Above photo: Protesters in front of the Nasr City police station. Cairo, Egypt – January 29, 2011. Hossam el-Hamalawy / Flickr.
Seeing footage of widespread protests and strikes in the years prior to 2011 helped Egyptians to overcome their fears of the regime and start a revolution.
The Egyptian revolution, which flared from early 2011 to mid-2013, is usually presented in the media (and some academic circles) as a “Facebook Revolution” or at least as one gigantic event that was ignited and organized online. The truth is slightly different.
The 2011 uprising was the product of a decade-long complicated political process, in which dissent was accumulating, organizing skills were honed, small victories were achieved and fear of the regime’s repressive apparatus was gradually eroding.
One central element in this process that would in 2011 culminate in a full-blown revolution was the visualization of dissent. This involved the deliberate dissemination of photos and videos of acts of social and political resistance to a nation-wide audience, extending its impact far beyond the dissidents — often but a handful — that were involved in the acts themselves.
Sparks of dissent
During the 1990s, Egypt was going through a dirty war. Under the guise of the “war on terror,” President Hosni Mubarak’s security services crushed dissent of all shades. Industrial actions dwindled and were swiftly suspended by police attacks. Student activists were besieged within the walls of the universities. Syndicates and unions were under regime control. Last but not least, there was hardly any room for a free press. Most publications and all TV stations were owned and run by the state. Newspapers run by opposition parties were subject to censorship. There were so many red lines, but the biggest taboo was obviously Mubarak himself and his family.
The outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000 became a key turning point. The intifada triggered mass protests in Egypt, mainly centered around the campuses, schools and professional syndicates. These were the biggest protests Egypt had witnessed since Mubarak rose to power in 1981.
The protests were met with brute force and mass arrests. Yet, the demonstrations continued, first in support of the Palestinians and later also against the United States-led war on Iraq. Protesters soon became more confident and started taking on the Egyptian regime itself, raising questions about domestic problems, such as the regime’s suppression of dissent, police torture and press freedom.
In April 2002, wide scale rioting erupted in neighborhoods surrounding Cairo University, and thousands of rioters felt emboldened to chant against Mubarak himself. In March 2003, following the US-led invasion of Iraq, Tahrir square was occupied and for two days it became the scene of running clashes between protesters and the regime’s security forces. Protesters fought the police, burned posters of Mubarak in Tahrir and braved torture in police detention facilities, in what would become a dress rehearsal for the 2011 uprising.
Dissidence aired live
But the question remains: Why would an average Egyptian, who a few years earlier was too scared to whisper Mubarak’s name, let alone demonstrate against him, suddenly gain the courage to take to the streets, burn Mubarak posters and organize against him and his family?
Unless one is part of the ruling class and already enjoying its privileges, deep down in everyone’s consciousness, there is a thirst for freedom and the desire to live “better” but it is not usually clear what “better” is or how to achieve it. There is discontent with the status quo, but one is constantly told this is the best we can have. Nothing could be done about it. The ideological state apparatus continuously bombard us with hegemonic discourses that ensure our subjugation and conformity.
One is not necessarily encouraged to take action because they “have got nothing to lose” or because the “situation has become unbearable.” This is a romanticized and usually incorrect approach to understanding the dynamics of radicalization and advocacy work.
One, however, is encouraged to take action if they feel: that it’s not a “crazy idea” to revolt; that people elsewhere have done it and that it worked out; that it happened before and that it can happen again; that I am not the only “crazy one” to be thinking about action.
A crucial factor that is sometimes ignored in understanding how this transformation occurred in Egypt (and the broader region) is the rise of Al-Jazeera and the proliferation of satellite TV channels in the early 2000s. The Palestinian intifada was aired live, and the visuals of the struggle — of Palestinian kids confronting the mighty Israeli tanks with nothing but rocks — was broadcasted day and night to millions of Egyptians who were glued to the screens.
What followed was a simple deduction: If Palestinian kids can take on Israeli tanks, why can we not confront Mubarak’s police?
The spread of information about the Palestinian uprising was esentially an act of agitation, even if no propaganda or neatly-crafted slogans were attached. The visuals alone were enough to plant a seed of the revolution in the peoples’ minds.
Emboldening Egyptian society
The mobilizations between 2000 and 2003 in support of Palestine and against the invasion of Iraq managed to carve out a space in the public sphere where activists could organize — something that had previously been impossible. In 2004, these same pro-Palestine and anti-war campaigners launched the pro-democracy movement Kefaya (Arabic for “enough”), which campaigned to end Mubarak’s rule and prevent him from grooming his son, Gamal, for succession.
Between 2004 and 2007, Kefaya was active in organizing protests that destroyed Mubarak’s taboo once and for all. The movement was a united front that was led by leftists and Nasserists and also included some Islamists (mainly from the Labor Party), as well as independent youth who did not necessarily subscribe to a political group.
