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


As Egypt struggles to define a new world order through these elections and beyond, it is important to embrace the historicity and narrative of the people’s struggle for rights over the last century, in particular for women. Women have recently taken to new forms of expression and mobilization – namely, social media tools – and have solidified their presence on the streets of Cairo and in the international media circuits.  Their narrative is now being told in a more personal, reflective and raw way than ever before. Asmaa Mahfouz’s 2011 video rallying cry is analogous to Hoda Shawaari’s brazen public act in 1923: figuratively and literally, these women unmasked themselves to the world in a moment of rebellion and fortitude.  These personal stories are what make a revolution: the deaths of Mohamed Bouzazi and Khaled Said, the abuses and struggles of countless women in the streets, the broken arm of blogger Mona Eltahawy, all depict a tragic –  and yet amazingly powerful – new movement for youth. New media systems capture and depose of terabytes of data every second, and yet in this overwhelming mountain of bits and bytes, we can see a clear story of what it is like to be a 21st century woman and man struggle to gain a better future. Their collective stories shape a movement, and will continue to as long as we have memories to contain them and servers to share them. What becomes of a movement, and women’s struggles to define a new path within, it is still unclear. I am hopeful that these stories, and the indefatigable spirit supporting them, can create a new paradigm for women in Egypt and all those who are watching.   


Egyptian Women of the Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution (Part 3)


What role did women play in igniting, creating and sustaining change in the January 2011 revolution in Egypt?

As detailed in the description portion of this paper, women in modern Egypt come from a long lineage of feminist, equal rights and reform advocates, despite continual opposition from autocratic or Islamist parties in a culturally patriarchal society.  In 2011, it became apparent just how important women were in pushing the revolution. Despite harassment and arrest risks, women joined the ranks of men to create the largest uprising in over 30 years (Krajeski, 2011). They blogged and were entrenched in a tech-savvy, sometimes underground, culture (Rubin, 2011). They fought arrest, wrote slogans and chants, confronted police and stood strong among the masses for the 18-day period of protest in Tahrir (Carroll, 2011).  Over 20% of the protesters in Tahrir were women – mostly young – and Facebook pages abound with photographs of women participating in the struggle (Mortada, 2011).

The movement itself was portrayed by the media as being single-minded: get Mubarak out, and usher democracy in, where new paradigms can be created (for youth, the working class, and for women). The single-mindedness – in action or in perception – does not mean women weren’t invested in bringing their rights to the cause, however. It just means the protests in Tahrir weren’t geared towards one “specific group”, according to an interview with Amal Abdel of the New Woman Foundation (Carroll, 2011).  Women were recognized as participants in a larger cause, and their voices were swallowed into the undulating collective cry of the masses.

According to an interactive interview with renown feminist thinker, activist, and former prisoner of the Mubarak regime, Nawal el-Saadawi, “there is no democracy without women” (Al Jazeera English, 2011), and it was absolutely a “women’s revolution”, despite it not being named as such by the media (Rubin, 2011). She claimed the 2011 revolution “washed away” the discriminations that were imposed by the “patriarchal, capitalist, racist” regime of Mubarak (Al Jazeera English, 2011). It is without question that women were instrumental in igniting and sustaining the revolution that began on January 25, and that women and men alike marched in a common cause for freedom, dignity, and human rights. Whether these men and women can implement women’s rights in a post-revolution society is still a question of concern for many.

What role did social media play in facilitating this movement both on and off the ground, and specifically how were women using new media to engage in the conversation and planning of the revolution?

As was detailed in the previous description section of this paper, women utilized new media outlets to engage in discourse around the revolution and to call others to action. Asmaa Mahfouz, called by some the “Leader of a Revolution”, uploaded a video to her Facebook page that did not mince words; through her viral video she provoked women and men to join her on January 25 for a “Day of Anger” (Morgan, 2011).  She pleaded a “simple message” that everyone “demand [their] fundamental human rights”; moreover, she provoked “whoever [said] women shouldn’t go to protest” to join her and “have some honor” (Jardin, 2011). This 4-minute video was the catalyst for the January 25 uprising, and is one of many examples of how new media facilitated the movement, both on and off the ground.

