Egypt: A Revolution Made by Social Media

From Jon Higgins, Senior Partner and CEO, International, Ketchum:

As the protests in Egypt enter a third week, the world continues to be riveted while at the same time hoping for a peaceful resolution. During this crisis, Ramzi Raad, Chairman and CEO of TBWARAAD Middle East and Ketchum Raad Middle East in Dubai, has held a vantage point close to the eye of the storm. As one of the leaders of Ketchum Raad Middle East – a joint venture between Ketchum and TBWARAAD that includes over 60 people in offices in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh, Jeddah and Cairo, and more than 600 people through the TBWARAAD network of offices across the Middle East and North Africa – he offers a real-time case study of how social media has upended the one-way, agenda-setting communication model of a government and helped precipitate a spontaneous uprising by tens of thousands of citizens to demand a change in government leadership. Here Ramzi shares some observations. 
There has already been a lot of discussion about what role social media has played in the protests in Egypt, but what many people still might not be able to fully put in perspective is the magnitude that this use of media marks in the broader history of Egypt. 

There has been a great deal of change in the Egyptian media scene as social networking has suddenly emerged as the new online forum for Egyptians, with such sites as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter commanding audiences that rival many regional TV stations and daily newspapers. Egyptian masses seem to have become passionately engaged with this new freedom, which has enabled them to share experiences, criticize the regime and invite others to join their interest groups. 

In the most notable example of this, when the Tunisian president and his entourage were toppled by the masses who marched on the streets, a young veiled Egyptian girl named Asma Mahfouz quickly shot a video urging the Egyptian people not to be scared and asking, “How long are you ready to continue living in fear?” Mahfouz’s impassioned blog post, which called on Egyptians to march toward Midan Al Tahreer (Liberation Square) on Jan. 25, went viral on social networking sites, and many observers are now citing her video and blog as what has triggered the second Egyptian revolution. 

What’s more, the release of Wael Ghoneim — the 30-year-old Egyptian who is the Middle East marketing manager of Google and who is normally based in Dubai — from his 12 days of detention by the Egyptian authorities led to him being hailed as the reluctant hero of the protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Wael was greeted with cheers, whistling and thunderous applause as he is believed to be a key organizer of the online campaign that inspired the first protest. As young people acquire the courage and stop worrying about being prosecuted, surely more social media heroes are going to step out and join Asma and Wael.

But to truly appreciate the momentousness of this occasion, a short history lesson is worth recounting. In 1952, a revolution brought major changes not only to Egypt – where it erupted – but to the entire Arab world, from Algeria to Yemen. Some of these changes related to mass media, such as the exodus of publishers, journalists, and advertising and PR pros from Egypt as well as the transfer of the title of Arab media capital from Cairo to Beirut.

The Egyptian Army that took over from King Farouk then was quick to nationalize and take local media under its control. Since then, and despite the establishment of a republic that replaced the monarchy, the four Egyptian presidents that have come to power following this revolution have all been ex-Army officers, and the leading Egyptian media remained, one way or the other, under government control. As a result, Egypt’s Al-Ahram, the second-oldest daily newspaper in the Arab world, has continued to be one of the most influential and highest-circulating Pan-Arab dailies, and many regional TV and radio stations in Egypt have continued to be similarly powerful and popular. 

Important to keep in mind in all this is that the Arabic language – which is the national language of all countries in the Middle East and North Africa – has been the common thread behind the wide geographical coverage of the Egyptian media. Moreover, Egypt, with its more than 80 million people and with the many Egyptians who live and work all over the Arab world, played an important role in making the Egyptian media popular around the Middle East and North Africa.

The introduction of the open-door economic policy by the late president Sadat signaled the return of modern-day consumerism to Egypt, which attracted multinational manufacturing and trading companies to the country. These companies have always considered Egypt as one of the most promising markets in the Middle East and North Africa. In turn, this made international PR and ad agencies rush back to Cairo, in a big way. This then led to a surge in media investment to the extent that, in 2010, Egypt was crowned as the largest advertising market in the Middle East and North Africa with spending of US$1.49 billion, up from US$1.2 billion in 2009. In the past two years, Egypt emerged as a creative powerhouse as well, scoring very high in regional creative award programs, and Egypt remains a vital media market in the Middle East-North Africa region to this day. 

However, while the Egyptian revolution of 1952 proved to be contagious, we hope that the current situation will be resolved peacefully and will not spread beyond Tunisia and Egypt. Above all, we continue to pray for the resumption of peace and order in the country, as more than 100 Ketchum Raad and TBWA employees – and their families – continue to be on our mind day and night.

Ramzi Raad, Chairman and CEO of TBWARAAD Middle East and Ketchum Raad Middle East