The recent uprisings in the Arab world took many by surprise. Perhaps it was the duration and the prevalence of authoritarian regimes in the region that made them seem immune to overturns, or it was the support provided to these regimes from the arms and technology rich countries of the first world. In either case, the uprisings opened up new possibilities for the populations in the Middle East, as they also provided a fertile ground of re-examination of social movement theories for scholars. The “leaderless-ness” of the uprisings seemed to distinguish them from their predecessors; the masses were on the streets but not in a familiar fashion. They seemed to be loosely connected political entities, individuals, maybe sharing some common features in terms of demographics like the unemployed or the youth. The role played by “social media” also sparked probably as much discussion as the uprisings themselves. Looking for catchy headlines, the newspapers were among the first ones to call the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions a “Facebook/Twitter Revolution.” The cyber-philes joined their ranks quickly, finally having evidence that we are now living in the age of Internet. In the face of the popularity of the Facebook Revolution idea, many also quickly criticized the logic behind the term, and rightly so.
A year later it seems the Facebook Revolution idea has still not lost its sway, while the critics have somewhat accepted the idea of the new information technologies having aided the initiation and development of the uprisings. Regardless of whether one believes in or rejects the cyber-phil idea of a Facebook revolution, a valid case can be made for both views (that is, if one does not go to the extreme of claiming that it was Facebook, Twitter, or other similar social media outlets caused the revolutions). In this paper, I analyze how important new media technologies were in the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, if at all. I will argue that the impact social media and new media technologies had on the uprisings was minimal, and to a great extent negligible. Furthermore, understanding the two uprisings as social media revolutions serves only to de-historicize and de-contextualize both events. In order to substantiate my claims, I will present and analyze evidence for the different kinds of social mobilizations taking place in Tunisia and Egypt, both before and during the uprisings. I will show that the labor mobilization in both countries greatly predated the uprisings of December 2010 and January 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively. Furthermore, I will illustrate that the de-historicizing and the de-contextualizing of events serves to misrepresent the roles of different societal actors, most notably that of the middle and upper middle classes in Tunisia and the business class in Egypt. In the concluding section, I will provide a possible explanation for the popularity of the “Facebook revolution” idea that overestimates the impact of new media.
On December 17, 2010 Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire after having his food cart taken away from him and being publicly humiliated in the process. The drastic measure with which Bouazizi expressed his despair resonated with a great number of people, for the official unemployment rate was at 14% countrywide (Fahim 2011), and 30% among the youth (Gelvin 2012, 20). Bouazizi’s spontaneous self-immolation set in motion a series of protests that eventually led to the toppling of the President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011, ending his 23-year-old rule. In popular accounts, the story of the Tunisian uprising is this simple. A case of unaccountable political force and humiliation, leading to a dramatic expression of dissent, which then mobilizes the masses based on their common grievances. However, such a simplistic understanding of the Tunisian revolution neglects two important aspects: the preceding history of popular movements against the government, dating back to 2008, and secondly, the decision of the military to not fight against the insurgents, effectively a division among the elites.
The Labor Mobilization Begins
In 2008, the Ben Ali government faced a series of popular uprisings that lasted several months in the mining towns of Redeyef and Gafsa (Beinin and Vairel 2011, 238). While the protests of 2008 may not be comparable both in its geographical reach or in its accomplishments to the uprisings that led to the toppling of the dictatorship in 2010, they are nonetheless important to contextualize the dissent with the regime and labor mobilization in the face of it. Understanding the Tunisian revolution as a process that began with the protests in 2008 also contributes to our understanding of class responses, specifically the elite decision to part ways with Ben Ali. The protests in 2008 began with the mining company in Gafsa advertising for jobs, but to those from outside the region. The inhabitants of the region, believing that the process was fraudulent occupied the UGTT (General Tunisian Labor Union, the only official union in the country until February 2011). What followed was a conflict involving strikes, arrests, and deaths (Ayeb 2011, 473).
