Africa Wired

Cyber-activists lend savvy to North African revolutions. Social media help spread images, messages and enthusiasm
From Africa Renewal: 
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Wael GhonimWael Ghonim, one of Egypt's leading Internet activists, addressing pro-democracy demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square: What started as a "Facebook revolution" ultimately became a "revolution of the Egyptian people."
Photograph: Reuters / Dylan Martinez

As hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Cairo's Tahrir Square celebrated the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak on 11 February, some held up mobile phones to snap photos of the crowd, others sent Twitter messages to their friends and a few wielded signs proclaiming, "Thank you, Facebook."

Technology did not cause this upheaval, which fed on widespread and long-festering political and social grievances. But young activists in Egypt, as in nearby Tunisia and elsewhere in the region, were able to use their access to new social media tools to publicize demands, call demonstrations and win support from broader sectors of the population.

"Without the social networks, we would not have been able to converge on Tahrir Square" on 25 January, the first day of the Egyptian protests, Jiji Ibrahim, a university student, told the French daily Le Monde. "Twitter and Facebook let us show people the size of the demonstrations, a size that encouraged many others to join in."

The success of the popular movements in toppling the autocratic governments of Egypt and Tunisia encouraged young activists across North Africa and the Middle East. In Algeria, Jordan, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Iran, Bahrain, Morocco and elsewhere they called marches and rallies, using both online media and more traditional forms of communication. The turnouts varied, and so did government responses, which ranged from promises of reform to brutal crackdowns, as in Libya.

The protests in Egypt and Tunisia in particular were shaped by two factors: the growing availability of mobile phone and Internet-based technologies, and several years of painstaking work by young activists adept at using those tools. In both countries, labour strikes erupted in 2008. Students and other youths wrote blogs, set up Facebook pages and generally sought to drum up support for the strikes. Gradually, these online organizers took up other issues — especially human rights abuses — and formed a variety of groups. They shared tips and experiences across their borders.

In December 2010 a young but jobless university graduate in a small Tunisian town sethimself on fire. His desperate act quickly set off street protests. Videos of the actions were shared across the Internet and were broadcast by the satellite TV network Al-Jazeera. The protests grew ever larger, until they forced President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country on 14 January.

Inspired, Egyptian activists called protests against their own government on 25 January. They put out the word on the Internet, but also began their marches through poor neighbourhoods of Cairo, drawing in thousands. As images and texts spread online, the protests mushroomed across the country. They continued even when the authorities shut down the Internet for five days.

"I liked to call this the Facebook revolution," Wael Ghonim, a young marketing executive for Google who had played a key role in initiating the protests, told the huge crowd in Tahrir Square. "But after seeing the people here, I would now say that this is the revolution of the Egyptian people."

Mr. Ghonim and his colleagues insist they played only small parts in a drama unfolding on a grand scale. But those roles proved pivotal. They showed that young people armed with little more than laptops and mobile phones can help amplify popular voices for freedom and justice. 

Building a 'virtual library' in West Africa

The West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA), which groups eight Francophone countries in the region, is providing $12 mn for a project to boost the information and communications technology capacities in their universities. In February, Soumaila Cissé, president of the UEMOA Commission, signed an agreement with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to support the three-year project, which will install new hardware and software on the campuses of eight universities. Each will receive fibre optic equipment and at least 200 computers.

In addition to a "cyber institute" that will provide professors with online training courses and a database to calculate students' course credits in a standardized way, the network will also create a "virtual library" of online research materials that can be easily shared among the campuses. "The virtual library we are creating will serve our young people both as roots and as wings," Mr. Cissé commented.

In Tanzania, mobile banking races ahead of the laws

"Mobile banking" — the use of mobile phones to conduct banking and payment transactions — was only introduced in Tanzania in 2008. But out of some 20 million telecommunication subscribers, more than 9.2 million are already registered with mobile banking services. The most popular is M-Pesa, offered by the UK's Vodafone. Clients not only use the services to transfer funds between accounts, but also to pay for retail goods and services, such as adding minutes to their mobile phones or paying water and electricity bills.

While aspects of mobile banking are covered in an ad hoc way under existing laws and regulations, there is no comprehensive law to regulate the fast-growing sector. According to officials of the Bank of Tanzania, the government is currently considering broad legislation on mobile banking, which may be submitted to Parliament sometime this year.

Ugandan elections go high-tech

Following opposition complaints about possible vote tampering during earlier elections, Uganda's Electoral Commission adopted a number of innovations to ensure greater transparency in the country's presidential and legislative polls in February. These included the introduction of biometric voter registration cards with photo and fingerprint, the release of the complete registration list online and the posting of polling station details via SMS messages to voters' mobile phones. A Web-based programme allowed district election officers to quickly transmit results to the national tally centre in Kampala.

In one especially hotly contested race, for mayor of Kampala, candidates held a debate that was broadcast live over television, radio and the Web. Journalists posted reports via Twitter during the debate, and people outside the hall were able to pose questions directly to the moderator via Facebook or Twitter.

In the presidential election, the Electoral Commission declared that President Yoweri Museveni had won yet again, with 68 per cent of the vote.