Dina Mansour-Ille, Overseas Development Institute (ODI), London
Sebastian Ille, New College of the Humanities, London
The pivotal and unprecedented role that digital technology has played in instigating as well as documenting the Arab Spring has without a doubt renewed the interest in social movements beyond the traditional realm of the ‘physical’. As the revolution in digital technology is slowly transforming the way in which people communicate, debate existing norms and are exposed to other social and cultural practices and forms of governance worldwide, it also provides new means for coordination and mobilization. In the advent of the Arab ‘Spring’ revolts throughout the region, it became clear that digital technology has successfully pushed its way into politics: allowing people across borders, class and formal venues of associations to debate, coordinate and transform the ‘digital’ into the ‘physical’.
Today, political leaders around the world utilize digital technology to communicate and debate their political agenda to and with the public. Twitter and Facebook have pushed their way to becoming pivotal venues of mediation in state-society relations worldwide. News sharing, debating, and critical collective views of governments across the world has given more ‘power’ and leverage to the ‘people’ in the framework of collective ‘shaming and blaming’ for exposing human rights violations, abuses and the denial of basic rights and freedoms. Employing satirical language in the critical reproduction of news, as well as developing cartoons and videos, digital activism has taken on a new face that bridges cultures and allows a wider public to engage and relate to political, social, economic and cultural debates. Examples from around the world demonstrate how social media is becoming a venue for dissent, activism and campaigning for social, political and even economic causes and as a form to expose the violation of basic rights and freedoms. Activism in social media has furthermore reflected existing social and political debates in societies around the world. During the Arab Spring revolts, it reflected not only the ideological, but also the political divides between people across various spectra across the region. With the rise of political Islam, social media networks became flooded with debates on identity, religion and politics, and the rising polarities and peripheries of secularism and Islamism.
This paper focuses on the ‘moral politics’ of cyberactivists on Facebook and Twitter in relation to the Egyptian secularism movement. Within this context, secularism encompasses those who advocate for the complete separation of state and religion regardless of their own religious beliefs. Building on E. P. Thompson’s examination of the ‘moral economy’ of the English crowd, the ‘moral politics’ of cyberactivism examines the intricate online ‘networks’ formed by activists which define and affect their relationship to the state. These networks alter the means of coordination and mobilization, provide the venues for signaling violations of advocated norms, and enable participants to call for global support, which can ultimately materialize into a physical ‘offline’ movement. Through a wide-ranging survey of over 200 participants and in-depth interviews with secularist Egyptian activists on social media networks, most notably Facebook and Twitter, this paper examines how Egyptian secularists advocate for civil and political rights that defy the ‘morality’ and confines of religion imposed and guarded by society and implemented by a state that defines itself as ‘Islamic’. The questions of the survey underlying this study aim to understand the dynamics of online group formation, the underlying social and political motivations of such groups to come together and form an online ‘community’, their means of resistance and their shared ideals, beliefs and ideologies on the relationship between state and religion, as well as, on human rights issues and secularism in Egypt. This paper employs both quantitative and qualitative methods of research and analysis. The results of the survey analyzes the social dynamics of the Facebook groups examined through interviews and ‘virtual’ participant observation. It thus provides a renewed understanding of existing theories of social movements in relation to digital activism, as well as extends on Thompson’s conceptual framework underlying the concept of the ‘moral economy’.
The rationale behind the focus on Egyptian secularists is the fact that the underlying beliefs and ideologies of their activism defy those of the majority of Egyptians, isolating them from both the state and the society at large. Yet, their activities on Facebook encompass both formal and informal venues of association. Online platforms on Facebook provide a safe ‘haven’ for expression, advocacy and mobilization around social and political taboos. Moreover, Egyptians advocating for the separation of state and religion, and for basic human rights of suppressed minorities, provide support to one another and form relations beyond impersonal online communication. My investigation mainly focuses on the following Facebook groups: The Secularists of Cilantro, Egypt’s Secularists on Facebook, We Want it Secular, The Black Ducks Program, The Atheist Alliance of Egypt, Averroes Forum, The Egyptian Secular Humanist Movement, The Egyptian Secular Movement, and The Egyptian Secular Political Party. A particular focus is given to the social dynamics between members in selected Facebook groups on secularism and atheism in Egypt. The Facebook group, ‘The Secularists of Cilantro’, which has over 100,000 followers from Egypt, is an informal venue of association that allows members to share educational material on secularism as well as to critically engage in debates on the role of religion in the Egyptian society and the limits of the state in imposing or safeguarding religion. The ‘Black Ducks Program’ established by Ismail Mohamed from Egypt, which currently stands with over 10,000 followers on both Facebook and YouTube, provides a venue for atheists across the Arab region to share their views and experiences of clashing with their families, society and the state. Their shared experiences allows members to provide support for one another across borders and defy social, cultural and institutionalized taboos. Other more formal venues of association that are slowly transcending the digital to the physical are ‘The Egyptian Secular Movement’, ‘The Egyptian Secular Humanist Movement’, and ‘The Egyptian Secular Political Party’(still under establishment ‘#WeAreAllEgyptian), which combined have close to 200,000 followers.