February 16, 2011
The rise of the silent majority
When I was invited last August to talk to the Los Angeles Press Club as a Daniel Pearl Fellow and the audience asked me many questions related to the future of Egypt after Hosni Mubarak’s rule and the possibility of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover, my answers were focused on one key term, “the Silent Majority.”
I have recalled that rich discussion at the Press Club many times during the 18 days of the protests — the most important three weeks in Egypt’s modern history.
I was so proud to witness the uprising of the “Silent Majority” of Egyptians against Mubarak’s regime, not only because I consider myself one of them but also because the young rebels managed to make their message very clear — we don’t belong to any political party or religious group, we only want a better Egypt.
In order to understand the term “Silent Majority,” I would like to remind you of the results of the Egyptian parliamentary elections in 2005, which showed the Muslim Brotherhood earning almost 20 percent of the seats, while Mubarak’s National Ruling Party was represented by more than 72 percent of the seats after a violent and chaotic election that was believed to be rife with fraud, especially in the second stage, in order to prevent the Brotherhood from getting more seats.
The message from Mubarak’s regime to the West and to the George W. Bush administration was clear: “It is either us or an Iranian-style extreme Islamic regime.” To me, it was a protective step, a response to the calls for reform made by the United States to the Arab regimes after 9/11.
Mubarak’s national party’s main mission in the last 30 years was to weaken and block any opposition party from working in the street, even as, at the same time, the Brotherhood’s influence was growing, because historically the Brotherhood had developed its own way to work and communicate with people, despite being an officially forbidden group.
However, the representation of the ruling party and of the Brotherhood in the Parliament has never been a real representation of the majority of Egyptians, who preferred to be silent and to boycott any kind of elections and political referendums to the constitution due to the widespread fraud and violence planned by the regime in every single election. In the 2005 elections, this boycott was so clear, as only 23 percent of the people who had the right to vote — which is about 40 million — participated, which means that about 9 million people voted in a country with a population of over 75 million.
The silent majority mainly belongs to the middle class, people who’ve had a fair share of education, enough to understand that elections under Mubarak’s regime were just a big joke; the Egyptian state-owned media has always blamed the silent majority for not participating, but it was never able to explain why participation in free elections — as it is the case for elections in sports clubs and professional syndicates — exceeds 90 percent. In their silence, the Egyptian street sent a message to the regime, too: “We will never be numbers in your so-called democratic win.”
As a journalist who covered 2005 parliamentary and presidential elections, and as a member of the silent majority, I knew very well that Mubarak never cared about our opinion; he always believed that his people were not mature enough to practice democracy. He cared only about his relationship with the United States. In his last two years, he knew well that the United States needs him for many reasons as a key ally in keeping peace, along with Israel, in the war against terrorism and in resisting Iranian influence in the Arab world. None of those reasons included democracy or had anything to do with his shameful record of human rights.
On the other hand, Egyptian young people found in the Internet a natural escape from a frustrating reality. The number of users has grown rapidly since 2000, and by the beginning of last year, Egypt had more than 17 million Internet users, all of them educated and with basic computer skills. More than 4.3 million of the users joined Facebook.
Although the Egyptian revolution was the first in history to start with a Facebook event, I don’t believe that it was a Facebook revolution; I prefer to call it a social media revolution, or a networking revolution.
The rise of social media in Egypt wasn’t only about Facebook, it was also related to the spread of blogs and the increasing usage of YouTube and e-mail.
What social media did for Egyptians was simply to give them the ability to communicate and express opinions freely, establish media organizations online and assemble peacefully; most of those fundamental rights were prohibited by the regime, which didn’t take what was happening online seriously.
On April 6, 2008, Egypt had its first national strike since the 1970s, organized by a group on Facebook, and at the same time, issues such as torture in police stations and sexual harassment were being brought to public awareness through blogs. As a result, the independent media could no longer ignore those issues, especially when they were backed up by videos on YouTube, with millions of views. The state-owned media also couldn’t ignore those cases when they moved to courts, because of videos taken by cell phones.
By 2011, the social media boom in Egypt had reached a peak. Some pages on Facebook, such as that of Khaled Saeed, who died after being tortured by the police, had more than 400,000 members; the highest circulated newspaper in Egypt doesn’t sell more than 300,000 copies.
In the 2010 parliamentary elections, which witnessed new frauds by Mubarak’s party and resulted in a more than 90 percent dominance of the regime over the total number of seats, it wasn’t just the result that caused a scandal, but also so many incidents of fraud and violence were uploaded to YouTube and circulated via Twitter, Facebook and the blogs that 2010 became a significant moment of transformation for educated Egyptians, who decided to produce their own media and consume it using alternatiive tools of publishing and distribution.
The exuberance and outcome of the 2011 revolution was surprising to everyone, including the rebels themselves. However, nobody can deny the early signs related to networking among the millions of angry young people who have felt the humiliation of living under Mubarak’s reign.
I am now so optimistic that the generation that managed to topple Mubarak by peaceful protests will be able to build a new Egyptian society, relying on democracy and human rights.
Nasry Esmat is an Egyptian journalist and board member of the Euro-Mediterranean Academy for Young Journalists (EMAJ). He was a Daniel Pearl Fellow in 2010.