Traffic crawls as usual through Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, making its noisy way around the 65-foot pole flying the Egyptian flag newly erected in the middle of the plaza. It is hard to imagine that in January 2011 this very spot was the epicenter of the grassroots revolution that toppled President Husni Mubarak. Since the summer 2013 coup, the military-backed regime has remade this space of insurrection into one of imposed national unity. The revolutionary graffiti is long since whitewashed; the headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, incinerated during the uprising, is demolished.

The makeover of Tahrir Square is one highly visible manifestation of a concerted effort to reconstitute public memory of the events of January 2011. A new narrative propagated by state media outlets recasts those events in conspiratorial terms and criminalizes the revolutionaries, a large percentage of whom have left the country. Protests unsanctioned by the state are outlawed, with demonstrators who defy the ban subject to large fines and jail sentences as long as 15 years. In 2015 Human Rights Watch estimated that as many as 41,000 political activists faced criminal charges or languished in prison. In January 2016 the al-Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Violence and Torture reported that hundreds had died in detention.

Public discourse is now dominated by talk of rebuilding society based on national unity and state-approved morality. In February 2016, for example, the prominent Muslim cleric and former grand mufti ‘Ali Gum‘a launched a campaign called Our Morals (Akhlaquna) to promote ten values—mercy, love, cooperation, proactivity, empathy, humility, workmanship, ambition, fairness and forgiveness—that he says will “restore Egypt’s bright face.” [1] Meanwhile, the authorities have stepped up the repression of ideas and practices they regard as deviant. The police have arrested many homosexuals in frequent “morality raids.” [2] And expressions of atheism are also punishable by law, as the young blogger Karim Ashraf al-Banna discovered. [3] Such tactics are aimed at fortifying the boundaries of a national community around the new leader, President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, and at reinforcing social cohesion against various “others” at the fringes of the community. As scholars since Michel Foucault have argued, the construction of deviance facilitates governance because it enables the conformity of the mainstream.

This environment has led many commentators to conclude that the revolution is dead, even as demonstrators persist in small numbers. Interviewers regularly find participants in the 2011 rebellion mired in despondency; indeed, a number of them believe the country has gone back to square one. [4] Yet there is at least one space where the state’s reconstruction campaign has met with little success—Facebook, the virtual forum that helped to galvanize the masses during the historic 18-day occupation of Tahrir that precipitated Mubarak’s downfall. Though by no means the central factor igniting the revolution, as some believe, Facebook greatly augmented the power of word of mouth as the 18 days progressed. Postings on the social networking site conveyed up-to-the-minute information about rallying points, the precise locations of violent clashes with police, and safety tips and other suggestions regarding appropriate conduct at protests. This information could be had by anyone with access to “the Face.”

Today, in parallel to the state’s attempts to paper over social differences with talk of national unity, activist groups in Egypt are using Facebook to spearhead awareness campaigns of their own. These efforts challenge the state’s ability to define morals and values by debunking hegemonic notions of deviance and creating a space of tolerance for subjects considered taboo by society at large. At these Facebook “confession pages,” users can share their most intimate problems with little fear of discovery because posts in the private virtual environment are anonymous. Many of these pages offer further protections to users: A page’s status will be designated as “secret,” so it is not searchable through Facebook (though various copycat pages with similar names have appeared). Access is limited to members, with membership granted only with the endorsement of long-time members and the approval of the site’s administrators. All posts are approved by the administrators. Despite efforts to ensure privacy, however, site administrators understand the Egyptian government has been increasing its efforts to monitor social media.

These Facebook groups, such as Cairo Confessions and Confessions of a Married Woman, address issues relevant to the younger generation that constitutes roughly one quarter of the population. Mental, emotional and sexual problems—issues of an intimate nature rare in public conversation in today’s Egypt—take center stage in these anonymous confession groups. Young people in particular gravitate toward these virtual spaces of social support that release public discourse from the grip of the state and reclaim it for ordinary Egyptians. What is the vision behind these Facebook groups? How do the administrators of “confession pages” define their projects in relation to the state’s morality campaigns? And, crucially, what is the potential for these virtual communities to evolve into collective action or bring about social change?

