Tweeting Egypt

The Social Media of the Egyptian Uprising

The Role of English in the Egyptian Revolt

The uprising to overthrow Mubarak was a grassroots movement, organized by educated youth but powered by those of all walks of life. Protesters used nationalism as a battle cry, rallying around the dream of an ideal Egypt, free of government corruption and reflecting the desires of the people. They had signs in Arabic, saying things like, “People of Egypt come down to the streets. Your country is important.”

But there was also an abundance of signs in English. So many, in fact, that it prompted one Yahoo Answers user to ask the question, “Why are All the Egyptian Protest Signs Printed in English?” It was an interesting question, if inaccurate.

Beyond signs, there were tweets, YouTube videos and blog posts that chronicled the uprising in English. One of the most important examples of this is the hashtag, #jan25, that started thanks to Twitter’s infrastructure and soon expanded to Facebook, YouTube and other platforms. It was a popular one, and it largely contributed to what entered into the discourse around the protests. What’s particularly interesting about it is that it does not use Arabic characters, nor does it use the Roman characters that resemble the Arabic word for the first month of the year. January in Egyptian Arabic is more like “yanayar” than “January,” so #yan25 might even have made more sense. Why would protesters rally around a phrase from a foreign language?

Protesters who wrote in Arabic but wanted their tweets in English had many options for this. Translation services for Twitter started coming out about two years ago when Google released its language API tools, or coding intended to allow pieces of software to communicate with each other.

This site is a perfect example of why organizers would do this: to get foreign attention, possibly leading to assistance in achieving their hope of overthrowing the regime and establishing a new sovereign leadership. In my interview with him this March, Georgetown University Professor Adel Iskandar said that the eyes of the foreign press and public became protection for those activists who would otherwise have been physically in danger for the statements they made against their government. This website was not made to help the Egyptian people; instead it intends to help others better understand the uprising, but with understanding and empathy for a cause, those who have the power to give are more likely to do so. Thus such help could come as an indirect result of chronicling the uprising.

One of the unintended consequences of this are that the foreign community played a large role in the uprising – continuing the identity confusion that persists in Egypt thanks to its history of colonization, foreign aid and encouragement of foreign investment. In fact, many of the Tweets using the hashtag #Egypt came from outside the MENA region, according to empirical data collected by Deen Freelon, a professor of communications at American University.

Of course, the uprising was not only documented in English. Tweets and Facebook groups in Arabic abound – both transliterated into Roman characters and in the Arabic alphabet. April 6 leader Waleed Rashed has helped lead to Twitter to changing its rules about hashtags. It received direct encouragement of this initiative from Arab groups on the internet.

Ultimately, to get a true study of the uprising and understand on every level how this came about, it is important to consider both Arabic and English sources. To do this, there are a number of translation websites available, but I would recommend having a native Arabic speaker – preferably Egyptian – reading and translating these pieces of data, not a computer.

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