Four Burning Questions with Sahar Khamis, expert on Arab and Muslim media

Sahar Khamis, a leading expert on Arab and Muslim media, will be one of the participants in the Media@McGill panel “The Role of Media in the Arab Spring and its Aftermath: The Special Case of Egypt” on Feb. 6.
Sahar Khamis, a leading expert on Arab and Muslim media, will be one of the participants in the Media@McGill panel “The Role of Media in the Arab Spring and its Aftermath: The Special Case of Egypt” on Feb. 6. / Photo courtesy of Sahar Khamis

By Tamar Tembeck

Sahar Khamis is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is an expert on Arab and Muslim media and the former Head of the Mass Communication and Information Science Department at Qatar University. She co-authored the 2009 book Islam Dot Com: Contemporary Islamic Discourses in Cyberspace with Mohammed El-Nawawy, and has published numerous articles on media in the Middle East, in both English and Arabic.

Along with Marc Lynch (George Washington University) and Zeynep Tufekci (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Sahar Khamis will be participating in the Media@McGill panel “The Role of Media in the Arab Spring and its Aftermath: The Special Case of Egypt” on Wednesday, Feb. 6, from 2 to 5:30 p.m., in Leacock 232 (855 Sherbrooke Street West). The conference is free and open to the public. For more information go here.

Research on new media and the Arab Spring suggests that the role of social media in the organisation of protests, such as the Iranian Green Movement, tends to be overestimated. Indeed their most significant impact can be found in international perceptions of the conflict, rather than in the location of the conflict itself. To what extent was this the case during the 2011 uprisings that led to the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt?

While I agree that the role of social media in the current wave of political revolt in the Arab world tends to be overestimated, I wouldn’t just limit its impact to influencing international perceptions. I think that different types of social media played different roles in the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Facebook helped in networking, since it linked together like-minded people who share common interests and are passionate about common causes, as was seen in the “We Are All Khalid Said” Facebook page and the April 6 Facebook page. Twitter was more effective in on-the-ground organization and seeking help and support on a moment-by-moment basis, as was evident in the book Tweets from Tahrir. And YouTube was excellent for documentation and to reflect a realistic image of what was happening to both a local and an international audience.

Social media are thought to be useful in the organisation of political protests in repressive regimes, as they facilitate communication and coordination between strangers, and potentially allow for the evasion of state censorship. If social media are considered a helpful resource in times of revolution, what can be said of their role in periods of democratic (re)construction, for instance during the 2012 Egyptian elections? Are the political uses of social media in an emergent democracy comparable or different to their uses in times of revolt?

The uses of social media during the times of democratic (re)construction and rebuilding a nation, like Egypt, which is going through a difficult period of transition, are different from their uses during times of revolt. While they can be used primarily as catalysts, to speed up the process of political change through public mobilization during times of revolt, their role in the current transitional period takes a different form, as they act more as platforms for self-expression, venues for brainstorming, and channels for expressing demands and making different voices heard. However, it is important to note that face-to-face communication and real-life, on-the-ground organization seem to take the precedence over purely mediated communication during the current difficult transitional period in Egypt. This is due to the need to maintain a high level of personal trust and credibility in order to enable effective coordination, which is not always possible amid the cacophony of voices expressed via social media platforms.

In his 2012 book, The Arab Uprising, Marc Lynch notes that media outlets such as Al Jazeera significantly contributed to the development of a new Arab public sphere, and helped foster a pan-Arab identity across national borders. Your own publication, Islam Dot Com (co-authored with Mohammed El-Nawawy), addresses the growth of the Islamic public sphere through a “virtual umma” or online Islamic community. In what ways have the uses of media, both new and old, helped fuel cross-border cultural solidarity across the Middle Eastern and North African region?

There is no doubt that transnational media, whether satellite television channels or the Internet, marked a new era in the Arab and Muslim world, by moving beyond the uniform, monolithic, state-controlled, local media domain to a much broader, pluralistic and diverse international media domain, which opened new windows for people in the Arab and Muslim world to not only see the rest of the world, but also to be seen by the rest of the world.

This contributed to creating new public spheres, both in the real and the virtual worlds; redefined the meaning of the Muslim umma, by expanding its virtual boundaries; raised people’s hopes and expectations in this part of the world (which could have been one of the factors fueling the wave of “Arab Awakening”) by creating a greater need for change, reform and competition at an accelerated rate and on an expanded scale. It also created a new form of “pan-Arabism” and “pan-Islamism” which binds the people in this part of the world together at the grassroots level, despite their differences.

Your presentation at McGill will address the role of youth and women’s leadership during the Arab Spring in Egypt. According to you, what distinguishes their particular uses of media in order to effect social and political transformation?

Youth have been the driving force behind the wave of political revolt which has been sweeping the Arab world since 2011. They have been the blood of these political movements and the orchestrating minds behind their success. This is mainly due to their heightened sense of urgency for political change, their shrewd organizational skills, their successful online and offline networking tactics, and their savvy mastering of new media tools. The combination of these unique qualities led to their prominent roles as agents of change in this current wave of “Arab Awakening.”

Likewise, women, especially young women, emerged as significant opinion leaders who masterminded this wave of political change, both online and offline, and equally in the political and social domains. Some of the best examples in this regard in Egypt are Asmaa’ Mahfouz, who was described as “the most brave girl in Egypt” due to her famous YouTube vlog (video blog) which inspired people to go out and protest on Jan. 25, 2011; Nawara Negm, the prominent political activist and blogger; and Esraa Abdel Fattah, who came to be known as “the Facebook girl,” due to her prominent role in setting up the April 6 movement’s Facebook page. She is also an active leader in this movement.

Sahar Khamis’ presentation at McGill is entitled “Youth and Women’s Leadership, Cyberactivism, and the Arab Spring: Prospects for Political and Social Transformation in Contemporary Egypt.”