Virtual Revolutionary Space

Facebook’s reputation for sowing the seeds of rebellion in Egypt stems largely from a widely quoted CNN interview with Google junior executive and demonstration organizer Wael Ghoneim on February 11, 2011, the date of Mubarak’s resignation from the presidency. Ghoneim proclaimed, “This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook…. I’ve always said that if you want to liberate a society just give them the Internet.” Some 33 percent of Egyptians have Internet privileges, amounting to 30,835,256 people [5]—not a majority of the population but still a staggering number because active engagement with the Internet requires a certain measure of literacy and only 75 percent of Egyptians are literate. Moreover, 68 percent of Internet users in Egypt are between 15 and 25 years of age, according to a 2015 study by Nielsen Egypt.

Of course, access to Internet technology is mediated not only by literacy but also by class and socioeconomic privilege. Yet there are indicators that the “confession pages” on Facebook are socially inclusive. Nearly 80 percent of the women posting on the Confessions of a Married Woman page, for instance, write in Arabic rather than English. While bilingual fluency or a preference for English do not in and of themselves signal class privilege, the preference for Arabic suggests that Egyptians of various classes and education levels are using the page. Furthermore, the ubiquity of smartphones and Internet cafés in Egypt increases Internet access for those who cannot afford a computer or a connection at home.

The Egyptian government is keenly aware of the potential for social media to slip the reins of state media, disseminate alternative information and provoke dissent. Human rights activists note that nine Egyptian nationals have been arrested for online activities since 2014. Egyptian parliamentarians have proposed new restrictions on social media. MP Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir, for example, has been developing legislation criminalizing the use of Facebook to call for protest. He complains, “The West sold us Facebook only to blackmail us.” [6] There are also several private lawsuits seeking to regulate the use of Facebook in Egypt. [7] Yet many others, like blogger Mina Malek, digital media expert Khaled Baramawy and political activist Hazem Abdel Azim, have denounced those who would limit freedoms by restricting the flow of information on social media. [8]

In any case, the backlash against social media has not deterred Egyptians, who the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology claims are the largest group of Facebook users in the Arab world. Estimates put the number of members at some 31 percent of the population. Facebook membership seems to spike during periods of political turmoil, increasing by approximately 5 million in 2011, 3 million in 2012 and 5 million in the summer of 2013, when Sisi took charge. At such times, Facebook offers a virtual space in which young Egyptians can stay connected while shaping their own social media worlds.

Collective Virtual Spaces

The Cairo Confessions Facebook page describes itself as “a community that is filled with the bright, open minds of the Egyptian people, where you can anonymously get your problems heard and responded to.” Founded in 2013 by Mohamed Ashmawy, then a 21-year old undergraduate, Cairo Confessions is the first forum in the Middle East to deal extensively with issues of mental health. Ashmawy, who majored in computer science at the University of Minnesota, recalls that he and his friend Ali Khalifa launched the page with no expectation that it would be a wild success. Because posts to the page are anonymous, its popularity is measured not by membership but by its more than 60,000 “likes.”

At first, most of the posts came from Ashmawy’s friends, but soon thousands of others began posting. Mohamed Allam, who now co-runs Cairo Confessions with Ashmawy, says:

The whole idea was to create a safe space for people to open up about taboo issues. When I joined, I said, “Let’s gather people, create a community. Let’s create a judgment-free zone.” To those ends, we focus quite a bit on the moderation of the comments on the postings to ensure that there is no judgmental feedback that injures people. This was our vision to create a social network. [9]

Most postings are focused on romantic relationships, which Allam views as the primary worry of young people in Egypt today, followed by family issues. The third category is sexuality, including such subtopics as masturbation, virginity and homosexuality. Allam notes:

The relationship between a boy and a girl is considered taboo in our conservative Arab society, which causes guys to be very repressed. It starts during the teens and continues through university. It increases social anxiety and complicates young people’s lives because they do not know how to tell the opposite sex, “I like you.”

