Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt by David Faris

This article first appeared in the London School of Economics and Political Science Review of Books

Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age is essential reading for those interested in online activism, inasmuch as it provides a case study for Egypt as well as potentially for the rest of the world, writes Samaya Borom. This book tracks the rocky path taken by Egyptian bloggers operating in Mubarak s authoritarian regime to illustrate how the state monopoly on information was eroded, making space for dissent and digital activism. 

Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt. David Faris. IB Tauris. March 2013.

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The keen interest in the role that social media played in the lead up to the dramatic ousting of president Hosni Mubarak during early 2011 in Egypt was evident in virtually every media outlet and news organisation worldwide. Images of revolution were splashed across television screens, media devices and online and were coupled with commentary concerning the willingness of the Egyptian people to be frontier digital activists. Yet what wasn’t reported was the pre-existing intimate relationship that the Egyptian people already had with social media, and how these historical relationships forged the way for the more open types of communication that characterised the Arab Spring and ultimately, lead to the fall of the Mubarak regime in 2011.

David Faris‘s book Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egyptconcentrates on political events in Egypt between 2005 and August of 2011- a time when multi-candidate elections were held and there was a consensus that Egypt was becoming more open to ideas of government transparency. Of course, because of the nature of the socio-political landscape, quantitative data and metrics about the use of social media during this time was notoriously difficult (if not impossible) to obtain, so Faris relied on a qualitative approach through in-depth interviews with bloggers, activists, journalists and others. Data was also obtained via the American University in Cairo, the Middle East Monitor and by personally attending conferences, meetings and strikes, which together provides for comprehensive coverage of the use of social media throughout Egypt.  The breadth of scholarship undertaken is undoubtedly related to the author’s doctoral dissertation, from which this book originates.

So why did Faris choose Egypt as a case study on social media use and activism? The answer lies in the fact that Egypt has, at one time or another, promoted total exclusion from the internet to then allowing and encouraging e-commerce. Faris is not the only one to have chosen Egypt as a case study; indeed, others have written on State involvement in Egyptian media, such as Marc Lynch in Voice of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today, who describes how in the 1990s the government gave control of media content to Islamic conservatives in an attempt to control public speech (p.85). What Faris manages to do in this book however is to describe how Egypt has shifted historically between web exclusion and liberal inclusion and thus is able to provide a fascinating comparison to similar authoritarian regimes.

A live twitter symposium at Tahrir Square, Cairo. Credit: Lorenz Khazaleh CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Faris’s speciality is concerned with how the internet is regulated and the role that government has in dealing with online activism. From this, he looks at the role of digital activism and how it effects change. In this sense, chapter two ‘A Theory of Networked Revolt: Social Media Networks, Media Events and Collective Action’ works as the theoretical foundation of the book and provides an adequate overview of network theory and illustrates how the relationship between Social Media Networks (SMN), media events and political mobilization should be understood.

The increased use of SMN tools to organise opposition against authoritarian regimes is discussed in chapter four, ‘New Tools, Old Rules Social Media Networks and Collective Action in Egypt” which uses case studies to illustrate the impact that technology can have when attempting to bring about political or social change. The case study concerning the Egyptian judiciary is of particular interest and acts as a representation of the type of democratization ideal that was sweeping through the country prior to January 2011. SMNs are demonstrated to have played a key part in the mobilization processes and as blogs increased in size as well as capacity to comment, they helped spread key information about protests, dates, arrests and the like. Faris not only celebrates the successful use of tools of Social Media Networks, he also acknowledges their weaknesses and limits which is essential in understanding such mobile activism. It is clear that such networks cannot be claimed to be solely responsible for the mobilization of people against all issues and this is discussed in detail when Faris looks to protests against the State of Israel for the invasion of the West Bank in 2002, the Lebanese war in 2006, and the ongoing Gaza occupation.

