Activism on the Move: Mediating Protest Space in Egypt with Mobile Technology

Graffiti in Cairo depicting a television with the text "Go down to the streets"

Graffiti in Cairo depicting a television with the text “Go down to the streets”

Sep 05 2014

The 2011 revolutionary uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa abruptly captured global attention as the world was drawn breathlessly into the tumult with a profusion of media content, from Tweets to amateur video footage. Amidst the media blitz, analyses yielded two conflated and reactionary narratives of events. One contended that the popular protests of the so-called “Arab Spring” were wholly unexpected, a shocking diversion from the familiar politics of the Middle East in a seeming contravention of the reigning global political apathy at the turn of the millennium. The other narrative pivoted on the role of digital technology, which was quickly cast as a prominent actor and agent in the drama playing out across the region. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions were intermittently branded “Twitter”, “Facebook”, “Wikileaks” and “YouTube” movements, and the Internet took center stage as the mobilizing political force behind the protests. This mythology of technological liberation is, in many ways, a natural extension of a decades-old development agenda that treats information and communications technologies (ICTs) as a primary path toward economic success and political liberalization and democratization in the developing world. Problematizing revolutionary grievances against neoliberalism, political repression and economic order would only gain wider traction later, with the rise of the Occupy movement, which rapidly globalized what had begun as a seemingly regional phenomenon. But the narrative of technological liberation is ubiquitous, ideological, and resurgent; it is the presumptive narrative of the Arab uprisings.

Now that several years have passed since the uprisings broke out, this narrative is very much alive, contending for recognition and relevance in the face of much richer and reflective perspectives and scholarship. One need only recall the speed with which Turkish protests in Istanbul in 2013 were credited to Twitter as thousands of protesters risked their bodies and lives in Taksim Square. Scholarship on the Arab uprisings must confront the tacit influences of technological determinism and digital Orientalism that still permeate discourses on the uprisings, and this means interrogating how the uprisings were and continue to be mediated. As Albrecht Hofheinz points out: “Much of the academic literature has oscillated between the search for revolutionary developments and the admission that all-too-high hopes for radical, techno-driven political change have not been borne out.” [1] If anything, the protests of the last three years highlight the complex convergence of various agencies, individuals, and technologies. In parsing these relationships within the revolutionary moment, we can better understand the transient boundaries between the virtual and the real, the human and the technological, the static and the mobile. In the technological narrative of the Arab uprisings, the centrality of the Internet obscures alternative technologies and human agencies that collectively mediated events on the ground. At the very least, in popular consciousness, Internet platforms have eclipsed an ordinary piece of hardware—the mobile phone—that not only provides crucial insight into the logistics of mediated protest politics but also sheds some empirical light on the complex media ecology of revolution.

Mobile phones are arguably the technology of everyday life in the Middle East and North Africa, and as such, they are the untold story of the mediated Arab uprisings. At first glance, the significance of mobile phones is made evident in their sheer ubiquity within the regional technoscape. In Egypt, where I conducted my ethnographic research in 2011, Internet penetration was roughly thirty nine percent,[2] with Facebook penetration at only six percent and Twitter at a paltry one and a half percent.[3] Meanwhile, mobile phone penetration was somewhere between eighty and one hundred percent.[4] Statistics also suggest that most Internet users, by a small but important margin, access the Internet using their mobile phones or a USB modem, both of which are physically mobile.[5] Beyond sheer relevance in numbers, the role of mobile phones in protest activity reveals the importance of spatiality to media studies and analyses of the mediated Arab uprisings. Theories about digital ICTs, namely the Internet, often emphasize their disembodied or nonmaterial properties: their placelessness, fluidity, and virtuality. But mobile phones represent a key nexus: the intersection of moving people, mobile hardware, and data in motion. Looking at their uses in political activism in Cairo highlights how the Egyptian context exerts certain influences on the “spaces of flows,” to borrow the expression from Manuel Castells [6] and how those virtual spaces are deeply embedded in the physicality of protest. The mobility of this “prosthetic” technology (technology that is always “at-hand”) gives activists and protesters unprecedented ability to traverse and transgress in physical and virtual space, and it imbues the technology with new, revolutionary significance.

