What can a small group of activists do using a Facebook page? A lot more than the Egyptian government could have imagined. The Instigators, a long-form feature in the Atavist magazine by David Wolman, introduces us to the tech brains behind the 2011 Egyptian uprising that sowed the digital seeds of a revolution.
A6Y (April 6 Youth), led by a young engineer, Ahmed Maher, first began its agitation online in 2008. What started as a labor movement soon attracted the ire of the government – security on the streets was beefed up, and communications between anonymous users shut down. In 2008, the group was about to lead a protest on a beach in Alexandria but were arrested before they could start. Wolman, an award-winning journalist, was with the group at the time. He was researching a story for WIRED about dissidents protesting against the regime who were using technology to further their movement. He was able to observe the actions of the group first-hand, two years before the actual revolution took place.
In 2010, the brutal death of a 28-year old businessman, Khalid Mohamed Said at the hands of police, became a rallying cry for the Egyptians to end the regime’s dictatorial rule. Supporters were mobilized by the same A6Y group for a protest on January 25, which is celebrated in Egypt as “Police Day.”
“If the regime aggressively thwarted the protest, it would underscore the message of the protesters. If it gave the activists a generous berth, they’d be free to transmit their message.”
Ahmed Maher became a central figure in organizing this campaign. With the power of social media behind him, he and his team put out heartfelt emotional messages that brought people together. They conducted a detailed study of non-violent protests and methods to ensure that their work was not undermined through unsocial disturbances.
“But it was Maher’s vision that propelled them forward. “He made the bridge from online to offline organizing,” says Sherif Mansour, a senior program officer with Freedom Hous.”
With great risks to their own lives, the volunteers organized a revolution of the kind previously unknown to the world.
“More than 800 people were killed during the uprising, primarily by baltagiya, the regime’s hired thugs, with blows from truncheons, sniper fire, or random shots into crowds. ”
For the kind of subject it is, the reading feels short. You almost wish this had been a book. The writing would have been a lot more enjoyable if the context had been expanded further with more backstories on the people we hear of. It would have been a great aid, especially for those readers who weren’t closely following these events back in 2011. Despite its shortcomings in terms of details, what the article does manage to do is highlight just how hard it can be to fight an online movement and also the possibilities of a highly organized and well-managed dissent. The power of social media before this was not really fully understood – it was considered to be the realm of youngsters in a rush to build fans and followers and gather “likes.” But in the case of the Egyptian uprising, it became the sole organizing force of a revolution.
“Most Egyptians don’t have access to the Internet, and a third of the people in the country can’t even read. Yet the very idea of a leaderless, politically neutral uprising was conceived, nurtured, and brought to fruition by young activists using the new digital tools suddenly at their disposal.”
This then was the power of the instigators. A bunch of youngsters, with phones and laptops and the communities they formed on social media – that ultimately toppled the country’s leader – Hosni Mubarak.