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."

Mourners carry the coffin of Essam Atta, 23, in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. Egyptian rights activists on Friday accused guards at a Cairo prison of torturing an inmate to death in a case which they said shows continued rampant human rights abuse by security forces.

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!”

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.

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.”

Wael Khalil, a renowned activist who has made a name for himself with his blog and worked closely with Google's Wael Ghonim during the revolution, says, “It’s not an either or situation. Twitter’s a great platform to highlight ideas but [you] have to be careful and complement it with on-the-street action. We know we’re not celebrities, our work is on the ground.”

The class divide is a digital divide

There have been other efforts to bridge the divide between digital and traditional shoe-leather activism. Last summer, activist Alaa Abd El Fattah organized “Tweet Nadwa” a gathering of Egyptian activists and bloggers to discuss ideas in “real life.” A group of prominent Twitter users also launched an initiative called “Tweetback” that raised more than $200,000 in donations for development projects in Ezbet Khairallah. About 20 of Egypt’s most-followed Twitter users live-Tweeted the event, held at an upscale Cairo hotel, to leverage their extensive Twitter networks into more publicity for the initiative.

Hamed applauded the effort, but not before critiquing it, noting the fancy venue and doubting the “Twitterati” ever visited the slum for which they raised the money. “Class was one of the roots of the revolution and it’ll take some time for us to get over some of these divides,” he explained.

In a country with almost forty percent of people living below the poverty line and illiterate, less than 5 percent on Facebook, and less than 1 percent on Twitter, bridging disparate economic and political backgrounds remains a challenge for social media activism.

“It’s unclear just how much the street and digital world are talking to each other in a country like Egypt,” says Ramesh Srinivasen, assistant professor in design and media/information Studies at the University of CaliforniaLos Angeles. “Twitter is often an echo chamber, with people of the same leanings coming together. It’s an empowered dialogue with analysts and journalists relying on it, but it’s a dangerously skewed one that could, if anything, further divides.”

Less talking, more action

Activists are trying to drive home the need for decision makers and other activists to engage with average Egyptians. The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights recently held a 3-day workshop called “First Steps for Access to the Streets” that included panels on communication skills. At a workshop in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla, a hub for Egypt’s robust labor movement, the nonprofit Egyptian Democracy Academy trained a group of “liberally minded” activists to “strengthen your message for the street.”

Fatma Radwan, a member of the April 6 Youth Movement, sat in the back of the room at the Mahalla workshop, seemingly frustrated. “We can talk all day about demands and political models, but it’s hard to do outside. I’m worried we’re losing the majority of people when we need to be getting them ready for elections,” she says.

Back on the ground in Ezbet Khairallah, Egyptians' grievances hang like revolutionary posters in the dusty air – stark reminders of 30 years of institutional neglect and apathy. Residents complained about water shortages, rising prices of cement and bread, and challenges affording their own apartments.

Complaints like these hit home for Hegab, the journalism student who joined Hamed's get out the vote efforts. “I’m this 20-year-old Egyptian girl and I have 12,000 followers on Twitter. You feel like you have so much power to communicate and you don’t know what to do with it,” she says. “I want to do something important.”

Ahmed Saeed, a 39-year-old fruit seller, sat reading the Saturday paper. Having never seen Twitter before, one volunteer showed him his feed via Blackberry -- an endless stream of news curation, a pastiche of opinions and bursts of on-the-scene dispatches.

“I already know Egyptians like talking,” laughed Saeed. “That’s what we do best.”

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