Social Media Show Limitations as Egypt’s Elections Loom

By Kenna McHugh Comment

The Egyptians who fired up their revolt against Hosni Mubarak via Facebook and Twitter are concerned about whether social media is the solution to Egypt’s democratic future.

Only a minority of Egypt’s 80 million use the internet, partly, because of widespread illiteracy and limited availability. Thus, relying on Facebook to mobilize support could be a wrong choice in the long haul of generating votes.

According to Reuters, some candidates are sticking to old-fashioned tactics — pounding the streets, shaking hands and holding rallies before the election date has even been set.

The activists, who used Facebook to generate enough force to eject Egypt’s veteran leader, say using the internet to campaign will not win a fair election.

Candidates need to meet the people in person by touring the streets, so they know their concerns and they see the true condition of the country. Mohammed Adel, a member of the April 6th Youth Group, told Reuters, “I don’t see how Egyptians, either young or old, could give their votes to people they did not see touring the streets to meet the people, know their problems, check their condition and see reality on the ground.”

But, those who are supporting ElBaradei, who is known in the West as a Nobel peace prize winner and former head of the U.N. nuclear agency, are holding hard and true by using Facebook to campaign for their man.

But, even ElBaradei supporters will have to hit the streets if they want to win the campaign. ElBaradei campaigner Abdel Rahman Samir said, “For now, we see Facebook as the best and cheapest way to spread our campaign, but later we will certainly need to go out to the streets and talk to people face-to-face.”

I must admit the campaign will be interesting to watch as it unfolds. A recent online poll to test the popularity of potential presidential candidates run by Egypt’s military rulers posted the results on a Facebook page in June. It showed ElBaradei won the votes of one quarter of the 270,000 or so who participated.

For obvious reasons, Egypt’s military rulers adopted social media soon after taking power by launching a Facebook page to detail their plans. They also use the site to occasionally announce major news before it appears anywhere else. Even the cabinet, Interior Ministry and other state organizations have made their presence on Facebook known.

Still, the failing education system and cynicism towards politics may be the two thorns in each campaigners’ side. The challenge is not only to win votes, but to educate their citizens on how important their vote is in a democratic election.

Some are also teaching the uneducated about their civic duties to try to head off attempts by local dignitaries to win them over by using bribes and wrongful advertising.

The candidate that wins will be the one who gets Egyptians to vote. His supporters will need to create some sort of educational process to bring the citizen’s awareness on the importance of voting for their leader and supporting a government for the people.

I wonder if social media could help educating the populace, but Egypt will need to figure out how to get the uneducated on online.