The other large example is the Facebook page, “We are All Khaled Said”, a fan page dedicated to the young man brutalized by police before the January 25 protests began (Facebook, 2011). Initially credited to an anonymous online activist, it was revealed weeks afterward that it was the creation of a Google executive, Wael Ghonim, who was coincidentally arrested and tortured by the state police over the course of ten days during the revolution (Kirkpatrick, Spreading revolution: an interactive timeline, 2011). Wael was heralded as a “new hero” and has been profiled in the Western media as the champion for the Revolution 2.0 in the Middle East (Kirkpatrick, Spreading revolution: an interactive timeline, 2011). His story fits nicely with the internet-activist-turned-hero narrative, but what about the women involved? Asmaa’s video is primarily mentioned on blogs and articles written (or co-written) by women, yet Wael’s story is profiled and amplified both at home and abroad by the media. Perhaps because the revolution was largely leaderless, having this particular person represent the people could be what Western media was after all along.  Wael’s hero portrayal doesn’t necessarily negate women’s role in furthering the movement (nor does it downplay their internet activism), but it certainly doesn’t help in augmenting women’s equal representation in what has become the aftermath of a people’s movement. He is hailed as a hero, but there is no heroine, so it seems; it’s not proportional. Even media coverage of women activists has been small, according to Amal Abdel of the New Woman Foundation, and so attempting a gender-filtered framework for analyzing the revolution seems quarantined to those already working within it (Carroll, 2011). The coverage recently has been limited to the harm or injustices inflicted on women in the media; the most recent report details the violent assault of a female blogger in the “second round” of protests this month (Parvaz, 2011).

Nonetheless, the role of social media is impressive, and has facilitated a people’s movement in a hyper-accelerated timeframe with very savvy activists.  Men and women utilized social media to engage in dialogue, plan protests on the ground and expose human rights violations to the international community; without the prevalent use of cell phone video, texting and real-time updates through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, this movement may not have caught fire so quickly. In an age where information is power and spreads awareness – one can now easily see how “the other” lives – it is impossible to negate the role that media plays in shaping the new narrative of its people.  According to one study of new media in the revolution, almost 90% of Egyptians possessed a cell phone, and upwards of 33% of online activists in Egypt using Twitter were women (Islam, 2011, p. 6). No longer did the state or media elite control all information; it came from activists and civilians alike, and in waves. Raw video content showcased multi-faceted points of view, including: mobilization footage, citizen commentary, political punditry, and (very popular) “soundtracks” to the revolution (Islam, 2011, p. 22). This newly dubbed process, called “cyber-pragmatism”, helped spur nonviolent civil disobedience and ushered in a new way of galvanizing the people’s movements; furthermore, the unmasking of anonymous bloggers, starting with the video tactic of Asmaa Mahfouz, instigated the revolution even further: it helped build capacity and encouraged people to join in solidarity, since they knew they would not be alone in the fight (Graham-Felsen, 2011).

In another light, Mubarak’s attempt to stop all action by blocking the internet only pushed activists further to keep moving. The blackout (visualized below in Graphic 1A) is another way of showing how terrorizing a nation by censorship is no way of stopping people from mobilizing. In fact, it proved the opposite, as Graphic IB shows Western media joining the effort to help reconnect with Egypt during via satellite, SMS and other means of technology: proving that there are always loopholes to internet censorship (Olson, 2011).

(Graphic IA)


Visualizing Egypt’s Internet blackout. (2011). Mashable. Retrieved from

(Graphic 1B)


Social Media and Unrest in Egypt. (2011). HootSuite. Retrieved from

Where do women fit into the new paradigm of government in Egypt, and how are they focusing on bringing women’s rights into a democratic society?

Problematizing the first two points of discussion is what brings me to the third and (for now) final question, as the possibility of augmenting and reshaping women’s roles in a new society is largely contingent upon how women are viewed through the lens of Egyptian culture. The fact that there are women protesters and activists is not new; women have been fighting for equality and gender rights for almost a century.  Moreover; new media and new faces of youth activism continue the same discourse. According to Amal Abdel, women of the post-revolution are “being ignored” (Carroll, 2011).  The question is not, “are women participating in, and important parts of, a new media-facilitated revolution?”  This question has been answered in the previous pages and is a resounding, “yes”. The issue is now tied to how they can change the system, given that they have been largely acting within it as long as women have been mobilizing.

There are setbacks to the advancements women foresaw while protesting in the street: the interim government’s Constitution referendum in March 2011 omitted women from being cabinet members. Potential political campaigners like Nawal el-Saadawi (who, while attempting to run for President of Egypt against Mubarak in 2005 out of “principle”, was harassed by the state police and ordered to stop campaigning), are subjected to the patriarchal suppression by the state with no recourse (Al Jazeera English, 2011).  Despite gains in workplace and education rights over the past century, women only constitute 20% of the labor force in Egypt, and less so in the political sector (The Economist, 2011).  The 1981 ratification of CEDAW still holds little ground, as women continue to be harassed and subjected to domestic and culturally-sanctioned acts of violence like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) to this date (Amnesty International, 2011).  Thus, like many of the countries who have ratified CEDAW and proclaim that the rights of women are synonymous with human rights, the Egyptian stance is thinly veiled. Even the quota system in parliament has been deemed ineffective, as the newly created 64 seats went to members of the ruling party in 2011; it has since been removed to accommodate an amendment to an existing law that mandates each party to have at least one woman on its list of candidates, which has yet to prove fruitful (Amnesty International, 2011).

