Last week Egypt celebrated the one year anniversary of the outbreak of protests in Tahrir Square and the January 25 Revolution. This defining moment in Egyptian history was due, at least in part, to the advent of technologies such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter that for the first time gave voice to the people. Though social media was already gaining traction among Egypt’s youth, the Revolution catapulted social media to prominence within Egyptian society as a whole, and its significance in the year following the revolution has been anything but fleeting. Specifically, its heavy usage in the recent parliamentary elections suggests that its impact on Egyptian politics and society will continue to grow in the years to come.
In the past year, social media in Egypt has evolved from a revolutionary tool into an instrument of democracy, and every major Egyptian political party’s website now includes some degree of social media integration. The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which received nearly half of the votes in the recent parliamentary elections, boasts a Facebook page that has been “liked” by over 280,000 users, 36,000 of whom are active on the page. An additional 157,000 users have “liked” the Facebook page of Al-Nour, the Salafi party that finished second to the FJP in the elections, and another 9,000 users follow that party’s Twitter handle, @alnourpartyeg.
These parties’ Facebook pages are not simply online political flyers, but rather fully-developed channels of communication replete with information on candidates and voting stations, pictures and videos of rallies, positive press clippings, party platforms, interactive polls and more, all packaged within the social functionality of Facebook. On any given day, the FJP and Al-Nour’s Facebook and Twitter posts may number in the hundreds, while the comments generated by those posts likely number in the thousands.
Despite this plethora of online political activity, social media has its limits, as low Internet penetration rates hinder its ability to reach a large segment of the population. Its audience today is comprised primarily of urban residents and youth. As a result, Egypt’s political parties have sought to develop strategies that integrate social media into their campaigns while continuing to rely on more traditional methods of communication to reach the bulk of their constituency.
Hossam Kassem, a FJP campaign manager in the Heliopolis district, told me in a recent conversation that “before the 25th of January, 2011, [social media] was mostly used by the youth, but after this it became a fashion.” As a result, the campaigns Kassem managed used Facebook to communicate with a broader audience by sharing information about the candidates, their history and experience. Still, Kassem, himself a regular Facebook user, cautioned that social media was not the decisive factor in the FJP’s success, citing instead the party’s community outreach and communication. “You can add more and more Facebook users,” he told me, but in the end “communication comes from the street. He knows you, he deals with you —that is real communication.”
The importance of traditional social networks and relationships in Egyptian politics cannot be underestimated, but it does not relegate social media to insignificance. Networks of relationships developed online through platforms such as Facebook mirror the traditional patterns of offline, community-based social networks, so while it is true that social media has not replaced traditional networks, what is more important is that it does not need to.
Both traditional and online social networks continue to demonstrate their utility in the aftermath of the revolution, evidenced by the fact that Egypt’s political parties are relying on both to engage supporters and voters. In the coming year, as more Egyptians get online and sign up for social media accounts, there is little doubt that social media’s impact on Egyptian politics and society will continue to grow.