Lessons From Egypt

By Alissa Hauser and Marianne Manilov

The revolution in Egypt marks a critical moment for offline organizing spurred by online connectivity. A few weeks ago, Wael Ghonim, one of the leaders of the decentralized organizing effort spoke to 60 Minutes.
Four of his points are worth highlighting:

1. A collective story emerged: What began as a single account of police abuse grew to a shared experience of systematic oppression that inspired people to organize against the regime. During the lead-up to the protests, an Internet organizer, Khaled Said, was brutally murdered by police. Photos of this brutality went viral and ignited a collective emotional reaction and political action from hundreds of thousands of Egyptians. Ghonim comments on the moment when one man’s suffering became everyone’s suffering:

“His photo after being killed by those police officers made all of us cry…I personally connected to him. This could be my brother.”

In response, Ghonim and others anonymously started a facebook page, “We are all Khaled Said”. The page allowed people to shift from the story of me to what Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz calls a story of us as half a million facebook friends shared stories and images of brutality and abuse. Ghonim and others deliberately administered the page anonymously to eliminate the idea that one person was leading the charge. “Our revolution is like Wikipedia. Everyone is contributing content… We drew this whole picture of a revolution… and no one is the hero of that picture,” commented Ghonim. This shared experience inspired many leaders to emerge and inspired revolution.

2. Online Efforts Catalyze Offline Action: As 60 Minutes pointed out, “Many of the organizers never met in person. Their primary interaction was online.”

When organizers posted times and locations online, thousands of people throughout Egypt rushed to the streets to protest. The online platform unified the efforts of protestors in various cities across the country. In The Engage Network’s experience, a shared transformational story, coupled with a moment of urgency, is critical to bridging the gap between online connection and offline action.

In the U.S. we have seen online community lead to offline connection and collective action when people have deeply held shared stories. Chemotherapy patients and first time mothers are examples of groups who commonly establish offline connection from online communities. However, it bears noting that those under 30 more easily cross the line from online to offline engagement than do their older counterparts.

3. Key micro-audiences are energized offline: As the energy surged in Egypt, organizers targeted groups with easily activated, dedicated networks. They began in the streets of the working people, calling for support from union and student leaders who brought substantial followings. This strategic approach mobilized enough people in Tahrir to catch the world’s attention, thereby reigniting the online community.

4. Aggregators share Egypt’s story with the world: Through video, facebook, and twitter, aggregators in Egypt and around the world shared the story of the revolution as it was unfolding. (For a look at how aggregation worked see: People in Egypt and internationally held witness to makeshift hospitals and devastated families. We shared the tears of protesters from Tahrir Square, and retweeted stories to spread the bravery of Egyptians non-violently approaching police lines. We wanted others to feel the experience of the kiss of an older woman on a soldier’s cheek. And most importantly we witnessed the attacks on the people as they prayed on the bridge in the face of tear gas and water cannons. We watched it live or within 48 hours and we passed it on. Social media facilitated an experience where the international audience could stand in solidarity with Egyptian revolutionaries, magnifying their power and impact exponentially.

Key factors to Egypt’s success include: a shared emotional experience and collective story; leaders who are willing to risk their own lives in an urgent moment, and a surge in online participation by those who are savvy in decentralized offline organizing. As Egypt’s efforts are publicized via social and mainstream media, we will watch as more revolutions ignite.


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