The recent furor and protests in late November 2011 in Tahrir invoke the frustration and rage from only ten months earlier; however, the current climate pairs the faltering military power with embryonic promises of a democratic order, as Egyptians await a fresh round of parliamentary elections.  Some women go so far to say that even if they do win in the upcoming parliamentary elections, it “won’t break Egypt’s formidable gender barriers” (Nelson, 2011). Yet, a woman, Buthayna Kamel, has emerged as the first woman in history to run for president and stands for what the activists are seeking: “freedom, diginity and social justice” (Zohney, 2011). The results of her campaign could turn around a country that has been subjected to the same patriarchal and hegemonic power structures since colonialism. The act of putting a woman in power does not necessarily equate to longstanding and systemic change, but it does represent the possibility.

The causes women need to fight now and in the transition period are multitude; they are not just political, but also aim for women’s rights to be incorporated and implemented into Egyptian culture on all levels: across class, race or religious lines. Without proper representation, however, the results of all of the organizing, mobilizing and protesting that has been a part of women’s movements over the past century will be deposited into the same narrative, as history repeats itself. Women will continue to fight in the same roundabout way without breaking the power structures that have kept them in place for centuries. According to one source, it’s more than just elections, it’s about a new paradigm (which I agree with): “nurturing high caliber female politicians” and “changing the stereotypical images of women”, both of which are not overnight successes achieved by one video blog (Zohney, 2011).  The long term, systemic changes require a new way of thinking.

A compounding problem in the reshaping of society for women’s rights in Egypt is the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a premier opposition party. The Muslim Brotherhood does not recognize key gender issues in society, such as FGM; its 2008 ban happened to be a result of Suzanne Mubarak’s platform during her husband’s rule (Sharma, 2011). Moreover, some women representatives of the Brotherhood go so far as to claim that the ban of FGM was a Western agenda put forth by NGOs in Egypt, and is no different than the concept of plastic surgery (Sharma, 2011). The combination of a potential Muslim Brotherhood rule and the desire to abandon all residual memory of Mubarak’s legacy (the good and the bad) could prove fatal for important women’s rights issues, in particular FGM. The impending results of the parliamentary elections will shine a light whether a path for women’s rights in Egypt will be created for the long term.

Egyptian Women of the Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution (Part 2)

Women and Leadership

Brief history of women’s movements in modern Egypt

The crystallization of the January events and the flow of action during the Egypt revolution create a neatly bookended movement when viewed through the lens of 21st century media; it happened quickly, forcefully and with adept use of propaganda and activist tactics that solicited international attention and support throughout. But people’s movements are not new in Egypt, however, in particular those of which women were at the forefront. In the 1919 revolution against colonial British rule, Egyptian women and men – across class, party and religious lines -joined together in a common cause that was the dawn of Arab nationalism.  Women even held their own demonstrations for the first time in modern history during that time (Egypt State Information Service, 2011). Through acts of civil disobedience and protesting, rural and urban workers opposed to colonial hegemony achieved independence and sovereignty from Britain three years after the first protests began (El-Shakry, 2011). The 1919 revolution was not quick like that of 2011 (it took over three years, compared to three weeks) but was galvanized by a strong women-backed labor force, with little use of technology other than the telegraph (El-Shakry, 2011).

As a result of the 1919 revolution, Egyptians saw the creation of a new government, replete with parliament and constitution, and yet few gains for women in regards to rights outside of polygamy and education (Arab Human Development Report, 2006, p. 124). The grounds were laid for fomenting women’s rights, however, as women pushed forth to create positions in government and leadership as a result of their role in the 1919 movement.  In a defining moment of the times, a leading feminist and founder of the first women’s organization, Hoda Shaawari, threw off her veil in public as an act of rebellion against patriarchal constitutional laws (Rubin, 2011). She went on to spearhead and lead women’s organizations until her death in 1947. Officially in 1942, the Egypt Women’s Party was founded and focused on bringing equal voting rights to women and a greater presence in politics (Egypt State Information Service, 2011).

