How Twitter helped rescue Mona El Tahawy

Destabilized by the collapse of its dictatorial regime and governed by military forces, Egypt is a dangerous place to be a dissident, especially one who has drawn the government’s fire by blogging and tweeting about its failings. For Mona El Tahawy, who was arrested and tortured by Egyptian security forces last week, that profile may have made her a target — but it also helped her quickly assemble a network of supporters and a Twitter campaign that eventually freed her from her captors. As with the revolution that swept Egypt’s president from power, Twitter may not have been the ultimate cause, but it clearly played a crucial role in the eventual outcome.

El Tahawy is a freelance journalist who grew up in Egypt and got her journalism degree from the University of Cairo, and worked for news outlets such as Reuters (s tri) and The Guardian before moving to New York. The “Arab Spring” revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt drew her back to her homeland, and she has been reporting on and blogging about the turmoil there ever since. For many, including NPR reporter Andy Carvin — who has become a one-man newswire reporting on the events in the Arab world via Twitter — she has become one of the key sources of information from the region.

News of El Tahawy’s capture spread quickly

As detailed in a Storify archive of the incident, on Wednesday evening — after having posted a number of comments to Twitter about the demonstrations in Tahrir Square — El Tahawy posted a single tweet that said she had been arrested by the country’s security forces:

The news sent shockwaves through the network of Egypt-watchers who follow El Tahawy on Twitter, and one of them was sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who has made a study of the use of social media during the “Arab Spring” revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. As Tufekci describes in a blog post about the incident, she quickly decided to use her connections to raise awareness about her journalist friend’s arrest and torture. Others, including Andy Carvin at NPR, had also started posting about the news and a hashtag quickly emerged: #freemona.

Within 20 minutes, Tufekci says, the hashtag was trending worldwide — thanks to the network of Twitter users who follow both the sociologist and other influential accounts like Carvin’s. One of those Egypt-watchers made sure everyone knew she had contacted the U.S. Embassy about the incident, since El Tahawy is a U.S. citizen. Tufekci and Carvin both reached out to another member of their network: Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor and former advisor to Senator Hillary Clinton. She in turn reached out to her contacts at the State Department.

Concise, fast, global, public and connected

As Tufekci notes in her post, while the Egyptian government and military forces may be despotic in many ways, it is still sensitive to international pressure — and that includes the kind of social pressure that can be applied when a high-profile case such as El Tahawy’s hits the news. While in some cases publicity can backfire and make those holding a dissident dig in their heels even further, with the Egyptian government,¬†Tufekci and others believed that such pressure would help loosen their grip. And that appeared to be the case, since El Tahawy was released 12 hours later, with a broken arm and a broken wrist from being assaulted by her captors.

So did Twitter cause El Tahawy’s release? As with the original demonstrations in Egypt that led to the removal of its dictatorial president, there’s bound to be debate about what role social media played. But as Tufekci has noted in her research about those demonstrations, one of the crucial factors Twitter and Facebook bring to the table during such events is the ability to spread the information broadly in a short space of time, which can in turn help convince others that taking action is worthwhile — creating a sense of momentum behind such events. In El Tahawy’s case, she says:

A few decades ago, contemplating launching a global campaign like this would require that I own, say, a television station or two. Concise, fast, global, public and connected was what we needed, and, for that, there is nothing better than Twitter.

Twitter makes it easier for ad hoc networks to form

Would El Tahawy have been released if Twitter and the kinds of real-time connections Tufekci describes in her post didn’t exist? Possibly. But her release could easily have taken weeks or even months, and perhaps even longer — as news of her capture slowly filtered out through traditional media sources, and then back-room diplomacy took its course. Tufekci and others could probably have emailed or called their contacts at the State Department, and the New York Times¬†(s nyt) might have eventually written about it. But there would not have been the same instantaneous public spotlight that Twitter shone on El Tahawy’s capture.

As Tufekci says in her post about the incident, proving cause and effect with social networks like Twitter is almost impossible. But what it clearly did in this case was speed up the process, and make it easier for an ad-hoc network of influential individuals to shine a light on El Tahawy’s capture — and that, combined with her own high-profile status as an American citizen and journalist, likely made the difference. Obviously, many other Egyptian dissidents remain in prison or detention, and not all of them can be freed in a similar manner for a variety of reasons.

That said, however, one of the things that dictators and repressive governments of all kinds hate the most is public knowledge of their actions — and in that sense, Twitter is one of the fastest and most efficient transparency machines in existence. On top of that, it makes collective action in such situations much easier and more effective, and that has profound implications not just in Egypt but for governments everywhere.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen and Wikimedia