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Networking Rebellion: Digital Policing and Revolt in the Arab Uprisings

By Ian Alan Paul and David Zlutnick

From The Abolitionist No. 18: Surveillance

On January 25th, 2011, demonstrations erupted in cities across Egypt. Eighteen days later one of the world’s most-entrenched dictators was forced from power.

In the Egyptian uprising, digital technologies were used as both a catalyst for the revolution as well as a tool of repression. The events in Egypt, like others of the so-called “Arab Spring,” is complex, nuanced and deeply entangled with the various forces who have a stake in the region’s geopolitical future. A look at the Egyptian security forces’ efforts to police the uprising with the aid of digital surveillance and censorship technologies shines a particularly strong light on the intersection of the former (and most-likely current) regime’s interests and those of the US government, as well as U.S. private contractors. This also provides an example of the increasingly dangerous terrain in which these new channels of communication place activists.

An online revolution?

“We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.” -Tweet from an anonymous Egyptian activist

When the first “Day of Anger” was organized in Egypt following the Tunisian uprising, word was largely spread across the country by a series of Facebook event pages. Because Egyptian television and radio were state-controlled, the internet became a means to publicize the demonstrations and evade state censorship. As a result, the Egyptian and other Arab uprisings have largely been described as a series of “Twitter” or “Facebook” revolutions. Implied by these descriptions is that these American-based social networking websites have manifested as a force for global democracy, allowing repressed peoples to find each other and network in ways which were previously impossible or too dangerous under authoritarian regimes. While it’s undeniable that social networking was a prominent tool in the uprisings, it is an oversimplification to say it was the catalyst in the mobilizations and overlooks the conditions and access of the majority of Arab participants.

Actually there were real limits to the reach of these technologies. As one Egyptian organizer reflected on why mass text-messaging and flyering was utilized over simply online organizing, “Reaching working-class Egyptians was not going to happen through the Internet and Facebook.” And while the initial calls for protests may have come from tech-savvy middle-class activists, it took millions to overwhelm the security state and bring down Mubarak. For these numbers to reach the street more traditional forms of networking and organizing took place.

In many instances it was not the technology of activists that brought people to the streets, but that of the Mubarak regime. On January 28th, 2011, internet and cellphone services were cut in a desperate attempt to stop the escalating protests. But the consequences of this action actually increased mobilizations. As Yale graduate student Navid Hassanpour wrote in his study, “Media Disruption Exacerbates Revolutionary Unrest”:

The disruption of cellphone [sic] coverage and Internet on the 28th exacerbated the unrest in at least three major ways. It implicated many apolitical citizens unaware of or uninterested in the unrest; it forced more face-to-face communication, i.e., more physical presence in streets; and finally it effectively decentralized the rebellion on the 28th through new hybrid communication tactics, producing a quagmire much harder to control and repress than one massive gathering in Tahrir.

Tahrir Square, Cairo, November 25, 2011. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy

In fact, it’s hard to believe the Egyptian uprising would have succeeded had organizing been limited to online social networks. The real key to its success was the expansion of involvement to other actors such as the country’s militant industrial labor movement or the Muslim Brotherhood’s rank-and-file activists–two of many such groupings not known for their use of digital technologies. Continue reading

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