Observations About Online Activism In Egypt

With the advent of the internet, the amount of information which is available at the press of a button has increased exponentially. Due to this massive increase in users, services and data, people can only consume a fraction of the information they are bombarded with on a daily basis.

All information providers compete for a readers’ time and attention. As a consequence, an awareness project for a political issue competes with daily news, as well as cat pictures and cartoons. This becomes acute as an increasing number of people are consuming their news socially through recommendations by their friends on Facebook, instead of going to the news sites directly.

When one assumes that value in economic models is driven by scarcity, our economies have passed the stage of information economies, as information has become abundant, and have entered the stage of attention economies. Hence, attention has become the currency of all these online endeavours.

In this article, I will discuss civic education initiatives in Egypt and the Middle East.

Ancient Egypt vs The Internet

First, I look at three ways how they are challenged in regards to attention; I will look at the

  • Information overload
  • Political fatigue
  • Counter information

Then I will discuss a number of successful initiatives and how they utilised viral or organic growth. Finally, I will attempt to look a bit into the future.

While I mainly focus on Egypt due to the limits of my expertise, I would be happy if you could comment to shed more light on projects in other Arab / African countries. I use a semi-academic methodology, as I did a range of interviews to write it, however I remain firmly grounded in personal experience, working on civic education projects in Egypt myself and working alongside others who do so.

Information Overload

Information overload is a direct result of the exponential growth of content and users, internationally, but also in the Middle East.

According to ITU (International Telecommunication Union), households with computers in Arab States have more than doubled between 2005 (14,7%) and 2012 (34%) and the number of mobile and landline broadband internet connections per 100 inhabitants has multiplied more than 70 times from 0,3% in 2005 to 22,2% in 2013.

It is extremely difficult to find reliable data on the number of Facebook and Twitter users in the Arab world, as the two companies keep this data secret. According to the Arab Social Media Report published by the Dubai School of Governance, Facebook penetration in Egypt has risen from just four per cent in early summer 2010, to a meagre six per cent when the 2011 revolution broke out. After that, growth accelerated and has reached just above sixteen per cent in May 2013.

Role of Social Media in Egypt

There has been quiet a heated debate about the role of social media during the revolution, esepcially after Wael Ghoneim published his book “Revolution 2.0"

The number of Twitter users has grown even more quickly, even though on a lower level, from 130,000 users in September 2011 to 520,000 in March 2013.

Back in the early days of the revolution a mere 15,000 users identified their location on Twitter as Egypt. As the number of users is rising quickly, the number of posts grows exponentially. At the same time, the number of commercial and other websites and Facebook pages are growing and investment in web startups by investors like the Cairo Angels and incubators like Flat6Labs is increasing.

Mashable Egypt Infographic

Image Credit: Mashable

It is, however, close to impossible to assess this growth more exactly. A part of this growth was of course itself triggered by the revolution in 2011, after which many ordinary Egyptians decided to go online for the first time.

Revolution Fatigue

Civic education initiatives are challenged by revolution fatigue.

This fatigue comes in two different shades in Egypt. On one hand, there are activists who have been opposed to every single government since the revolution and slowly think that fighting back is useless. On the other hand there are those who support the current regime, but feel that the focus should be stability, security and economic growth.

As a result there is a growing apathy towards the political process. This is well exemplified by a Facebook interaction, when a friend asked on his wall, which of his friends really care about the constitution, which is currently being written.

Who Cares About Egypt Constitution

After two and a half years of chaos, economic crisis and a marked rise in crime, people could not care less about the constitution.

Out of the first seven replies, six said that they do not care.

The current fatigue is of course very understandable. After the adrenaline and endorphin high of the revolution wore off, naturally the messy day to day politics and the hopes which are again and again disappointed, feel stale at best.

It remains to be seen if this is a temporary phenomenon, or if this fatigue will be the defining factor in the years to come.

Counter Information

Lastly, we can observe what one could call counter information.

Citizens are overwhelmed by the daily news, or are distracted by what the Roman poet Juvenal called “panem et circenses” (bread and circuses).

panem et circenses

Things like the Mubarak and Morsi trials attract an enormous public attention and everything, which happens at the same time falls off the radar.

This phenomenon is of course also well known to the state and it seems logical that at times the state makes use of this. For example, on the first day of the Morsi trial, the constitutional commission came to agreement on most of the contentious articles in regards to Islam, sharia and the constitution. Although these articles are relatively contentious, nobody really paid attention.

