Connect to share and comment

Behind Egypt's revolution: youth and the internet

How youth activists used social media to counter Egypt's security forces.

Members of the group agreed not to sleep at their own houses one week before the Jan. 25 protest.

When that day came, thousands of heavily armed Egyptian security forces were waiting, having fortified their positions at several key locations throughout Cairo. The government fell back on familiar tactics: enclose activists and force them to tire behind a thick cordon of baton-wielding riot troops, utilize violence at will, and detain protesters en masse to slow their momentum and instill fear.

Egyptian youth activists, however, attuned to security tactics following years of smaller-scale street protests, devised a “cat and mouse” strategy to conceal their launching points and surprise the police.

Facebook groups, widely believed to have been under surveillance by security, were used as a diversion or decoy, not as the primary means of organization.

“We knew the police were following us so we lied online,” said Faris.

Activists organized the marches on Jan. 25 by going back to the original social network: face-to-face communication. A return to basics was crucial after the government cut off all means of communication — including mobile phone networks and the internet — after the first three days of the protests.

The true locations of meeting points were only discussed in person, and these could be changed quickly at any sign of danger, since group members could reach more than 300 of their fellow activists in fewer than five minutes via an informal telephone network.

As a result, the police were caught off guard, spreading out in massive numbers in precisely the wrong locations around Cairo.

“We forced the police to distribute their forces. They never knew where we were. We could mobilize our people before security found out,” said Salah.

Twitter and Facebook were used to direct larger crowds, but only once protesters were actually set in place, marching on the streets.

Organizers may have played a role in bringing record numbers of Egyptians to the streets by highlighting the connection between politics and living conditions.

Salah chose the working-class suburb of Imbaba as the site of a protest on Jan. 28 to appeal to poorer Egyptians, many of whom lived close to the poverty line as food prices were soaring.

“We needed to make the connection between liberty and bread to attract broader support,” said Salah, who called up to onlookers watching from balconies to join the march on the 28th.

Late on Friday Jan. 28, with swelling crowds advancing in the tens of thousands, Egyptian security forces fell back — eventually disbanding after the armed forces were called in to defend the capital. That night, the crowd set up a beachhead in Tahrir Square. Over the next two weeks, hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters successfully held that ground, chanting in unison for Mubarak to leave.

When Mubarak departed on Feb. 11, Egyptians exploded into days of celebration with vuvuzela horns, drums and fireworks on the streets of Cairo.

For the young activists who drove Egypt's revolution, social media was important, but not everything. "We were active on the street well before they were using the internet," said Faris.

Salah hopes that their tactical use on the internet will be replicated in neighboring countries whose people live under similar authoritarian regimes.

The shockwaves of Mubarak’s ouster resonated around the Middle East, with solidarity protests springing up almost instantly on the streets of Algeria and Yemen.

Still, Salah finds it hard to believe that a group of young Egyptian activists challenged — and eventually beat — Mubarak’s state security.

“I can’t even describe in words how it feels to have won,” said Salah. “I’m waiting for someone to wake me up from the dream.”