Published on Arab Voices

Social media in MENA: connecting groups, strengthening the “I”

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning columnist and an international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues. She is based in New York.

ImageKhaled Said was not the first Egyptian whom police allegedly beat to death. But his death sparked a virtual revolution that in retrospect was a perfect rehearsal for the real revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule in 18 days.

Said, a 28-year-old Egyptian businessman, was brutally beaten, his family and activists say, by two plainclothes police officers in June 2010. An Interior Ministry autopsy claimed that he suffocated after swallowing a bag of drugs. But a photograph of a shattered body, his family confirmed was his, started circulating online.His family said he was targeted after posting a video online allegedly showing police sharing profits of a drug bust.

If social media in the Arab world were merely outlets for venting or “stress relief” — as detractors claimed — then Said’s fate would have ended with some angry comments on Facebook and a tweet or two railing at the Egyptian regime.

Instead, Egyptians protested police brutality in unprecedented numbers. A month after Said’s death, the two police officers connected to his death stood trial on charges of illegal arrest and excessive use of force.

Several Facebook pages and groups were launched in his memory, including“We Are All Khaled Said,” which sent out the call for silent protests in black. Reuters reported that as many as 8,000 people dressed in black took part in one protest along the promenade in Alexandria, Said’s home town.

While social media didn’t invent courage, activists had long protested the tactics of Mubarak, but these voices were amplified online as never before.

By the summer of 2010, an estimated 3.4 million Egyptians were on Facebook making Egypt the No. 1 user in the Arab world and 23rd globally. Nearly 2 million Egyptian Facebook users were younger than 25.

Egyptians who realized that any one of them could have been Khaled Said had the chance through social media to challenge the state and its once-absolute ownership of the narrative. Such sites had given a voice and platform to young people long marginalized by those regimes.

A little over 6 months after Said’s death, a new story emerges but this time from Tunisia. On Dec. 17, Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, set himself on fire after police confiscated fruits and vegetables he’d been selling without a permit to make a living.

Protests spread from his hometown of Sidibouzid across Tunisia. Activists in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon held solidarity protests. They could identify all too well with the targets of Tunisian rage: Corruption, nepotism, unemployment and police brutality.

It was on social media where Tunisia began a rally for freedom and dignity that continues to pass the baton from one country to the next across the region.

Bouazizi died on Jan. 4, ten days later the Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down after 23 years in power. Tunisia, resuscitated the Arab imagination and ambition. We watched, thinking Ben Ali left so fast? It's that easy? His fall began a slow and systematic killing of fear that breathed new life into a protest long planned for Jan. 25 by Egyptian online activists to protest police brutality on the day that marked Police Day. Egyptians energized by Tunisia heeded the call and 18 days of growing protests ended Mubarak’s rule.

No Twitter Revolutions or Facebook uprisings, rather those upheavals of courage are testament to how powerful that belief in “I count” garnered online had become.

Those two countries though would be the first to tell you their revolutions are far from over. But as they continue to challenge the powers in place and continue to protest for their demands to be fulfilled, the nature of the ruled and the ruler is changing before our eyes.

Their rally for freedom and dignity continues both in the virtual and the real world. That empowerment – long denied them – will be fiercely protected. “I count” fuels “the people’s” increasing awareness of their power.

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