Hosni Mubarak during his trial

Hosni Mubarak during his trial

It seems conceivable that these two developments did not coincide purely accidentally. This phenomenon is of course far from being specific to Egypt, or singularly due to the Egyptian press or low levels of education.

In a very similar fashion the royal wedding in Britain in 2011 served as a handy distraction from the economic gloom and spending cuts.

Attention Is Power

All of these factors make it difficult to garner attention. Just because a project tries to do good or raise awareness for an important cause, this will not happen automatically. And if attention is power, no attention is irrelevant.

This difference can be seen in the case of Eedris Abdulkareem’s 2004 rap song Jaga Jaga on corruption in Nigeria, which became so popular that eventually it was banned from radio airplay by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo in a televised address.

Corruption was widely understood as a problem in Nigerian activist and intellectual circles before Abdulkareem came along, but all the different reports and newspaper articles did not raise enough attention to warrant a reaction from the president.

A single rap song, on the other hand, because it was played all over the radio and in clubs and markets forced the president to speak in parliament.

Attention is the key to success and as a result pages, both commercial and activism related, have to focus considerable resources and planning on how to reach an audience.

Since the revolution seemingly many campaigns have successfully relied on online strategies.

In the revolution itself Facebook played an important role as a medium of communication and organisation, especially with pages such as Kulluna Khaled Said (We are all Khaled Said) by Wael Ghoneim and at the same time the revolution gave rise to a whole new scene of citizen journalists, bloggers, twitterati and other e-celebrities, among them figures like Zeinobia, Mahmoud Salem alias Sandmonkey, and many others –many of whom have over 100,000 followers on Twitter.

How Do You Grab Attention?

But how do you grab attention?

How to get past the gatekeepers?

How to break through the layers and layers of funny cat pictures and irrelevant celebrity tweets which clutter the internet?

One can choose the easy way out and simply use cats for political activism.

Sergio Chamorro, unhappy about the choices in the mayoral elections in his hometown Xalapa in Mexico, simply started a campaign to elect the candigato (a Spanish portmanteau for cat-candidate) Morris.

Yes We Cat

Yes, we cat!

The campaign was so successful that it was picked up in news outlets from the United States, to Holland and Germany. But cat pictures might not be the solution for everyone.

Below, I will look at how different pages in the Arab world attempted to achieve viral or organic growth. Videos have the largest chance to go viral, but individual images and websites can succeed too. Most viral videos are funny, but content which is surprising, shocking, extremely novel, or inspiring also can work.

Viral Growth

Virality (the ability to go viral) depends on a number of factors.

Two sites which work in the realm of activism who tried their luck with virality were Marsad and Morsi Meter. Both sites do something shocking and novel for their societies.

Marsad, which was already relatively well established in Tunisia and which monitors the Tunisian parliament, introduced a new landing page with their latest redesign, in which the first information which is being shown, is the presence and absence of members of different parties in the votes of the Constituent Assembly. The idea is simple; expose those parties who take big salaries for being members of the assembly, but who do not bother to show up to votes.

What was even more shocking to many of the parties was, that the team behind Marsad chose to do this, although they are liberally minded, and the exposed parties are nearly all from the liberal bloc of the assembly. The idea was novel enough to be shared heavily on social media and to reach a certain level of virality.


Morsi Meter went one step further, it collected all the promises Mohammed Morsi had made during his election campaign for the first 100 days and then assessed with a simple traffic light system if there was no progress, some progress or fulfilment of each of these promises.

The idea that one could make the president accountable for what he had promised was an idea so far unheard of in Egypt. Abbas Adel and Amr Sobhy who created the site had no idea what to expect when they put it online the night after the election result was announced.

By the next morning so many people had shared the site and 200,000 had tried to access it, and then the servers collapsed.

After they managed to bring the site back alive so many people accessed the site and talked about it, that eventually they got a call from the president’s office, supplying them with additional information where the president’s PR team believed that the president had actually made progress on a promise or had succeeded to fulfil a specific point.

Morsi Meter

It is possible to design for virality. Of course, to start you need something interesting people care about, or could be interested in. But that is not enough.

Your content should be easy and quick to consume, at least in the first step. Few people watch a video online, which is longer than two minutes. Even fewer people read a long and complicated text (Editor's Note: Like this one ;-) ).

These things might be useful once you engaged a visitor to your page, but not in the first step. BBC for example systematically only shares videos below two minutes length on their social media channels, because longer videos get much fewer views and shares. (This is based on a discussion with Samantha Barry, Social Media Producer at BBC World News.)

