University students in the United States can learn much from students and protests in Egypt, says a professor at Queens who observed first-hand the political upheaval in Egypt during the summer, and who has spent the last several years researching political change in the Middle East. Most of the protesters in Egypt are young adults who are extremely involved with the politics of their community, says Dr. Mohammed el-Nawawy, a communication professor and expert on Middle Eastern media and the Arab public sphere.
“In America we take our freedoms for granted,” el-Nawawy said in a recent interview with staff members of The Queens Chronicle. “We have the freedom of press and speech [in the United States] but we rarely use it,” he said. “A lesson we can learn from the Egyptian protesters is to be aware of politics and global affairs. To be active members in our community we need to develop an interest in politics and be willing to share our opinions with others.”
El-Nawawy is a user of social media, but does not feel like a native in its use. Young people, however, have a real opportunity to use it for social change. Egyptian students may have been leaders in the use of social media to organize politically because they grew up in an environment where they felt as though they could not express an opinion, he said. Social media gave them an opportunity to express it. College students globally all seem to use social media to get together with friends, and American students might think about moving to the next step — toward using social media for a cause.
El-Nawawy has recently been quoted in major news outlets, including CNN and USA Today, about the politics of Egypt. His latest book is “Egyptian Revolution 2.0,” which focuses on the effect of social media for political activism and how it influenced the revolution. His first book focused on the Al Jazeera news network and established him as an expert on media in the Middle East.
In Egypt, el-Nawawy says, citizens decided in early 2011 that after years of putting up with corruption, poverty and social seclusion, they had had enough. Thousands of Egyptians took to the streets demanding the end of ex-president Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. Word of the uprising spread fast as the protesters rallied support through Twitter and Facebook.
While the police used tear gas and water cannons in an attempt to disperse the protesters, political activists responded by pelting the police with rocks. The government then disabled social networking sites. They protested for several days, but Mubarak refused to be swayed.
As a native of Egypt, el-Nawawy felt very close to the recent revolution, and it sparked his academic curiosity as a professor and journalist. At one point, the seriousness of the situation hit him and he asked himself, “Why am I not there?” He arrived in Cairo on Feb. 11, 2011, one hour after Mubarak stepped down. When the protesters heard the news of Mubarak’s decision, they began to celebrate. El-Nawawy describes this as a peaceful revolution that “should be an influence to the world.”
Despite what many others have said, el-Nawawy believes social media played a relatively small role in this revolution. Social media is generally used the same everywhere, he said, but the Egyptians put their posts or tweets into action and made a difference in their community.