Armando Salvatore on Egypt, Facebook and the Public Sphere

Photo: Armando Salvatore

In the third of our commissioned commentaries on recent events across North Africa and the Middle East, Armando Salvatore reflects on the significance of the use of social media in these popular uprisings, and on the consequences for public sphere theory.


Only a Question of Time?
From Connectedness to Mobilization in the Public Sphere
The latest revolutionary events in North Africa and in the Middle East have been commented on from innumerable angles. Yet what I particularly noticed was a sense of pride, coming out of a long repressed resentment, not just among the actors but also and even more so among the closest observers, including scholars who have been involved with those countries at various levels and who have been called to comment on what was going on. This is a complex sentiment, but its audible part is a sigh of relief for the fact that the world has been finally taking cognizance of the fact that the core itself of what has been long dubbed the ‘Arab and Islamic’, or even ’Arab-Islamic world’ (a construction that al-Jazeera itself has obsessively reiterated during the 15 years of its existence) does share in a modern type of collective political subjectivity, and produces a socio-cultural experience in which it injects new interrogations and opens new gaps.
I am not going to ‘cover’ again what happened and is happening in these hours (for a piece I wrote just after the resignation of Mubarak see I would like here rather to reconstruct how the events that, according to many observers, are teaching us many lessons about the pace and nature of socio-political transformations, are also changing the singular fate of public sphere theory and its carriers of being under constant pressure ‘to show the money’, i.e. visible political effects, preferably a potential of radically democratic political transformations.  It is the issue of ‘proving’ the transformative capacities of public spheres where critical discussions take place about the fate and aspirations of the political community and do not vainly crash into a wall that is often identical with established authorities and their security apparatuses. This is the question of transforming the connectedness built among people through communication forums and media into a sustained political mobilization.
In one of my latest stays in Egypt I was asked by a friend and fellow sociologist to give a simple presentation on nothing less than the ‘public sphere’. This happened at the presence of colleagues and students on a sunny Christmas day at Cairo University, at the end of 2007. After pushing a few lazy powerpoint slides showing commonalities and differences between public sphere dynamics in the ‘West’ and the ‘East’ (with the inevitable glimpse on paintings of coffee houses from London to Istanbul), I concluded with a few remarks on the social web and in particular on Facebook (FB), a social network I had just got cognizance and become member of, mainly for idle curiosity.
My mentioning of blogs and social networks was met by my colleagues, fellow sociologists, and part of the audience, with a sense of disarray and even with an ill-concealed outrage. It was taken by them as the final proof of the vanity of the latest justification of the idea of the public sphere as a universal arena of democratization: the idea that through a cumulative pressure of discussion and critique of authoritarianism and corruption key socio-political changes can be effected. The most obvious and legitimate critique leveled at my conclusions was: what is the point of chatting by connected powerless private rooms if the public space par excellence, the street, is inaccessible for political protest? Indeed especially what both Western and Arab media had started years earlier to dub the ‘Arab street’ was painfully far away from being under people’s control. Under the state of emergency existing since 1981 it was prohibited that more than five people publicly gather without authorization. The security apparatus of the Mubarak regime appeared at the time of my presentation as efficient as ever. After the lecture I was asked by some other Cairo University colleagues (this time political scientists) to give some seminars to ‘deepen’ the issue, but at that point I was myself losing faith in what I had been doing there: repression and torture and a tight security control, internationally legitimized by the fact that the Mubarak regime postured as a regional bulwark against terrorism (and his regime equated almost every form of opposition to it), was contributing to drain the terrain itself on which a public sphere could thrive, by turning connectedness and discussion into mobilization. Not the best moment in history to pontificate about the universal virtues of the public sphere.
