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Social media in Egypt: a powerful tool for political change

Social media tools, such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr, played a major role during the protests in the Middle East and North Africa.

“New media is one of the most powerful tools for political change,” said Sondos Asem, a young woman from Egypt. She added that social networks have also become an alternative “public sphere”, where citizens can freely interact and discuss important social and political issues and “form an opinion that is unified in nature.”

During the old regime, young people were unable to express themselves freely because the environment was controlled. “Social networks gave us an opportunity to engage in conversations and to exchange opinions on what was happening,” Sondos stressed. “Through social networks we were able to convince people of the importance of our demands and mobilize them to speak up for their rights.”

In January 2011, Sondos took to the streets with her family to demand social justice and freedom. Little did she know, on that day, that she was part of a revolution that would oust Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak.

“We did not know we were starting a revolution, but we decided that it would be the first step towards democracy,” Sondos said. “We went to Tahrir Square on a daily basis until Mubarak stepped down.”

Inspired by the uprising in Tunisia, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in January 2011 to protest against the Government and demand change. After 18 days of protests, Mubarak stepped down. The days of the protests were full of experiences that “reinforced the meaning of freedom and dignity and the value of human rights,” Sondos said.

Tahrir Square became the symbol of the Egyptian democracy demonstrations. “People in Tahrir Square,” she said “were from all backgrounds, from all ages, rich and poor, Muslims and Christians. We were together, we were all Egyptians: that’s why we succeeded.”

Sondos’ activism started at an early age. Her parents were political activists and became victims of oppression by Mubarak’s regime; her father was jailed twice. Sondos was part of the youth movement that fought against police brutality, the emergency law, and military tribunals before which civilians were tried. “My family and I know what it means to have your freedom suppressed,” she said.

A Masters Student in Journalism and Mass Communication in Cairo, Sondos is interested in the intersection between social media, political change and cross-cultural dialogue, realizing the importance of social media in bridging gaps between different cultures.

UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay recently said that the year 2011 “went viral with human rights.” “I just love the idea that, through social media, people were able to communicate and speak in terms of their rights."

“The very idea of ‘power’ shifted,” she said. “It was wielded not just by mighty institutions in marble buildings, but increasingly by ordinary men, women, and even children, courageously standing up to demand their rights.”

Following the unrest and the stepping down of President Mubarak, UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay deployed an assessment mission to Egypt from 27 March to 4 April 2011 to identify key human rights issues and initiate dialogue with national counterparts. The mission recommended, inter alia, to repeal the state of emergency, which has been in place almost continuously since1967; to ensure the full enjoyment of freedom of expression, assembly and association, to put an end to trials of civilians before military courts and to torture and ill-treatment, to adopt a comprehensive approach to transitional justice with regard to all serious recent and past human rights violations and to enhance cooperation with the UN.

The state of emergency was lifted on 24 January 2012. Most of the remaining recommendations are, however, yet to be implemented.

On 25 January 2012, a year after the beginning of demonstrations, tens of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square to mark the first anniversary of the revolution. 

6 February 2012

Sondos, together with other human rights activists, attended, in 2011, a briefing session on human rights and the work of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva.

See also