Activists in Egypt during the eighteen-day revolution and in the ongoing aftermath used mobile phones in a number of important ways, many of which transformed the meaning and use of the technology to accommodate the exigencies of the revolutionary moment. Broadly, protesters used mobile phones for (1) information and coordination, (2) personal safety, (3) witnessing and corroborating events, (4) bridging the widening digital divide, all of which I will explore in greater detail here.

Information and Coordination

One of the primary uses of mobile phones during the January 25 revolution and in subsequent protests has been for sharing information and coordinating action. I should emphasize that mobile phones had carved out their place in everyday life and political movements long before the Egyptian revolution. In a personal interview, April 6 Youth Movement founder and figurehead Ahmed Maher described the significance of mobile phones to the notable April 6 solidarity protests with Mahalla al-Kubra textile workers in 2008, saying, “Of course, once we were in the streets we used SMS. It was crucial.”  

Sociologist John Urry, who works on issues of mobility, describes mobile phones as becoming “corporeally interwoven.” And to some users, they might even be considered “physically coterminous with their bodies.” [7] Mobile telephony is the quotidian medium through which people socialized, coordinated and communicated prior to the revolution, so there is no great revelation in its mere presence or prominence within the media ecology during or after the revolution. Rather, its role is made particularly compelling in how mobile telephony and human agency in the Egyptian political sphere have co-evolved to meet the demands of political action.

Although maps, routes, and plans were made and disseminated online before protests even began in January, they were at best approximations of the actual physical terrain that protesters would encounter on the day of protest. Routes were made and altered to respond to changing conditions, and they were texted on mobile devices to individuals’ contacts. Maps of entry and escape were carefully updated and disseminated via SMS and forwarded extensively in order to reach the widest possible audience of non-3G mobile phone users. This particular usage of mobile telephony is very context-specific, requiring users to be present in a space where the crucial information will be relevant. The revolutionary difference, the circumstantial alignment of human-technological events that rendered the revolutionary moment distinct from everyday resistance, was realized in a convergence of mobility—the physical mobility of protesters and the virtual mobility of their data, where communication channels were opened between the experienced activists who had encountered police violence and containment tactics over the past decade and those who had been only recently mobilized. During the height of Egyptian revolution, activists were physically mobile while sharing updates through various platforms—SMS, Twitter, and Facebook—and simultaneously making their knowledge and information mobile in virtual space. In order to be relevant and useful, activists had to have eyewitness experience of the physical obstacles facing other protesters and activists making their way to Tahrir Square, but their information could travel well beyond the location of their bodies. This dual mobility of the activist and her information occurred instantaneously and simultaneously.

Beyond the prosthetic importance of mobile phones to activists, mobile phones also maintain particular kinds of networks that proved essential to mobilization. In fact, mobile phones have long held a unique position in the realm of new media studies because of the particular kinds of mediated networks they maintain. They are widely acknowledged to uphold closer, more meaningful, “strong” ties than online media and social networking platforms because they are often used among people who also share significant face-to-face relationships.[8] In contrast, online platforms uphold “weak ties.”[9] Mobile phones connect people with “friends and family” in part because in order to access someone via mobile phone, a user must have a very specific reference for them—their phone number—that must be exchanged in order to make contact. There is no mobile phone book as there is for registered landlines, and there is no search bar as there is on a social media platform online.[10] Ties via mobile phone are closer and the communication more personally relevant. In an article for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell argues that high-risk activism is a strong tie phenomenon. In the words of Hanaa, an April 6 activist and media coordinator, “It makes a difference when someone you know says meet me here.” Nearly all of the activists I spoke with indicated that they had received personal messages from friends via SMS urging them to go to Tahrir Square. “The phone is for getting more details and to make plans. We have a specific communications department now for that. The Internet cannot make protests happen. The mobile phone actually materializes it—the Internet might be for getting some information, but the mobile phone is more important,” Hanaa explained.

