Heba Elsayed is a doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics. Heba’s thesis, comparing three different classes in Cairo, examines the construction of young Egyptians’ cosmopolitan identities at the juxtaposition of a socially divided urban world. In her guest post for RE.FRAMING ACTIVISM, Heba examines Mosireen, a new media collective in Egypt.
Before the 2011 revolution, Egypt’s media environment was typical of any developing nation hampered with excessive rates of illiteracy: a highly centralized and absolute monopoly seeking to promote a one-dimensional understanding of national-unity and stability. This was particularly true of public service television and government owned newspapers, yet even the content of private media was often tarnished and unreliable due to restrictive press laws that severely constricted journalistic practice. In relation to the online world, statistics collated before the uprising appear to indicate that although there was a considerable annual growth rate in internet penetration, it was still far lower in comparison to old media, particularly television. Furthermore, according to The Egypt Report, online activity has been associated primarily with the ‘upper and upper middle class, which is young, educated and well traveled’ (Oxford Business Group, 2010: 184). Furthermore, during the first dark days of the revolution, the online media blackout imposed by Mubarak’s government was a strong reminder that the state still maintains ultimate control over media infrastructure; they used their power to shut-down the nation’s only lifeline and connection to the outside world.
Two years and a revolution later, the dynamics of Egypt’s media environment have altered considerably. While traditional media such as television and the press are still working hard to regain the trust of audiences and repair their lost credibility, online social networking sites have become interactive platforms buzzing with citizen activism and intense political participation. Indeed, Egyptians are no longer simply receivers of static one-to-many state broadcasts; they have become interactive creators and instigators of two-way media messages. Although the power and influence of online social media in helping to bring about and sustain revolutionary change cannot be denied, it must always be firmly placed within context. My own audience-based media research in Egypt has taught me to be weary of grand claims that over-romanticise the reach and impact of the internet. Yes, a mass uprising may have been able to successfully topple a 30-year long dictatorial rule and bring Egypt’s first ever democratically elected president into office. However, underneath these cosmetic political changes, the evils that have long plagued the daily livelihoods of a large majority of Egyptians remain constant until now: poverty, poor education and lack of technological literacy. What challenges do these continuing unequal dynamics pose to the ongoing evolvement of Egypt’s digital scene? Does the inability of Egypt’s poor and uneducated to access and navigate the internet mean they have no chance to contribute to the wealth of online civic participation and political activism? According to Ahmed Maher, a social media consultant at Vodafone Egypt, it all depends on how you read and interpret the statistics. Yes, internet penetration may be far lower than radio or television, but these are well-established media, with a long history in Egypt spanning decades. The key point is that online access in Egypt has improved greatly for most sectors of society within a relatively short space of time – most notably over the last six years. In a developing country such as Egypt, Maher claims, having almost 38 million internet users out of a population of 90 million is a ‘huge number’.
Maher goes on to say that it was particularly the expansion of internet mobile services through the launching of 3G mobile technology in Egypt around 2007 that gave most segments of society access to the internet. This came in conjunction with a widespread Arabizing of online content, again making the online world more reachable for sectors other than the bilingual middle classes.
Mosireen, a new non-profit media collective in Egypt has somewhat surmounted many of the barriers to equal online participation by taking advantage of these widespread patterns of technological convergence. Mosireen, a playful twist on the Arabic words “Egypt” and “determined” was founded in wake of the 2011 uprising by Egyptian filmmakers and activists, with the intention of functioning as an interactive citizen-led publishing platform for challenging official state media narratives. In my opinion, the most innovative aspect of this new initiative is that it is an inclusive collective space, which does not discriminate against anyone on the basis of technical experience or ability to pay. With a single office located centrally in Downtown Cairo, Mosireen offers a one-stop workshop that operates on a ‘pay-what-you-can’ basis, providing free access to training workshops, technical support, specialist camera and sound equipment, screening events and an extensive library of footage from the revolution. To be part of Mosireen all that is required is that you are a concerned citizen with something to say or show; preferably with proof in the form of a recorded image on a mobile phone or camera. If you do not have the technical-knowhow or access to virtual or physical space to convert these raw images into a shareable format- the Mosireen team will take care of the rest.
Backed by a vision that is highly ethical, Mosireen’s website claims their main role is to help spread initiatives and projects ‘born out of a spirit of civic engagement’. Thus, as well as a sustained network that connects professionals empowered with skills and relevant experience, Mosireen seeks to support and give space to the less technically and socially able. On this basis, Mosireen have run free training courses for more than 250 people, and within three months of publishing videos they became the most watched non-profit You Tube channel in Egypt of all time, and by January 2011, the whole world. Realising the value of independent media as vital tools for sustaining a healthy and representative public sphere, Mosireen have played a notable role in managing the balance of truth during some of Egypt’s most challenging political clashes over the past two years. Citizen-captured images and raw footage uploaded on their You Tube channel have strongly countered the state’s version of events by bringing to the fore a street-level perspective through those actively engaged in Egypt’s on-ground struggles.
What are the consequences of media initiatives such as Mosireen? Perhaps for the first time ever in Egypt’s long history of broadcasting, the state has been forced to accept that the media are not only effective platforms of control from above, but also powerful tools of resistance towards these very forms of control from below. Indeed, the Egyptian government has jumped on the bandwagon of social media power themselves. In an ironic twist of fate, the internet that was shut-down by authorities during the revolution to prevent Egyptians from getting their voice out to the world, has now become an important platform of connection between the government and Egypt’s younger generation. Maher believes the real challenge facing the internet in Egypt is no longer access, but awareness of how to effectively use this new technological tool. Freedom of speech is guaranteed online as there are no restrictions on what people can say, yet only a relatively small group of activists and bloggers recognize this. The bigger picture, Maher claims, tells the story of a mass which is not trained enough to use online platforms for positive cultural or political impact: they are still exploring the internet ‘like a child who got a new toy’. What is needed? More initiatives like Mosireen that give time and space to endow non-expert Egyptians with the necessary knowledge, technical ability and, importantly, motive to use digital technologies in order to benefit their country. However, this can only happen once other institutions and cultural industries in Egyptian society share this shame vision, and work closely to improve the technical awareness of their citizens.