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Editors’ note: On June 6, 2010 a 28-year-old Egyptian named Khaled Mohamed Said was beaten to death by Egyptian police while in custody. Four days later the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook campaign was launched, fueling a public outcry that eventually led to the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. The following interview with Ahmed Saleh and Nadine Wahab, two administrators of the page, is adapted from Volume 3:1–2 of Middle East Law and Governance.
[We directed questions to Ahmed Saleh in Cairo and Nadine Wahab in Washington, D.C.]
Khaled Said graffiti on remains of the Berlin Wall / Wikimedia Commons
Editors: What is your favorite story from the online campaign?
Ahmed Saleh: My favorite story was definitely during the revolution when I was administering the page all by myself. It was well known by then that our page was the one that was mainly responsible for the call and the initial mobilization for the revolution. On January 28 the Internet was cut from the whole country, and even cell phones were cut. When access returned I got in touch with Nadine Wahab in the United States, who granted me access to administer the page. I got scared. Everyone was getting online at that moment to check what the Khaled Said page was saying, and I thought “I really don’t want this responsibility.”
When I got online, I discovered that the page membership had increased an additional 40,000 during the Internet block. I guessed that the security apparatus must have had access during this time, and that they installed robots to spam our page, a tactic that they were using since we started. This time it was serious. There was a massive attack on myself as the anonymous administrator of the page. Accusations of being a foreign agent deceiving the masses into turning their country into chaos so that Israel (or sometimes Iran) would take over, were all over the page. Every post I would make, I would receive tens of thousands of comments, mostly attacks against me.
First, I was very defensive, returning accusations against the organized online security robots. It never worked. After a day or two, I switched strategy completely: focus on the people in Tahrir Square (the target of all the slander on the page at that time), utilize humor (which abounded in the Egyptian revolution), focus on the positive. I would go to Tahrir, capture photos of people half naked, writing on their bodies slogans like “(Mubarak) Please, leave ASAP. I ran out of paper begging you to do so!”
The strategy surprisingly worked. People would not attack me anymore and the focus of the conversation was more on the pride of being Egyptian. By the time Wael Ghonim was released and took over administering the page, public opinion was mostly for the people in Tahrir Square rather than against them. I would go to Tahrir Square and see slogans I posted and words I emphasized written with stone on the ground. The number of people visiting Tahrir Square just to watch what was going on for an hour or so increased significantly. They certainly helped increase the numbers and strengthened the show of power we depended upon. They motivated a lot of others to go, knowing and seeing the humanity and normalcy of those living in Tahrir Square.
Nadine Wahab: My favorite story was the flash mobs in Alexandria. It was amazing to see our work come to life. Wael was brilliant in engaging people. He understands the Egyptian mindset, and how to motivate it. I didn't sleep for days, just going through videos, making clips, and following up with media. That was a time of innocence before we came to the attention of the government. The page started getting threats. I didn’t pay much attention, but as a precaution I stopped talking about or writing about it under my name. I would just reach out to trusted reporters, and avoided being quoted, which made it difficult to get stories out.
Editors: What risks did you face in coordinating the Facebook campaign?
AS: We were clearly the number-one enemy of the police. About a month before the revolution, an ex-police officer, who is a friend of mine, was telling me that before he would introduce one of his ex-colleagues to a friend, he would have to brief his friend first that he shouldn’t talk about Khaled Said, because this seemed to be all that people wanted to talk about with police officers in casual conversations.
Before the revolution, we were receiving information each and every day that police and state security were mobilized in search for the administrator of the Khaled Said page. Luckily, we were never caught, except for Wael Ghonim on January 28, 2011. I couldn’t tell what would happen to us if we were caught, but I imagined extreme measures of torture, mostly out of revenge, were waiting for us.
We secured ourselves and our connections, but I can tell you in many cases we didn’t for different reasons: slow connections, the need to update from a public device, etc. Luckily, the state security were not that smart, because I know ways in which they could have pinpointed our location and identity, but they didn't. Even the arrest of Wael Ghonim, as far as I know, was not related to his Khaled Said activity; it was something that was discovered during their interrogation of him on a different matter.
NW: I was terrified. Not sure I faced any real danger, but if the page was hacked, I was the administrator and everyone logged in through my account. During the revolution I was the only person using their real account to administer the page, so I was terrified and took extra measures (sometimes very silly measures such as putting pillow feathers at my door to see if anyone had entered my apartment).
Editors: What were the limits of Facebook in your campaign? What did it not allow you to do?
AS: Facebook in Egypt is very limited in its outreach. You can only reach certain areas (mostly neighborhoods in Cairo and Alexandria) and a certain segment (the middle class youths). We had only around 400,000 members on the page, mostly from Giza and the surrounding region, and mostly in their twenties and 30s. This is a very homogeneous group, but, clearly, given some conditions, they can start something significant.