Even though the protests of 2008 did not ignite a process of mass mobilization spreading across the nation, they were important to the extent that political dissenters began utilizing the long idle networks of the nation’s union. The UGTT by virtue of the fact that it was the only legal union in an authoritarian country had a complicated relationship both with the government and its membership. Its relations with the regime were marked by ups and downs, with crackdowns on the union membership when the organization pushed the boundaries of opposition, and periods of detachments from the base when the union sided with the government despite its members’ interests (Gelvin 2012, 55-56). With protests of 2008, the UGTT began flexing its muscles more confidently, especially with the teachers’ and education unions in its membership in the forefronts of organizing the unemployed and the underemployed youths (Alexander 2011). In December of 2010, it was the networks of activism that were put in place in 2008, which were mobilized following the sympathy rallies for Bouazizi. In many ways then, the uprisings in 2010, which led to the overthrow of Ben Ali’s dictatorship, had their roots in a labor struggle in 2008. It is therefore de-contextualizing and de-historicizing the Tunisian struggle for democracy and economic justice to view them as having begun without a structure of an organizing body spontaneously following the suicide of Bouazizi in December 2010.
Another aspect of the Tunisian revolution that is underplayed by the popular representations in media is the role the middle and upper-middle classes played, more specifically their decision to part ways with the regime and join the rebels. Understanding the role and allegiances of the middle and upper-middle classes is critical for being able to assess the merits of the social media argument as well, for they represent the main constituency in the country with relatively more stable and sustained access to computers and the Internet. Furthermore, there is a very clear disjuncture between the way in which mainstream media and think tanks on the one hand and scholarship on the other understand the role of the middle classes. Almost invariably the accounts from the former group, such as Foreign Policy, Brookings Institute, and Project Syndicate underscored the uniqueness of Tunisia in the Arab world, with its educated middle class, higher per capita incomes, etc. (Goldstein 2011; Tlili 2011; Assaad 2011).
Mustapha Tlili writing for Project Syndicate and an advisory for Human Rights Watch on Middle East and North Africa goes as far as to claim that the Tunisian uprising was a middle-class revolution, demanding political rights and dignity: “The protesters who ended Ben Ali’s regime are the educated sons and daughters of the large, secular middle class that was built over decades by Habib Bourguiba,” the first president of Tunisia, who Ben Ali ousted in a coup d’etat (Tlili 2011). However, a closer look at the sequence of the events reveals a different picture. As has been explained above, the main network for mobilization was that of the union and the protests in 2008. The participants in these events were almost exclusively of a lower class status, for the protests were confined to mining regions of the south, as well as the unemployed in the south. Given the sharp divides in income and the levels of development in Tunisia along geographical divides, one can establish that the urban, developed, middle-class inhabitants of the north were not involved in the uprisings until fairly later (Ayeb 2011). In the chronology of events, the “left-behinds” and the “marginalized,” that is the unemployed graduates, schoolteachers, and students, are identified as the first to mobilize in solidarity with Bouazizi’s family and friends (Ayeb 2011, 468; Beinin and Vairel, 2011, 238). It is on December 28th, ten days into the uprising and after the initiation of a nation-wide movement, that lawyers, traditionally identified with the middle and upper-middle class and also as intellectuals, join the cause and demand Ben Ali’s resignation (Beinin and Vairel 2011, 239).
The middle class’ role as it was presented in popular accounts is misleading. The main role of the middle classes was not in the initiation of the revolution, but in their joining it and also re-framing it. The middle and upper-middle class involvement shifted the focus away from mostly economic demands, to demands for democracy, political freedom and the eventual resignation of Ben Ali. While it may be the case that middle-class involvement precisely because of the political demands it brought to the table, it is also uncritical for the middle classes only got involved after the movement had gone over a critical threshold in both its geographical scope and numbers. In a similar vein, Beinin writes about workers’ movements that are seemingly only exclusively about narrow economic demands, that
“Journalists and others looking for a headline typically wonder if and when the movement will raise ‘political’ demands. This is a false dichotomy. In an authoritarian state the capacity to organize anything is a potential political [emphasis added] challenge to the regime.” (Beinin 2011, 184)
I believe Beinin puts forth an important feature of these types of seemingly non-political movements. Adjusting our understandings according to the fact that an organized protest under an authoritarian regime is in and of itself a political movement also helps us to observe the diminishable role played by the middle and upper middle classes in the Tunisian revolution. Their involvement is only critical insofar as it furthers the process of the breaking down of the ruling bargain, the regime looses supporters, and eventually the military is led to side with the rebels. Therefore accounts in the media that over-emphasize the middle class involvement do not reflect the complete, or accurate for that matter, story.
