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Websites as Political Organizers

BY Lisa Goldman | Tuesday, September 11 2012

While a number of young Egyptians rose to prominence via their tweets from Cairo's Tahrir Square during the January 25 revolution, the groundwork for that uprising was laid by committed activists who worked for years organizing workers and intellectuals. Hossam el-Hamalawy is one of those activists: A committed Marxist, he worked against the regime for years, particularly in organizing factory workers.

Hamalawy's blog is pretty well known, particularly amongst journalists and political activists. Even those who do not share his orthodox Marxist worldview admit freely that his blog is a valuable source of information about events on the ground in Egypt.

Hamalawy's recent blog post, What is to be done: The Website as an Organizer #RevSoc, is a case in point. Hamalawy takes the opportunity of the launch of the Revolutionary Socialists Movement's new website to write a fascinating, link-and-data rich post about the effectiveness of the Internet as an organizing tool, and on the importance of reporting information online.

Suppose a military coup took place today. Would revolutionary socialist cadres across Egypt wait for two or three weeks until the paper appeared to know our position? Or would the leadership of the movement phone and travel to meet each comrade to tell them the line? Here we return to the role of the site as organizer again. It is obvious that the site will offer a quick way to connect and announce to the official position to members of the movement in different provinces on this or that issue which requires a rapid, unified reaction. Already it’s the situation today that whenever the Revolutionary Socialists’ members, sympathizers or even enemies, want to know about the group’s official position towards any political development, they instinctively go to our site, our Facebook page or Twitter account. They do not (and it would be ridiculous to expect them to) wait till The Socialist is out a week or two later.

Hamalawy makes a salient point about Internet access for the poor. While it's true that most do not have access to computers or WiFi,

...in a country which has a population of around 90 million, where 40% of them live below the poverty line, the number of mobile phone subscribers in Egypt has reached 92 million, or saturation surpassed 100% of the population according to the latest report from the Ministry of Communications this May!

In other words, the very poor, who do not have access to computers or an Internet connection, are consuming digital information via their mobile phones. Hamalawy has pasted in some fascinating charts from the Ministry of Communications study he cites. For example, mobile phones are the primary mode of accessing online information for 46 percent of Egyptians, even as the cost of mobile phones and data packages continues to decline.

The post includes a photo of an impoverished Egyptian brick maker, up to his elbows in mud, with his mobile phone tucked into his turban.

But, cautions Hamalawy, digital news sites are still not a complete substitute for newspapers.

The site will not be a substitute for the paper, and comrades must continue in the hard work of distributing the paper at events, to the network of members, and to sympathizers. Despite the increasing numbers of workers using the internet (whether via mobile or via a link at home on in cyber-cafés), the paper will continue to be an essential means to interact with them, and we must do our utmost to ensure that it is published regularly, but the paper will be a complementary rather than a central, organizing publication.

Hamalawy, by the way, is an astute political analyst who predicted the Egyptian revolution three years before it happened, during an address (below) at the 2008 Marxism Festival in London.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.