Egypt's social media activists cannot depend solely on Twitter, Facebook

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Marco Werman: Patience is not something that characterized the Arab Spring activists in Egypt back in 2011. Protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square dared to hope that with a mere 18 days of demonstrations, they'd ousted a regime and ushered in democracy. It has not been smooth sailing for Egypt since then, of course, but when Rasha Abdulla, professor at The American University in Cairo, looks back at 2011, she still sees a defining moment. And that, of course, is Tahrir Square, February 2011, and President Hosni Mubarak, of course, was toppled by protesters. You were right in the thick of it, Rasha Abdulla. Take us back to that moment and what you were doing, and what you were thinking.


Rasha Abdulla: I'm getting goosebumps just listening to this now. It was incredible. It was a moment that I don't think will ever happen again, well, certainly not in my lifetime. It was just a moment where 90 million people, and I think a lot more people just all over the world, thought that finally their dreams are being realized...could actually taste it. It was in the air; I could smell it, you know.


Werman: How do you think that amazing moment changed how you think about social media, because it did play a big role in those protests?


Abdulla: Yes, it did. This was just the realization of this big dream, and a realization of the victory that all these young people have contributed to, who Mubarak at some point called "the internet kids', and said "Let them play." They've played, all right. They've toppled the regime, and it was just huge. It was huge.


Werman: So many young activists had put a lot of faith in social media at the time, and we're going to put you back in the time machine now, to just kind of capture your state of mind back in June of 2011. This is you, a few months after Mubarak fell. You, Rasha, were speaking at the Personal Democracy Forum, talking about what happened when a blogger in Egypt posted a call asking for followers to stay home from work as a protest. Here's your description of what happened.


Abdulla: She thought maybe 300 people would join the group, and if 30 people did not go to work, she would have felt good about just spiritually joining in with these people. Little did she know there were 70,000 people on that website. Egypt literally came to a standstill that day. And I think that was a very important moment because it made us realize, "Oh my god, look what Facebook can do!" I mean, this was literally just an event on Facebook. And our revolution was actually the first revolution ever in history that was posted as an event on Facebook, with dates and times, two weeks in advance! People were hitting "I'm attending The Revolution".


Werman: So, Rasha Abdulla, that was you in June of 2011. A lot of passion in your voice, but a lot of things have happened since then. Islamist president Mohammed Morsi was elected in June of 2012, but then was ousted by the military about a year later. What would happen in today's Egypt if someone set up a Facebook page like the one you just described, today?


Abdulla: The new regime have passed a protest law, and so they have basically closed that door.


Werman: So you're saying a Facebook page would not be permitted today, or would be frowned upon?


Abdulla: No, the page would be permitted, but then the person who posted the page could be put on trial and sent to prison, and so would everyone who goes on the protest.


Werman: Yeah. Now, in the past two years, Egyptian authorities have arrested as many as 41,000 people. How many of them are young people who might have gone to Tahrir Square in 2011?


Abdulla: We really don't have any statistics on that, but we do know that many of the liberal activists are now in jail, and it just seems endless.


Werman: A recent 'New Yorker' article brought us an interesting peek into Obama's White House during Tahrir Square. At one point, somebody asks him, "Who would you like to see President of Egypt?" And Obama says, "I want that Google guy", referring to Wael Ghonim. But then says, "We're going to basically have to support the democratic process." Do you think the world put too much faith in the power of social media to change things?


Abdulla: No, I think we all underestimated the resilience of the regimes that were in place. We were naive enough to think...I mean, you know, we're new at this. We thought that 18 days could change the world. And that was obviously not the case. I mean, what happened was that we toppled the head of the regime, but the essence of the regime remained in power.


Werman: So, as I said, 41,000 people arrested, and one of them is Yara Sallam. Yara recently spent her 29th birthday sitting in a prison cell, but her messages are still appearing on social media. So, tell us about Yara.


Abdulla: Yara Sallam is a great spirit. And she was out in June, protesting, basically, against the protest law. It's amazing how these young people in prison are writing statements to keep us hopeful, to keep us fighting, and to keep us maintaining our momentum. She gives messages either verbally or through small written notes to her friends when they go visit. And their friends post the messages on Facebook and on social media. One time, she wrote, "I am in prison, but prison is not in me. They will not be able to detain my spirit."


Werman: Rasha, you kind of indicated earlier that you don't carry the same weight as an advocate and professor as somebody like Yara does, as a 29-year-old activist now sitting in prison. What is the difference between you and Yara? I mean, you're both fighting for the same thing, it sounds like.


Abdulla: I do not have the strength to stand in the streets when bullets are flying over my head. I can't see myself in the same way of fighting as these people have been through. I mean, you know, these are people who don't mind going to jail at any point in time to prove their point. They are people who sacrifice so much of their lives, of their families, of their time, of, I mean, everything. I'm not sure I would do it myself.


Werman: So, if you could do those years over again, 2011 and on, and use social media differently, what do you think you would change?


Abdulla: A lot of these activists are pure revolutionaries. They do not want to do politics, because politics is a dirty business. And I totally understand that, and I totally respect it, because it's a very difficult position to be in. You're going to have to make concessions. And these people are so pure in their fight for what they want, that they are not able to make concessions. That cost us at the end of the day, because we could not unify behind a movement, a political movement, that was revolutionary in nature, or that was guided by the revolutionary demands. That, I think, was our biggest problem, and, to be honest, I wouldn't know how to solve that riddle. Maybe time and the younger generations that are now coming up, maybe the younger political parties that are now on the scene need to be more serious, and need to work more on training their young cadres to be able to do that one day. Because we couldn't do that.


Werman: Rasha Abdulla teaches at The American University in Cairo. Thank you very much for your time.


Abdulla: Thank you.