Since the Egyptian uprising began on January 25th, Flip The Media has been reporting on the role of social media, the Internet, and telecommunications in this historic moment. On Saturday, January 29, I had the chance to speak with Nathaniel Greenberg, a doctoral candidate at the UW currently living in Cairo.
When I spoke with him, the Internet had been down all day. Cell phone use had just returned but had been down for over 48 hours. Gunshots rang out the night before and the state news was advising civilians to form local brigades to protect themselves and their businesses from looting. Men from his neighborhood began gathering on the street with clubs, knives, broomsticks, bats, and other rudimentary weapons. Greenberg believes his neighborhood is one of the more stable ones, particularly because of the high concentration of ex-military members living there, but told me “there’s no authority right now.”
In media coverage, much attention has been paid to the role social media has played in the uprising. Less than a quarter of the population of Egypt uses the Internet but the median age in the country is 24 years old and I wondered if, like Iran, the majority of the protesters were young people.
“I mean there’s a lot of skepticism toward the Internet being the medium because its seen as a Western medium and only wealthy people have access to the Internet…but the message of the first demonstrators appealed to everybody.” Said Greenberg, “This has definitely become a movement against corruption, against dictatorship, against the unemployment, and it is definitely a popular movement.”
Indeed, the crowds of protesters in Cairo have swelled from an estimated 15,000 on Tuesday to 250,000 on Friday, January 28. In other Egyptian cities, like Suez, Alexandria, and Port Said, tens of thousands of protesters have been reported.
In Greenberg’s first-person account for the Common Language Project, published January 26, his neighborhood seemed unaffected by the protests. But by January 29th Greenberg said, “It’s evolving so quickly. They turned off the Internet, and the demonstrations got ten times larger. Tuesday was quiet. Wednesday was big, Thursday bigger, and Friday exploded after the Friday prayers.”
When pressed further about the role of social media, particularly Facebook, Greenberg responded, “definitely Facebook sparked it, there’s no doubt about it. And a lot of people are referring to the ‘youth’ in abstract terms as being the leaders. I’m hearing government officials on State TV saying ‘we need to defer to the youth. We need to go on Facebook, and ask them what they want.’ …But what happened was that most people in the crowd didn’t have Twitter, they were printing out pages from Facebook and distributing them through the crowds.”
Our interview ended when Greenberg heard breaking glass and shouts from downstairs. Reports now confirm a nighttime curfew for Cairo and the US State Department plans to evacuate 900 Americans from Egypt starting today, January 31st.
Greenberg has been contacted again and is safe, though he plans to leave for Cairo with his fiance at the end of the week.