He believes that Cairo Confessions allows visitors to the page to vent their frustrations.

People (mostly young people) today cannot take it any more. Many feel they cannot speak out loud—homosexuals, for instance, feel persecuted by society. Problems with family relations are also quite prominent in the postings. Family problems can be the result of financial problems or of aggressive parents treating their children badly—this is a very common concern of young people.

Today a team of 20 runs the page, joined by psychiatrists and counselors who provide care to an Egyptian public in need. The 2013 UN World Happiness Report ranks Egypt’s population at 130 out of 156 populations studied, so mental health issues are real for Egyptians. But public conversations about these issues are uncommon. Satellite television channels occasionally host psychiatrists, such as the secretary-general of Our Morals, Ahmad ‘Ukasha, to talk about how to overcome depression or to provide input on social phenomena such as sexual harassment and terrorism. But even as post-revolution trauma hits Egyptian society, some segments harder than others, deeply ingrained practices render such conversations taboo. The Cairo Confessions Facebook page offers a rare outlet.

Ashmawy and Allam noticed that young posters were suffering from social anxiety, and decided to provide opportunities for them to meet up with others with similar problems and needs. Interested parties filled out applications and, based on the responses, Ashmawy and Allam sorted people into groups and planned ice-breaking exercises. The meet-ups have included a treasure hunt in the affluent Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek, as well as monthly storytelling events and field trips. Such in-person gatherings transcend the limits of virtual space.

According to Allam, the success of the page is indirectly linked to the revolution:

The repression people suffered before the revolution was quite high. People were preoccupied with other things, but after what happened [their minds] began to open up…. Our generation is more aware than any other generation…. An irreversible change took place in society. After this period of revolution things can never be the same again.

The team hopes that the page will help create a more tolerant society that can openly discuss its problems. Ashmawy states:

We are very passionate about improving mental health and promoting self-expression; our idea is a model for an open, more accepting community. Changing society from within takes a lot of effort and a lot of time, so patience is needed—and a bit of good luck wouldn’t hurt! [10]

Another Facebook page that has acquired some notoriety in Cairo is Confessions of a Married Woman, a members-only forum launched by Zeinab al-Ashri in 2014. Shortly after her marriage, al-Ashri was relaxing with female friends when the conversation turned to divorce. As one friend recounted her difficulties, the others found much of her experience to be familiar. “I, too, realized that I was going through the same challenges but that I dare not elaborate because we are taught to keep our marital lives to ourselves,” al-Ashri recalls. She saw there was a need for a virtual forum. Some discretion is appropriate—“it would be embarrassing to my husband if others were to know about our intimate life details,” she says—but staying silent when one is deeply unhappy is not healthy. “It can isolate women and actually lead to divorce, in some cases, because women think it is only them who suffer and that there is nothing to be done about it.” Al-Ashri’s Facebook group tapped into pent-up demand: The group gained two or three thousand members in its first year and, by 2017, the rolls had expanded to more than 65,000. But there has also been backlash. Disgruntled husbands accuse the group of trying to foment marital discord and encouraging women to ask for divorce. Al-Ashri shrugs off the complaints: “There will always be people who will try to find a problem with everything that you do as a woman because they cannot handle your success and their own problems.” Yet she is hopeful that these frustrated patriarchs will come to value open, honest communication with their wives.

Perhaps the most common topic is sex. Some discussions address sexual performance, but as al-Ashri notes:

Almost 50 percent of the sexual problems that women reported had to do with their husband’s lack of sex drive and not their own! Yes, of course, there are many cases where women could not keep up with their husband’s sex drive, but the numbers are much less [perhaps 15 to 20 percent].

