In the wake of digital and political revolutions, Egypt’s newspaper reading public is a shrinking but still sizeable force. Coverage of social media in print form, therefore, is a convenient way for Egyptian newspapers to try to maintain their relevance in the face of online and broadcast competition—as well as to have their say in the domestic media’s increasingly partisan opinion shaping project. Through covering online spaces, Egyptian newspapers try to represent the newly empowered Egyptian netizen—but also reinforce old media norms by presenting new media in a polarizing way.
Coverage of Twitter and Facebook “activists” in support of President Mohamed Morsi was in full force in the July 2 issue of the Freedom and Justice Party’s mouthpiece, Al Hurriya Wa Al Adala (Freedom and Justice). The paper, which began to publish shortly after Hosni Mubarak’s fall, is now just one of many screws in the Brotherhood’s powerful media machine.
Page two of both Al Hurriya Wa Al Adala and the state-run Al-Ahram, entitled “Tweet Book,” is devoted to the Muslim Brotherhood’s version of events in the online sphere. On Tuesday July 2, reactions to the Tamarod demonstrations on June 30 were conveyed with a particular Brotherhood-spin. The shared Twitter feeds and Facebook statuses mirrored the Brotherhood’s official line that the opposition was violent, illegitimate, full of felool, or remnants of the old regime, and at fault for refusing to compromise.
“Facebook asks the “Molotov revolutionaries”: Where’s the salmiya (peacefulness)?” reads the section’s main headline. Below, another headline reads, “Activists: Dialogue is the Solution,” in reference to the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) slogan, “Islam is the solution”. The following article claimed that “activists” on Facebook and Twitter have been demanding “the voice of reason” and “avoiding party and political interests to place the national interest above the rest.” In the FJP paper, the online sphere unsurprisingly reads almost verbatim like a Brotherhood talking head.
The article continues to cite the sarcastic comments of several of these social media “activists.” Mocking the opposition, a Mohamed El Delal is quoted as posting, “we refuse to participate in the presidential administration! We refuse to participate in the government! We refused to participate in forming the constitution! We refused to participate in dialogue! Salvation or ruin?”
Other tweets and Facebook comments cited make direct references condemning the burning of the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Moqattam the previous night. Another proposes fixing the current political stalemate by forming multiple committees.
In a second article, “The felool are strutting and gloating,” the author choose tweets that mock the strength of Sunday’s protests, and reinforce the refrain that Tamarod, and the opposition more generally, is aligned with felool,.
“It is clear that those in Tahrir went down to celebrate the anniversary of Mohamed Morsi’s election,” sarcastically tweets a Salame Abdel Hamid. “Are songs and dances and chants going to bring Morsi down?”
In another tweet Khaled Hefagy laments, “Oh my God! The former interior minister that killed Gika and Kristy and El Gindy is coming in a protest to Tahrir. The felool are strutting and gloating.”
In a side box, the FJP’s social media section also prominently highlights several tweets of note. In one, Ala’a Sadeq takes aim at both the international press for its negative portrayal of Egypt, and the opposition as a whole for the unprecedented wave of sexual assaults, as many as 46, inflicted on women Sunday night during the anti-government protest in Tahrir Square.
“The European press that praised the purity of Tahrir Square during the 25 of January describes it now as the square of flagrant harassment and sexual assaults on women after the rape of a foreign woman.”
In the privately owned Al Youm Al Saba’a (The Seventh Day), an entirely different kind of online space is reported to span this same period. Founded in 2008, Al Youm 7 started as a website with a weekly publication. It moved to daily print after the revolution, joining a cacophony of new newspapers. Al Youm 7 has since gained a reputation as one of the fastest sources for online news, but also as a partisan and inconsistent anti-government voice.
Every Monday Al Youm 7 has a one-page spread, “Tweet wa Face” devoted to its version of the week’s social media events. Like in the FJP page, Twitter and Facebook users are referred to as “activists.” Only here in Al Youm 7, they are part of the amorphous, young, and funny opposition. In Monday, July 1’s paper, Al Youm 7’s “Tweet wa Face” page was filled with stories glorifying what they described as anti-Morsi, pro-revolution forces dominating Egypt’s online space.
One story, “Activists open self-nominations for President of the independent Twitter republic,” discussed an online campaign started by an anonymous social media user to, as Al Youm7 put it, create the kind of state online that Egyptians could not find offline.
Sarcastically sorted under the hashtag, #nominationsopenforpresidentoftheindepedenttwitterrepublic, the article stipulated that the Presidential candidates cannot be older than thirty. The comments that followed poked fun at Morsi and the rhetoric of the ruling regime. “The hashtag is a basic right,” one anonymous Tweeter commented. “Twitter for Tweeps,” they added, referencing the “Egypt for Egyptians” slogan. With so much electoral uncertainty in Egypt, these Facebook activists, so Al Youm 7 reports, have decided to rebel and elect a President in their own way.
In an adjacent article, “Social media activists observe the similar aspects between Sadat’s last speech and Morsi’s speech,” the author described how online users mocked Morsi’s three-hour long speech last Wednesday and compared it to Anwar Sadat’s final speech. The similarities, the article said, led the activists to conclude that this could be Morsi’s last. However, unlike the other articles, no Facebook posts, twitter feeds, or blog comments (anonymous or not) were cited to support this claim.
In another article similarly mocking President Morsi’s legitimacy, “The President of the internet establishes an electronic, democratic, and modern country on Facebook,” Al Youm 7 reports on one Egyptian who has taken to the Internet to do what has not been accomplished offline under Morsi’s failed leadership. It is a stark contrast to the FJP portrayal of the same purported space.
As is evident from these stories, new media can be a force for enlarging networks of communications and a means for reinforcing old alignments and practices within existing frames. Egypt is an interesting case because until 2005 only state-owned or party papers were allowed to print domestically, stifling the development of a culture of independent journalism.
Since the revolution, newspapers and other media sites have flourished, but also continue to be hemmed in by many of the same business, political, and professional pressures that previously kept independent and progressive media in check.
Unfortunately, reading into the portrayal of online space in print form presents a very partisan picture of political engagement in Egypt going forward.