self-immolation after his fruit cart was seized by government officials for lack of a permit (Reuters, 2010).  Fueled by anger at a suppressive government and frustration with high unemployment, one man’s act of protest triggered hundreds of protesters in the streets.  After violence erupted and protesters were killed, the government vowed to “punish” protesters and crack down on the revolt (Borger, 2010).  The unrest spread quickly: less than one month after Bouazizi’s act, Tunisian president  Zine Ben-Ali fled the country, effectively ending the authoritarian government he controlled for over 20 years (Chrisafis & Black, 2011).  The large, unemployed, and educated youth population, with access to 21st century communications (email, texting, internet) helped push the movement forward at a high-speed rate – and the whole world could watch, share and spread the movement across transnational channels in real time (Islam, 2011).

The Tunisian revolution was a catalyst for regime upheavals across the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), and holds a strong place in history as it is a symbol of civil disobedience and people power in the 21st century. Tunisian women were heavily involved in the revolutions and its aftermath (Cole & Cole, 2011). To deny the shared narrative of the MENA Arab Spring revolutions and the domino effect of the Tunisian revolt would be unfair, but the focus on Egypt is a prominent one, as it represents the largest Muslim country and, moreover, has the potential to be an exemplary model for women’s rights worldwide.

Unrest and a call to action in Cairo

Within four days after the ouster of Ben-Ali in Tunisia, Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei warned of a “Tunisia-style” uprising in Egypt (Shenker, 2011). Protesters in Cairo began mirroring Mohamed Bouazizi with acts of self-immolation.  Meanwhile, a young man, Khaled Said, was beaten to death by police in nearby Alexandria.  Immediately following his death, anonymous activists – later found to be the work of a Google executive – created a Facebook page entitled “We Are All Khaled Said” (Facebook, 2011), which galvanized collective action online.  Similarly, another online act – which brought together online and offline protests – came from a young woman named Asmaa Mahfouz, who recorded and uploaded a YouTube video on to Facebook calling on protesters to gather on January 25 in Tahrir Square (Jardin, 2011).

This video, which went viral – it has over 130,000 views on YouTube and has been shared across the channel, as well as translated to English from Arabic – calls for people to “take a stance” and not “be afraid” to protest the regime of Hosni Mubarak, and demands that human rights be upheld (Jardin, 2011). A departure from the anonymity of social media (a tactic that was used in the Iranian revolutions of 2009 by using alias Twitter profiles), Asmaa unveiled herself as the poster child for the Egyptian revolution.

She used new media tools – video, Facebook, YouTube – to incite others to protest en masse, show solidarity and enact change. Her transparency and rallying cry was accessible to those in Cairo and the world beyond: an unpredictable snowball effect. The term “viral” is often associated with the unexpected or surprise information or idea that passes quickly from one person to the next; within hours it can cross borders, languages, and media channels: it catches fire and can have a shocking or inspirational fallout as a result.

Asmaa’s video led to the January 25 day of action in Tahrir Square, whereby tens of thousands of protesters – at least one-quarter of them women- gathered to chant, yell, and cry for their crippling economic and status to come to an end (Otterman, 2011). The largest people’s movement in 30 years, the Tahrir Square protest is now written in history as a tectonic shift in how democracy in demand can happen at rapid speed.

Government response and the internet blackout

With the tens of thousands protesting and cell phones serving as video recorders, the new media push to spread information was undeniable. Live streaming from blogs, Arab channels such as Al Jazeera, and Western media outlets allowed viewers worldwide a glimpse at the demonstrations, as well as the opposition’s attempts at securing power by any means necessary. The Egyptian government, in retaliation, issued crackdowns by the state police and many were killed (Beaumont, Shenker, & Khalili, 2011).  In a series of efforts to suppress online organizing, Mubarak blocked all access to the internet on January 27, an “unprecedented” event in internet history (Smith, 2011). The internet was halted, but the protesters continued (Lavrusik, 2011).  This event caused even further scrutiny of Mubarak and his abusive power tactics, across the MENA region and the world, culminating to the final breaking point of the old regime (Banks, 2011)

Mubarak’s fall and its aftermath

On February 11, after a series of failed attempts to suppress or appease the protesters and establish control, Mubarak officially resigned (Banks, 2011). The preceding 18 days of action, full of death, anger and strife, came to an end; Egypt, along with the rest of the world, erupted. The fall of a dictator was only the “first phase” (Otterman, 2011), however; the hard work of the men and women had led to this monumental force, but the aftermath would materialize in perhaps even more unpredictable ways. Since the revolution was largely leaderless, the issues surrounding power and control post-Mubarak – be it by the military, the Muslim Brotherhood or an opposition-party leader – were not calculated into the revolution’s strategy. What remained was unclear, and uncertainty grew amongst Egyptians (not to mention the US, Israel, and the rest of the Arab world) on where the next step would take them (Shadid, 2011).

As I write this, a new wave of protests has erupted in Cairo, as the disgust and frustration with the military-controlled interim state has reached a tipping point; the military’s attempt in appeasing the protesters by appointing a Mubarak “protégé”, Kamel el-Ganzouri, has been met with equal fervor and anger to the protests in January. The youth are especially disillusioned  with the 78-year-old’s post, as they feel it is just another wheel in the cog of the same machine that has controlled the government since 1952 ( (Kirkpatrick, From U.S. and Tahrir Square, pressures converge on Egypt’s military, 2011). The democratic elections of parliament have just started on November 28 and will, for the first time in almost sixty years, present the option of creating a civilian-backed government that generations of Egyptians have never seen (Kirkpatrick, From U.S. and Tahrir Square, pressures converge on Egypt’s military, 2011).

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