The Technological Age: Facilitating Uprisings?
Finally, understanding the nature and scope of middle-class involvement also provides a window for understanding the complicated question of how important new media tools were in the revolution. Tunisia has a 36% Internet penetration rate, however the number grows larger once we control for age group. For the youth, Internet usage is higher, who were the ones to make use of what new media had to offer. As public space was heavily controlled by the regime, the Internet provided a space in which the political youth could exchange ideas, have conversations, and also organize (Gelvin 2012). The tech-savvy and political youth took an active part in the uprisings, working against the government’s shutting down of internet. During this process they manages to hack the government’s websites, two weeks before the fall of the dictatorship (Ayeb 2011). Furthermore, if we were to expand this discussion to include other forms of new media, such as cell phone images and video-recordings, the role of technology played in the Tunisian revolution is heightened even further. When the protests began, the insurgents on the streets took videos and photos of their confrontations with the police, how many people were rebelling, etc. The videos and photos were later sent to the TV network Al Jazeera via the cellphones through SMS, MMS services; Al Jazeera, then, picked up these scattered bits o information and aired them, thus exposing the conflict going on in Tunisia to the entire world.
The case of the Tunisian revolution suggests that new media technologies opened up possibilities that were not previously available to the population. However, given that these technologies are privileges, and even more so in an underdeveloped country, we cannot understand the role of the Internet-related technologies in isolation from the class composition of the uprisings. While the effective way in which Internet was used by the participants both before and following the protests suggests a relatively important role for new media, the fact that the uprising was initiated by the “marginalized” overshadow the contributions of the middle and upper-middle class’ use of new media, thereby the role of new media itself. Regardless of the complexities, one thing remains clear: while social media and new media have played a role in facilitating the uprisings, they were in no means responsible for them. As has been illustrated in this section, it was firstly the underlying labor mobilization, including the underemployed and the unemployed that gave the uprising life in the aftermath of Bouazizi’s self-immolation. Secondly, the shifting loyalties among the upper classes away from the government in favor of the protestors shaped the discourse of the political demands that were to follow. The question then remains, why has this revolution been presented as a primarily middle-class revolution, based in the social media? An examination of the Egyptian revolution will reveal a similar bias, after which I will return to the analytical question in the last section.
Egypt: Increasing Pressures
The Egyptian uprising began on January 25th, 2011, and built heavily on the experience of the Tunisian revolution. Since Bouazizi’s self-immolation was widely perceived to be the igniting event for the Tunisian revolution, more than a dozen Egyptians replicated the act in the hopes of setting in motion a similar series of events (Gelvin, 2012, 44). The organizers of the Egyptian uprising called for mass protests in Cairo and in cities across the country. Over the course of the uprising, the Hosni Mubarak attempted to negotiate with the protestors, initially sacking the cabinet, then promising that he will not seek re-election. However, in only eighteen days into the protests, Mubarak stepped down on February 11th, 2012, unable to subside the growing protests. He is now facing charges for abuse of power when in office and premeditated murder of peaceful protestors. (Al Jazeera 2011). The Egyptian uprising shares many similarities with the Tunisian case, such as the similarly high levels of youth unemployment in both countries, the involvement of these younger groups and the use of new media technologies. The initial rounds of protests have been widely publicized and to a respectable extend coordinated over the Internet (Gelvin 2012). However, again similarly to the Tunisian case, the representations of the Egyptian revolution in news media and popular accounts greatly downplay the important and perhaps pivotal role of the labor unions and previous labor mobilization in the country, as well as the key decisions of the upper classes to withdraw their support from the Mubarak regime. In tis section, I will briefly examine these two aspects of the Egyptian revolution as outlined above, and based on these assess the degree of significance we can attribute to new media technologies.
