By Leonie Northedge

On January 28, hundreds of mostly young Egyptians demanding the resignation of president Hosni Mubarak succeeded in turning Cairo's Tahrir Square into a protest hub. Here they shared meals, set up makeshift clinics and organised musical performances - all highly subversive actions in a state where little opposition was tolerated and protest is often subject to violent repression.

Ruled under a state of emergency since the assassination of Anwar El Sadat in 1981, Egyptians were long disillusioned by the limited democratic windows opened to them. Like many countries in the region, Egypt's population is overwhelmingly young, and suffers staggeringly high rates of youth unemployment. As in Tunisia, the staid and unresponsive regime was failing to meet the expectations of educated and uneducated Egyptians alike.

The successful ousting of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia provided the spark to Egypt's fuel. The Jasmine Revolution, given wall to wall coverage by Al Jazeera, set the precedent and inspired confidence in the possibilities of mass mobilisation. A small network of young activists planned demonstrations for a 'Police Day', on January 25.While they hoped that the Tunisian example would mean a good turnout, the numbers who gathered took everyone by surprise. Carefully planned to outfox the police, several thousand demonstrators made it to Tahrir Square in the centre of Cairo. This initial demonstration soon snowballed into a movement of unexpected scale, leaving established opposition figures scrambling to catch up and young activists leading the charge.

Kifaya - 'Enough'

The critical mass of Egyptians hitting the streets was key to the revolution's success in toppling Mubarak, but changes in the opposition scene over the last ten years helped to lay the groundwork. The polarisation of opposition groups between religious and secular elements - a weakening factor which was adeptly exploited by the regime - was slowly being eroded. This change was embodied by the Kifaya movement, which can perhaps be identified as the first expression of united opposition to the Mubarak regime by activists from across the political spectrum.

A loose coalition of opposition groups, political parties and independent activists, Kifayawas formed in 2004 in the run up to the 2005 legislative elections. The protests organised by Kifaya were nowhere near the size of the demonstrations which finally toppled Mubarak, but they challenged what had previously been taboo: questioning the position of the president himself.

The Kifaya movement also broke new ground by using digital technology and social media to organise protests and foster cooperation between varied opposition groups. The Egyptian blogging scene expanded rapidly in the mid-2000s, with blogs playing a part in mobilising young Egyptians to participate in protests and in reporting the events of demonstrations, which were often harshly policed.

Bloggers began to take a key role in bringing to light abuses committed by the regime and security services, posting photo and video evidence of detainee abuse. A video posted by blogger Wael Abbas led to an unprecedented successful prosecution of police officers. The topic of police brutality gained a much bigger platform, with opposition newspapers and then satellite talk shows taking up the issue. With blogs as the source, the authorities were less able to censor conventional media outlets reporting instances of abuse

'We Are All Khaled Said'

Police brutality remains a key mobilising issue, and now Egyptians have a new tool at their disposal: Facebook. The social networking site has rocketed in popularity over the last two years, especially since the launch of an Arabic version in March 2009, and there are now an estimated five million Egyptian users. Known colloquially as 'El-Face', the site has become an important location for young people to express themselves, both personally and politically.

It was on Facebook that the shocking story of Khaled Said first gained traction. The 28-year-old Alexandrian had posted footage on the internet showing police corruption. On June 6, 2010, he was dragged out of an internet cafe by police officers and brutally beaten to death. His family released photos of his disfigured corpse, and a Facebook group titled 'We are all Khaled Said' was set up to demand justice. Facebook users quickly took up the cause, and Khaled's death became a talking point among young people all over Egypt.

It was through the 'We are all Khaled Said' group that the January 25 'Day of Rage' protests were organised and publicised. With several hundred thousand 'likes', the activists organising the protest were able to reach a huge audience through the group, and their call to take a stand against 'torture, corruption, poverty and unemployment' resonated with young Egyptians. Spurred on by the achievements of the Jasmine Revolution, the result was an unprecedented mobilisation.

'How To Revolt Peacefully'

Facebook was not the only method activists used to get people out on the streets, as shown by the thousands who joined the demonstrations on January 25 from some of Cairo's poorest neighbourhoods. The scale of the response was unexpected, but activists quickly took action to try and coordinate the direction of the protests.

Prior to the huge demonstration on January 28, an email began circulating with a guide titled: "How to revolt peacefully". The document contains a list of demands, including the fall of Mubarak, freedom and justice, and the end of emergency law, and provides a practical guide for resisting crowd control measures. It also lays out tactical goals for the protesters to achieve, including maps with directions drawn on to show how to best surround strategically important buildings such as the state broadcasting headquarters.

One young Egyptian described how everyone he knew had been sent the guide - he had received it several times over including from friends living abroad. "There's nothing new in it," he insisted, "but everyone wanted to make sure that their friends and family were well prepared, to protect themselves against tear gas for example."

Activists made astute use of all the communication tools at their disposal, while the regime tried and failed to control the protests by clamping down on the internet and mobile phone networks. The regime also fought back by broadcasting a counter-narrative on state television - initially ignoring the protesters, then attempting to discredit them by reporting that they were mostly foreign, or that they were trained in Israel or America.

Television remains a key medium in Egypt, but with the advent of pan-Arab satellite channels such as Al Jazeera and private Egyptian networks, the government's attempt to control the narrative around the protests quickly fell apart. While Egyptian state TV broadcast stern warnings about curfews, Al Jazeera showed that the streets of downtown Cairo were full. When the state-owned satellite package NileSat dropped Al Jazeera, private Egyptian channels stepped in to carry Al Jazeera's content.

And while Al Jazeera's dedicated coverage of the protests made it the go-to channel for analysts and policymakers in both the west and the Arab world, it was a private Egyptian channel which provided one of the 'game-changing' moments of the revolution. Shortly after his release following twelve days of detention by the interior ministry, Google executive Wael Ghonim gave a long and heartfelt interview to Dream TV. He revealed that he had been one of the anonymous administrators of the 'We are all Khaled Said' Facebook group.

Broadcast on the evening of February 7,when it seemed that Mubarak and the protesters had reached an uneasy stalemate, the interview gave the demonstrations a renewed impetus. The following day thousands more Egyptians flooded onto the streets, many saying that they were inspired after watching Wael Ghonim on DreamTV.

A 'Facebook Revolution'?

An Egyptian joke doing the rounds describes how Mubarak dies, and on the way to the Pearly Gates meets former presidents Anwar El Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser at the entrance. They are sad and sympathetic: "What was it that got you, poison or a bullet? "Mubarak replies, "No, it was Facebook".

It goes without saying that revolutions are complex events, difficult to explain and even more difficult to predict. Governments were toppled by mass protest before the advent of Facebook. Once the protests were under way, the physical occupation of public space became key to the revolution's momentum: the government shutdown of the internet and mobile communications could not negate the tenacious presence of protesters in Tahrir Square, and in streets and squares all over Egypt.

But digital communications, social media and the proliferation of satellite TV channels outside of state control have undoubtedly changed the political landscape in the Middle East, and governments are only just coming to terms with the new realities.When the regime made the decision to shut down the internet and mobile communications - partially from January 25, and completely from January 27 for several days - it was already too little, too late.

Even with eight state television channels to broadcast its message, Mubarak's government could not counter the growing awareness among Egyptians - an awareness fostered by a new digitally-enabled political environment - that peaceful mass protest had the potential to bring about the change they had so long waited for.


Leonie Northedge is working for the Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House.


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