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How social media spreads protest tactics from Ukraine to Egypt

Pro-democracy activists flash Rabaa signs as they march during the Friday protests against the military coup in the Ain Shams district of Cairo, on Feb. 7, 2014. (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post from Neil Ketchley, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics.  His most recent paper charts the role of the Muslim Brothers in the ongoing anti-coup protests in Egypt.


Ahmad (a pseudonym) is a third-year student at one of Cairo’s public universities. For the past eight months, he has joined the daily protests against the military coup that removed Mohamed Morsi from office on July 3, 2013. As a member of the Students Against the Coup movement, Ahmad is one of tens of thousands of students across the country who have taken to Egypt’s streets and university campuses in a country-wide mobilization that has garnered little attention in either domestic or international news media. Students Against the Coup are one of several movements that work alongside the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy – which includes the Muslim Brothers – but retain organizational autonomy in their day-to-day affairs. These movements have porous memberships, and no official membership lists are kept. Informants estimate that Muslim Brothers seldom make up more than 10 percent of the protesters on any given day.

Recently, Ahmad and his friends posted YouTube videos and photographs of the protests in Maidan Square in Kiev, Ukraine, to their movement’s various Facebook pages, which are used to publicize protests.  He states:

The Ukrainians know how to make big molotovs, so we watch how they use them and in which situations so that we can better defend ourselves against the police. We don’t care about the situation in Ukraine; we only hear a little about it on the news. But they know how to use molotovs to hold their square against the police.

In the absence of protest workshops and ‘how-to’ manuals, video footage captured on mobile phones in Kiev (and elsewhere) and uploaded to social media sites now serves as a repository for protest tactics, to be studied and adapted by anti-coup protesters thousands of miles away in Cairo. These instances of unsentimental appropriation mark an interesting departure from previous patterns of resource sharing and border-crossing diffusion of protest tactics, patterns which saw Egyptian activists cultivate a series of formative linkages with pro-democracy movements such as Serbia’s Otpor movement in the years before the Jan. 25 revolution.

Ahmad goes on:

We are always searching for new ways to fight back. We have teams of people who go on YouTube and search for videos of other protests around the world and when they come across a new tactic, they post it on the Facebook page. If we find a good tutorial video, we translate it into Arabic. We are not waiting for Ukrainians to come to us.

Social media facilitates the diffusion of these new tactics, allowing protesters in Cairo to follow the activities of their comrades in the governorates and vice versa. If a new tactic is especially effective, protesters from other areas will travel to see it in action first-hand. The co-ordination of protests themselves, however, is increasingly occurring offline: Egyptian state security has grown so adept at infiltrating online groups, that mosques and university campuses are now the two most important associational spaces in which to organize. In many neighborhoods, certain mosques have a reputation for playing host to rallies that are launched after prayer. Here, would-be protesters do not need access to formal protest networks to participate; they simply need to turn up. These are often the same mosques from where protests were launched during the Jan. 25 revolution. If the protests begin elsewhere, the relevant times and locations are distributed to a trusted list of regular protest-goers who then relay the information to friends and relatives. It is quite normal for several members of one family to be active in different parts of the anti-coup movement.

It is against this backdrop that some Egypt watchers have reacted with alarm at the recent emergence of several groups that specialize in manufacturing molotov cocktails and other improvised weapons – including powerful gas propelled potato guns and fireworks – to use against the police. Wary of being labelled extremists, members of Students Against the Coup insist that these are a proportionate response to a regime that routinely uses live ammunition and birdshot to disperse protests. Moreover, informants report that the adoption of these tactics is providing a timely pressure valve to contain the radical few who are frustrated by the lack of headway made by the overwhelmingly peaceful protests of the past eight months. According to this logic, the Egyptian protesters’ imitation of their counterparts in Kiev has allowed the former to regain their sense of agency and momentum, while simultaneously delimiting the potential for greater violence.

All this has fed into the ongoing debate within the protesters’ ranks concerning the meaning of “silmiyya” (peaceful) protest, a term that gained common currency during the 18 days of popular mobilization that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011. One popular reinterpretation of the silmiyya doctrine legitimizes violence against the security apparatus so long as protests are being violently suppressed. As one popular slogan would have it: “Peacefulness does not mean surrender.” For protesters, such as Ahmad, however, the specter of Syria hangs large over any further escalation from the protesters’ side. As part of a movement that is branded terrorist in the domestic media and hounded at every turn by the security forces, he knows that the government desires a military solution to the ongoing mobilization – a mobilization that has so far refused to morph into the jihadist insurgency many expected, and that continues in the face of a bloody crackdown that has killed thousands and seen many more detained.


For more from The Monkey Cage on the protests in Ukraine, see:

Who are the protesters in Ukraine?

The (Ukrainian) negotiations will be tweeted!

Social networks and social media in Ukrainian “Euromaidan” protests

What you need to know about the causes of the Ukrainian protests

Why are people protesting in Ukraine? Providing historical context

How Ukrainian protestors are using Twitter and Facebook

As police raid protests in Ukraine, protesters turn to Twitter and Facebook

Six reasons to be cautious about likelihood of opposition success in Ukraine

Three reasons why protests in Ukraine could end up helping Yanukovych