On Arab Spring anniversary, Moroccans and Egyptians urged to rise up against mobile phone operators

On the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring uprisings, thousands of Moroccans and Egyptians are mobilising against mobile phone operators using social media--the same tool which arguably catalysed and sustained the revolts against Arab regimes in 2011.

A Moroccan digital savvy, Amine Raghib, with nearly 900,000 followers on Facebook, launched a call for a boycott of all telecommunication services in Morocco on 16-17 January. The call is in response to the decision, made earlier this month by the country’s major mobile phone operators, Maroc Telecom, Meditel and Inwi, to block free call services provided by Skype, WhatsApp and Viber.

The call elicited hundreds of comments and likes on Facebook with many reflecting public anger at Morocco’s National Agency for the Regulation of Telecommunications (ANRT) for endorsing the decision. The ANRT said in a statement on its website the companies’ decision was due to legal and economic considerations and in line with national regulations.

Moroccan authorities, some say, ordered the blocking of the free call services for security reasons—militants are believed to use instant messaging and internet telephony to communicate and plan attacks.

Raghib wrote: “What the ANRT did cannot be disregarded; it is just its way of feeling the pulse and we will have to expect further steps to block other Internet services and to repress freedoms”.

“The first step is to draw as many people as possible to this page or any other page on Facebook. The main thing is to bring together as many people as we could. This is your role as citizens.” “…We will stop the use of all phone services as a first step. If the oppressive, monopolising ANRT fails to respond to our demand, we will escalate our steps, we will stop using all telecom services—ADSL and phone—and will not pay the bills.” “Without popular support and united action,” he wrote, “efforts will be in vain.”

According to official figures, Morocco has 43.01 million mobile users, with some 11.25 million users that access the Internet on their mobile devices.

A deluge of comments on Facebook condemned what Moroccans perceive to be the government’s policy of censorship and protection of business interests, not those of consumers.

A similar sentiment is widely felt by Egyptians towards their government. They are dissatisfied, not only with low Internet speeds and high prices, but also with government’s perceived protection of business interests.

Facebook page “The Internet Revolution Egypt” with over one million followers is mobilising a boycott. The organisers want consumers to take action on the 28th of January, which coincides with the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian uprising. On the same day, anti-government protests intensified when demonstrators clashed with police following Friday prayers; Internet and telephone service were disrupted in an effort to limit the extent of demonstrations.

The boycott organisers are asking people to turn their mobile phones off from 12-6 pm, or put them on airplane mode and to switch their routers off from 1-2 pm and to not buy any top-up phone cards on the 28th of January.

The boycott, the campaign organisers wrote, is also to “remember the shutdown of communications in January 2011”.

A mass boycott, they said, would hurt the companies, “they will learn that we are the power and have the last say; prices will be reduced and Internet speeds increased, whether they like it or not”.

Action will not be limited to a boycott, they wrote in another post. They promised a street campaign but only after the 25th of January—a message which will hopefully reassure the regime which is nervously eying the uprising anniversary and fearing possible street protests.

Internet Revolution admin says a similar boycott campaign it organised last year yielded results. The organisers reportedly met the Minister of Communications and Information Technology. A few weeks later, Internet service prices were reduced. It is not clear, however, whether this was an immediate result of the boycott or fulfillment of a government plan to increase Internet penetration by lowering prices.

The number of mobile phone users in Egypt reached over 94 million last July, according to the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.

The number of Internet users reached 32.2 million users in July, with mobile Internet accounting for about 24.7 million users, according to the ministry.

In the boycott campaign in both Morocco and Egypt, social media is being used as both an organizing tool and also a method of disseminating information.

The two Facebook pages—Amine Raghib and the Internet Revolution—seem to offer hundreds of thousands of people a digital forum to bond over their dissatisfaction with their governments; even uncommitted individuals might have an opportunity to join the cause.

By emphasizing to their Facebook followers the importance of collective action and urging them to act proactively, the boycott organisers may be trying to balance online and offline activism. Liking a Facebook page, or sharing a post does not make people activists and does not necessarily lead them to engage in meaningful contributions to the cause in question.

The increasing use of social media for advocacy purposes has resulted in so-called slacktivism or “armchair activism”, defined as “feel-good online activism with zero political or social impact” (Morozov, 2009).

However, the boycott organisers in Morocco and Egypt, like many online activists and advocacy groups, campaign for attention on the assumption that the increased awareness of a cause is in itself aworthy objective. This is especially true on sensitive issues like religion, sex and homosexuality. The digital realm allows activists involved in controversial topics to circumvent censorship. 

Arab online activists may recall that a few months before the Egyptian uprising it was the Facebook page “We are all Khalid Said” that offered thousands of Egyptians a way to bond over their anger at human rights abuses and police brutality in their country.  

An Egyptian protestor carrying a poster of Khalid Said.  

An Egyptian protestor carrying a poster of Khalid Said.  

Said, a 28-year old entrepreneur was tortured and beaten to death by two policemen who were later convicted. Some argue that his death helped fuel the 2011 uprising.

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and mobile phones made it easy for human rights advocates to share the news about his death and for Egyptians to spread and discuss their outrage about the incident.  Freedom of speech and the right to assemble are limited and governments monitor newspapers and state television in most Arab countries. Under these conditions, people turn to social networking sites not only to vent their frustration, but also to raise awareness of social issues, strikes and violations whether by regimes, media or corporations.

Online campaigns that involved the threat of boycott have been successful in the recent past. Last year, a Facebook campaign forced Egypt’s privately owned Al Nahar television network to suspend a show of controversial presenter Reham Said after she moralized to a sexual harassment victim and aired the latter’s private photos. Several advertisers ended their sponsorship of the show after the campaign threatened to boycott their products and services if the show was not taken off the air.

The mobile phone boycott campaigns could be a success even though organisers may find it difficult to gauge how many people will actually take part in the boycott.

The boycott is likely to yield some results as long as it does not involve street campaigns, especially in Egypt. The widely criticized protest law gives Egyptian police free rein to crackdown on any protest no matter how small it is. Even in Morocco, where the right of peaceful protest is a constitutional right, incidents of police using violence against protestors are not uncommon. Last week, anti-government street demonstrations by trainee teachers in several cities in Morocco were violently dispersed by police.