Thus, activists moved into the public spaces of the city en masse with their mobile phones. Having the mobile phone “in-hand” meant that it was able to mediate ad hoc communications, information, and coordination. Changing conditions and plans made mobile phones the fastest and most reliable way to transmit information about new developments. Some of that reliability stems from the physical mobility of the technology with the bodies of the activists; their mobile media tools enhanced activists’ personal agency. But reliability also stemmed from the particular kinds of networks enabled by mobile phones; more close-knit, strong ties facilitated a crucial interpersonal mobilization in which the nebulous boundaries between online activists with regular Internet access and non-wired protesters with less everyday connectivity were collapsed in contextually-critical ways.

Personal Safety: A Mobile Heartbeat

In the late 1940s, Harold Osborne, a chief engineer at AT&T, famously (and almost mythically) made a strangely prescient assertion: “Let us say in the ultimate, whenever a baby is born anywhere in the world, he is given at birth a number which will be his telephone number for life […] at any time when he wishes to talk with anyone in the world, he will pull out the device and punch on the keys the number of his friend. Then turning the device over, he will hear the voice of his friend and see his face on the screen, in color and in three dimensions. If he does not see and hear him he will know that the friend is dead.”[11] Although his prediction might seem now just as ripe for science fiction as it did in the mid-twentieth century, he captures perhaps the most important significance of the mobile phone to activists during protests in Egypt. Mobile connectivity could serve as a proxy for bodily status.

Thus, the revolutionary difference for mobile telephony lies in its provision of an entirely different element of safety and security. In the uncertain times of political protest during and after the Egyptian revolution, a mobile signal represents an absent activist’s physical status. Without physical proof, and when disappearances, arrests, and deaths are common, a mobile signal is a technological pulse. If it is compromised, in all likelihood, the body in possession of it has been compromised as well. The mobile phone provides activists with a limited ability to respond rapidly to suspected abductions, arrests, and deaths, whether that response entails organizing legal assistance, notifying other activists of physical danger, or rallying to challenge wrongful accusations.

“Yeah, it sounds crazy to you, maybe. But if someone doesn’t answer their phone, we have to assume they are dead, or at best, arrested. And then we go to a new strategy to deal with that possibility,” Hanaa told me at one of the April 6 headquarters. Three other members of the April 6 media team nodded in agreement. This assumption is prone to certain unavoidable flaws: there could certainly be other reasons why a phone might go unanswered, particularly in the event of a blackout, as occurred during the January 2011 Egyptian protests. But as an imperfect proxy for the physical status of other protesters, the mobile connection remained essential. A couple of weeks after my initial meeting with Hanaa and others in early September 2011, I returned to attend a plenary meeting of the April 6 Movement. Abdel Rahman, then elected chair of the branch, led a discussion about how to deal with the revelation that they had several missing members since their last march to a Friday protest, which were, by then, a weekly occurrence. They suspected that undercover police in the April 6 ranks had arrested the missing members. Asked how they knew the members were “missing,” he said, simply: “They haven’t answered their phones in a while.”

Mobile telephony significantly altered the dynamics of safety and security in Cairo, making it easier to coordinate with friends, fellow activists, and other protesters. Historically, public space has been heavily policed, highly regulated, and intensely surveilled. Therefore, moving within that space can constitute an act of resistance, and organized collective movements in policed areas come with unexpected risks that mobile telephony has helped to mitigate.