She argues that the reasons have to do with outdated expectations of wedlock on the part of men, who assume that their marriages will be like those of their fathers:

Women now have careers and contribute to the couple’s finances. In some cases they earn more than their husbands. Some men cannot reconcile these new scenarios with their internalized notions of masculinity, whereby the husband is head of the household and the main breadwinner.

Many wives, al-Ashri continues, do not realize that their husbands feel this way and that men can experience lack of interest in sex as a result. Her Facebook group conveys to women that such situations are common, as is self-doubt as to whether one has chosen the right partner. Members find reassurance in such insights, and they encourage each other to seek counseling if needed. In the online discussions, mental health care is not for “the insane,” as popular perception would have it, but is an accessible means of dealing with ordinary life problems.

Like the Cairo Confessions team, al-Ashri views the 2011 revolution as sparking a sense of agency in a population that had long felt disempowered. “People realized that they can make change happen,” she stated. “Our generation is more self-aware and more globally aware. Young people look at what other people around the world are doing and they think, ‘Why not us, too?’” She saw this sense of agency on her Facebook page as well, where members gradually overcame their initial caution about broaching taboos when they saw that anonymity provided them with a safe space.

Like the Cairo Confessions team, al-Ashri organizes in-person gatherings as well—workshops on topics of interest to her group’s members. In response to hundreds of posts by housewives and stay-at-home mothers, many of the workshops have addressed women’s empowerment. Even if they are unhappy, some women have little choice but to remain married for financial reasons. The workshops give them practical tips for launching home businesses, along with an alternative means of fulfillment and community. “I am building a bridge between women and the professional world,” says al-Ashri. “I am also trying to spread knowledge and tolerance for psychiatric help. I am calling for the removal of stigma from sexual matters in society and for empowering women.”

Change and Its Proponents

Since the 2011 revolution, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have turned to Facebook and other online forums for self-help and the support of others in dealing with the problems of daily life. Other pages and groups have emerged to create virtual spaces for mothers, university alumni, neighborhoods and entrepreneurial groups, to give just a few examples. Although many popular virtual spaces eschew formal politics, the discussions do political work by building communities and demystifying subjects that the state deems off limits, such as sexuality, atheism, divorce and dealing with domineering parents. These online conversations redefine exclusionary boundaries by challenging the state’s efforts to monopolize moral codes. When young people openly discuss career plans, parents, breakups and sexual frustration—even if they do so anonymously—they push back against traditional taboos and begin to define a new normal. To be sure, such transgressions of conventional norms are not as dramatic as the assembly of protesters in Tahrir Square in January 2011. But the online camaraderie of these groups echoes the bonds forged among Tahrir protesters. And while the Internet on its own cannot a revolution make, the participants in these online forums have begun to cross the line from the virtual to the real, through workshops and meet-ups that put them face to face.


Endnotes

[1] Dalia Rabie, “Adjusting Egypt’s Moral Compass,” Mada Masr, March 5, 2016.
[2] Daily News (Cairo), September 21, 2015.
[3] Guardian, January 13, 2015.
[4] Lauren Bohn, “A Revolution Devours Its Children,” The Atlantic, January 23, 2016.
[5] See the statistics here.
[6] George Mikhail, “Will Egypt’s Parliament Pass Facebook Law?” al-Monitor, May 10, 2016.
[7] Gihan Shahine, “Facebook Challenges for Egypt,” al-Ahram Weekly, September 18-21, 2016.
[8] Daily News (Cairo), January 4, 2016.
[9] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from interviews conducted by the author in 2016.
[10] Cherry Mahmoud, “Q & A: Mohamed Ashmawy, Founder and CEO of Cairo Confessions,” October 9, 2014.

How to cite this article:

Sherine Hafez "Virtual Space and Collective Action in Egypt," Middle East Report 281 (Winter 2016).
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