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From Tweets to Fists in Tahrir Square

Egypt’s collision of social media and thuggery leaves a difficult question

By Alexander R. Konrad

In July, I sat in Zamalek, Cairo, uploading photos of the pyramids to my Facebook account. I thought of that moment often last week as Egyptians used Facebook to help organize their stunning revolution to cast down President Hosni Mubarak. The protesters found a variety of uses for social media even as Mubarak’s camp opted for the timeless tactic of repressive brutality and blunt force. Each breaking story, anecdote, and photo of the chaos in Cairo, protesters and journalists helped sustain the momentum of change; many of us had to wonder whether the tweet was now mightier than the sword. In the fallout of Mubarak’s ouster, however, one sees signs of great change in the age of Twitter. Yet we must also remember the age-old blood price that comes with even social media-savvy revolutions.

With Internet at times restricted by the government, it was certainly a struggle for the Egyptian people and the reporters covering the story to disseminate information on each development in the city. Nicholas D. Kristof ’81 and others were on the scene, providing coverage while Mubarak’s police and paid supporters attempted to block their work and smash equipment. America’s first face of disaster and crisis reporting, Anderson Cooper, was attacked and punched, in just one example of attacks on journalists on the scene—and not just by the government. A violent element of the protesters, of course, subjected CBS News correspondent Lara Logan to a horrific beating and sexual assault the night of Mubarak’s ouster. While a disgusting crime that reminds us not all the protesters were peaceful or respectful of human rights, this act was not indicative of the actions of the Cairo people through the protests.

That vast majority faced days of attacks and harassment as the government cut Internet access and tried to keep the world in the dark. Yet social media made it impossible to control the message. New services and ways to use old ones continued to thwart the government’s efforts. When Mubarak blocked Twitter, Google and Twitter quickly developed Speak2Tweet, which allowed Egyptians to call in tweets as voicemails. Journalists also resorted to back-door methods known more in the United States as a celebrity tactic—remote tweets relayed to friends and family to be posted on their behalf.

Social media also certainly helped protesters to coordinate and provide each other with emotional support surprising even to one of the world’s foremost experts on modern Middle Eastern politics. Last September, I discussed the controversy of a photoshopped image of Mubarak with E. Roger Owen, A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle East History and former Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. With the recent revolution, Owen now agrees that social media has clearly been a major factor, with Facebook leading the way.

“It was very important for the Egyptian young people for a while, being able to coordinate and keep up spirits through [Facebook],” Owen told me.

Tunisia’s trendsetting use of technology has led some to call its result a “Twitter revolution.” Jillian York of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society has encapsulated that argument well in a recent blog entry. York, however, argues that the feting of social media platforms as catalysts of Tunisian revolution must not diminish our recognition of the human successes and sacrifices of that movement.

Owen also recently stressed to me the human component of those two successful civilian revolts. Social media served as a valuable tool, but it was not the deciding catalyst in Egypt. And soon enough, protesters faced bricks and various homemade missiles in a struggle that could be bloody, brutal, and grounded in practices that predate social media by centuries.

Whether from Mubarak thugs or the reprehensible fringe of the anti-government crowds in Cairo, scenes of violence widely occurred. Inspired by Egypt (as Egypt was inspired by Tunisia), Iran, Bahrain, and Yemen have seen protests and also serious violence.

Social media can only help those protesters so much. Its value in organizing people is clear, and it makes it impossible for governments to keep the world in the dark of their reprisals. Yet as reports now indicate at least nineteen dead in Libya’s latest “Day of Anger” yesterday, it is clear that tweets cannot save one from the bullets. As we continue to debate the role of social media in these events, we should stop to ask—how difficult is it to use such technology and peaceful methods in the face of widespread violence? Those of us who use Facebook just for photos and chatting with friends might not have answered that call. Perhaps our fascination with the role social media has played in these revolutions is based in our inability to ever truly know.

Alexander R. Konrad ’11, a former associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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