In the days leading up to the January 2011 protests, April 6 Youth Movement activist Asmaa Mahfouz became a prominent icon of the revolutionary call to action in several YouTube videos posted in Arabic between January 18 and February 28, 2011. In her videos, she encourages viewers to join her, and she even posted her phone number so that they can literally “meet her” in Tahrir.[12] Her personal call to action highlights how some of the safety concerns that come with moving into potentially dangerous situations could be assuaged along the way by the assurance that individuals might find and meet friends at the protest site itself. The safety and security function of mobile communication has been explored by other scholars who investigate its coordination function in the event of emergencies and crises.[13] Internet postings alone could not accomplish this task of providing constant updates on the ground or building the momentum that only escalated the protests after January 25. Mobile telephony gave otherwise apprehensive potential protesters the confidence of physical mobility because of the informational mobility immediately at hand. More information about conditions on the ground meant more security going into the streets.

In her detailed account of the Egyptian revolution, Mona El-Ghobashy discusses how false information about gathering places and meeting times were disseminated by social media online before 25 January 2011. On that day and in the ensuing protests, organizers used mobile phones to share the accurate information about when and where to meet, collecting people as crowds marched through neighborhoods.[14] Moving in a crowd and circulating accurate information among “strong ties” provided additional security. Activist and technology have become interwoven and interdependent—assigning and accepting meaning from one another. This usage is only available through the mobile medium of the mobile phone because of its co-presence with activists on the ground and its ubiquity across social class and various levels of “wired”-ness.

Mobile Witness

If mobile phones have come to represent a technological “heartbeat,” indicating the life or death status of activists on the move, it should come as no surprise that they also serve as sensory organs—eyes and ears. The mapping and coordinating function of mobile phones became instantly unusable on 27 January, when SMS was disabled. There are many graphs depicting the unprecedented and dramatic impact of the Internet shutdown in Egypt, but there is very little visual depiction of the patchy but highly consequential strangling of mobile telephony during the same period. At this point, mobile media lost its communicative role entirely and became, above all else, exclusively mobile. Despite having no ability to transfer information, updates, photos, or other content between devices, mobile phones became disconnected recording instruments. The erratic lack of connectivity placed new relevance on mediated witnessing. Protesters and activists continued using phones to document events in texts, images and videos, cached in their digital mobile memory until the media blockages could be lifted or until more experienced activists could find ways of bypassing the shutdown. In many cases, tech-savvy activists collected and stored protesters’ images and videos on hard drives they had brought with them to the square.

Even in the absence of communication, the physical mobility of the activists themselves in Tahrir Square was augmented by mobile technologies, rendering the mobile phone relevant not only in its communicative power but its observational power, a technological witness to events that could only be experienced in the physical, “offline” protest spaces by the activists themselves. Recording events that the activists themselves witnessed became a way to assert ownership over transient experiences. Documentation was (and continues to be) a protest strategy in its own right. As Ramy Raouf, an activist affiliated with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), put it: “No one believed us because it is…unbelievable. Until we could actually show them.”

The communications blackout experienced by protesters in 2011 also resulted in a rerouting of information flows. Activists’ attention turned to sharing collected reports, images, and footage with an international audience by posting mobile phone-aggregated content on the Internet when open connections could be discovered. “We felt like the only people online because no one else had access in Egypt. Everything was focused on getting the information beyond Egypt,” Raouf explained. Thus, the media blackout inadvertently resulted in a newly fervent drive to reach people outside of Egypt through Internet pathways, resulting in a surge of content aimed at and consumed by international news agencies, NGOs, and governments. Protesters used landlines, fax machines, dial-up connections, SMS collectors, and some third-party mobile phone apps (available to smart phone owners only), and they sought advice from sources like the “hacktivist” group Anonymous [15] in order to continue breaking through the information barricades. The conditions of revolution—the security crackdown and media blackout—instantly reshaped both the uses of mobile mediums and the direction of information flows. The Internet was no longer accessible by people within Egypt, so when backdoors opened for content to be released online, the audience was, by default, largely international. The directionality of this information stream is important; decoupling technology from the contextually contingent spaces and circumstances on the ground allowed an uncritical technological narrative of the Egyptian uprising to take root, fueled by the misconception that the digital content available online represented a broad spectrum of users and experiences.

