Posted 29 June, 2011 by Christopher Wilson

Power in Parallel: Digital Skill and Insulation in Egypt’s Information Ecology

This post follows up on the earlier discussion of Marc Lynch’s recent essay. It was written  mostly yesterday, before it became clear that the march by Martyrs’ families would elicit the violence and response that it did.  I post it now for later consideration on why it should have been clear, especially while writing this post.

By proposing a framework for how to consider digital media’s potential impact on Arab public space, Lynch’s essay raised the question of how to reconcile the enthusiasm that Egyptian digital activism continues to merit, with activists’ failure to gain representation or substantively engage in processes of national governance.

In real political terms, the problem is an increasingly apparent insulation of digital advocacy from processes of national policy-making, accompanied by a failure to maintain or coordinate popular support for revolutionary aims. In conceptual terms, this disjunction may be useful both for considering advocacy strategies in the face of the strikingly authoritarian model of governance exercised  by SCAF and the Sharaf government, as well as the limits and potential of digital activism on a more general and conceptual plane.

Protest-o-matic: Activism  in a box

The Egyptian revolution is at a critical point. 100 days into the current governments’ reign, rights violations remain widespread and institutionalized, and public opinion on the way forward is mixed. Against this backdrop, many Egyptians have called to kick-start the revolution with a new round of protests (following in the tradition of “securing” and “saving” the revolution, July 8th [and then 6th]was billed as “the 2nd revolution of anger”). Before this kickstart was suddenly kickstarted early with a return to violence against protesters yesterday, the call for further protests was widely popular. Egyptian authorities have proven quite adept at paying lip-service to “the revolution” while discrediting (and criminalizing) protest. The result is a surprising number of citizens irritated by what protests do to traffic.

Yet protests have continued, in the face of arrests, torture and the threat of hefty fines. More remarkable, is the peculiar manner in which digital mobilization and coordination has become increasingly effective. This is especially apparent when mobilization is activated around activists.

  • When Amr Shalakany was arrested in April, the twittersphere sprang to life in a matter of hours, mobilizing traditional lobbies that were likely behind his release after just 36 hours in Suez prison.
  • Tarek Shalaby’s release following his May arrest was no doubt facilitated by the Facebook page that popped up in hours, followed by 2 days of protests with his image stenciled on placards.
  • When Hossam al-Hamalawy was summoned to coffee with the military for alleging rights violations on national TV in early June, his prompt release was undoubtedly aided by the flurry of online attention the summons received within Egypt and internationally, not to mention the journalists and protesters that also showed up at the ministry.
  • In late May, well-known tweeps and graffiti artists were arrested for hanging anti-military posters. #freeganzeer proliferated immediately and a Facebook page was up in 25 minutes. 2 hours later, a protest was scheduled for the following day and 500 people said they would attend. Ganzeer was released within 5 hours, but that didn’t put the brakes on protests, which were marked by signs and tee-shirts with the same poster he was arrested for hanging, and prominent bloggers and activists posted pictures of him at the protest.

And the beat goes on. The pattern here is dominated by hybridity and efficacy, as mechanisms for social mobilization and awareness become faster and span a wider breadth of media–both digital and traditional–through latent but well-worn network paths. It is as if the protest-o-matic is learning, displaying increasing degrees of automation and efficiency at achieving discrete political aims. It is not clear how this process will develop after this new wave of protests.  But it seems to be moving ahead in character.

The problem, of course, is that while getting activists released is important, activists keep getting arrested. Military tribunals continue to try and sentence citizens without due process. Protest remains illegal. Independent media remains inhibited by gag orders both explicit and implicit. The military is still pulling government strings (going so far as reject ministerial resignations). And for all the outrage expressed by this small but heavily networked segment of the Egyptian population, they appear to be screaming (tweeting, blogging, facebooking and always, in the square, chanting and actually screaming) at a wall.

Closing Ranks

The SCAF’s Facebook wall an excellent example. The SCAF FB page is used to make important announcements on (and to) the revolution, and that these announcements are consistently released on Facebook before being broadcast on traditional media might be interpreted as an attempt to meet the revolution on its own terms.

A generous interpretation would have to admit that it is a clumsy attempt at best, as each announcement is posted a  JPEG file, and there has not been a single military response to the tens of thousands of comments that those proclamations generate. All in all, it is easier to consider the entire affair disingenuous.

Offline, SCAF stonewalling is all the more dramatic. As tensions and dissatisfaction with transitional governance mount, the SCAF has made only the vaguest of promises regarding the practice of military tribunals (to national and international activists), and has engaged pro-forma with youth coalitions on broader issues precisely twice: in February and again earlier this month. Some of blame for this can be laid at the feet of his failure to engage falls squarely with opposition, large portions of which have refused to meet with the SCAF until specific fundamental demands are met. This is a strategic decision, but coupled with the scramble to engage (Dina Shehata at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, argues that the majority of coallitions that met up in June were established in order to do so) and the general fragmentation among revolutionary voices, it would seem to facilitate SCAF’s strategy of keeping the machinations of governance behind closed doors.