Yet compared with other authoritarian regimes a public sphere of connectedness and discussion has existed and thriven in Egypt especially since after the 1990s. In that decade the media arena was becoming far more differentiated than in the 1980s, i.e. during the first decade of Mubarak’s era, when state-owned television stations and state-controlled newspapers still held the monopoly on information and tiredly chewed on government paroles. In the long decade of the 1990s, only interrupted by 9/11, the civil society wave, initiated in Central and Eastern Europe, was hoped to spill over into the Muslim world and encourage democratization in the face of the perpetuation of various types of autocratic regimes, variably associated with the ongoing neoliberal globalization and then with the ‘War on Terror’. The enthusiasm for civil society as a panacea for the Middle East’s social and political ills in the 1990s was clearly misplaced, not least because many of the same Western governments and donors that were ostensibly supportive of the ideal where in fact undermining it through the continued support of authoritarian regimes or via aid policies that weakened rather than strengthened associative bonds of basically spontaneous cooperation. This enthusiasm petered out long before 9/11. According to some observers the de-liberalization policies of the Mubarak regime started as early as when its support was considered indispensable by the US-led, international coalition that waged the First Gulf War in 1991.
Yet while the role of civil society, soon to be identified with Western-certified NGOs, became less obvious, the classic kernel of the public sphere showed a capacity to revitalize itself. Many new newspapers saw the light in Egypt in the late 1990s, mainly published by young journalists. The watershed of the launch of Al-Jazeera in 1996 cannot be overestimated: the new TV channel started to give all the news the state-owned TVs did not give and to frame them in a narrative of people’s critical attention towards the failure of their governments, also through innovations such as online polls and call-in programs where the public could debate with the TV guests. Its impact built over time tremendously on the entire spectrum of old and new media, also affecting the booming blogosphere from its beginning.
By the mid-2000s, also pushed by the Iranian experience, some bloggers started to play the role of citizens ready to mobilize other citizens on matters of common concern also by following the lead of Al-Jazeera in devising new forms of connectedness and participation, often resorting to different registers of colloquial forms of speech down to vulgar forms of the vernacular, sometimes paired with a ‘global’ brand of English, thus marking, as stressed by Charles Hirschkind (,  a distance from the language of other media and thus signaling a disconnection from the ‘system’ (al-nidham, which became the main negative keyword in the revolution). This language was well matched by the noisy background and the trembling images of videophone footage taken from cell phones, sent anonymously to bloggers who were eager to publish them instantly.
It quickly became clear that the blogosphere citizenry also included some oddly new, perhaps ‘subaltern’ types of communicators, who were able to create and keep connectedness against all odds of state repression and propaganda, but especially who were able to cut through the borders of established political groups and even larger camps, and in particular the classical left and the old Islamists. Not by chance one key topic in such blogs was the violent repression by the security apparatus, preventing citizens from demonstrating on the streets, to be a protesting ‘crowd’. Bloggers had the particular merit to frame their mission as a counterpoint exactly to the restrictions on the ‘street’, with its ambivalent relation between a mobilization potential and its repression by state security organs, several instances of which were documented and collected on blogs via cell phone footage.
My delusional performance about the role of social networks in the public sphere at Cairo University was perhaps a symptom of the fact that such changes could not impress on actors and observers as long as the regime, the ‘system’, controlled the ‘street’. Yet just a few months later the ‘Facebook girl’ took the center stage and made a dent into the ‘street’ in the most unpredictable way. On March 2008 Esra Abd al-Fattah, a quite inexperienced activist, decided to support a strike in a textile factory by launching a FB group that rapidly gained tens of thousands supporters among the mainly young Egyptian members of this social network, who thus far seemed to be busier with the more futile applications available on it (on a par, it should be added, with the majority of non-activist bloggers). A feedback effect was engendered among the most activist component of the non-FB internet activists and bloggers who joined the initiative. At last, a broad coalition of oppositional groups and parties cutting through the leftist/Islamist divide jumped on the bandwagon and on the key day, the 6th of April 2008, supported the mobilization. Going far beyond the original intent, the mobilization on that day targeted the corruption of the regime facing the deteriorating economic situation of the vast majority of the Egyptian population.
Not surprisingly, in the immediate aftermath of the protest day, the girl was arrested and the official press accused FB of harboring an anti-national conspiracy.  Yet the 6th of April group was to become the symbolic rallying point of all oppositional initiatives well into the current revolution. Nonetheless, as observed by Albrecht Hofheinz (in his keynote paper for the upcoming workshop ‘Between Everyday Life and Political Revolution: The Social Web in the Middle East’), in the rapid pace of changes in the social web one had the impression that, right in the middle of the period between April 2008 and January 2011, a new unpredictable shift occurred. The fact that the protests in Iran after the contested presidential elections of June 2009 were focused on Twitter made many observers think that FB was going back to be what it was originally thought to be (a replica of college and post-college circles for chatting about private matters), not really the right medium to start a revolution, while the newest network seemed to be tailor-made for a fire of instant updates on potentially revolutionary events.