Similar to the way in which the Tunisian uprising was depicted as a base-less, organization-less, spontaneous movement, the Egyptian uprising was also isolated from the mobilization of the labor movement and taken away from the context of an evolving struggle that began with a labor uprising in the early 2000s. The Egyptian labor movement was relatively strong in Egypt; fostered by the fact that “Egypt [was] the poster child of neoliberal reform in the Middle East” (Schwartz 2011, 34). Mobilizations against neoliberal reform are to be found across the region, dating back to the 1990s; however, according to researchers the Egyptian mobilization has been more “clearly based among urban workers, more protracted, and more successful” (Beinin 2011, 182). Also, similarly to the Tunisian uprising, the workers mobilization had not made any specifically political demands in terms of regime change until the last episode of the uprisings in January 2011. However, as has been mentioned previously under an authoritarian regime any organized challenge is in effect political. Furthermore, in the case of Egypt, it was the worker mobilization preceding the uprisings of January 2011 that gave rise to the organizations of the urban middle classes and intellectuals.
Worker Militancy in Egypt and Its Lessons for the Uprising
Most accounts depict the Egyptian uprising as having been organized predominantly by two middle-class organizations, namely the April 6 Movement and the platform created by the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page (Gelvin 2012). The creation and the impact of the Facebook page requires a different kind of analysis, one requiring an overall assessment of the effects of social media technologies, which will be returned to at the end of this section. However, for the purposes of illustrating the important role played by the worker mobilization preceding the 2011 uprisings, a closer look at the chronology of events behind the April 6 Movement is required.
The April 6 Movement, like another middle-class and intelligentsia-based organization “Kefaya!’ before it, grew in response to the waves of militant and successful strikes taking place in the Mahalla al-Kubra. In December 2006, the workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company went on strike, marking the largest industrial strike to occur during a period of intensified industrial conflict in Egypt, 2004-9. The firm is significant both because it has evolved into a political symbol and also because it accounts for a quarter of all public sector textile and clothing worker employment (Beinin 2011, 192). The strike erupted due to cuts in promised bonuses and wages and resulted in a successful occupation lasting four days, with the government caving to the bulk of the workers’ demands. The mobilization of Mahalla workers did not fade away after the first strike; they then went after the official union ETUF (Egyptian Trade Union Federation) that had deserted them in the December strike. By 2007, the worker movement had taken on a different character. After the conflict with the union, the workers did not reach their goal of abandoning the union but had nonetheless rendered it irrelevant in the following industrial conflicts. This gave the movement a distinctly political character; by September 2007 the leadership of the worker’s movement demanding that Mubarak resigned (Stack and Mazen 2007).
It is important to note here that at this time the workers are making political demands on the government, asking specifically for a change in the structure of the union and for it to distance itself away from government policy. The struggle of Mahalla workers thus shows that political demands are not exclusively a middle-class demand; they were not brought to the table once the middle classes are involved, the demands have been there long before (Beinin 2011). The successes of the Mahalla workers came to a halt when in April 2008 they initiated a nationwide campaign demanding that the government establish a minimum wage. The government crashed the protests by force; however, the violent suppression of the workers movement motivated middle-class students who later established the April 6 Movement, named after the day Mahalla workers began their campaign (Schwartz 2011, 37). April 6 Movement was also involved in organizing the initial protest of the uprising on January 25th; the experience of the Mahalla struggle that they had built on proved essential during the uprising.
Another key aspect of the Egyptian revolution that is underexplored is the quickness with which the upper classes abandoned their ties with the Mubarak regime. The Egyptian uprising was able to exert more economic damage on the regime than political damage. The uprisings, beginning in late January, also hit one of the main sources of income of the Egyptian economy, the tourism industry, at the inception of its high season. According to the investment banking group Credit Agricole. The Egyptian uprising was costing the economy $310 million per day in losses (“Egypt protests cost…” 2011). The toll that business was taking in order to protect Mubarak’s regime was very clear to all parties involved, from foreign press to Egypt’s Minister of Finance, to the business community. A week before the ouster of Mubarak BBC reported of the “[economic] paralysis induced by the protests,” while “the Finance Minister Samir Radwan complained … the economic situation was ‘very serious’” (Schwartz 2011, 34). Furthermore, the particular structure of the tourism industry and business interests associated with it added to the magnitude of the losses in possible gains. The continued inflow of tourists, especially to the third-world, rests on the presence and preservation of a relatively secure and peaceful environment. An uprising damages that image, at the very least. Furthermore, the nature of cost-cutting in tourism industries is not as flexible as that of other industries. Regardless of whether an establishment/tourist destination reaches its target number of tourists in order to profit, the costs cannot be lowered beyond a certain extent. If there is even a single tourist present, operations need to run as they would in full capacity: that is, heating, lights, transportation will all operate at a loss (Schwartz 2011, 35).
