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The Egyptian Twittersphere, 18 Months Into the Revolution

BY Lisa Goldman | Saturday, August 25 2012

Cairo demonstrator (photo: Mosa'ab Elshamy)

During the Egyptian revolution that began on January 25, 2011, a panoply of young activists catapulted to media celebrity via their live tweets, photos and digital video clips from the streets of Cairo. Their goal was to circumvent the Mubarak regime's embargo on information, and they succeeded — even when the government shut down the Internet and mobile service providers for five days. Mostly in their 20s and early 30s, these tech-and-media savvy young people spoke flawless English. As bilingual (and sometimes polyglot) locals, they became sources of valuable insight. Telegenic, well-informed and articulate, they were interviewed for international television news programs, invited to participate in live broadcasts of panel discussions, photographed by Platon for the New Yorker and by Vanity Fair for a glossy spread on citizen journalists of the Arab Spring. Some of the instant media celebrities of the Egyptian revolution wrote books, went on lucrative speaking tours or became respected commentators for name-brand international publications. For months, as street violence and upheaval continued even after Mubarak resigned, the rapidly expanding Egyptian twittersphere was so active that the hashtags #Egypt and #Jan25 seemed to move as quickly as the Matrix.

But over the last eight months things have changed. Once prominent voices have become subdued, or gone mute. New personalities have risen to prominence. Once unified in their opposition to the Mubarak regime, the January 25 activists are now divided by public ideological spats. Nearly all the Egyptians who tweeted exclusively in English before and during the initial months of the uprising are now communicating at least part of the time in Arabic — and not the formal written language that is understood by all literate Arabic speakers, but colloquial Egyptian dialect.

In many cases, the early participants in the discourse are burnt out, turning inward and becoming absorbed in their own careers. But there are other significant causative factors at play.

For politically engaged Egyptians online, the Twitter discourse has shifted, several well-known commentators told techPresident. Once it was about reporting and participating in the revolution; now it is about discussing the revolution and debating political issues. Twitter is now hosting a vigorous debate about Egypt's future. After months of fighting the entrenched remains of a decades-old regime, on the streets and in public opinion, revolution fatigue has set in for the January 25 activists. Rather than demonstrating on the streets, they are exchanging ideas online. But the discussion does not include the majority of Egyptians who lack Internet access. This fact has not escaped those who are most intensely engaged in the discourse, even as they wonder whether their digital debates are an echo chamber or a means of effecting change.

“Last year was about telling the world what Egypt is doing," said Dalia Ezzat (@daliaezzat_), a Cairo native and frequently cited political analyst. "Now it's about Egyptians talking to each other about what the future of Egypt will be, now that we are in such a huge mess."

Ezzat launched her Twitter account and started commenting in English on the revolution almost as soon as it began, from Toronto, where she was a university student. Today she has about 14,000 followers and is often cited by academics, think tank fellows and leading journalists like NPR's Andy Carvin (@acarvin).

Ezzat's rise to prominence is an example of how much of the public debate around the January 25 revolution took place on Twitter. At the beginning of the revolution, Twitter use skyrocketed in Egypt thanks to mainstream media attention and the launch of Twitter in Arabic, explains Mohamed ElGohary, a social media consultant and Global Voices editor.

ElGohary was social media editor for Al Masry Al Youm, Egypt's oldest and best-known independent newspaper, during the most volatile months of the uprising. From that vantage point, he experienced Twitter’s exponential growth in Egypt firsthand: During the 18-day period leading up to Hosni Mubarak's resignation, he said, the number of registered users following Al Masry Al Youm's Twitter account increased from 5,000 to 100,000. Today, the number is around 800,000.

ElGohary used to tweet almost exclusively in English. But as the situation in Egypt changed, so did his language preference. The decision just came naturally, he said.

"The chance for giving back to the community became much higher so engagement became much higher," he said, "plus I have a passion to increase Arabic content. When something is important I post in Arabic and translate."

Arabic is now essential for Egyptian tweeters, Ezzat said.

"To be a recognized name in the Egyptian twittersphere," she said, "you must tweet in Egyptian Arabic."

Some of the most influential names in the Egyptian social media world tweet only in Arabic, Ezzat pointed out — people like Wael Abbas, Alaa Abd El Fattah and A. Naje Ahmed.

Ezzat uses the term “polarized” to describe the Egyptian conversation on Twitter. On one side are the secular revolutionaries who unenthusiastically support President Morsi because he was democratically elected and is not from the old regime, even as his Islamism conflicts with their liberal values. The revolutionaries who boycotted the elections accuse the pro-Morsi liberals of being soft on Islamists and too willing to overlook the new president's illiberal actions. In response, the Morsi supporters accuse their critics of being closet supporters of the old regime. The Islamist activists tweet incitement “around the clock,” she says, which is “freaking the liberals out.” But there are also heated conversations about sexual harassment and freedom of speech. Should a sheikh who calls for infidels to be killed be censored? Is it permissible for people to call for the downfall of a democratically elected government? Are women who wear revealing clothes and don’t cover their hair “asking” to be sexually harassed?

"People can speak openly about politics now and they feel like players," Ezzat told me. "But on the other hand there's a big challenge in connecting what's going on on Twitter to what's happening on the streets. Sure, I am influential on Twitter. But who am I on the street?"

