A Minute With...

Linda Herrera, expert on the use of social media in the mideast

12/20/2012  8:00 am

Massive protests once again spilled into Egypt’s streets in recent weeks, in reaction to a perceived power grab by its new president, Mohamed Morsi, and a scheduled nationwide referendum on a hastily drafted constitution. Is the country now set on a future dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood? And what have we learned about the pros and cons of social media as a tool of revolution and political reform? Education professor Linda Herrera is the author of the upcoming book “Revolution Gone Wired,” about the role of social media in the uprisings in Egypt and other Arab nations. She also organized a recent dialogue in Cairo with Mohamed ElBaradei, recently named the coordinator of Egypt’s National Salvation Front, an opposition coalition of more than 20 political parties and organizations. Herrera, a social anthropologist by training who lived in Egypt for 17 years, spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain about recent events.

For those concerned about the current Islamist direction of Egypt’s politics, what’s at stake in these recent developments?

image of professor linda herreraThere is a stark misconception in the U.S. that the recent wave of mass protests in Egypt is “anti-Islamist”; this is not the case. The recent uprisings should be understood as a continuation and renewal of the demands of the Jan. 25, 2011, revolution captured in the slogan “bread, freedom, and social justice.” Masses of people took to the streets throughout the country beginning on Nov. 27 not primarily because they oppose the Islamist influence in Egyptian politics, though some clearly do, but because they see the country spiraling into another dictatorship.

There is a saying circulating throughout Egypt: “Morsi is Mubarak with a beard.” After five months in power, President Morsi, who was elected into office with no constitution in place and therefore no clear parameters for his office, has granted himself even more sweeping powers than President Mubarak did over three decades. He has used his office to serve the interests of a single group, the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than to work across the aisle to address issues of poverty, the economy, unemployment, food prices, corruption, freedom and justice.

How has ElBaradei been important to the opposition?

Mohamed ElBaradei arrived on Egypt’s political scene fairly recently, in 2010. He enjoyed a long and distinguished diplomatic career, and was a recipient of both the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize (jointly with the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency) and Egypt’s highest honor, the Nile Medal. His international credentials have placed him above the everyday fray of Egyptian politics, something that has been a point of both strength and vulnerability.

ElBaradei is not someone who appears to be driven by a thirst for power, and does not exhibit a typical revolutionary temperament. Rather, his obsession has been with two things: national unity and the constitution. His party, not coincidentally, is called “Al-Dostor,” which means “Constitution.” ElBaradei sees his role as someone who can protect the country from a raw power grab and serve as a guardian of the constitutional process and ensure that it is the result of a fair, inclusive and sound legal process.

The opposition has often been described as “secular” and “liberal,” but you think both of those terms are misleading. Why?

Terms like “secular,” “liberal,” “Islamist” and “anti-Islamists,” to name a few, are borrowed from another time, place and type of struggle. These words disguise and confuse rather than illuminate the actual causes and forms of dissent at this historic moment. A great challenge that comes with writing about the Arab uprisings, and indeed the new social movements globally, is how to formulate a new vocabulary to describe the nature of current popular protest movements. The political language coming out of the Occupy Movement in the U.S., with its “99 percent” and “1 percent,” provides a starting point. The struggle in Egypt has been about runaway inequality, corruption, cronyism, torture and a demand for human dignity and justice. 

Your research has shown that much about social media and its role in Egypt’s revolution was not what it appeared. How so?

The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings generated a great deal of enthusiasm, including from me, about the emancipatory dimensions of new communications tools and platforms, particularly social media. I had been researching the relationship between youth, citizenship and social media use in Egypt prior to the uprising, and continue to research it today.

What I found is that social media raises all kinds of complicated questions about political actors, accountability and the new forms of youth movements. For instance, it transpired that many Facebook movements and pages that appeared to be run by “anonymous” and “liberal” youth were actually Muslim Brotherhood platforms. The story about social media and its relation to the Jan. 25 (2011) revolution is one that has yet to be told, and will take a good deal of research to do this topic justice.

 

For more on ElBaradei and the role of social media in Egypt’s revolution, see these articles co-written by Herrera: “ElBaradei’s Gandhi Moment?” and “E-Militias of the Muslim Brotherhood: How to Upload Ideology on Facebook” .

 

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