Secondly you need to make sharing as easy as possible. Videos must be shareable and embeddable, websites should be accompanied by Facebook pages, etc. If possible, have a call for action, where visitors are explicitly asked to share the site with their friends.

The risk about designing for virality is that you create a site which has a short success, is seen by many, but is equally quickly forgotten by most.

Therefore, it is central to strike a balance between virality, engagement and visitor retention.

A campaign which was explicitly created to go viral was the Kony 2012 video.

In the video the American organisation Invisible Children tells the story of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. The video aims to get the American government committed to find Kony.

The video succeeded to become the most viral video so far. Although it is half an hour long, it was viewed 34 million times in the first day. The campaign was extremely successful in raising awareness about Joseph Kony and the LRA. It was also unintentionally very successful at triggering a critical debate about American interventionism, the International Criminal Court in The Hague and about the portrayal of the agency of Africans in stories about Africa in the United States.

The campaign failed however at capturing Joseph Kony or contributing towards any developments which would end the LRA’s regime of terror. Nevertheless, Kony 2012 proved impressively that one can indeed design for virality.

Kony 2012

But viral video campaigns are not foreign to the region. A recent example from the Middle East is No Woman, No Drive by the Saudi activist and artist Alaa Wardi.

The video overlays the Bob Marley classic with a new text, sarcastically commenting on the Saudi law prohibiting women from driving, and all the justifications given for such a law. The video has garnered over ten million views and has successfully raised attention regionally as well as internationally for the struggle of Saudi women for equality.

Organic Growth

A strategy based on organic growth, takes more work and a longer breath, but it is probably a bit less risky. If you try to go viral, you basically have one shot, which needs to be perfectly prepared. If you aim for organic growth you can slowly adapt.

In many ways, organic growth has similar needs as viral growth. Your content needs to have shareable items. The design is important because a well designed site gets shared more than a badly designed site. Usability (User Experience) is important because many users who first come to your site will close it very quickly if they do not immediately understand what your site does and where to click next.

When creating shareable content, it is key to understand your channels. Facebook works differently to Twitter. Sharing via YouTube brings other contingencies than sharing via Vimeo, or Flickr, or Instagram.

Lastly, you need to use all types of analytics systematically to understand where your traffic comes from, who clicks what and when, and then adapt your posting strategy accordingly.

Either way, content is king. While viral growth can be based on one video or one single site, organic growth needs to be fed with quality content every day –and by quality I mean content which is interesting to the specific audience and even better, gets the audience engaged.

The regular production of content is much more complicated than one would think and, therefore if following an organic growth strategy, it becomes central to focus on the content pipeline.

Where does content come from?

Who produces it?

For what return?

Are people who are supposed to be featured in the content really ready to participate? Etc.

An interesting example in this regard is HarassMap in Egypt. HarassMap allows women to report cases of sexual harassment on the street by entering them into a map. Over the last two and a half years over 1400 reports were entered.

HarassMap Egypt

Considering how prevalent sexual harassment is in Egypt, this does not reflect the scope of the problem. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how it could. As Mohammed al-Khateeb of the HarassMap team explained, if a woman walks down a street and gets harassed ten times, she will not enter ten different reports, women only report the most extreme or exemplary cases. Therefore had HarassMap attempted to measure the scope of the issue through a crowd-based mapping solution, similar to the way crowd-based election observation is done, one would have to consider it a failure.

However, the collection of reports fulfils a different purpose. The reports in HarassMap are then used by the organisation for their campaign against harassment, by sharing them on social media and through other channels. The map basically serves as their content pipeline.

When creating Dustur al-Shaab, an awareness project for the constitution writing process currently under way in Egypt, we grappled with these challenges of organic growth. While many people generally praised the idea of Dustur al-Shaab, pointing out how important such a project is at this time, the same people would immediately find excuses when asked to participate in the generation of content, either by appearing in a short video, or by writing an opinion piece.

Dustur al-Shaab

One part of the explanation, in this case might be, that it is easier to mobilise small groups who are highly affected than large groups who are slightly affected.

This phenomenon could be observed with Zabatak. When the crowdsourced platform Zabatak focussed on corruption, they had relatively little traction. After they pivoted and focussed instead on stolen cars, they were able to have a much more substantial impact.


While many people are suffering from corruption, the suffering of each individual is relatively low. Less people have their cars stolen, but the suffering is correspondingly higher. As a consequence, the motivation to report car theft and therefore, the reporting rate are much higher.