Importantly, it was not only the actual mobility of updates, photos, and videos over digital pathways that made the mobile phone relevant. It was also the potential mobility of that information. Activists continued documenting events through mobile phone cameras even after SMS and call services had been blocked in the expectation that they or other activists could make that information mobile at the first possible opportunity. The witnessing function of the mobile phone achieves its credibility from being physically mobile with activists. Its verifiability and reliability as a visual record depend on “prosthesis” with the protesting body. Omar, an activist, amateur documentary filmmaker and graffiti artist explained: “You had to be there. Of course there was more weight attached to the photos because you sometimes risked your life to get them.”

Bridging the Digital Divide

At this point, it is crucial to re-examine how the mobile phone is situated in the wider media ecology available to activists in Egypt. Mobile technology plays an exceptional role in the context of street politics, but it can never be fully isolated as a unit of observation from the broader media environment. Mobile phones are uniquely situated as a “convergence” technology—technologies that serve similar functions or integrate the same functions within a single platform (for instance, the ability of a mobile phone to stream a television show, connect to the Internet, place voice calls, and transfer SMS messages)[16] All of that content—whether from smart phones or older generation models—can make its way online through SMS forwarding and sharing among user groups. Many of the activists I have interviewed and surveyed over the last three years have owned smart phones. As a result, these activists belong to the roughly nine percent of Egyptian mobile phone subscribers who have Internet on their mobile devices.[17] Although they certainly cannot be said to represent the vast majority of Egyptian mobile phone users, they importantly represent the wired demographic of activists who regularly bridge the divide between basic mobile telephony and online content.

According to Raouf, this “bridging” is one of the key areas where activists in the days after the revolution have asked for advice from expert consultants: “There is a question of how to best provide coverage from offline to online through mobile phones. It’s mostly about getting from offline to online through the mobile phone itself.” Part of this interest certainly stems from the fact that the majority of Egyptians cannot bridge that information divide themselves. While mobile phones are widespread, the Internet is not. Mobile phones must be viewed within this context. Mobile phone content can travel from offline users to mobile gatekeepers and online platforms. As I have pointed out, the mobile phone enjoys nearly ubiquitous presence in Egyptian communicative life while the Internet remains accessible to a substantially smaller number of people, and the limited availability of the Internet on mobile devices through 3G or WiFi means that the mobile phone has become a site of socio-economic stratification in terms of Internet access. Some phones can get online, but most cannot. As a technology that straddles the infrastructural and socioeconomic online/offline divide, the mobile phone also serves as an intermediary between mediums in Egypt. Content moves between the online and the offline as users repackage offline content for online dissemination and online content for offline consumption on non-Internet-enabled devices.

Politics in Motion

Events in Egypt are no more a “mobile phone revolution” than they are a Facebook or Twitter revolution. Nevertheless, mobile telephony plays a crucial and underrepresented role in the technological story of the Egyptian uprisings as both a ubiquitous technology and a highly mobile one, which daily traverses the interstitial space between the “online” and the “offline.” Focusing on the Internet and social media only tells a limited story about the mediated politics of protest. New media and digital technologies did contribute to the revolution and ongoing protests, but their role must be theorized within the context of everyday life and people’s ordinary mediated experiences. The exceptional aspects of the revolutionary moment emerge in the punctuated encounter between the technologies of everyday life and the long historical curve of mediated activism.

The Egyptian revolution occurred at a time in the country’s media history at which the networking technologies were unevenly accessible to the population, and this continues to be one of the defining features of the Egyptian media ecology. While Egypt’s Internet users are becoming networked with greater frequency, gaining access to online spaces and resources, most Egyptians are still excluded from the network by the limitations of infrastructure, economy, and society that act on and perpetuate the digital divide in access. Any discussion of the gap in diffusion and adoption invokes the now-familiar theoretical contributions of Everett Rogers,[18] whose stages of innovation adoption and categories of adopters deserve reflection in the context of digitally divided media ecologies. In this context, both diffusion and adoption of innovations are inhibited by the digital divide in access to ICT hardware, and further, by the insular communicative communities enabled by that access. Even in the absence of overwhelming evidence, global coverage of the Arab uprisings attempted to fit events into a proscribed but empirically elusive network narrative, where the principle agents of the revolution were online, activist nodes connected to and inspired by the global information network.

