Egypt: Ammar 404

The internet and the Arab uprisings. By Zahera Harb

April 11, 2011
4 min read

Should we give social media networks credit for facilitating the revolutions in the Arab world? Certainly the networks operated as a mobilising tool. The people were ready, the political moment came and they used it. Some 3.6 million Tunisians are connected to the internet; 20 per cent of the Tunisian population is on Facebook. We are talking about a highly new media-literate population. They had access, they knew how to use it and they did. The success of the Tunisian revolution encouraged the youth of Egypt to be persistent in their call for change and political reform.

Little did Wael Ghonim and the friends of his ‘Kolinah Khaled Said’ Facebook page (‘We are all Khaled Said’ – the young man who died under torture by Egyptian police) know where their call for demonstrations on 25 January would lead. In the wake of the Tunisian victory, the page garnered 100,000 supporters, who showed willingness to go onto the streets, and that was where the Egyptian revolution started.

Egyptians were the first Arab youth to use the internet as a political platform and potential tool to mobilise people for change. The Egyptian bloggers were the first to reveal corruption and initiate calls for reform. Only a few victories were achieved, such as firing a police officer here and there, but the bloggers stood their ground in the face of jail sentences and prosecution. Several movements were mainly orchestrated via Facebook, including the 6 April youth movement, and they persevered despite persecution and more oppression.

The 25 January uprising took the regime by surprise. In response, Mubarak and his entourage, including state media, declared that Egypt was not Tunisia, but the youth of Egypt were determined to prove them wrong. Mubarak’s first reaction was to block Twitter, then Facebook, then the internet as a whole. Satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera Arabic picked up on the events and initiated live coverage from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which resulted in Mubarak’s blocking Al-Jazeera’s transmission in Egypt and withdrawing its operation licences. One joke exchanged with Tunisian activists was that in Egypt they too had ‘Ammar 404’, which was the nickname activists gave the government censor in Tunisia after the ‘404 error’ screen that came up on blocked web pages.

Al-Jazeera’s role in supporting the Egyptian revolution led some Arab analysts to dub it the ‘channel of revolutions’, but it soon came under criticism for its lack of coverage of pro‑democracy protests in Bahrain. The killing of peaceful protesters there did not gain airtime in the way the Egyptian protests had. As the Wikileaks revelations exposed, Al-Jazeera’s coverage of Bahraini protests is influenced by Qatari foreign policy and it mainly abides by Qatar’s commitment to Gulf Cooperation Council security treaties. Al-Arabiya, the channel’s Saudi-based rival, followed the same editorial guidelines, influenced by the shared policy of its host government.

There are clear limits to what satellite channels in the Arab world can do to be part of democratic political change and reform in the region. Arab media in general are certainly not free from the political and economic influence of governments, owners and political parties, a phenomenon that is not unique to the Arab world in this global media age.

But is it the age of online social media? Could the internet be a free space for Arab citizens to express their opinions and fulfil their democratic role in bringing freedom of speech and political freedom? Could it form the new Arab public sphere?

The potential is there. The events in Tunisia and Egypt saw people taking the power to overthrow dictators and autocratic regimes, to bring in democratic change from within and not have it imposed by foreign powers. The political scene in Tunisia was receptive; the army refused to respond violently to the protests and members of Ben Ali’s government rose against him. The political and social scene in Egypt became receptive after its citizens felt empowered by the Tunisian revolt.

The new media has proved to be a dangerous tool in the hands of Arab citizens. So will Arab regimes clamp down on it or use it for their own interests as they did with the satellite channels? Maybe they will try, but online media technology is moving quickly, and I am sure those regimes will be taken by surprise by another wave of revolutions facilitated by new online tools.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry