Identity and Unity through “New Media”

“Indeed, modern Egyptian mass culture, from its beginnings with privately owned newspapers in the 1870s to vaudeville and the recording industry, which became powerful cultural vehicles in the first two decades of the twentieth century, had a tremendous influence on the Egyptians masses…It is the totality of these media, working together, which entertained, informed, and in the process, provided new shared discourses about nationhood and identity” (Popularizing… 300).

 For years before the 2011 Revolution, Egyptians faced police brutality, state-of-emergency laws, economic issues, political corruption, and restrictions on their freedom of speech. The Egyptian people were compromised politically, socially, and emotionally. Without an obvious leader, they needed a way to unite together to fight for change. Social media played this role by allowing people across Egypt to communicate and find others with the same values and ambitions. “New media” and the entertainment industry which began to develop around 1870 in Egypt served a similar role leading up to the 1919 Revolution by uniting people together culturally. Similar to the case in 2011, a greater sense of nationalism formed and Egyptians were able to collectively fight for change.

In 1882, Egyptians were in a state of shock as a result of British occupation. Nationalist feelings crumbled and the press took a hiatus from its attack on the leaders of Egypt due to strict censorship laws (New Media 62). Meanwhile, the theater grew in popularity among the elite and rising middle class. Initially shows were performed in Fusha and could not be understood by lower classes, but gradually, colloquial theater grew and began to draw in larger audiences, forcing many organized theater groups out of business. Comedic sketches, which were performed in colloquial, often targeted British officials (New Media 64). With this new type of theater and the return of satirical journals, such as Nadim’s al-‘Ustadh, and Sannu’s Abu-Naddara, nationalism took root again in Egypt (New Media 65). As Fahmy says, “It is no coincidence that political agitation and resistance to British rule increased dramatically after the brief return of Nadmin to the political stage (New Media 67).”

The theater and satirical journals often preyed on foreigners, poking fun at their errors in pronunciation of colloquial Egyptian. This sometimes extended to “outsiders” including those who spoke Fusha. These individuals were seen as “anachronistically detached from everyday life” (New Media 72). “According to the discourse of Egypt’s new vernacular mass culture, the primary prerequisite of Egyptian or Egyptianness was (and to a great extent still is) to speak in a flawless colloquial Cairene accent” (New Media 72). A new sense of national identify was forming and it was not centered on the elite, but rather on the “ordinary” Egyptians. This set a precedent that remained through the 2011 Revolution.

In the 1890s, the gramophone was introduced to the Egyptian market. As a result, the recording industry took off. As Fahmy states, “gramophones gradually became important instruments in forming an increasingly national musical identity” (New Media 73). People from all different classes from all parts of Egypt could listen to the same music and heard the same repeated themes (Media Capitalism 111). This united Egypt on a cultural level in a way that had never been done before. Short, two to three minute songs that were sung in colloquial, called taqatiq, quickly spread across Egypt (New Media 73). Many of these songs were also sung in the streets and proved to be a very effective means of gaining support for political causes. During the 1919 Revolution, pamphlets were spread with lyrics to songs, which were then sung in the streets. This united both literate and illiterate Egyptians and reinforced the growing sense of nationalism (The Egyptian Street 158).

In the time leading up to the 1919 Revolution, Egyptians built a sense of nationalism, which was found its roots in the “ordinary” Egyptian. These nationalist feelings emerged as a result of a cultural unification in Egypt. This cultural unification was also present prior to the 2011 Revolution in Egypt, but social media took the place of gramophones, the printing press, and theater (Popularizing…). Many of the cultural aspects were still present in 2011 (print media, music, theater), but they were so controlled by the government that they could not serve the same role (Khamis and Vaughn). There was a sense of freedom online that united Egyptians and gave them the courage to take part in revolution. Social media served the same purpose as the theater, satirical journals, and music in that it brought people together culturally. Even if Egyptians were not having political discussions, when they used social media, they could connect with others who had similar interests and thus a sense of unity among Egyptians formed (Storck 10).

Neither the new media in 1919 nor social media in 2011 were initially used and meant for political activism, but they quickly turned into powerful tools for revolution. With heavy restrictions on print media prior to both revolutions, Egyptians had to turn to other sources for accurate information.  In 1919 the Wafd Party led by Saad Zaghul utilized petitions and pamphlets to gain the support of the masses for independence from Britain (Popularizing… 249). Saad Zaghul and many Wafdists were sent into exile, but Egyptians, bolstered by their new nationalist feelings held protests and demonstrations all throughout Egypt, ultimately resulting in the British Government granting Egypt its independence (El Hebeishy 30). Similarly, in 2011, common Egyptians took to the streets in protest. Instead of looking for independence from another nation, this time the Egyptians were looking for freedom from their own corrupt government. They were successful in overthrowing their president, Mubarak, but real reform proved to be a much more difficult task (Heggy).

While there were numerous factors that led to the 1919 and 2011 revolutions, they surely would not have occurred if it were not for the ability of the Egyptians to unite. New media in 1919, in the form of satirical journals, theater, and music, and in 2011, in the form of social media, enabled Egyptian culture to develop and for Egyptians to gain a sense of identity within their nation. The Egyptian’s ability to unite culturally led to political unity and ultimately gave them the confidence to actively fight for change.

Works Cited

El Hebeishy, Mohamed. Frommer’s Egypt. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Pub., 2010. Print.

Fahmy, Ziad. “The Egyptian Street.” Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2011. N. pag. Print.

Fahmy, Ziad. “Media Capitalism.” Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2011. N. pag. Print.

Fahmy, Ziad. “New Media.” Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2011. N. pag. Print.

Fahmy, Ziad. “Popularizing Egyptian Nationalism: Colloquial Culture and Media Capitalism, 1870-1919.” Diss. U of Arizona, 2007. Print.

Heggy, Tarek. “Egypt’s Revolution: What Happened?” Galestone Institute (2011): n. pag. Web. 4 Dec. 2014. <http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/2140/egypt-revolution-what-happened>.

Khamis, Sahar, and Katherine Vaughn. “Cyberactivism in the Egyptian Revolution: How Civic Engagement and Citizen Journalism Tilted the Balance.” Arab Media & Society 14 (2011): n. pag. Web. <http://www.arabmediasociety.com/?article=769>.

Storck, Madeline. “The Role of Social Media in Political Mobilisation: A Case Study of the January 2011 Egyptian Uprising.” Diss. U of St. Andrews, 2011. Print.