Egyptian activists try to bridge digital divide
A group of Egyptian activists are struggling to translate their online influence into real political action by taking the "tweets to the streets."
With one hand gripping the steering wheel and the other his Blackberry, IT entrepreneur Hassan Hamed accelerated up a steep unpaved road leading into one of Cairo’s sprawling, unplanned slum areas known as ashwa'iyat, Arabic for “random.” Before he unloaded stacks of “Don’t sell your vote” flyers from his trunk, he dispatched a note to his 6,743 followers on Twitter: “Getting ready to hit the streets for another #tweetshare3 round in Ezbet Khairallah.” His colleague, journalism student Salma Hegab shot back to her 12,280 followers, “Ahem, I’m here, I’m waiting!”Skip to next paragraph
The impact of social media on revolutionary movements like Egypt’s has been hashed out to the precipice of cliché, with scholars still puzzling over how networks online and off contributed to the ousting of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. As Egypt’s transitional period drags on, staggering obstacles lay ahead for the architects of the post-Mubarak Egypt, with Twitter laying bare divisions both within the activists' ranks and between the relatively small number of activists using the Internet to organize and the "silent majority" on the street. Some of Egypt's young revolutionaries are still trying to find a way to merge their online presences with street level politics and outreach in time for the approaching parliamentary elections.
“You can advertise a revolution on Twitter, you can give it fuel. But you can't win a revolution on Twitter,” says Firas Atraqchi, associate professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo. “That lesson seems lost and the generation is fumbling. Egypt has thousands of villages and millions of people offline no one is engaging.”
'We know we're not celebrities'
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has come under increasing criticism for its inept, and even malevolent, handling of Egypt’s transition to democracy. Among the offenses: military trials for civilians, an unprecedented clampdown on NGOs and freedom of the press, reports of torture, and the forcible dispersion of Coptic Christian protesters at Maspiro (resulting in dozens killed and hundreds wounded, with state television spreading inflammatory news of Copts attacking soldiers). But despite SCAF’s handling of the transition, they have largely maintained the support of the masses – who have largely turned against the superstar activists of the revolution.
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When Mr. Hamed noticed the swelling frustration toward the Tahrir Square protesters back in August, he called on his network of "Twitterati" to communicate with people on the street using the hash tag #tweetshare3 – “Tweet the Street” – but also urged the activists to make a greater effort to interact with people offline instead of “just talking at each other.” ("Share'a" is the Arabic word for "street" and the numeral "3" is used to represent an Arabic letter that has no Roman equivalent.)
He and a group of volunteers have been trekking weekly to different neighborhoods in Cairo, as well as six governorates, in hopes of preempting a revival of the vote-buying and patronage that safeguarded the National Democratic Party’s dominance over parliament the past three decades. Tweet Share3 initially partnered up with members of presidential candidate Mohammed El-Baradei's campaign and the April 6th Youth Movement in hopes of learning from their networking expertise, but the groups butted heads because of differing goals and ideological leanings. Tweet Share3 has since struck out on its own in order to pursue an apolitical campaign focused merely on raising awareness and turning out voters, regardless of which candidate they support.
“If you have a lot of followers, Twitter gives you this false sense of productivity and power,” explains Hamed. “But the man on the street has no idea who … you are.”
With almost 30,000 followers, popular Egyptian blogger Zeinab Mohamed acknowledges Twitter helped give her a voice, but says “a lot of people are living in their own universe in Twitter away from the street. It can be harmful and divisive.”