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How social media led U.S. astray in Egypt

August 18, 2013

By Frank Viviano

An Egyptian woman prays at the end of Ramadan in Cairo's Tahrir Square, which was the center for the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Photo: Amr Nabil, Associated Press

An Egyptian woman prays at the end of Ramadan in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which was the center for the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Photo: Amr Nabil, Associated Press

The uprising that overthrew Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, 2011, was the first to be organized through social media – a constant stream of Twitter and Facebook posts, cell phone photographs and YouTube videos that drew thousands of protesters to Cairo’s Tahrir Square and coordinated their activities. What last week’s horrifying bloodshed in Egypt says is that Western governments catastrophically misread the nature and likely outcome of those dramatic events.

In a sense that is only now becoming clear, the Tahrir insurrection was viewed in a badly distorted mirror, with consequences that have pinned U.S. and European policymakers in a disastrous corner. The backdrop lies in two major shifts in the media landscape: One was a precipitous decline in the number of Western foreign correspondents in the years immediately prior to the insurgency, not only in Egypt but across the Arab world. The second was a major changing of the guard at the few remaining news bureaus in the Middle East, which saw the arrival of a young generation of reporters who employed new tools.

As a result, Tahrir Square was covered primarily by journalists who in many ways closely resembled the dissidents. Adept in the use of social media, and fluent in the language of modern communications, middle-class reporters from the West instinctively bonded with their counterparts from affluent districts of Cairo. They were alike too in their willingness to take extraordinary risks on behalf of democratic aspirations, in a part of the world that had known only autocracy.

There is “little doubt that (social media) provided a new means for ordinary people to connect with human rights advocates trying to amass support against police abuse, torture and the Mubarak government’s permanent emergency laws allowing people to be jailed without charge,” a New York Times reporter wrote Feb. 5, 2011, one week before Mubarak resigned. “Facebook and YouTube also offered a way for the discontented to organize and mobilize – and allowed secular-minded young people to seize the momentum from Egypt’s relatively neutered, organized opposition.”

For the older generation of Middle East correspondents, including me – I covered Egypt periodically for 30 years, half of them at The Chronicle – there was something glaringly amiss with this picture. Cairo isn’t Egypt, not by a long shot, and secular-minded young people with social networking accounts aren’t more than a tiny segment of the national population.

Facebook penetration in North America surpassed 50 percent of the total population in 2011. In Egypt, it stood at 5.6 percent.

Within months of Mubarak’s fall, the secular kids who appeared to have seized momentum in early 2011 had been shoved to the impotent periphery of the revolution, along with their iPads and smartphones, confounding the expectations of foreign journalists and the officials back home who read their dispatches.

The real Egypt had re-emerged from the shadows: an Egypt where 60 percent of the population lives in rural villages, where 96 percent of all women above 45 (and 80 percent of teenage girls) have been subjected to genital mutilation, according to U.N. statistics. This is an Egypt where only two institutions carry weight in the deep countryside: the Muslim Brotherhood, dispensing social services from branches in nearly every village, and the Egyptian army, traditionally the only route to a better life for ambitious boys.

Yet, when I surveyed coverage of the 2011 insurgency in the New York Times, France’s Le Monde, Britain’s the Guardian, Italy’s La Repubblica and other leading Western dailies, I turned up virtually no reporting from outside of the capital, and very little from the vast illiterate slums. They were too distant from the mirror, in every way, to attract attention. Read more in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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