It is clear that Faris has three distinct theories about the role that SMNs have in being able to alter the power dynamics in authoritarian regimes. Discussed in the lead up to chapter six ‘We Are All Revolutionaries Now: Social Media Networks and the Egyptian Revolution of 2011’ Faris first details the importance of sharing information about issues and circumstances, he then illustrates the relationship between digital activists and activism, and between independent media outlets and practitioners, and finally discusses how the network can provide a framework for real-time engagement, organization and coordination. This approach creates a solid understanding for the reader on SMNs and their use in Egypt as Faris approaches the revolution of 2011. As the reader navigates through chapter six it is increasingly clear that such networks were not only used as a means by which to comment on topics and events that had historically been ignored by State run media organizations but as a way of forcing about governmental change – the case study of ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ (a blogger who was tortured and killed for posting video of corrupt police) provides such an illustration.

As the book journeys through the Egyptian landscape of 2005 to 2011 the reader is offered comparison case studies so as to provide a broader context to SMNs in the geo-political world. This proves to be especially pertinent when the Arab Spring uprising in Tunisia begins and is still raging around the time Faris is concluding the book. There is no hiding the fact that Faris is outspoken in his support for digital activism – indeed he argues that digital activism is the only way forward in terms of ensuring global democratic politics. Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age is essential reading for those interested in online activism, inasmuch as it provides a case study for Egypt as well as potentially for the rest of the world.

Profits of Doom Book Review

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia,

Christmas Island. Photo credit: Antony Loewenstein

CHRISTMAS ISLAND. PHOTO CREDIT: ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN

By Maya Borom

The drive by governments to privatise what are usually key governmental functions, such as refugee processing and detention, reform and prison, and health care is one that is being mirrored around the world — with the big winners being transglobal/multinational corporations.

In his book Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World Antony Loewenstein provides case studies on how corporations such as Serco and  G4S make a profit from activities that were traditionally provided by the State. In the opening chapter, “Curtin Immigration Detention Centre – Cash for Care”, Antony visits the RAAF base, once referred to as “hell on earth” and the place where the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) have opened a refugee camp to house mostly male detainees. It’s an interesting glimpse into the bureaucratic processes of running detention centres that the vast majority of the Australian population will never have to think about — yet the effects of such transglobal companies ripple throughout society. The chapter details how a corporation such as Serco can manage to run multiple detention centres in Australia with relative autonomy and transparency and segues nicely into the second chapter, “Christmas Island: Prison in the Pacific”, where he witnesses a boat of refugees heading to shore.

Loewenstein devotes a substantial part of the book to Papua New Guinea (PNG), recently in the news because of the Australian government’s decision to send asylum seekers to Manus Island. It’s obvious that the Australian decision is the least of their problems when its natural resources are being plundered in the name of big business — as well as by states competing for power in the region. The ability to get up close and personal with characters from grassroots organisations to provincial governors means that Loewenstein is able to present a different viewpoint to that of the prominent happy and carefree images of PNG that grace corporate publications. It’s easy to see just how applicable the term ‘disaster capitalism’ is to the country and easier still to see the type of influence it will have in terms of real socio-economic benefit to the majority of the inhabitants of PNG (sadly, very little).

Of note too are the chapters on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Haiti where the line between contractors and governments get mixed, and where for the most part the law becomes blurred and the need for transparency flies out the window. In Afghanistan, the US State Department awarded contracts worth over one billion to DynCorp in a bid to build up local security forces, while in Haiti 500 million of the 1billion in humanitarian aid was handled by the US Department of Defense — this was also directed to contractors. The book’s case studies have uncovered the covert players in what appears to be a game to control States — and Loewenstein’s arguments that the erosion of democracy is being met with relatively little fanfare or care by the world media becomes stronger and stronger as the reader progresses.

Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World is written in a conversational narrative and this lends weight to the book as a whole. Loewenstein is interested in trying to tell the stories of those people involved in, caught up in, living in, experiencing and struggling against massive corporations and their ideologies, and juxtapositioning this against the organisations that seek to control most aspects of governmental functions.

