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Egypt’s uprising: different media ensembles at different stages

February 10, 2011

A great deal has been said and blogged about the role of social media in the Tunisia and Egypt uprisings. Missing from the debates so far is a key dimension of all political struggles, namely the fact that they go through developmental stages. This is what members of the now defunct Manchester School of Anthropology referred to as the ‘processual form’ of a political conflict.

In the contemporary era when political actors (rulers, politicians, activists, journalists, citizens, etc.) have access to multiple media, when analysing a struggle it is crucial that we establish which media ensembles – or media mixes – came to the fore at which particular stages of the conflict. Although it is still early days to reconstruct the Egyptian uprising, it is already clear that indeed different stages have seen different constellations of media-related activity in Cairo and other sites of conflict. To illustrate this point, let us retrace the steps of the still unresolved dispute by means of a timeline drawn from Al Jazeera, the BBC, Wikipedia, and other sources.

25 Jan, Day of Anger. Huge anti-Mubarak demonstrations across Egypt inspired by recent events in Tunisia. In Cairo protesters converge on Tahrir Square.  Protests set on this day to coincide with National Police Day and coordinated via a Facebook page. Organisers ‘taking a stand against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment’ . Twitter played ‘a key part’: supporters in Egypt and abroad used hashtag #jan25 ‘to post news of the day’ . Anonymous leaflets advised protesters on how to organise mass demonstrations, confront riot police, take control of governmental offices… Leaflets asked citizens to email and photocopy it but not use social media which was being monitored. Ham radio also used to coordinate the ‘extremely well organised’ revolt. Al Jazeera TV widely watched in Egypt and abroad.

27 Jan. Nobel laureate ElBaradei returns to Egypt to take up leadership of opposition to Mubarak. Speaks to thousands of protesters who are defying curfew for third consecutive night. But protests are smaller today as people preparing for mass demonstration the following day . Police return to streets while fighter jets fly low overhead. A Twitter user tweeted: “#Jan25 #Egypt Good news, morale in Cairo still high, veteran activists from 60s & 70s r spreading knowledge of predigital ways 2 coordinate.” Government disrupts internet and mobile/blackberry services.

28 Jan, Friday of Anger. Protests continue despite the shutdown of internet and mobile phone services. One commentator says: ‘demonstrators have an offline networking tool: the mosques’, but there are doubts about the ability of protestors to sustain the momentum ‘analogically’ . Violent clashes erupt between protesters and the authorities. ElBaradei placed under house arrest, leading the US government to announce that it will review its $1.5 billion aid package to Egypt. The opposition leader is later released. Journalists report a ‘plethora of Tunisian national flags and anti-Mubarak grafitti’ .

31 Jan. Al Jazeera TV facing interference to its broadcast signal across Arab region, the worst it has ever experienced. For the first time pro-Mubarak protesters appear on the streest of Cairo, at least 1,000 people drawn mostly from neighbourhood watch groups. Industrial strikes called in Cairo and many other cities.

1 Feb, March of the Millions. Mubarak’s speech to the nation. He will serve another term and ‘die on Egyptian soil’. Leader of Kifaya (Enough) movement criticises Mubarak’s stance. New national coalition for change formed. Further street clashes between anti- and pro-Mubarak forces.

2 Feb. Internet access partially restored in the morning. State-sponsored ‘thugs’ and police attack protesters and journalists in Tahrir Square as the army looks on. ‘Provocateurs came riding on horses and camels armed with swords, whips, clubs, stones, rocks, and pocket knives, attacked anti-government protesters in central Cairo, including Tahrir Square’. Google and Twitter launch speak-to-tweet system whereby messages can be sent through a voicemail message, bypassing the need for an internet connection. Night-time curfew eased.

3 Feb. The situation has rapidly deteriorated, with the new vicepresident blaming the foreign media. Mubarak tells ABC he is tired and wishes to resign but fears chaos. Mubarak supporters shoot and kill at least five in Tahrir Square. Thousands barricade in the square, vowing to stay until Mubarak resigns. Muslim Brotherhood, until now on the sidelines, issues a statement calling for a national unity government to replace Mubarak . Vodafone forced by the Egyptian authorities to send pro-Mubarak SMS messages to its customers, whilst the general public still being blocked from sending their own messages.

4 Feb, Friday of Departure. Orchestrated by the same leaders who organised the Day of Anger and Friday of Anger. Obama urges Mubarak to step down, although he refrains from calling for his immediate resignation. Hundreds of thousands demonstrate in Tahrir Square. Chants calling for Mubarak’s resignation ‘reverberate across the square’.

……….

We could bring this timeline up to today’s latest developments (I write these lines on 10 February 2011), but the point would remain the same: each stage of the conflict displays its own unique blend of media, both old and new, analogue and digital – from Twitter and Facebook to grafitti and leaflets through broadcast media such as radio and television. Social media do appear to have been important tools during the preparation and launching of the Day of Anger (25 Jan), but they were so alongside email, mobile phones, leaflets, television, radio, print media and face-to-face communication. At a later stage, during the disruption to internet and mobile services, other media came to the fore, including landline phones, ham radio and grafitti, with TV presumably acquiring even greater importance. As soon as these services were re-established, the protest mediascape was reconfigured again and continued to evolve from hour to hour, day to day. As Mark A. Peterson remarked via the Media Anthropology Network’s mailing list, ‘because the media are so interconnected, each transformation in one sector requires some changes, minor or major, in others’.

But why do the various political actors use certain media and not others at different stages of the process? The blog expert Julian Hopkins pointed out via the mailing list that to answer this question we must consider their particular ‘affordances’, that is, the unique limitations and possibilities of each medium. For instance, Twitter is  ‘asynchronous, real-time, decentralised… and easily accessible’ which makes it an ideal medium for ‘spontaneous, decentralised protest’. Alas, this microblogging site lacks ‘the stamp of authority’ that more established and visual media such as television possess, says Hopkins. The ‘visual affordance’ of television lends the protests their veracity, their history-in-the-making quality.

How will this complexly mediated drama end? Julian Hopkins predicts a televised closure:

It is most likely that the events that mark the resolution of this revolution will not be Facebook updates, they will be television images – either Mubarak or his allies announcing order has been restored, or others announcing the end of the Mubarak regime.

John Postill

Photo: Ben Curtis, AP

John Postill is an anthropologist who specialises in the study of media. He is the author of Media and Nation Building and Localizing the Internet and the co-editor, with Birgit Bräuchler, of Theorising Media and Practice. He is currently conducting fieldwork on social media and activism in Barcelona as a Senior Research Fellow at the Open University of Catalonia.

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