In August 2020, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi appealed to the Egyptian youth in a statement: “Egypt’s youth! Resist with us.” Authorities later adopted this slogan through a series of legislations to fight rumors and protect national security. But what does this slogan actually entail?
Egypt’s Ministry of Youth and Sports recently announced that it would begin accepting membership and volunteer applications to join the central youth teams as part of the “Resist with Us” (Tasaddu Maana) unit to combat rumors.
About the “Resist with Us” Campaign and its Objectives
Regimes that believe in agenda-setting, such as the Egyptian regime, have realized the threat social media platforms pose to their authority and their potential to influence public opinion. In response, they took a series of measures and policies to protect their interests by restricting freedoms. SMEX published multiple reports documenting the approaches authorities adopt to oppress – rather than protect – people online, as well as their efforts to transfer their traditional media tools to the digital realm and social media.
The purpose of the “Resist with Us” campaign, announced by the Ministry of Sports and Youth back in September, is to “train and mobilize a select team of young people to preserve the Egyptian state by combating harmful rumors and enhancing the knowledge of the Egyptian people, in order to help them understand the facts. This will be achieved through providing training, education, and guidance. The participants will be called upon to support the Egyptian State, which is marching forward to achieve its development goals across Egypt and protect its national security.”
The Ministry has specified certain conditions for joining the campaign: Applicants must be aged between 20 and 40 years, have a higher education diploma, and pass an in-person interview with a committee of national security experts and representatives of the Ministry of Youth and Sports, according to a statement by Iman Abdel Jaber, undersecretary at the Ministry and the President of the Central Administration of Parliament and Civic Education. The applicants must participate full-time in the training course as a primary condition for admission.
The campaign and the main volunteer teams handle social media, marketing, monitoring and research, human resources, campaigns and programs, fundraising, and training activities.
The Ministry of Youth and Sports used social media platforms to achieve the campaign’s objectives such as creating official pages and accounts on Facebook and Twitter under the slogan “Resist with Us” (Tasaddu Maana).
Campaign to tighten self-censorship?
Amid the spread of rumors, “it was necessary to establish an official authority to inform Egyptian citizens about misinformation rapidly spreading on social media,” said Egyptian journalist Inas Kamal in an interview with SMEX.
Kamal also explained that “there are no accurate statistics on Egyptian accounts on social media, but the number is believed to be over 20 million. This means that any provocative piece of information spreads very quickly and can lead to harmful consequences.”
For example, some rumors had the potential to undermine the Egyptian economy, such as those related to the sale of State assets, but the “Resist with Us” campaign managed to debunk them at a rate of 10 rumors in 10 days. “The debunking of rumors is one of the most important advantages of the campaign, although it is still new and its reach remains limited,” according to Kamal.
By contrast, some believe that the decision of the Ministry of Youth and Sports poses a threat to the freedom of opinion and expression, particularly concerning posting on digital platforms and social media networks. An Egyptian attorney and activist who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons confirmed to SMEX that: “The Ministry’s announcement about having a team of volunteers monitoring social media aims to encourage people to report Twitter users and those on other platforms who oppose the authorities and their policies. This leads to self-censorship for fear of being reported, even if the news being shared is true.”
With regard to “combating rumors,” the attorney believes that “any individual can be charged under this pretext, even if they are only expressing an opinion or sharing a news story on living conditions and economic hardship, such as the rising cost of bread or other commodities. In addition, some statements criticizing the regime can be portrayed as a threat to national security when they are nothing more than grievances by poor people.”
Meanwhile, an Egyptian activist on Facebook who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of prosecution told SMEX that “online blogs and social media platforms in Egypt expose the falsehoods in official narratives disseminated by authorities on traditional media outlets.” He believes this enables “discussing issues from viewpoints that differ from those of decision-makers.” According to the activist, this helps raise public awareness on online platforms “to the point that the Egyptian revolution was named the Facebook revolution.”
Agenda-setting Theory and Steering Public Opinion
Agenda-setting, or the theory of setting priorities, is based on forty years of research. This theory stipulates that while media outlets might not always instruct people “how to think,” they influence what people think about. The current trend in Egypt is to control traditional and new media outlets, including social media.
Technological advancements and the spread of social media expanded people’s horizons and allowed them to stay informed about events outside the exclusive coverage of traditional media. In particular, social media platforms facilitate communication with others, provide access to current news, and contribute to the rapid spread of information coupled with impactful images.
We witnessed how during the Arab Spring revolutions, many people followed the developments on social media using their mobile phones, particularly on Facebook. In fact, those revolutions have often been referred to as the “Facebook revolutions.” As Executive Director of SMEX, Mohamad Najem, said on the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring: “Since we began using social media tools strategically and systematically […], governments have become aware of the threats that the internet poses and have imposed new restrictions on which content can be accessed or shared online.”