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In Cairo, #Jan25 Activists Sidelined as Muslim Brotherhood Marches On

BY Lisa Goldman | Wednesday, June 20 2012

A voters' nullified ballot with the English/Arabic comment: "No offense, but the truth hurts."

Thousands of Egyptians thronged Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Tuesday night to protest a judicial decision that hands sweeping powers to the ruling military junta, in a move many see as a consolidation of the military’s power.

The Revolutionary Socialist Youth and the April 6 movement, both composed of liberal and leftist anti-Mubarak activists, called for a protest in Tahrir Square. And so did the Muslim Brotherhood. All issued their calls via their Facebook pages. But according to many observations tweeted by people on the scene, the crowd at Tahrir was dominated by Muslim Brotherhood supporters who chanted in support of their candidate, Mohamed Morsi.

The ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) sparked the protests by implementing a court ruling that allowed it to dissolve the Islamist-led elected parliament pending the results of the presidential elections. The court ruling handed sweeping powers to the military. For many Egyptians, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, this was confirmation that the military had no intention of handing over power to a civilian government. The final tally of ballots in the second round of voting for the new Egyptian president has not yet been announced, but many suspect that SCAF will manipulate the electoral process in some way, so that Ahmed Shafik, the ex-military man who served as prime minister during the last days of the Mubarak regime, will win over Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate.

SCAF’s announcement was anathema to the liberal revolutionary movements as well. While the activists resented the Islamists having benefited from an uprising in which they did not participate, they are unanimous in their opposition to military rule. But it was the Brotherhood that appeared to dominate the square Tuesday from the perspective of the activists. Several who were at Tahrir tweeted that the Brotherhood's supporters had been shuttled in.

The Egyptian liberal who goes by the name The Big Pharaoh comments on Twitter: “One of the laws governing our universe: When the MB (Muslim Brotherhood) fill #Tahrir, you will always find hundreds of buses parked outside.”

Journalist Mohamed Abdelfattah and several others also said that the Muslim Brotherhood had bussed in its supporters.

During the January 25 uprising that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, and for months afterward, Egyptians tweeting in English were extremely active, live-tweeting demonstrations, clashes with security forces and other major events. Many became primary sources of information for foreign journalists. Some of them became celebrities: They were featured in prominent magazines such as the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, invited to speak at conferences and on popular interview shows in the United States and other countries.

On Tuesday night, however, they were remarkably subdued; or absent altogether. Mona Eltahawy, who became practically a household name for Egypt watchers during the uprising and in the following months, spent the evening at a Cairo café, tweeting about the Euro 2012 soccer match. Activist Gigi Ibrahim (@gsquare86) sent a few angry tweets from Tahrir, but offered little in the way of reporting or analysis. Writer and activist Alaa abd el Fattah was tweeting in Arabic, claiming that the activists can continue their opposition once the new president is installed, but that it was important to oppose Shafik because he represents the old regime.

During the January 25 uprising, activists used to photograph and video-record these demonstrations, uploading the images practically in real time. Not on Tuesday night, though.

Instead, most of the live-tweeting came via foreign journalists on the square. When rumors of Hosni Mubarak’s death began to swirl around Twitter, CNN’s Ivan Watson (@IvanCNN) tweeted, “NO ONE in Tahrir is talking about Mubarak. Crowd is chanting “down with military rule.”

The liberal activists did initiate two interesting online campaigns to protest both military rule and the elections, with the two candidates representing two equally unacceptable camps - the Muslim Brotherhood (Morsi) and the Mubarak regime (Shafik). One of the campaigns was called the 'spoiled' or 'nullified' ballot campaign, whereby activists crossed out the names of both candidates and added hand-written comments that ranged from angry ("Glory to martyrs, down with military rule, the revolution continues") to humorous, with one activist choosing Batman and another a famous belly dancer. The activists photographed the nullified ballots and uploaded them to Twitter.

Another creative initiative was the 'liars' campaign. Liberal activists created video clips showing SCAF violence, which they uploaded to Youtube. Egyptian journalist and activist Mohamed El Dahshan (@eldahshan) reports that on several occasions activists organized street screenings of the videos, alerting people to the event via social media and projecting the videos onto blank walls.

But neither of these campaigns succeeded in bringing out a critical mass of liberals to balance the dominant presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tahrir Square.

Even in the first flush of their success after they succeeded in overthrowing Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian activists made it clear that social media was a useful tool, but that it had not played a key role in getting people to the streets. The critical mass came to the streets after the government cut off internet and mobile phone access. The very absence of communications and information brought people to Tahrir Square. They could not follow the action via social media platforms or text messages from their homes, so they went outside to see what was going on.

Facebook is now a major platform for reporting news and information in Egypt. Even SCAF issues its statements via its Facebook page. But for now Tahrir crowds don't seem to be organizing online so much as stepping off a Muslim Brotherhood-provided bus. Meanwhile, the activist Twitterati of the January 25 revolution are either silent, or using Twitter as a platform to express their disappointment and anger at current events.