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COLUMN: SOCIAL MEDIA AND POWER

January 13, 2019

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In my last column I explored what happens to the five senses in a digital age via a reading of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. Today I move away from the senses and further into this issue of the digital. I am interested in Omar Robert Hamilton’s innovative novel about the Egyptian Revolution, The City Always Wins. I want to examine the text’s representations of (social) media and the impact these have on everyday lives, modes of protest and literary form.

During the Arab uprisings of 2011, viewers of channels such as Al Jazeera and participants in social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter watched as revolutionary movements spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. Citizen journalists wielding camera phones fed on-the-spot records to both the mainstream and the alternative media. Meanwhile, intellectuals and journalists, many of them from the countries concerned and others among them outsiders, offered background knowledge and analyses of events on television and online.

Small wonder, then, that in The City Always Wins, readers observe that the phone charger has become as much of an essential as water to the protestors in Cairo. This is illustrated in the novel’s very first chapter. The female protagonist, Mariam, is helping with the dead and injured in hospital after a thwarted march on the state broadcaster at Maspero, and orders herself: “Go find a charger, some water.” Later, working through a packing list of supplies for a protest in Tahrir Square, her smartphone charger is the first item on this inventory — ahead of water, her notebook, medication and toiletries. In the Arab Spring, therefore, phones became a central “weapon of the weak”, to adapt James Scott’s formulation. The social media they provided access to could be used to organise protests, regulate community behaviour and highlight regime atrocities. These new media functioned as a digital public square, encouraging Cairenes to protest in the real public square of Tahrir.

Early on in the novel, through Mariam’s free indirect discourse, the following triumphant declaration is made: “The revolution is unstoppable. […] They can’t keep up with us, an army of Samsungs, Twitters, HTCs, emails, Facebook events, private groups, iPhones, phone calls, text messages all adjusting one another’s movements millions of times each second. An army of infinite mobility — impossible to outmanoeuvre.”

This quote indicates the kind of techno-optimism upheld by Hamilton’s fictional protestors. They believe that social media is an empowering social force, preventing human rights abuses from being hushed up as they were in the past. These shabab [youths] seem to revel in the fact that #Egypt was the top trending hashtag of 2011. Mariam points to the creative, open-source and resistant nature of her “army of Samsungs.” She believes that the peaceful and itinerant tactics of the online media will never be overcome.

Although the alternative media possess mass engagement, a global reach and threaten power, over the course of his novel the Egyptian-heritage writer traces the crushing of the ‘Twitter revolution’ and the rise of a disillusionment and despair among the revolutionaries. This downward trajectory is typified in the appellative journey from Hamilton’s own non-profit media collective, Mosireen — according to his mother, the novelist Ahdaf Soueif, this means ‘determined’ — to the novel’s similar group, portentously known as the Chaos Collective. This name signals the spontaneous and leaderless nature of the organisation. However, later the religious right uses it against them: “Chaos. What kind of an organisation is called Chaos? […] Names matter.” If it is true that “[y]ou need chaos to win an insurgency,” the insurgency turns into a war — for which “discipline” might have been more effective than anarchic egalitarianism.

Hamilton’s cousin, the blogger and revolutionary activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, was arrested in March 2013 and sentenced to five years in jail in October 2014 for his role in the protests. This unjust detention inspired the hashtag #FreeAlaa and multimedia campaigns for his release. Yet the young man still languishes in jail, now facing a sentence likely extended by six months to three years because of trumped-up charges concerning his Facebook activity early on in the Egyptian Revolution. Hamilton dedicates The City Always Wins to Alaa, writing that it “would have been a better book if I’d been able to talk to you.” Meanwhile, the author uses Alaa’s Twitter feed as an archive of an alternative, oppositional history of revolutionary struggle. He also embeds Tweets in the fabric of this experimental novel, and social media posts interrupt and punctuate the narrative as in the real life of these millennials.

Ultimately, though, the internet turns “toxic” and is depicted as a Pandora’s box of dis- and misinformation, conspiracy theories, fake news and regime policing of timelines. The state media — whose radio and television building in Maspero Mariam and her friends had demonstrated at, but stopped short of breaking into — is a mouthpiece of the regime. Some of its tactics are to spread confusion and to divide and rule different communities. For example, it disseminates anti-Christian propaganda intended to set the majority of Muslims against their Coptic neighbours. One of the big regrets of Hamilton’s protestors that recurs like a refrain in the novel’s final pages is “I wish we’d taken Maspero.” If they had done so, they could have “broadcast the voice of the revolution” and thus reversed the damage of the regime’s television and radio programming. But at that time they made the “mistake” of not confronting the army, then still being seen as a potential ally. The result is a growth in the strength of counter-revolutionary forces and the snuffing out of the shabab’s hopes for “bread, freedom, social justice.”

In his book Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism, Paolo Gerbaudo makes the important point that social media are neither intrinsically positive nor negative. Rather, their significance lies in what people do with them. Gerbaudo writes of these media’s specific uses in political mobilisation and the way they lend themselves to “a choreography of assembly.” The ethically neutral and fluid essence of social media is recognised by Hamilton in his techno-realist and very inventive novel. As one of his characters remarks: “Mobile phones and the internet [mean that nowadays] [y]ou need more than just an army to control people.”

The columnist teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 13th, 2019