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Demonstrating like an Egyptian: Connectivity as a tool against autocracy

Social media has allowed people to cross red lines and break taboos in autocratic regimes, but its creators do not deserve all the credit, a sociologist and anthropologist said at a Cairo University event on Monday.

"The credit to all events on social media goes to the amazing people of Egypt," said Zeynep Tufecki, a professor in the US at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Tufecki spoke on "Internet and Social Change: Social media and collective action under autocracies" at an event organized by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in collaboration with Cairo University and the UN Development Program (UNDP).

Tufecki researches social impacts of technology and theorizes about the web, gender, inequality and social media. She is currently studying and writing about the use of social media in situations of unrest.

Western media has largely attributed the 25 January revolution to the rise of social media. But Tufecki explained that international connectivity networks do not just run one way.

In the US state of  Wisconsin, for example, demonstrations took place because “people were unhappy with what the governor was doing, so they decided to go protest at the main square, taking Tahrir as an example.” Their slogan was “Demonstrate like an Egyptian."

Before social media, “Autocracies controlled the media and used censorship,” Tufecki said. She discussed the sudden popularity of “citizen media” and pointed to high cell phone use in Egypt as a catalyst to this trend.  

“The spread of cell phones with cameras, Al Jazeera (itself plugged into social media), and transformation of the public sphere, all led to the empowerment of citizen media,” explained Tufecki.

“Through Facebook, blogs and twitter, people started crossing red lines.” Tufecki believes that media 's entire face has changed, moving from a “one-to-many action” to a “many-to-many” collaboration.

She pointed out that isolation was key to autocratic rule in the Middle East, but now safety lies in numbers and connectivity. When someone makes a silly claim, they must back it up or lose their credibility.

Tufecki used Tunisia as an example of how empowering social media has become.

In 2008, there were huge demonstrations in the city of Gafsa. The government quarantined people away from the rest of the country, and because no one knew what was happening there, no one could support them. This led to people getting bored and continuing on with their lives. At that time, there were 28,000 Facebook users across Tunisia.

In 2011, the demonstrations in Sidi Bouzid led to a spiral of demonstrations across Tunisia, which culminated in the flight of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and demonstrations across the Middle East. About 2 million people currently use Facebook in Tunisia.

The question now is whether or not social media can help rebuild, improve government-citizen relations and influence policymakers, Tufecki said.

The event also featured other speakers, such as UNDP Egypt Country Director Mounir Thabet, who spoke about the progress of technology and the IDRC’s Adel al-Zaim, who said they chose Cairo University as a venue to highlight the importance of social media research.

Despite the heat and stuffiness of the auditorium, the audience was captivated by the humor of Ferry de Kerckhove, Canada's ambassador to Egypt. He talked about the Egyptian revolution and how it “had nothing to do with outside world, although the outside world was holding its breath.” Drawing from his experiences in Pakistan, he explained that “NGOs are elite in nature and don’t always go to the grassroots.”

“The question here is, are the people from Tahrir the same?” asked Kerckhove, questioning whether they also represented the elite.

The event featured simultaneous translation (English to Arabic and vice versa) as well as sign language translation.

Before the event ended, a panel of Tufecki, Mahmoud Salem (@SandMonkey) and Sarah Abdel Rahman (@Sarahsworld) talked about their experience with social media and took questions from the audience.

Tufekci’s blog is You can follow her on Twitter at @techsoc.

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