Ezzat visited Cairo in November 2011, during the brutal street clashes between demonstrators and the army on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. During that period, paramilitary police shot unarmed demonstrators with live bullets, smashed their bones with riot sticks, and infamously stripped, dragged and beat senseless a woman now known as the Girl in the Blue Bra. Ezzat describes the "horrifying dichotomy" between what she witnessed on the streets of downtown Cairo versus the experience of meeting a friend at a cafe in a luxury shopping mall in a distant suburb.

"People were sitting around, smoking shisha and watching the riots on a plasma television," she said, with a catch in her voice. "What I saw in November — the excitement and the aggravation and all that horror — well, I can understand why people just want the drama to stop. I can understand why people who were on the street the whole time are burnt out now."

Focusing on creating change from within

Mohamed El Dahshan (@eldahshan) was at Tahrir Square from the first day of the uprising. When the government shut down most Internet service providers for five days, he continued tweeting updates via a small Internet provider that served the hotel he was staying at near the square. In the days leading up to Mubarak's resignation, he was badly beaten by thugs and detained overnight by soldiers who smashed his iPhone and laptop before taking him in. That experience was the subject of a vivid piece he wrote for the New Yorker; he went on to write commentary for the New York Times, the Guardian and Foreign Policy, was invited to deliver a TED talk and has spoken at other conferences around the world.

"In the thick of the revolution we were playing with the government's information embargo," Dahshan said. "The more the outside world knew, the less the government could hide."

Now, he explained, the action was at home. Change would come from within, and that meant that the target audience was Egyptians — not just Egyptians from the privileged class who speak fluent English, but those who communicate in Egyptian Arabic. He says that most of his newest followers are Egyptian, adding that this pleases him.

Before the revolution, he explained, people were disengaged from politics because they did not believe in the system. Now they feel like players.

"It's just incredible to see how many people are telling me they found a purpose to their life since January 25," he said. "They feel as though now they have control over their destiny but, like most of us I guess, they have no idea how to realize that destiny."

That growing group is still only a minority of Egyptians. Forty percent of Egyptians live on less than $2 per day, the literacy rate hovers at around 66 percent and Internet penetration was at about 24 percent in 2009. (ElGohary, the Global Voices editor, believes it is around 30 percent today.) But the people in that minority group are conducting an increasingly heated political discourse online, in their own language, about the future of their country.

Activists say that months of street violence and tense debate are taking their toll. People are exhausted. Dahshan, a Harvard-educated economic consultant, was in Cairo and very much an activist for the first 10 months of the revolution; but then he accepted a six-month contract in Tunis with the African Development Bank this past year. It was a necessary break, he realizes in retrospect. He described the emotional exhaustion of witnessing constant violence, of being unable to stay at home when there were reports of a confrontation on the street, people killed, morgues filling with bodies.

Mahmoud Salem — aka @sandmonkey — was already a veteran of the Egyptian social media scene when the revolution began, thanks to his widely-read blog, Rantings of a Sandmonkey, which he launched in 2005. He was also beaten by police during the early days of the revolution; of the four interviewed for this article, he is the only one who has not had a long break from Egypt since the beginning of the revolution (ElGohary moved to the small city of Mansoura several months ago). Salem was the least forthcoming of the four, preferring to email brief answers to questions rather than communicate in real time via instant messaging or Skype.

"The past year-and-a-half have been harrowing mentally, physically and psychologically," he wrote. "To say that most of us suffer from PTSD would be inaccurate mainly due to the idea that we are post trauma, while in reality it continues. We suffer from CTSD, which means that people will act emotionally towards each other and events and fight. It's no surprise really."

But Salem is still very much a part of the Egyptian conversation. He writes op-eds for the English-language newspaper Daily News Egypt, but is now posting roughly half his tweets in Arabic. He even updated his profile so that his English username now appears phonetically in Arabic script.

For some of the best-known commentators and observers to emerge from the January 25 movement, Twitter celebrity has brought with it a certain self-consciousness about image and message.

Dahshan, Ezzat, Salem and ElGohary freely confirm that they are more careful now about what they write than they were 18 months ago.

"You absolutely change the way you tweet when you know your audience includes newspaper editors," said Dahshan. "It's okay to be emotional and have opinions, but you have to communicate clearly. I don't blurt things out anymore and I am more careful about using colorful language."

That care is widespread, said Ezzat, the Toronto-based observer.

"People are more careful now about tweeting information," she said. "They ask questions instead of tweeting unconfirmed stories, for example, and check stories before they write 'confirmed.' People know the mainstream media is focusing on social media so they take responsibility for their tweets."

And yet, despite their prominence on Twitter, their deep understanding of how social and old-fashioned media work, their knowledge, experience and fluency in many languages, none of these four Egyptians feels confident about exerting influence beyond what Ezzat called the “echo chamber” of Twitter.

"Having many followers is no real indication that what you are saying is valuable," wrote the Sandmonkey.

ElGohary said that the conversation on Twitter reflected "one part of the street." But, he said, "It needs the people who run the thing online to work offline too."

Self-doubt and reservations aside, young Egyptians — armchair activists, street activists, academics and intellectuals — are indisputably involved in a passionate conversation about politics on Twitter. Two years ago, the idea of young Egyptians arguing about politics and the future of their country would have been dismissed as absurd. They were widely perceived as apathetic and disengaged. The question now is whether the conversation on Twitter will result in positive change. The answer is, probably not. Twitter is a place to report, gather information and debate, but the real action is on the street — even in the case of Revolution 2.0.