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From online to on-ground

February 28, 2013

Demonstrators take part in a protest marking the first anniversary of Egypt’s uprising at Tahrir square in Cairo January 25, 2012. - Reuters Photo

On June 6, 2010 Khaled Mohamed Said was viciously murdered by two plain-clothed policemen in Egypt. He had been sitting on the second floor of a cybercafé in Alexandria, when two detectives entered the premises, dragged him out and killed him on the spot.

The officers claimed that he was a drug dealer who died after choking on a packet of drugs he swallowed when he saw the policemen approach. This claim was met with derision when photographs of Khaled’s corpse were released on the internet by his brother, showing Khaled’s deformed face, fractured skull, dislocated jaw and various other signs of a brutal death.

The pictures went viral, causing huge public outcry, contributing to the growing outrage in the weeks leading up to the Egyptian Revolution of January 2011.

A Facebook page called “We are all Khaled Muhammad Said” was created by Wael Ghonim (then Head of Marketing, Google Middle East), and the page became the centre for the dissenters’ online discussions, attracting thousands of supporters, thus becoming Egypt’s biggest dissidents’ Facebook page ever.

Khaled’s example is only one of the many cases where social media served as a platform to unite people for a cause. On January 18, 2011 a week before the start of the Egyptian Revolution, Asmaa Mahfouz, a young Egyptian activist, posted a video on Facebook calling on all Egyptians to demand their social rights and to raise their voices against the oppressive dictator Hosni Mubarak.

The video was uploaded on YouTube and went viral. Buoyed by Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, the Egyptians gathered en masse on 25 January 2011, and the turnout culminated into an 18-day uprising, which eventually toppled Hosni Mubarak.

The massive campaigns on social media played a tremendous role in the Egyptian revolution, which is why it is often dubbed as “The Social Media Revolution” or “Facebook Revolution” by social media pundits.

Rebukes and retaliations

Recent surveys show a remarkable rise in the usage of the internet in Pakistan. In 2012, the number of Pakistani users on Facebook rose sharply, crossing the eight million mark.

A survey conducted by SocialBakers discovered that users generally fall within the age bracket of 18 to 24, making Facebook the hub for information and online discussions for a large number of Pakistani youth.

Having said that, social media has also been banned on several occasions in Pakistan – most prominent being the banning of Facebook in 2010.

For those who do not know, on April 14 2010, the 200th episode of South Park (an American television show) depicted Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The depiction of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is explicitly forbidden in Islam. Muslims began protesting against the creators of the show, cartoonists Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and the show was subsequently censored by its distributor Comedy Central for security reasons.

In response to the censorship and death threats, an American cartoonist Molly Norris announced on a radio show that she intends to organise a cartoon drawing event called “Muhammad Day” Subsequently, a page was created on Facebook by John Wellington named “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day”, that pulled together 100,000 participants (101,870 members by May 20 – the day the event was scheduled to held).

This further fuelled the growing outrage among the Muslim communities, and as a result a protest page against the initiative was created, “Against ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day’”.

This page also attracted tens of thousands of supporters (106,000 by May 20). The huge public outcry in Pakistan compelled the authorities to block Facebook (which was a temporary block) and the ban was only countermanded after Facebook agreed to block the page for users in Pakistan.

Social media activism in Pakistan

The year 2011 witnessed the growing power of social media activism in Pakistan. Ahmed Macdi, a student of Defence Authority Public School Karachi went missing on July 22, 2011 and was later found dead, murdered by his own classmate Abu Bakar.

A peace walk, in protest of the murder, was organised on the Facebook page named “In the Loving Memory of Ahmed Macdi” by Macdi’s friends and supporters. Social media served as a tool for the friends of Ahmed Macdi to engender support among the members of civil society and stir them into action.

It marked the beginning of social media activism in Pakistan, growing ever more pronounced in the year 2012.

