Fighting With Social Media Until Now, Egyptians Prepare For More Physical Battle

MCN's Tom Roychoudhury Reports on Growing Unrest

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Tom Roychoudhury
Tom Roychoudhury

It's very early morning in Cairo on Wednesday and I'm being told on the phone that the protesters are bracing for the worst. Omar Sulieman, the Egyptian vice president, has warned that his government "can't put up with continued protests," reflecting the regime's wrath at what's now 16 days of pro-democracy protest that's had global coverage. With his "no ending of the regime" stand getting even harder, and the protesters even more determined to "stay until they go," most of my contacts are preparing for an all out. "We've tried hard on Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger," said Ahmed. "Now we're preparing for battle."

The revolution may no longer just be tweeted. It will be bled.

Necessity is the mother of intervention. When all else failed, they went Bluetooth and memory stick. Day after day, as one communication door closed down, the people in Egypt have used new doors and intervention and invention. When all electronic channels were shut down, it went physical. Tahrir Square, #Jan25, #Egypt. The first "phygital" revolution in history.

Change doesn't happen on a social network alone, change happens on the street. It's physical, it's blood, sweat, fire, rocks, bullets.

There's a set of the urban hip in Cairo who are now pounding the streets in Tahrir Square in their Converse who'll claim it all started on their 'Berries and iPads. This is a modern-day revolution, with keyboard and mouse instead of guns and Molotov cocktails or sticks and stones.

"We're winning this on information," claimed a young advertising executive who was involved. Shared information, where-to and how-to tips kicked off and mobilized this uprising. Starting, we are told, on Facebook. And then it picked up momentum across various channels of communications, like Twitter, BBM, voice-to-tweet, open IPs and physical memory-stick sharing.

An uprising is a mass thing, and the mass doesn't reach critical until it involves a cross-strata of society. This time around, the socially adept, technologically enabled urban youth got involved, and often actually activated the masses because they felt empowered and enabled. "What's different this time around here in Egypt is that this isn't just a bunch of disgruntled, unemployed young men hurling rocks," said a colleague, comparing the situation to some other parts of ongoing intifada in the region. They're educated, aware, and unhappy. They're hurling tweets.

One poster boy in Tahrir Square this time is Google's marketing head for the Middle East and North Africa: Wael Ghonim, blogger and activist. When he disappeared off the streets, locked up by the authorities for socially mobilizing the uprising on Facebook and helping push #Jan25 to unprecedented trending, the social networks were rife with anger and acceptance. If you blog, they arrest you. You are known by your handle. And then, on his release on Monday, there was widespread celebration and a whole new momentum fueled by victory.

The other thing we've noticed this time is that the people have intervened and invented in amazing ways beyond text. People are turning not working into networking. We've seen dozens of photos and handheld videos shared on the internet, but they're often passed on physically to start with. Digital cameras and camera phones are enabling the street-citizen journalist. And a lot of these were handed over to foreign journalists in various formats, on the street and in hotel lobbies. When Al Jazeera was allowed back on, their Creative Commons has helped the people of Egypt find their audio -- and video -- voice.

Tom Roychoudhury is Dubai-based chief innovations officer at Interpublic-owned Middle East network MCN. Follow him on Twitter at @tomroydigital.
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