UW News

November 24, 2010

As Nov. 28 election approaches, Egyptian opposition builds larger presence online than government

In the run-up to Egyptian parliamentary elections this Sunday (Nov. 28), opposition parties are growing in their online presence. They are far more prominent than the National Democratic Party, led by President Hosni Mubarak, at least in the blogosphere. The size, reach and messages of these parties may foreshadow the kind of protests that followed Iranian elections in 2009, say researchers at the University of Washington.

“If the election were held online, Egypt’s ruling elites would be tossed out of power. The tide of opinion among Egypt’s digerati has become a flood of support for Egypt’s opposition movements,” said Philip Howard, an associate professor of communication at the UW.

From Nov. 11 to 13, Howard and members of the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam used a variety of web crawling and link analysis tools to examine Egypt’s political blogosphere.

In Egypt, police have arrested a number of opposition candidates, saying they belong to illegal organizations. But Howard and his group found that arrests have not stopped bloggers who sympathize with opposition groups or their candidates.

This online political agitation happens as Mubarak, 82, continues a 29-year grip on power and as his National Democratic Party controls 70 percent of seats in parliament. The election will be followed in 2011 by a presidential election in which Mubarak is expected to dominate.

His control is aided by an Egyptian law requiring political parties to be licensed. The Muslim Brotherhood, a multinational group and the most influential political pressure organization in Egypt, is officially banned. Still, its Arabic website offers 4,372 pages and links to 896 other sites. The brotherhood also operates an English site that offers 5,000 pages and links to 66 other sites. The Communist Party of Egypt and the Kefaya Movement, a grassroots group agitating for change in Egypt, also operate extensive sites, and they too are more prominent online than the National Democratic Party.

But instead of linking to each other, these opposition groups are more often linking to bloggers and Western news sources such as BBC, CNN and YouTube. This helps give their reports credence and weight, Howard said.

Groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood have been able to operate because their servers are located outside Egypt. Howard estimates that 10 million of Egypt’s 80 million residents regularly use the Internet.

Howard said that discussions in the Egyptian blogosphere could foreshadow civil unrest similar to that in Iran when protestors claimed President Mamoud Ahmadinejad rigged the election to hang onto power.

“These days,” Howard said, “you can’t ban ideas and political parties. It just drives them onto the Internet.”

Research conducted by Howard and the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam is funded by the National Science Foundation.

For a map of Egyptian political parties and a complete report on the research, go to http://pitpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/2010.3.pdf.


For additional information, contact Howard at 206-612-9911 or pnhoward@uw.edu; Aiden Duffy, co-author of the study, at 206-794-0558.