The attack on 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai on October 09, 2012 triggered public outrage. Malala, a student in Swat, was shot in the neck by Taliban gunmen.

She is said to have written a blog for the BBC in which she described her ordeal and life under the Taliban. Although there are many controversies surrounding Malala, the role of social media after this incident was overwhelming.

Activists gathered on Facebook and Twitter to voice their hatred for the Taliban and to show solidarity with Malala. At the time of writing of this article, 48,982 people are talking about Malala on Facebook and around 127,410 people have joined the page named after her.

Transcending boundaries

In earlier days, leaflets and posters were used extensively by revolutionaries and propagandists alike to garner support from the masses.

With the advent of social media, the tools have changed.

Imran Khan’s young supporters employed social media to spread PTI’s message and to engender support among the masses – youth in particular – they organised massive social campaigns for PTI’s Lahore and Karachi rally and their efforts paid off – other political parties soon followed suit.

The youth of Pakistan has transcended the bounds of social media and have jumped into the real world by organising relief campaign for earthquake and flood victims. They have also formed small organisations using social media as a tool to recruit members and volunteers.

“United Youth of Pakistan”, “Orange tree”, “We need blood urgently”, “Jaag Mere Talib-e ilm” and many other organisations are using Social Media as a tool to promote their message of social welfare and to organise events.

Apart from welfare organisations, there are also many activist groups and individuals who are regularly involved in socio-political debates on the need for change.

“Young Activists of Pakistan” is one such group. Their Facebook page is filled with quotes and notes on the struggles of revolutionaries from around the world. The description of their community reads “A group of young activists working for a revolutionary change in our society”.

The tragic murder of 20-year-old Shahzeb Khan in Karachi on December 25, 2012 has ignited a movement to bring an end to all injustices done by people of power.

Soon after the incident, a Facebook page, “In Memory of Shazeb Khan” was created by his friends.The page managed to attract tens of thousands of supporters with 123,471 likes in just seventeen days – from December 25 to January 11, 2013.

Shahzeb’s friends managed to engender ample support for the departed. They are still using social media as a tool to organise peaceful walks and protests to show solidarity.

The protesters moved from online to on-ground on Sunday, 30th December 2012, by organising a peaceful protest outside Karachi Press Club. According to the protesters and Shahzeb’s friends, some 3,000 people took part in the protest.

Yahya Bin Ali, the President of Young Activists of Pakistan (YAP), while talking toThe News on a protest outside Pakistan High Commission in London said,“We are protesting here so that there are no more innocent people losing their lives. Since the killing of Shahzeb, people all over the world have voiced support for this cause and are now demanding justice for every innocent killed. There is also a growing online movement to support this cause. We are here for Shahzeb Khan, here for humanity.”

Beyond retweets and ‘likes’

The Khaled Mohammed Said autopsy photographs was characterised by ABC news as “The face that launched the Revolution”. Asmaa Mahfouz has been credited by the Egyptian-American Journalist Mona Eltahawy, with igniting a movement in Egypt via her video blog posted on Facebook and YouTube.

Lastly, Pakistani users played a significant role in forcing the authorities to ban Facebook (temporarily) in Pakistan.

Tunisia had its Mohamed Bouazizi who immolated himself as an act of public protest, Egypt had its Khaled Mohamed Said and Pakistan had its Malala and Shahzeb.

Each case sparked a movement in which Social Media played a tremendous role. It provided a platform to engender support from the masses and mobilise them towards a cause. However, Social Media alone does not make revolutions.

It is the unflinching will of the people and their perseverance that overthrow tyranny and despotic regimes.

“The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe, you have to make it fall”

— Ernesto Che Guevara (1928 – 1967)

Revolution or change is not something which is possible by merely joining Facebook and ‘liking’ pages which have the words ‘revolution’ or ‘change’ on them.

While social media can, and does, serve as a platform to organise and unite, it requires determination, the will to sacrifice and the boldness to withstand the challenges posed by opposing forces.