Post World War II, CEDAW and 2011

Post World War II in Egypt brought larger gains for women in political and private spheres, including the rise of women professionals in law, medicine and education, and the increased awareness of women’s issues in the region (Arab Human Development Report, 2006, p. 126).  However, after the 1952 military revolution that deposed King Farouq, the new regime called for the dissolution of women’s organizations; they converted the previous organizations to charitable associations which were subservient to the ruling party’s agenda (Arab Human Development Report, 2006, p. 126).

The new constitution of 1956 granted women the right to vote, and what followed were similar laws that allowed equal positions for men and women in the public sector as well as greater guarantees to working women (Arab Human Development Report, 2006, p. 138).  Continued military rule, the rise of nationalism, as well as a strong Islamic culture, kept women’s organizations from really flourishing in the following two decades; however, The United Nations Decade of Women that began in 1975 presumably injected a new energy into women’s movements (Geunena & Wassef, 2003, p. 29).

In 1981, Egypt officially ratified, with reservations, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); the reservations covered family and children issues pertinent to Sharia and nationality laws existing in Egypt.  On paper, Egyptian women’s rights portray a secular society with advancements for women that are unlike those in other Middle Eastern countries; however, this is not the case in actuality.  Despite CEDAW, laws for women’s protection for cases around domestic violence, harassment and divorce have not been instituted at a state-wide level, primarily due to conflicts with culturally-accepted Islamic Sharia laws (Geunena & Wassef, 2003, p. 37).

After the dawn of a new century, women continued to exercise civil disobedience in response to abuses of power, and it appeared the government was helping shape new laws to enforce equity. In 2006 and 2008 respectively, women held labor strikes against structural adjustment programs and neoliberal policies sanctioned by the World Bank (Cornish, 2011). In 2008, the government officially criminalized Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a longstanding “tradition” within Egyptain culture that is practiced on upwards of 91% of all women between the ages of 15 and 49 (Clifton & Feldman-Jacobs, 2010).  And in 2010, the People’s Assembly (Parliament) created a new quota that mandates 64 new house seats to be filled by women, a jump in 1,500% in representation from previous years (Hill, 2010).

With the rise and fall of Mubarak, there is an even greater demand for women’s rights to be equated with human rights. With educated, tech-savvy young women and men as the groundswell of the Tahrir Square movement, there is an opportunity for a new paradigm to be created outside of the long-held, state-controlled system. And yet, despite multiple revolutions and incremental gains for women’s rights over the last century, the institutionalized and culturally-sanctioned Islamic perceptions of women’s roles in society still reign strong over women’s progress in Egypt (Geunena & Wassef, 2003, p. 41).

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).

Egyptian Women of the Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution

I wrote a paper in December 2011 around the role of social media and women’s involvement in the Arab Spring as part of my graduate class at USF: “Gender and Globalization”. Following are portions of my paper in a series.


This paper will analyze Egyptian women and their role in the 2011 Arab Spring revolution. Through problematizing historical systems and current structures, I will attempt to examine the way new media is shaping women’s movements and facilitating women’s rights in a predominantly patriarchal, Muslim society.

I am fascinated by the role of new media in people’s movements, specifically, the new narrative that it helps us create as global citizens. As stories are told in real-time, truly understanding who is writing our own history is a challenge, as tweets, updates and posts fade into the folds of blogs and are lost behind the scroll of endless pages. The use of new media in people’s movements began in 2009 in Iran, and has continued at an even stronger rate since, in particular in Tunisia and Egypt. The role women had in the Arab Spring uprisings – both on the ground and online – was particularly powerful in Egypt, and is backed by a history that has supported women mobilizers in previous periods of unrest. Examining the unfolding of a 21st century people’s movement while attempting to understand a new media narrative is why I chose to do research in this area.

Within the context of this paper I will also be providing visuals – charts and graphs – to illustrate the way these collective points of action – tweets, posts, searches – tell a greater story.

Statement of Purpose

In this paper I would like to address the Arab Spring protests in Egypt through the lens of women’s movements and the rise of social media as a conduit for action and solidarity throughout the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA). I will be answering the following questions: What role did women play in igniting, creating and sustaining change in the January 2011 revolution in Egypt; what role did social media play in facilitating this movement both on and off the ground, and specifically how were women using new media to engage in the conversation and planning of the revolution; where do women fit into the new paradigm of government in Egypt, and how are they focusing on bringing women’s rights into a newly democratic society?

With these questions in mind, I will be touching on the history and context of the Arab Spring revolutions, starting with the Tunisian revolt in early January and ending with the ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in late January. I will examine the role history played in women’s movements and progression of women’s rights leading to the Arab Spring, and address the actions of women and their real-time organizing via social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. My conclusion, largely topical, will focus on the recent events in Tahrir surrounding the current transition government and women’s roles in post-revolution Egypt.