There is a lot of legwork being done on the ground, which one hopes will mitigate this tendency. Campaigns for minimum wage, free expression, and the election/constitution timeline are all too widely debated for the SCAF to ignore without consequence. More troubling is the consolidation of power relations and the setting of a national course with international actors, which as far as I can see, has generated little popular debate. That a non-elected government should dramatically develop relationships with foreign states (Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran) is troubling itself, but more so for the lack of popular review. Similarly, Egyptian authorities have responded to the scramble of western financial powers for post-revolutionary influence, by striking specific agreements with profound long term consequences that deserve broad and popular debate, especially given that socio-economic justice was a key driver of revolutionary mobilization.

The new loans being negotiated for Egypt and Tunisia will lock both countries into long-term economic strategies even before the first post-revolution elections have been held. Given the IMF’s history, we should expect these to have devastating consequences on the Egyptian and Tunisian people.

That is the Guardian‘s Austin Mackell, pithily voicing a sentiment echoed and elaborated by a number of local commentators.

Of the many financial relationships and roadmaps being developed in SCAF’s closed circle (including the UN development aid1 and US military aid), Adam Hanieh argues that negotiations with the IMF are the most blatantly problematic, and represent

a conscious attempt to consolidate and reinforce the power of Egypt’s dominant class in the face of the ongoing popular mobilizations. They are part of, in other words, a sustained effort to restrain the revolution within the bounds of an ‘orderly transition’ – to borrow the perspicacious phrase that the US government repeatedly used following the ousting of Mubarak.
This may be. The merits of these financial arrangements are debatable. But that is precisely the point. The IMF loans were eventually dropped, but as one activist has argued, this was because there was a coordinated campaign by Egyptian activists, but because the IMF transparency and governance conditionalities were too restrictive. This is a problem, not only because it indicates that Egypt believes it can finance “transition” through “friendlier” loans, but because there is no coordinated campaign.  The coordinating tools mobilized by the “confident, wired youth of Tahrir Square” should be particularly well suited to mobilizing popular engagement on these issues. There should be a Facebook page popping up 25 minutes after Sharaf and Radwan make a trip to Saudi to plan PPP projects that effectively privatize public service delivery and threaten to further entrench political economies established under Mubarak’s reign.
Mapping gaps for building bridges

Reconsidering Marc Lynch’s sketch of the Egyptian information ecology, I am struck by what appears to be the development of two parallel and independent spheres of political economy, defined largely by the flow and leverage of information in political processes. The insulation of wired advocacy from national and international policy development seems at first blush to sit well with Lynch’s assertion that digitally mobilized movements “do not necessarily translate into enduring movements or into robust political parties capable of mounting a sustained challenge to entrenched regimes or to transforming themselves into governing parties.”

Counterrevolutionary adoptation of digital platforms is instructive in this regard. In addition to the SCAF facebook page, there are even digitally coordinated protests to support Mubarak. As al-Masy al-Youm has it:

Much of the language Mubarak supporters use, and the methods they employ to mobilize, are identical to those used by their pro-revolution anti-Mubarak counterparts. It all has a certain ying and yang quality to it.

And yet this mimesis occurs only at the level of street protests–there is no Opposition-Ying for the SCAF-Yang in international policy processes, economic adjustment, or the general repackaging of a legitimate Egyptian state in international fora. Is this because the technology is not well suited to the kind of precise coordination engagement with such processes demand?  I don’t want to think so.  The steady perfection of the protest-o-matic machinations to acheive discrete objectives may very well be a natural tendency of networks to ativate implicit communicative pathways, but it is also a strategic choice about where to focus campaigns.

The relative merits of these choices make sense only in an Egyptian context, and should be debated by people much more informed and invested than I. But I worry, that for all the footwork being done on the ground to develop political parties and organise strikes, for all the hands-on work of the popular commities, for all Sandmonkey’s nuts-and-bolts blogging (in English, oddly), that there is a dangerous introversion at play among political techies–who after all now live and breath in an Egypt where “Facebook” is something you name your baby. As wired activists convene in person to consider the merits of twitter on twitter,  there are even signs that the protest-o-matic is getting ahead of itself and jumping the digital gun, as activist Aida Elkashef compalains of the recent Free Aida Elkashef posting on Facebook, “please report this profile.its not me.”

This sounds trite, especially writing from Oslo as Egyptians again find themselves facing the threat of unbridled state violence, with little more than stones and indignation to push back with. But no matter what happens tonight, it is worth carefully considering these dynamics when the smoke clears. When it does, and Egyptians again put their resilient shoulder to the wheel of seeking social accountability and democratic processes, it will be worth considering carefully how information moves in Egyptian digital advocacy.

Between the rock of complex policy questions, and the hard place of a highly diverse population 80 million strong, the potential for information advocacy in broader civic engagement strategies is worth a closer look. Egyptian digital advocacy has a developed strong skills and commands loose tie networks that are both flexible and resilient enough to sustain another kind of advocacy, spanning both popular committees and ruling elites. But to even speak of that, the tear gas has to clear, and there may be many long nights to get through first.

1. Arab revolutions have reportedly led the UNDP to conduct “a country-by-country review of all programs in order to assess how the organization can provide support for democratic transitions”

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