After the revolution, older Egyptians take leap into Facebook era

They saw their children use them, now social media sites are providing a forum for debate as Egyptians of all ages push to transform the spirit of Tahrir Square into solid steps forward.

CAIRO // Mohammed Hassan, 44, a vendor in central Cairo, said he had asked his teenage son how to use Facebook. "I'd heard of it but now everyone is talking about it, I feel like I'm missing out," he said.

Facebook, responsible for helping to mobilise many of the hundred of thousands who poured onto streets in Egypt and Tunisia to overthrow their presidents, has risen in the public consciousness and provoked curiosity among older people.

There are not yet statistics to show whether Egypt's revolution has caused others of Mr Hassan's age and older to venture online. But anecdotal evidence suggests it may have.

Naila Hamdy, a professor of journalism at the American University of Cairo, said: "From my online use I see older people exploring the internet and joining up to Facebook since the revolution,".

Statistics from Social Bakers, which tracks social media use, show Egypt's Facebook use increased from 4.6 millon accounts at the end of last year to 5.2 million on February 11, the day the former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down, and to 5.7 million today. Currently, only 11 per cent of Egypt's users are 35 or older, according to Social Bakers, with the majority of users between 18 and 24.

Individuals are not the only people to notice the power of social media. Authorities have turned to Facebook to better connect with the young men and women who drove the revolution.

The Higher Military Council, which now rules Egypt, set up a Facebook page. On March 3, it announced the former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq's resignation on the site, in a sign of how quickly social media is becoming institutionalised. Tunisia's interior ministry - much detested - has also started a Facebook page.

"People are not just signing up out of curiosity but also to voice their opinions," Ms Hamdy said.

Indeed, from a role in rallying people, the social media sites, along with the more traditional television, radio and print media, are now providing a forum for social debate as Egyptians push to transform the spirit of Tahrir Square into solid steps forward.

"In the past three weeks, vast numbers of groups have popped up online to discuss how we reshape the new Egypt," Lina Attalah, the managing editor of the English edition of the independent paper Al Masry Al Yowm, said. "The internet played a role in the run up to this revolution and is adapting to continue to do so."

The move to polish up internet credentials has not just been among older people. Veteran internet-users, motivated by the power of unity, have been reaching out to one another. "Suddenly people are making more connections online," said Ahmad Gharbeia, a self-employed computer expert and a member of the Arab Digital Expression Foundation who trains activists in internet use. "Everyone is becoming more organised and trying to merge disparate virtual groups with similar interests."

Similarly, people in other Arab countries are taking note. Increased online activity is evident in Syria, which lifted a three-year ban on Facebook last month. While the site was accessible by proxy before, internet cafe owners say they have noticed an increase use of the site.

Despite the potential for interactive debate, some commentators point to the dangers of excluding people from debate by relying too much on internet sites. Egypt's internet penetration is only about 21 per cent, according to the Internet World Stats website. This is higher than Syria's 18 per cent but far below Bahrain's 88 per cent. The rural and poor in Egypt have limited online access. And despite Facebook's organising potential, the revolution was driven by people on the streets, not online.

"Online sites will exclude those who aren't computer literate - but they won't be the only forum for debate," Ms Hamdy said. "Further, traditional media often take the lead from Facebook discussions and bring the debate to television, which is watched by all Egyptians."

More significant, Ms Hamdy said, are signals of an overhaul of offline media in post-revolution Egypt.

Private media outlets, which have proliferated in recent years, have long pushed the boundaries of state censorship. But since the revolution, they have vociferously touched subjects that were once taboo, such as the army. On March 2 the then prime minister Ahmed Shafik was given an unprecedented grilling on a television talk show, widely believed to have accelerated his departure.

"We are seeing a revolution in media freedoms," Ms Hamdy said. "I expect state media to disappear and be replaced by a raft of new independent media as this trend continues, which will attract more people."

This may be accelerated, as disillusonment with state news has spread among older people because of state media's poor coverage of the protests in Tahrir Square. Al Ahram, a pro-government weekly paper in Egypt, later issued an apology to readers for "unprofessional coverage" of the uprising.

"The hub in the last few years has been online as it was free, didn't require licences and could be done anonymously," Ms Attalah said. "More people are likely to go online now, but we will see more private media popping up which will also attract new audiences offline."