It is a confronting read but one that should be on everyone’s list, lest you are aware of who really controls the purse strings around the world.

The Rocket Review

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia

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By Maya Borom

The Rocket

The_RocketThe Rocket, by director Kim Mordaunt (Bomb Harvest) is a Lao-Australian feature film that tells the story of one child’s battle to overcome Lao superstitions that question his existence. Carefully woven into this tale is also the story of the country of Laos, the most bombed place on the planet and a place where the government is displacing people for the sake of profit.

Ahlo’s childhood is filled with accusations of him being the harbinger of bad luck. These are fuelled by his grandmother but sheltered from him by his mother. After an unfortunate series of events, Ahlo must try to prove that he is capable of bringing good luck to his family and wants to enter a rocket festival so that he can win enough money to enable his family to purchase a house and land.

Along the way, Ahlo is introduced to Uncle Purple, an outcast in the makeshift village that has no running water or electricity.  Entire villages have been relocated by the Lao government, who appear to be working in conjunction with an Australian-Lao venture to dam rural Laos and on-sell the electricity to Thailand and China. Promises of new houses and remuneration for their old one’s are increasingly looking unlikely to materialise; the displaced communities are forced to live in conditions akin to the Vietnam war era concentration camps that were opened in Laos during the war, in which thousands of people perished.

During the Vietnam war, Laos was subjected to bombing by the allies in an attempt to destroy the infamous Ho Chi Minh trail. As a result thousands of unexploded ordinance litter the countryside.These rusted carcases litter Laos and are a poignant reminder of the war, long forgotten by the Allies but ever-present in Lao society. Casualties and loss of limbs from exploding bombs still occur some 40 years after the war and Mordaunt cleverly weaves this narrative into the film, with their threat never far away. Uncle Purple’s character also alludes to the fact that the CIA trained Hmong fighters as part of their war effort against Vietnam, who are now hunted and viewed as outsiders in mainstream communist Laos. The film manages to incorporate all of these elements wonderfully and with dignity.

Mordaunt has remained faithful to the history of the country and indeed it’s people; this shows in the expert performances by the Lao cast. The Rocket shines a light onto human rights issues in Laos that until now, have found very little traction in mainstream cinema, let alone in the media. It’s great film that leaves a lasting impression and one that hopefully encourages people to seek out more information about this landlocked country and it’s tragic past.

Aim High in Creation! Film Review

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia, an edited version is below.

Aim High in Creation!

AimHighInCreationDirected by Anna Broinowski (Forbidden Lie$), Aim High in Creation! is a fascinating look behind the scenes of one of the biggest propaganda machines (aside from Hollywood!) in the world – that of North Korea. It is also the story of an Australian director’s travels to North Korea for advice on how to make a film about the dangers of fracking, something that is of increasing importance in the Australian and global landscape.

Broinowski heard that that her local park would be subjected to fracking – the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground to release natural gas trapped within the earth. There are concerns this process causes pollutants and toxins to enter the immediate community.

In order to get people interested in the issue, Broinowski thought it opportune to seek the wisdom of the North Korean cinematic elite in the hope that she could produce a movie that would capture the hearts of the people, in the way that North Korean cinema does (though admittedly, North Korea does have a captive audience). The documentary plots her visit to North Korea to seek guidance on filmic principles set down by former leader Kim Jong Il and provides insight into the machinations of it’s film industry.

Aim High in Creation! is engaging because it provides a juxtaposition of two very different cultures while highlighting the commonalities – cinema is used by both to highlight key issues within society in the hope of a wider dissemination of the message. The result is a hybrid Australian-North Korean production that certainly get’s the message across in an entertaining and highly novel way.

Aim High in Creation! doesn’t shed any light on human rights issues in North Korea, nor does it purport to do so, rather it uses North Korea as a mirror to Australian society and provides examples of where the environment rather than politics and money has triumphed.  It’s an entertaining documentary that is well worth seeing and will perhaps teach you a thing or two about how to make a novel impact.