Kefaya’s protests only exceeded a few thousands participants on very rare occasions, but were mostly limited to dozens, or sometimes hundreds of activists. The social impact of their actions and demonstrations was completely disproportionate to their physical presence, however. Kefaya activists were media-savvy, and ensured that the visuals of every action — despite the small numbers involved — reached as many Egyptians as possible via prior coordination with correspondents of satellite TV stations, foreign reporters and increasing numbers of local journalists who joined the ranks of the newly rising private newspapers.
Such electrifying impact of Kefaya’s anti-Mubarak visuals helped embolden other sections of Egyptian society to step forward and take action.
In December 2006, thousands of women workers started a strike in the biggest textile mill in the Middle East, in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla. Soon their male colleagues joined, and the entire mill was brought to a complete halt over bonuses promised earlier by the prime minister. The strike lasted for three days and ended in victory, triggering other mass strikes in the textile sector. The industrial militancy soon spread to virtually all sectors of the economy.
One should ask: Where were these workers before 2006? And what led to this domino effect that saw one strike leading to many others?
In various chats I had with strike leaders at the time, the answers I used to hear were something along the lines of: “we are sitting at home, watching Al-Jazeera and seeing how those crazy kids of Kefaya burning down Mubarak’s posters in Cairo.” Although Kefaya was not directly involved in the strike wave, and had never managed to draw a following among labor and the urban poor, their mastering of the tactics of spreading visuals of dissent to a larger audience helped embolden Egyptian workers to start striking.
In nearly every factory or workplace I entered during the Winter of Labor Discontent, the strikers told me: “We saw (heard or read about) Mahalla striking and winning so we decided to follow suit.”
Thanks to the rise in satellite TV channels and private press, the news of the Mahalla victory spread beyond the boundaries of the Nile Delta. And once again, it proved that it is not a “crazy idea” to act and challenge the power structures. The spread of information about the Mahalla strike became a call to action.
In 2007, in a social gathering with some veteran labor organizers, one of them pointed to my camera and grinned. “If a camera showed up in a strike in the past, workers would run away or try to hide their faces,” he said. “Now they stand bravely with their bare chests in front of any lens.” When I asked him why such change happened. He answered laughingly “because they have nothing to lose.”
But in my view, there was another, more important reason. If a camera had appeared in the 1990s in any protest, most probably the photographer would have been working for a state-run media outlet, and the photos of the protesters would have appeared in the “Crime Section” of the newspaper, as “rioters, criminals, etc.” But from 2006 onwards, a camera appearing in a strike could simply mean that the strikers’ photos could end up on the frontpage of Al-Masry Al-Youm or any other privately owned newspaper, with relatively positive coverage, or could be shown in one of the increasingly popular talk shows on private satellite TV stations. The workers, thus, were keen to have their pictures taken and their actions filmed. It was one way, they instinctively understood, to pressure their bosses and the government, and to send a message to their fellow workers to join their rank-and-file actions.
Revolution is not a crazy idea
It is true that activist blogs and social media played an important role in the mobilizations of 2011, but at the time only a minority of the population had internet access. Their power and influence in fact stemmed from an unofficial alliance between old, new and alternative media.
Satellite TV stations and private newspapers were closely following the blogs and social media, and reporting their content to millions inside Egypt and abroad. This meant that the calls for protests from activists with just a handful followers in cyberspace reached a much wider audience, and that the footage and images of the protests were transmitted to millions.
The bloggers, and later social media users, in Egypt helped to raise the ceiling of demands about civil liberties and to disseminate information about strikes, protests and other events, as well as news of police violations and leaked torture videos. Again, there was special focus on visuals to either “shock” the public about the gruesome torture in police stations, or to encourage them to join the ranks of dissent by plain visual messages about the “normality” of wanting to rebel.
With the start of the uprising in Tunisia in 2010, the bloggers in Egypt were instrumental in getting the visuals online and disseminating them to the widest possible audiences in Egypt. The message was direct and simple: The Tunisians did it. Arab dictators are not invincible. A popular uprising is not a crazy idea. It is already happening.
It was not solely the digital outreach of the Egyptian bloggers that helped encourage their fellow Egyptians into action. Again, it was the dynamic of the old media reporting what the bloggers were posting online, and beaming those visuals to millions in their homes sitting in front of their TV screens.
Such dynamics will also help us understand partially why the uprising continued in Egypt despite the telecommunication shutdown: activist bloggers worked offline to gather visuals and were sharing them generously with mainstream journalists, who would then air them to millions inside and outside Egypt.
Today, the Egyptian mainstream media, whether owned by the state or private businessmen, is once again under complete control of the security services. Dissent is criminalized, crushed, and persecuted by the ruling military dictator, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
The counterrevolution might have taken the country back to square zero, not just square one. However, it is under such conditions specifically, that the spread of information is crucially an act of agitation. The dissidents who are trying to survive the crackdown, are slowly regrouping and re-building what has been destroyed. They are very aware of the experiences that have been accumulated over the past two decades, and continue to tweak their tactics of visualizing dissent, hoping to topple that first domino that will set the next revolution in motion.
Hossam el-Hamalawy is a journalist, photographer and an activist with the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists. He was among the #Jan25 organizers and continues to report dissent at his blog.