Plummeting profits in the case of Egypt would not be threatening only the 2011 season, but the entire system because of the loans and interconnectedness of the rest of the economy to tourism (Schwartz, 2011). Therefore, in order to stand by Mubarak, the Egyptian upper classes would have to risk not only their current and near-future profits, but the entire system that their existence depends on. As a result, in order to preserve the system the Egyptian upper classes ended their alliance with Mubarak fairly quickly, after which the army also follows suit and refuses to fire on the protestors. Thus, losing its important pillars of support, Mubarak had to resign from his post, caving into the protestors’ demands. This sort of shifting class loyalties explanation of the Egyptian revolution is almost non-existent in the news media and popular accounts.
The Role of New Media: Is a “Facebook Revolution” Idea Realistic?
Given the class bases and mobilizations behind and preceding the Egyptian uprising, the question remains as to how important social media and new media was for the uprising. As has been mentioned previously in the Tunisian case, the nature of authoritarian life is one that public space is heavily controlled and monitored by the government. Organizing for a political activity, having a planning/strategizing meeting is extremely hard, if not impossible. However, the public life in Egypt was relatively freer compared to Tunisia. In 2000-2001, the country witnessed “the first legal street demonstrations not sponsored by the regime in half a century” (Beinin 2011, 185). These demonstrations were largely concerned with foreign policy, chief among them support for the Second Palestinian Intifada and opposition to U.S.’ war in Iraq. The mobilizations had two consequences: the relative relaxation of the control over public space by the regime in the face of the popular dissent, and the emergence of the “Kefaya!’ movement (also spelled as “Kifaya” in some sources means “Enough!”). Kefaya was mainly a middle class and urban intelligentsia movement, and therefore made use of Internet technologies to organize actions and coordinate members. The movement faded in 2006 (Beinin 2011; Gelvin 2012). Another movement that also uses the Internet technologies, is the movement associated with the “We are all Khaled Said!” Facebook page. The Facebook page was established in response to the brutal beating and killing of a yound man named Khaled Said by the police, after he documented and broadcasted on the Internet an episode of police corruption and bribery (Gelvin 2012, 49). As a response to the authorities’ indifference and protecting the police, a man named Wael Ghonim created the Facebook page titled “We are all Khaled Said.” The site, at the time of the uprisings had 473,000 members and helped organize the uprisings insofar as it passed the message on to its members (Gelvin 2012, 49-50).
Aside from these two organizations that made use of the Internet technologies, the Egyptian uprising cannot be linked in any systematic way to the benefits of social media. In terms of new media technologies as cell phones, video recordings and photos taken by cell phones, the case of the Egyptian uprisings points to a more difficult conclusion than the case of Tunisia. As many have noted at the time of the uprisings, Al Jazeera was comparatively slower than it was in Tunisia to cover and respond to the first day of protests in Egypt, on January 25th, possibly due to pressures from the owner of the network, the Emir of Qatar (Beinin 2011, 248). However, the important fact remains that Mubarak was relatively quicker to respond to the protests by shutting down the Internet access in the country and cellphone networks as early as the third day of the uprisings on January 28th (Al Jazeera 2011). Like Tunisia, the profile of the Egyptian Internet user represents a limited demographic. The Internet penetration rate in the country is 26.7% of the population (“Internet users (per 100 people),” World Bank 2010). Another important feature of Internet usage in Egyptian life is that 27.8% of users are reported to be accessing Internet from Internet cafes (“Nearly one million Egyptian…” ITP.net 2008). In sum, the Internet usage in Egypt, like that in Tunisia, represents a relatively limited sector of the society. It is more prevalent among the youth of middle-classes, as have the exclusive usage of Internet by middle-class based organizations such as the April 6 Movement, Kefaya demonstrated. Furthermore, another important finding in regarding how and for what purposes the youth use Internet will help the reader in assessing the importance of Internet-related technologies in the uprising.
