June 7, 2011

Egypt Uprising Narrative as Youth, New Media Driven: Wrong

Ala' 'Abd al Fatah (image courtesy of Wikimedia and Manalaa.net under Creative Commons license)

NPR’s Michele Norris interviewed Egyptian blogger and software Ala’ ‘Abd Al Fattah on June 6 about his role and perceptions of the uprising in Egypt that brought down the Mubarak regime earlier this spring.  Among Al Fattah’s insights: the narrative of events in Egypt as a primarily youth led and Internet driven and urban are incorrect.  As he notes: “by that exclusion you also exclude a very big aspect of what it is about.”

NORRIS: You’re here in this country in part to describe what happened in Egypt. Are there things that happened there that people don’t well understand? Here, when there are large uprisings or large news events like this, a popular narrative takes hold and sometimes it’s correct and sometimes it’s not completely correct.

Mr. AL FATTAH: I think a lot of it is misunderstood and misrepresented in both internationally and even locally from the framing of this as an Internet-led revolution to a framing that it’s a youth revolution. All of that is based on the aspects of reality, but it excludes the majority of the people who participated in the revolution.

And by that exclusion, you also exclude a very big aspect of what it is about. And also, there’s a lot of focus on Tahrir while you had the majority of the revolution was happening outside of Cairo. And some of its most amazing stories were in – there were six towns that were completely autonomous after the third day of the uprising, and people had to manage the cities and had to organize themselves to keep the cities functioning. And that experience is amazing, and it’s not really being discussed.

Two important questions flow from al Fattah’s interesting observations. One is about what is left out of the popular narrative of the uprising as high tech and youth driven. And the second question is why? What is the function of the high tech narrative?

One kind of answer is supplied by Mona el-Ghobashy. Writing in Middle East Report earlier this spring, the Barnard political science professor outlines “the reality … that Egyptians had been practicing collective action for at least a decade” preceding the 2011 events, although their increasing political sophistication was repeatedly characterized as the effect of economic pain Egyptian officials.  While social media and mobile phones enabled the synchronization of protests on January 25, it was this ‘invisible’ history that shaped a people capable of such effective demonstrations they toppled a police regime.

As for why the high tech, youth driven narrative holds such sway in Western media: To a degree it reflects a kind of vanity we hold about ourselves. In the United States, in particular,  it is hard for us to imagine political sophistication in parts of the world we do not know well, or what it looks like. So we imagine revolutions in the image of ourselves we like best: as an eternally young (vis-a-vis Europe) country whose technologies have enabled and inspired the rest of the world. In one version of the Egyptian uprising, we see a satisfying reflection of the kind of revolution we would have liked to inspire.

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