Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Single-issue activism

Mohamed Abdel-Baky asks why social media appears to have lost its power to mobilise large demonstrations

Al-Ahram Weekly

Five years after 25 January Revolution, social media may still play a role in political life but its ability to mobilise anti-government supporters has been eroded, particularly in the last two years.

As the fifth anniversary of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak approaches, popular social networks like Facebook and Twitter have seen limited activity, most of it focussed on calling for the release of detainees. Online demands for massive demonstrations to return to Tahrir Square have been few and far between, and the online response muted.

The Twitter hashtag #Ragain lel maidan (“We are back to the square”) attracted a few thousand Egyptian users but interest quickly waned.

 “There is a lot of activity on Facebook and Twitter demanding the release of detainees and complaining about the way the revolution’s goals have been abandoned but it is far from turning into a mass movement on the ground,” says Ahmed Ragab, a researcher at the Egyptian Centre for Public Policy Studies.

Though social media has lost its ability to inspire broad-based, generalised protest against the authorities, it remains relatively successful when it comes to single-issue campaigns.

In October 2015, Egypt’s social media staged a successful campaign against TV host Riham Saed after she blamed a victim of sexual harassment for the attack. Saed claimed on air that the victim had provoked her attackers by the way she dressed and behaved. She then went on to show unrelated images of the victim at a private party and on the beach.

The broadcast provoked a storm of protest across social media. Within days, hundreds of thousands had joined a Facebook campaign demanding that Reham Saed face legal proceedings for her comments. On Twitter the hashtag #Die Reham trended, and tweets criticising her unethical and unprofessional behaviour flooded in.

When 10 of the show’s sponsors withdrew their support, Saed’s show was suspended by the TV channel, which issued a statement saying it was launching an investigation. Saed then posted on Facebook that she was resigning. The shows sponsors also took to social media to insist they would never support a show that promoted “sexual harassment” or “interference in people’s private lives”.

The Riham Saed incident followed on the heels of a successful social media campaign against the then-Minister of Justice Mahfouz Saber, who was forced to resign after telling a TV interviewer that the children of garbage collectors could never become members of the judiciary.

 “There are two reasons why social media is not playing as strong a role as it did five years ago,” says Ragab.

 “In 2010 a majority of social networkers were against the Mubarak regime. Now the Al-Sisi administration has millions of supports on Facebook and Twitter.”

The second reason, he says, is that the public has lost confidence in the ability of protests to achieve political and social change.

 “Many Egyptian may oppose some of the government policies but they no longer believe that going to the street will help,” he said.

Rania Makram, a researcher at the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS), agrees with Ragab on the reasons behind the decline in the influence of social media on Egypt’s political scene.

In a recent paper published by the RCSS, Makram argued that in many of the countries that saw Arab Spring uprisings the public has now retreated from the political arena.

 “Millions of people are frustrated. They no longer have any interest in social network activity after seeing how the Arab Spring ended up,” she said.

According to a report issued by E-Marketing Egypt, a company specialised in online market research, the number of Facebook users in Egypt now exceeds 22 million, 75 per cent of whom are less than 30 years old.

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