Additionally with Dustur al-Shaab we learnt that Twitter works so different to Facebook, that one needs to have a separate Twitter strategy to understand clearly how to make use of the tool beneficially. Otherwise one simply tweets out into the void.

While a good Facebook strategy focuses on one or two good posts per day, which optimally include some image or video content, a good Twitter strategy should combine dialogue and retweeting others, with highlighting your own content.

In a sense, posting and moderation on Facebook can be much more pre-planned than dialogue on Twitter, which is more spontaneous. To engage in such a way is much easier as an individual than as an entity.

Considering the tension of political discourse in Egypt at the moment and the limitation of our human resources, we decided to focus primarily on Facebook with Dustur al-Shaab.

Dustur al-Shaab

Lastly we learnt quickly that even a complex issue such as the constitution needs to be presented in easy chunks like pictures and videos. Even if people generally agree that the constitution is important, they have limited time to get informed, and the more time it takes to get informed, the less time they have to get engaged. However it proved extremely difficult to simplify complex issues such as the effects of proportional voting compared to individual voting in an infographic.

Activism, such as spreading awareness for the constitution writing process, is an uphill battle at this point in Egypt. The political fatigue is compounded by the distraction by daily events. Whenever it seems that people might finally pay a tiny bit of attention to the constitution, another event such as Bassem Youssef being taken off air, or the beginning of the Morsi trial, monopolise the public debate, even within activist circles. This means, there are indeed no easy answers and every project must think hard how to raise attention for its specific issues.

Looking Into The Future

But of course, the internet is ever-changing and evolving very quickly. When trying to engage users, viewers and readers it is key to use novel and intriguing ways.

It is important, as the Canadian hockey player Wayne Gretzky said,

to skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.

So what can be said when looking into the future?

Two aspects can give a certain indication what may happen; firstly one can look at how the internet audience in the Arab world will evolve over the coming years and ask what consequences that might have, secondly one can look towards the trends globally, as the web scene in the Arab world lags behind slightly in respect to technologies and platforms.

The first people using the internet in the Arab world were in average young and relatively well-educated. In Egypt, a large part of them came from a class, which is used to speaking English, as they were schooled at foreign language schools and international schools. As the internet matures in the region and more and more people come online, as a logical consequence the average education of internet users goes down, while the average age goes up.

It is not unheard of that people have Facebook accounts, although they cannot read or write and this phenomenon is definitely to expand.

Finally, the first internet users in the region were people who used or even owned computers. An increasing number of internet users in the Arab world does not have access to a computer and gets online more or less exclusively over their smartphones.

There is a global move to mobile; in Europe this is due to changed consumption patterns. People read online while waiting for the tube and they do so on their phones. In emerging markets, however, the Arab world included, mobile includes a lot of first-time readers, who are accessing BBC mobile only.

This means that content needs to be geared towards the consumption on small screens and often on internet connections with slower speeds.

This means that one can expect three trends; firstly non-text based content will become more important, secondly colloquial Arabic will become a much more important language online, and thirdly much more content will be mobile-first, as websites learn to target the mass audience.

These three points are most likely even more central to digital activism and awareness campaigns than to other projects, as they often try to target exactly these audiences, which are more rural and have lower access to education.

Additionally it seems only logical to assume, that the amount of available content to Arab audiences, and content catering especially to their interests, will continue to grow massively. This means in consequence the attention problem will increase. Therefore, to tackle these challenges any online or offline activist project must from its inception think about how attention can be sought and increased. Attention management will become integral to any project.

Raffiti Cairo

Revolutionary Graffiti in Cairo, Egypt

In summary, we are currently living in an attention economy, where attention is power.

The aim of civic education projects to get attention is challenged by information overload, political fatigue and counter information.

Consequently attention management becomes a central tool in the planning and xecution of any project. While specific factors can help to gain attention, there are nevertheless no easy solutions. In the future one can expect that content needs to become more accessible to viewers with lower education. It needs to be more adapted to mobile.

It needs to be more easily shareable, as more and more people consume information primarily through social networks. It needs to make more use of images and video. And it needs to become more aware of language divides inside of countries such as English versus colloquial Arabic in Egypt. Most importantly however activists cannot continue to simply push out information and hope the public will automatically congregate.

They increasingly need to understand their channels, get engaged and take part in a discussion with their audiences, if they hope to get an engaged audience, which will allow them to grow their reach.

Cover Image: Detail of the sarcophagus of Prince Thutmose’s cat, 18th Dynasty. | Moritz Mihatsch