As hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Cairo’s Tahrir Square celebrated the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak on 11 February, some held up mobile phones to snap photos of the crowd, others sent Twitter messages to their friends and a few wielded signs proclaiming, “Thank you, Facebook.”
Technology did not cause this upheaval, which fed on widespread and long-festering political and social grievances. But young activists in Egypt, as in nearby Tunisia and elsewhere in the region, were able to use their access to new social media tools to publicize demands, call demonstrations and win support from broader sectors of the population.
“Without the social networks, we would not have been able to converge on Tahrir Square” on 25 January, the first day of the Egyptian protests, Jiji Ibrahim, a university student, told the French daily Le Monde. “Twitter and Facebook let us show people the size of the demonstrations, a size that encouraged many others to join in.”
The success of the popular movements in toppling the autocratic governments of Egypt and Tunisia encouraged young activists across North Africa and the Middle East. In Algeria, Jordan, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Iran, Bahrain, Morocco and elsewhere they called marches and rallies, using both online media and more traditional forms of communication. The turnouts varied, and so did government responses, which ranged from promises of reform to brutal crackdowns, as in Libya.
The protests in Egypt and Tunisia in particular were shaped by two factors: the growing availability of mobile phone and Internet-based technologies, and several years of painstaking work by young activists adept at using those tools. In both countries, labour strikes erupted in 2008. Students and other youths wrote blogs, set up Facebook pages and generally sought to drum up support for the strikes. Gradually, these online organizers took up other issues — especially human rights abuses — and formed a variety of groups. They shared tips and experiences across their borders.
In December 2010 a young but jobless university graduate in a small Tunisian town set himself on fire. His desperate act quickly set off street protests. Videos of the actions were shared across the Internet and were broadcast by the satellite TV network Al-Jazeera. The protests grew ever larger, until they forced President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country on 14 January.
Inspired, Egyptian activists called protests against their own government on 25 January. They put out the word on the Internet, but also began their marches through poor neighbourhoods of Cairo, drawing in thousands. As images and texts spread online, the protests mushroomed across the country. They continued even when the authorities shut down the Internet for five days.
“I liked to call this the Facebook revolution,” Wael Ghonim, a young marketing executive for Google who had played a key role in initiating the protests, told the huge crowd in Tahrir Square. “But after seeing the people here, I would now say that this is the revolution of the Egyptian people.”
Mr. Ghonim and his colleagues insist they played only small parts in a drama unfolding on a grand scale. But those roles proved pivotal. They showed that young people armed with little more than laptops and mobile phones can help amplify popular voices for freedom and justice.