Youth, ICTs, and Democracy in Egypt
How are uses of ICTs contributing to advancing political freedoms in Egypt? The Youth, ICTs, and Democracy in Egypt project examines the evolution of the April 6th Youth Movement, which emerged in April 2008 when two activists — Ahmed Maher and Israa Abdel Fattah — created a Facebook page to support the workers’ strike in Mahalla. Working with the Muslim Brotherhood, workers’ organizations, “We are all Khaled Said”, and other groups, the April 6th Youth Movement gained broad support — culminating in the January 2011 protests and contributing to the downfall of the Mubarak regime.
Concurrently, the project also examines the influence of “The Tunisian Effect” — the influence of the images and narratives from the Tunisian revolution, which started in December 2010 and led to the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. The TASCHA research team hypothesizes that the revolution in Egypt emerged not only from a decade of protests in Egypt, but also from perceived success in Tunisia. Specifically, they investigate whether the initial April 2008 strike in Egypt did not immediately gain traction in part because it lacked a powerful example, especially since organizers were already using ICTs to mobilize and collaborate.
The project uses four analytical elements widely discussed in social movement theory:
- Actors and networks involved at different phases of the movement’s evolution;
- Mobilization strategies, particularly social media;
- Events that influenced the movement's organization, mobilization, and adaptation of ICT; and
- Events that affected media coverage and shaped international public opinion.
The recent demonstrations that toppled longstanding dictators in Egypt and Tunisia have reignited interest among academics and activists about the role of youth, technology, and social media in advancing social change. Empowered with mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogging platforms, young people in both countries organized street protests, developed links of solidarity and support at home and abroad, engaged in political conversations, and carved spaces for further collective action. Some recent research points to the role played by social media in the protests that mobilized millions of young people to the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Giza, Tunis, and other cities, demanding regime change.
The analytic frame for the study draws on Amartya Sen’s concept of political freedoms as the result of eliminating obstacles (or “unfreedoms”), allowing people to make full use of their capabilities — to have the lives and choices they rightfully value. With adequate social opportunities, individuals can effectively shape their own destiny and help each other. They need not be seen primarily as passive recipients.
We can view the expansion of ICT access and skills, and especially the potential networking capacity of social media, as removing a major obstacle to individual action and choice — namely, the control exercised by the government over the use of public spaces for association and speech. It is possible to argue that social media in Egypt and Tunisia are allowing citizens to create what Assef Bayat calls “relative spaces of freedom” that enable and engender efforts for collective action.
Based on a time frame of January 2008 through to April 2011, the research team is conducting a content analysis on:
- Four influential blogs, two Egyptian (3arabway, Sandmonkey) and two Tunisian (Sami Ben Gharbia, Slim Amamou)
- Three April 6th Youth Movement Facebook pages (two in Arabic, one in English)
- The “We are Khaled Said” Facebook page in English
- Several major newspapers (The New York Times, Al Jazeera, as well as three Egyptian newspapers: Al Ahram, Daily News Egypt, and Almasry Alyoum)
- Transcripts and notes from interviews with key figures in the Egyptian revolution
Two main questions guide the project:
- What factors empowered these political actors to innovate and mobilize, to make the leap from a Facebook page to a grassroots movement?
- What elements shaped their use of technologies, and how did technologies influence their choices and strategies?
June to October, 2011 — Review the literature of the past decade on civil society in Egypt, develop research design (questions and methodology), share and discuss with others in the research community also investigating this phenomenon
October to December, 2011 — Code of materials; conduct interviews with movement leaders, bloggers, and other Egyptian and Tunisian activists
February to April, 2012 — Analyze and write up research findings