New Media and Political Change in Egypt: Causes, Implications and Communication Strategies
As part of the series on recent developments in Egypt, Sahar Mohamed Khamis, Assistant Professor of Communication and Affiliate Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Maryland, discussed the causes, implications, and role of new communication strategies in the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
On March 30, the Middle East Program hosted a meeting on "New Media and Political Change in Egypt: Causes, Implications and Communication Strategies" with Khamis. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Khamis cited a number of factors which contributed to the recent revolution in Egypt. She explained thirty years of living under autocratic rule, widespread corruption, a restrictive emergency law, and a faulty constitution contributed to deep political disillusionment among Egyptian citizens. Steady calls for political reform grew dramatically after the latest parliamentary elections, which Khamis explained were forged. Noting that 40 percent of Egyptians live under the international poverty line, Khamis added that intense economic distress also preceded the uprising. She said that these internal factors combined with the example of a successful popular revolution in Tunisia facilitated the Egyptian revolution of 2011.
Khamis discussed the revolution's implications at the local, regional, and global levels. She mentioned the revolution charged the Egyptian people with a new sense of empowerment, national pride, and determination. She said the significant role of women and of individuals from diverse political, religious, and social groups also fostered solidarity among Egyptian citizens and ushered in an era of social and democratic reform. According to Khamis, echoes of the Tunisian and the Egyptian revolutions across the region have forced Arab rulers to take note of their citizens' demands and implement reforms. Internationally, she claimed, these uprisings have shown that oppression cannot be legitimized by claims of preserving stability or curbing Islamic influence and encouraged the United States to revisit its foreign policy dealings with repressive rulers.
According to Khamis, the introduction of new media such as satellite television channels and the Internet after 1990 transformed monolithic, state-controlled Arab media into an avenue for spreading information and fueling opposition. Paradoxically, she noted, these new channels for expression did not lead to political mobilization until 2011, when young activists created the missing link between the "virtual world" and the "real world" through new media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and text messages. These forms of media paved the way for a democratic transition and served as platforms for self-expression, avenues for civic engagement, and displays of citizen journalism. In responding to the activists, the Egyptian government combined suppression of protestors in the streets with suppression of the truth through national, state-controlled media in what Khamis called a "double-suppression strategy." She claimed the government sought to control all communications and isolate the country by cracking down on foreign journalists, cutting off cell phone lines, and blocking the Internet. Ultimately, she said, these attempts backfired.
Khamis concluded that Egypt is moving into a new era of civic engagement featuring greater roles for youth leadership, women's participation, and new media as "mobilizing tools." She advised that the transition to democratization be done swiftly, safely, and conscientiously.
By Abby Arganese, Middle East Program
Haleh Esfandiari, Middle East Program