“There was no necessary link between internet usage and politics in Egypt before the uprising: 60 percent of youths on the internet spent their time chatting, 20 percent looked at pornography, 12 percent conducted business or research, and only 8 percent visited political sites.” (Gelvin 2012, 51).
All in all, the role played by social and new media technologies in the Egyptian uprising was very limited at best. For sure, they might have provided a space of discussion and contributed to the dissemination of the news of the protests. However, because they were limited in their reach to the population being primarily a tool for the middle classes, and have not historically had any specific link to political organization before the protests in the worker mobilization in the mid-2000s, we can conclude that the assessments in the popular and journalistic representations of the Egyptian uprising have grossly overestimated their significance. In the concluding section, I will point out possible explanations as to why this might have been the case, however my comments are strictly speculative at this point.
This paper has assessed the role of social media and new media technologies in the Arab Spring, through the cases of Egypt and Tunisia. I have argued that popular representations of the two uprisings in news media have greatly exaggerated the role of these technologies, the consequence of which has been a de-historicization and de-contextualization of the Arab uprisings, in that they have been presented as being ignited spontaneously by singular events and grown from there. The analysis presented here has argued for the further consideration of two facts in both cases: the preceding and sustained labor mobilization in both countries, and the effect of the upper classes’ breaking with the regime. Both countries, perhaps Egypt more so than Tunisia, have had high levels of labor militancy, sustained industrial conflict that put in place activist networks, which eventually sustained and made the later uprisings of December 2010 and January 2011 uprisings possible. Especially in the case of Egypt, the labor movement had begun to make political demands on the regime and its suppression had influenced the formation of a middle class based organization, the April 6 Movement, which helped coordinate the January uprising. The accounts in media focused almost exclusively on the April 6 Movement with no attention devoted the labor mobilization in Mahalla al-Kubra that gave rise to it.
Similarly, both the Tunisian and the Egyptian uprisings have been portrayed in a way that favored the middle-class mobilization and involvement in the events. In the case of the Tunisian uprising the bias was starker, in that the accounts in the media overwhelmingly underscored “the Tunisian exceptionalism,” portraying it as a country with higher levels of education and standard of living in the Middle East and North Africa. However, as the analysis here demonstrated the educated and relatively well off groups joined the uprisings ten days after the protests began in the poorer southern cities. In a similar vein, the role that the upper classes have played in the Egyptian uprising and the reasons for that have been misperceived misrepresented in popular accounts. The Egyptian upper classes and the military have been portrayed as siding with the rebels, facilitating the nearing end of an autocrat. However, a closer look at the Egyptian economy, the toll the uprisings have taken on business interests reveals the structural reasons for which the business class chose to abandon Mubarak in order to ultimately preserve the system and their own well being.
The main consequence of this sort of de-historicizing and de-contextualizing the Arab uprisings has been the overemphasized role of social media and new media technologies. While the latter has certainly been very important in the dissemination of the news from the events, the role of social media seems to be negligible at best. Despite the fact that it may have opened up a space of discussion and mobilization in the face of the heavy control presiding over the public space, it emerges from the data that in and of itself social media cannot be said to have an important role in neither the Tunisian nor the Egyptian uprising. The question remains then, why the image of Arab Spring has remained to be one of a series of social media revolutions? In fact, one of the Egyptian activists and the creator of the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said” Wael Ghonim went so far as to say in an interview to CNN, “I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him […] I’m talking on behalf of Egypt. […] This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook” (“Egypt’s Facebook Revolution…” 2011). I believe one possible explanation for the popularity of the Facebook Revolution idea lies in its wider political implications. Portraying the Arab Spring as a “Facebook revolution” speaks to the pluralist, individualist ideas of liberal democracy. The idea that atomic individuals can and do have an impact on everyday political life is given life by the portrayal of the masses in Tahrir Square as ‘individuals’ motivated by their shared grievances and sensibilities, who came together to protest a corrupt, authoritarian regime, without a leader an organized movement. It also downplays the important role played by the labor unions and student organizations, the usual suspects of the previous waves of revolutions sympathetic to the left. However, answering this question is beyond the scope of this paper. Further research can delve into this question and provide us with insight as to the reasons behind the popularity of the social revolution idea.
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