NW: I wasn't that active in posting, so I am not aware of limits in technology that Wael and Abdel Rahman may have faced. But I do know that Facebook didn’t reach everyone who joined the protests. So it is important to note that there was a lot of traditional organizing that took place.
Editors: Why do you think Facebook was so effective in mobilizing Egypt?
AS: Because it was the only remaining free platform. The Internet in Egypt was not filtered in anyway—no Web site blocking, no filtering of search words. I think this is because the regime was too involved with international business, which in turn is very involved with Web sites like Facebook and Twitter, which harvest most of the advertising traffic on the Internet. Blocking websites like Facebook and Twitter would have angered the business masters in whose lap [Hosni Mubarak’'s son] Gamal Mubarak was sitting. It was an unholy coalition between the sponsors of the corrupt regime and the popular social-networking Web sites.
The youths in Egypt, pre-revolution, lived two lives, one online and one off-line. The off-line life is very limited in access to information, freedom of speech and mobilization, and even in access to each other. For decades, it was illegal for five people to gather for any reason (per emergency law), although it was tolerated except when it was politically motivated. Online political activists used terms like “group,” “room,” and “comment” as if they had physical meanings. The Internet offered an open environment that politicized the youths, allowed them to raise awareness on possibilities of shaping their future, diversified their perspectives, anonymized their identities, gave them the taste of free speech, and pushed them to see through the regime propaganda and despise it.
NW: It wasn't Facebook, it was the Internet. As the Internet became integrated into people’s daily lives via smart phones, it became easier to function simultaneously both on- and off-line. Since the Egyptian government had made the brick-and-mortar world so unfriendly to free expression and the Internet was so readily available to just tweet, update Facebook, or send a quick blog post, it became the space to express your thoughts or post a news item. As the people posted live, people would react live and a conversation developed. I believe 2010 was a tipping point for this interaction; we went from conversation to a public debate, and just not with activists but with a larger, less engaged tech-savvy population. Administrators were very deliberate in cultivating a relationship with this population.
Editors: Facebook is a borderless, global social network. How did the participation of people outside Egypt (Egyptian and non-Egyptian) affect the Facebook campaign?
AS: There could have been no Khaled Said Facebook page if it weren’t for Nadine Wahab’s existence in the U.S. In early November, one day before the parliamentary elections, the Khaled Said Facebook page, along with ElBaradei’s Facebook page, disappeared. It was an organized attack from the state security electronic department. They flooded Facebook with complaints that the Khaled Said page violated Facebook’s terms and conditions. Facebook is programmed to close pages when it receives such a large number of complaints in a short time, the system assuming that there must be something really bad that has happened due to that page. Later on, the administrator of the page can appeal for review, a process that takes a long time and usually never succeeds. Activists in Egypt instantly campaigned Facebook through mass emails and threats to boycott Facebook if the Khaled Said page was not put back online. But what caused the page to return in a matter of hours were the calls Nadine made to the Facebook headquarters in California (Nadine is a public relations expert).
Additionally, none of the administrators in Egypt, for obvious reasons, could use his real Facebook identity to administer the page, and that was a violation of Facebook terms and conditions. Nadine, given her relatively safer location, was the firewall whenever Facebook realized the fake identities we used and deleted them. She would give us back access.
Editors: What do you feel is missing or misinterpreted when you hear the discussions about Facebook and the Egyptian Revolution? What else would you like the readers to know?
AS: I think there is an overrating of the role of the Internet and social media in revolutionizing the Egyptian youths and the Egyptian public. For example, the most important factor in triggering the Egyptian revolution was the effect of Tunisia’s revolution, which did not start on Facebook. Neither did any of the other Arab revolutions. If it weren’t for Facebook, the Egyptian revolution would have started anyway. The effect of a Facebook call to a timed revolution with a large outreach (that activated an organized political activist community that’s been in the making for decades) is making the revolution shorter, more organized, with fewer casualties and more theatrical. These are important effects, especially to reduce casualties. But the multitude of factors involved with the startup, the process, and the success of the Egyptian revolution makes the Facebook effect a minor one. Additionally it is my claim that in the afternoon of January 25, 2011 when the masses came out, the Internet and Facebook became irrelevant. In fact all of the administrators of the Facebook pages and even the political activists were surprised that the demonstrators continued protesting all over Egypt on January 26 and beyond, without any Facebook page calling for it or organizing it. The administrators were now on the receiving end of the news.
My own speculation is that the Western focus on social media and the Internet is probably motivated by the desire to take credit for the Arab Revolution, given that the West is credited for the invention. This is probably why the angle that I hear most on Arab revolutions in Western media is the social media/Facebook/Internet one, rather than the more important, stronger and more direct effect of the injustice perpetuated by the dictators sponsored by Western regimes.
NW: This wasn’t a Facebook revolution. People did hard work on the ground. The Internet was a just a tool that facilitated and accelerated the process. We have to remember that 850 people died. Not just Facebook profiles but flesh and blood people.
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