Hotspot 4 – Regime Activism

(See also the series overview for this Hotspot on astroturfing.)

Yomna Elsayed

On June 30th, 2013, more than two years after the beginning of the Arab uprisings, masses took to the streets of Cairo to topple Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first elected president. Three days later, the army intervened to overtake power on July 3rd, 2013, in what left the world debating whether this was a revolution, a coup, or a popular coup [1, 2]. Later, in August the same year, massive numbers also took to the streets, this time to decry what they viewed as a coup that has used the June 30th popular movement as a façade to its military takeover. There is no telling which masses represented the majority, if any. Perhaps the majority are the apolitical or even children!

This opens up a lot of questions as to what constitutes the ‘popular’ in a ‘popular movement’: are numbers the single indicator to such popularity? If so, how can these numbers be manipulated online or in reality to give an ‘astroturf’ version of a popular movement? Are regimes and activists alike hiding behind the anonymous mask, which has become the new ticket to legitimation during the current wave of popular uprisings?


Picture of General El-Sisi hung in the streets of Cairo, with a caption reading “Continue Lion” without any reference to who is behind its existence. 

A doctored image, circulated by AstroTurf social media pages that support the military coup.

A doctored image, circulated by AstroTurf social media pages that support the military coup.

Since December 17th, 2010 marking the Tunisia Uprising, to date, the Arab social media pages have seen a surge of what many describe as “movements” or campaigns, to which considerable numbers of participants, many of which “slacktivists”, subscribe. Some of these movements materialize into protests, but with significantly lesser numbers than the number of its group subscribers. To name a few ones with amusing titles: “The campaign to support the Egyptian military in its fight against chaos”, “The coalition of the silent majority” (4000 Likes), and “The campaign to support al-Sisi as president to Egypt” (12,171 likes). Due to their anonymous administration, it is hard to tell whether the military or state police are themselves the ones behind some of these movements or not. Many Arab states, employ “electronic committees” to track down activists, suppress meaningful debates by abusing comment sections, or simply starting AstroTurf movements to fake the appearance of popular support to unpopular state initiatives. Though we cannot determine with certainty if people or authority themselves are behind these groups, we can at least question their credibility by asking: what constitutes a genuine social movement?

(1) “Movement” towards what? Social movements are marked by “collective actions that occur with some degree of organization and continuity outside of institutional channels with the purpose of promoting or resisting change in the group, society, or world order of which they are part” [2]. The status quo (represented by authority, state media, and state security) maybe on either side of those pro or against alteration of the existing arrangement, but mostly against change.

(2) ‘Who’ or ‘How many’ are the ‘Social’? The example of Egypt’s June 30th one-day-protest is a peculiar example because part of its participants (mainly the activists) mobilized to bring about change by removing what they believed to be an incompetent president, while another part mobilized to restore the status quo represented by the old corrupt regime of Mubarak and his cronies. Though the authority was figuratively in the hands of Mohammed Morsi, the status quo was on the side of the old Mubarak regime, with the state security and media remaining loyal to the Mubarak regime. In other words, although the June 30th protests were staged against an authority figure, they were actually in favor of an old regime; thus, supporting a legacy of corrupt military rule. Some activists who participated in the movement, were skeptical about the state police participation in the protests, (this time on their side, as opposed to being against them as they were accustomed)! The laser shows, colorful balloons, expensive banners, and the coupons and gifts that the military choppers dropped to the protesters, were all indications of an elaborate planning and considerable funds, unlike the ad-hoc grass roots nature of the January 25th social movement (which was met with hostility and crackdown from state media and state security respectively). Perhaps there was something “AstroTurfy” about this so-called “popular” movement.

When these distinctions are not drawn earlier in the minds of people, we may fall into the trap of regime-funded or regime instigated so-called “popular” movements that show a “popular” demand for the army rule, a “popular” demand for “marshal laws”, or even a “popular” demand for the annihilation of opposition. In this case, the regime plays both the role of authority and activism while the oppositional cause of the genuine movement, is diluted in number comparisons. Instead of asking questions of character, like “who” is behind the movement, we ask “how many?”, where movements are but headcounts in which “voices can only be counted and not weighed” [3]

[1] Fisher, M. (2013). Is What Happened in Egypt a Revolution or a Coup. The Washignton Post.

[2] Dreyfuss, B. (2013). Egypt: ‘Popular Coup’ Ousts Muslim Brotherhood. The Nation.

[3] Snow, D., and Oliver, P. (1995). Social Movements and Collective Behavior: Social Psychological Dimensions and Considerations. In K. Cook, G. A. Fine, and J. S. House (Eds), Sociological Perspectives on Social Psychology. Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon.

[4] Tarde, G. (1898). Opinion and Conversation. In T. N. Clark (Ed.), On Communication and Social Influence: Selected Paper. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1969.