Again, this was a premature diagnosis that ignored that FB had exactly the merit of facilitating quite stable, though highly mobile, patterns of connectedness among people on a much higher scale than allowed by previously available platforms, and that it was exactly this everyday connectedness that allowed them to rapidly mobilize if the need arose: up to ignite veritable political revolutions, in the most ‘modernly classic’ sense of the word. The opportunity for entertainment and ‘chatting’, the idle side of connectedness, has proved to be a much more powerful potential for mobilization than the traditional means of organized political groups and parties. Today you can hear taxi drivers in Cairo confidently stating that, though the gains of the revolutions are still fragile, it can never be again like it was under Mubarak, since ‘you can always go back to Tahrir square and form a new FB group’.
The divide between the private and public spheres has not been subverted, but substantially redesigned. The idea that the private is at least potentially public and political seems to become true beyond the limited reach of tiny intellectual vanguards eager to politicize, since after 1968, their life forms. Behind the face of any naive girl might hide a powerful citizen journalist, political activist and even revolutionary. The web is finally taking possession of scattered subjectivities with a variable degree of inclination to political activism and can facilitate collective action through the spark of ‘any’ actor.
It might…since this issue points out an almost ‘pure’ potential, not the promise of a manifest destiny. This potential could only materialize through the descent on the streets of heterogeneous protesting crowds from January 25th of 2011 onwards. As shown by Setrag Manoukian in a beautiful piece on the Iranian events of June 2009, recent events should be linked to the revolution in Iran of 1978-79, when the crowds ‘marked the definitive crisis of the people as the referent of the secularist and authoritarian monarchy’ and ‘oppositional forms of identification took different configurations’, whereby Islam and the secularized form of modern politics could finally engage a new mutual relationship (‘Where Is This Place? Crowds, Audio-vision, and Poetry in Postelection Iran’, Public Culture 2010 22(2): 244)
The fragility and openness of the self-constitution of the ‘people’ in a revolutionary situation through gestures and movements of the crowds was neatly reflected by the coverage of recent events by Al-Jazeera. The first and strongest slogan on the street since after January 25 was not surprisingly al-sha’b yurid isqat al-nizham (the people wants/wills the fall of the regime/system), yet al-Jazeera promptly edited it into the simpler al-sha’b yurid …, whereby the ellipsis renders justice to the open and heterogeneous character of crowd mobilization and its inevitable ‘lines of flight’ reminiscent of the well-known Deleuzian diagnoses. In moving as a ‘body without organ’ the revolutionary crowds have produced a spatial overlaying of the working of the blogosphere and social networks.
Manoukian reminds us that the famous Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf saw crowds on the street as being at the same time ‘commanders, defenders, martyrs and journalists’ (ibid.: p. 247) Multitasking extends across virtual and real spaces in a mutual mimesis of gestures and movements. The passage from connectedness to mobilization is not just a question of time, but a question of often unpredictable mutations of what we mean by ‘media’: whereby it cannot be determined if the web and the blogosphere anticipate the crowd movements or the crowds imitate the web. Public sphere theory should take charge of this open question if it wants to find a chance to survive into this new wave of socio-political transformations, without however giving in to the easy temptation of relying too much on the ‘prophecies’ of social theory giants like Benjamin and Deleuze.
Armando Salvatore is a sociologist of culture and communication who investigates various dimensions of religious traditions and secular formations in historical and comparative perspective and works on public sphere theory. He teaches at the University of Naples  ‘L’Orientale’, Dept. of Social Sciences, and runs a research project on sovereignty and solidarity at the Humboldt Center for Social and Political Research, Berlin. His latest book is The Public Sphere: Liberal Modernity, Catholicism, Islam (Palgrave 2007, pb 2010).

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