This particular narrative drew attention to new media rather than the politics in the street. In considering mediated protest politics amidst ongoing turmoil within Egypt and elsewhere, contextualizing not only the political events but also the everyday media landscape of the country can guide a more insightful analysis ofhow new media interact with politics. Mobile phones are important to the political landscape in Egypt because they are a critical part of everyday life, and their significance is only revealed through engagement with a more situated media scholarship that recognizes the importance of place. 

Looking forward, the future of these revolutionary movements may depend increasingly on activists’ ability to bridge the online-offline divides that are not only technological but also ideological. Where activists no longer share a physical, public space for an intense and concentrated period of time, long-term participatory and protest politics will depend on the ongoing negotiation of these divides. The mobile phone will undoubtedly continue to be essential in this process because of its least exceptional qualities—ubiquity and mobility between public and private locales. Contrary to accounts that would hail innovative new media as agent, activist, and narrator of events in the Middle East, the centrality of mobile phones to the revolution and their unique synergy with the physicality of protest suggest that in both politics and media, there is much of the ordinary in the revolutionary.

[1] Albrecht Hofheinz, “Nextopia? Beyond Revolution 2.0,” International Journal of Communication, 5 (2011): 1418.
[2] International Telecommunications Union, ICT data for the world, by geographic regions and by level of development (excel), (2013).
[3] Arab Social Media Report, Civil Movements: The Impact of Facebook and Twitter, 1:2 (2011).
[4] International Telecommunications Union, ICT data for the world, 2013.
[5] Egyptian Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, ICT Indicators in Brief, (May 2011).
[6] Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society: Economy, Society and Culture, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996).
[7] John Urry, Mobilities, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), 45.
[8] Mikko Villi and Matea Stocchetti, “Visual mobile communication, mediated presence and the politics of space,” Vistual Studies 26:2 (2011): 102-112.
[9] Dominique Cardon and Christophe Aguiton, “The Strength of Weak Cooperation: an Attempt to Understand the Meaning of Web 2.0,” Communications and Strategies 65:1 (2007).
[10] Rich Ling and Jonathan Donner, Mobile Communication, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009).
[11] Ling and Donner, Mobile Communication, 151.
[12] Melissa Wall and Sel Zahed, “I’ll Be Waiting for You Guys: A YouTube Call to Action in the Egyptian Revolution,” Journal of Communication, 5 (2011): 1338.
[13] See, for instance: Andrea Kavanaugh, Seungwon Yang, Steven Sheetz, Lin Tzy Li, and Ed Fox, “Between a Rock and a Cell Phone : Social Media Use during Mass Protests in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt,” ACM Trans. of CHI, 1 (2011): 1-10.
[14] Mona El-Ghobashy, “The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution,” Middle East Research and Information Project, 258 (2011).
[15] Anonymous [Organization], “20 Ways to Circumvent the Egyptian Govenrment Internet Block.”
[16] See: Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, (New York: New York University Press, 2006); Matthew Liebmann, “Media Convergence,” in J. Treadwell Chair Libraries and Collaboration Session of the Library of the 21st Century Symposium, (2006); Tim Dwyer, Media Convergence, (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2010); David Silver, “Internet/Cyberculture/Digital Culture/New Media/Fill-in-the-Blank Studies,” New Media & Society, 1 (2004): 55-64; Asa Briggs and Peter Burke, A Social History of the Media from Gutenberg to the Internet, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005).
[17] Business Monitor International, “Egypt: Telecommunications Report: Q1,” (London: 2012).
[18] Everett Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, (New York: The Free Press, 2003).