On Friday afternoon, Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who has become the face of Egypt’s so-called Revolution 2.0, tweeted it was time at last for President Hosni Mubarak to resign.
A few hours later, the largest country in the Arab world—after just 18 days of protests—learned Mr. Mubarak, in power for three decades, had done just that.
“Welcome back Egypt,” Mr. Ghonim posted on Twitter shortly after the news was announced as the streets of Cairo erupted in celebration.
Social media, most notably Facebook and Twitter, have featured prominently in recent years as tools of the opposition in insurrections against entrenched regimes, accustomed to controlling what their citizens know through an iron-tight grip on their country’s newspapers and television.
But in most of those uprisings—from Iran in 2009 to Myanmar in 2007—the regimes were able to crush the opposition, in some instances by co-opting the new technology and using it as a way to monitor and identify dissidents.
Not this time. Mr. Ghonim was arrested by security police and held for 12 days likely for his Facebook activities, but it was not enough to stem the tide of Egypt’s revolution.
“It was just huge,” said Baher Esmat, a former official in Egypt’s communications ministry and now a member of an organization that promotes Internet usage in the Middle East.
“In the end, it came down to the people who were willing to take great risk and stay in the square, that was the main thing,” he added. “But the spark came from social media.”
Facebook concurred that technology played a role. “Mr. Ghonim is a hero and, like all true heroes, he diminishes his own role and gives credit to others. We’ve witnessed brave people of all ages coming together to effect a profound nonviolent change in their country. Certainly, technology was a vital tool in their efforts but we believe their bravery and determination mattered most,” said Elliot Schrage, Facebook Inc.’s vice president of communications, policy and marketing.
A Google spokesman declined to comment on Mr. Ghonim’s personal beliefs, but added: “Googlers are a passionate bunch, and they believe strongly in broader values of the web like accessing information and communicating freely. We’re always proud of people who take a stand.”
The use of technology in political upheaval isn’t new. The fax machine played a critical role in 1989 in spreading information among dissidents during the fall of the former-Soviet bloc countries. Organizers of the 1979 Iranian Revolution relied to a degree on smuggled cassette tapes of inspirational speeches from opposition leaders.
Twitter and Facebook are just the latest tools, albeit exponentially more powerful than anything before.
That increased the impact on the Egyptian opposition from the recent ouster of the Tunisian leader, and in turn, could blow more winds of change from Egypt across the Arab world. Turkey, Yemen and other nearby countries recently have held demonstrations sympathetic to the Egyptian uprising, no doubt benefited by social media.
“I think we will enter a phase where reform will accelerate,” said Mohammed Bin Essa Al-Khalifa, chief executive of the Economic Development Board of the Kingdom of Bahrain, in an interview in New York. “Countries will adapt to the new realities. Banning things is no longer a solution,” he said.
For many Egyptian protesters, social media allowed them to be heard first online, and then to organize so they could be heard on the streets.The other factor is the complementary nature of new media with mainstream media, how old media practitioners can work synergistically with users of new media. Many journalists in Cairo found sources and stories through Twitter and Facebook, enabling Egyptians to get their information out faster and farther than otherwise possible.
“Technology has been a supportive tool and an amplifier of revolutions for some time,” said John Palfrey, a co-director of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society. But the difference with social media is that “they are globally connective, not just in Cairo, but with the region and the world.”
“What you see is the ability of these tools to let individual citizens express their opinion, and groups to coordinate,” said Clay Shirky, author of “Here Comes Everybody,” a book on the organizing power of social media. “That is what gives these revolutions a novel character.”
“There is a bridge quality to mainstream media from social media that leads to greater transparency on the ground, and greater connectivity globally,” added Mr. Palfrey.
For Abdul Busin, a 27-year-old Internet security analyst, and his friend Omayr McAdam, also in the technology field, seeing the information coming out of Egypt from their home in London prompted them to action.
They helped organize similar protests in London, one near the Egyptian Embassy, what they called their own Tahrir Square to show support. Then, a week ago, they flew to Cairo, along with what they described as hundreds of people of Egyptian-descent living abroad, to participate in the real Tahrir Square.
They set up a live-stream video link on an iPad from the square to beam back what they were experiencing in Cairo to their friends and supporters back in London, and around the globe, said Mr. McAdam. “When we heard the Internet went down here, we wanted to come to see if we could put our tech skills to work,” he said. “But we wouldn’t have gotten so involved without first having all this information getting out to us,” he said.
The regime of President Hosni Mubarak wasn’t blind to the powers of new media. It was so aware of them, in fact, that it took the highly unusual step of shutting down the Internet for five days, starting at midnight on Jan. 27.
Only one network, called Nour, remained functioning, serving primarily government ministries, the stock exchange and some businesses. Otherwise, the country had gone dark.
But by that time, the organizing power of social media had already been unleashed: the revolution was under way.