More than two years have passed since Egyptians brought down the Mubarak regime.
Indisputably, modern information and communication technologies (ICTs) have played a significant role in the events of the Arab citizen uprisings of 2011 (as well as other recent instances of citizen action around the world). The exact nature of this role is, however, have been – and are still – subject to rife conjecture and intense debate, especially when it comes to the extent to which digital social media and new communication technologies can continue to strengthen enduring grassroots drives for desirable social change in the Arab World and beyond. What could be claimed with a safe degree of certainty, however, is that extant paradigms of power, participation and representation are being challenged and ways of thinking about grassroots activism are being revisited in attempts to make sense of the shifting landscape of collective political action, especially with new technologies playing a center-stage role.
Social media in post-revolution Egypt
More than two years have passed since Egyptians brought down the Mubarak regime, yet little has changed. The seemingly ineradicable structures of hegemonic control and anti-democratization are being further fortified by the Muslim Brotherhood, who were previously been a political underdog, abusing ballot wins (having amassed popular sympathy as one of the oppressed political opponents of the ousted regime) to dominate the Egyptian political arena and consolidate sweeping powers over all facets of governance, legislation and national decision-making with complete disregard to demands for genuine democratic reforms and sociopolitical transformation.
I wrote before about what I believe to be the big picture of the role of social media in providing a conduit of activism in Egypt under Mubarak, where online discourses on change were ‘incubated’ virtually within a highly stifled ‘real’ public sphere (in which ‘real’ activism was also alive and well, despite continuous state intimidation). The dynamic relationship between the virtual and the real was central in collective organizing, mobilization and establishing a requisite ideological kinship to bring down a deeply entrenched regime. Now that there is a continued abuse of power under a new regime which is highly cognizant of the dangers posed by citizen media and ubiquitous social networking, how relevant is ‘virtual activism’ in the persevering resistance against continued and intransigent oppression and despotism?
The changing face of dissent
It would be overly simplistic as well as analytically myopic to look at the relationship between emerging communication technologies and widespread citizen action from the perspective of ‘technology-as-cause’; which essentially suggests that if the oppressed acquire enabling technologies, they can and will revolt and claim their rights. At the core of any attempts at theorization of the interface between technology and collective action, I argue, should be the fundamental premise that there is nothing new about citizens claiming their rights and fighting oppression, yet there is a lot that is indeed new in how they go about doing so. While ascribing any successes or failures of technology-facilitated popular action to solely the ‘digital’ in ‘digital activism’ is short-sighted, downplaying the extent to which new technologies are causing radical shifts in citizen-state relationships will yield equally deficient understandings of these emerging dynamics.