How the Egyptian revolution made a media star out of an obscure professor at Queens University of Charlotte
Mohammed el-Nawawy, an Egyptian native and professor at Queens, is an expert on social media in the Middle East. He went to Tahrir Square to interview revolutionaries.
The sky was dark outside the jet’s windows, and stars started to appear as the Boeing 747 flew south over the Mediterranean Sea toward Cairo. Far ahead, past the Egyptian coastline and down the long throat of the Nile River, the ancient city glowed, a smudge of light on the horizon. In little more than an hour, Mohammed el-Nawawy would return to the city of his youth. Nineteen million people live in Cairo and its suburbs fanning out along the river valley. That night, their attention was fixed on Tahrir Square. There, in one of the largest demonstrations in the country’s history, young men and women led a protest to oust President Hosni Mubarak. Using Facebook, blogs, texts, and Tweets, they had aroused and inflamed their countrymen to rally for a free Egypt.
The night before, hopes seemed to levitate in Tahrir Square—the same square el-Nawawy once crossed to reach classes at the prestigious American University in Cairo—until a shocking announcement came over national television. A belligerent President Mubarak said he would not step down. A roar went up as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians expressed anger and disbelief.
In the hours after that fateful announcement, the world held its breath, bracing for the violence that could follow.
Now, as el-Nawawy sat on a plane approaching the ancient city, he wondered about its future. He carried a small tape recorder and camera; when he landed, he planned to head straight for Tahrir Square to talk to his countrymen. Though an academician, he is, at heart, a journalist.
The atmosphere on the plane was tense as Egyptians discussed the situation. Some feared a massacre if protesters marched on the palace. The businessman next to el-Nawawy spoke of his financial troubles caused by the demonstrations.
In the midst of this tension, a crew member walked into the cabin to make an announcement. As the first two rows heard the astounding news, word spread rapidly among passengers: President Mubarak had stepped down. There was a shocked silence, followed by a collective sigh of relief. The passengers erupted in cheers; the men stood and hugged each other.
Mohammed el-Nawawy was stunned. He had scrambled to make this last-minute flight, expecting to arrive amid uncertainty and conflict. The dean of his department at Queens University of Charlotte urged him to drop everything and go. A communications professor, he could not afford to miss this critical moment in Egypt’s history, a moment sparked by young people on smartphones and laptops scattered in cafés and apartments throughout Cairo. Incredibly, between the time he walked through the boarding gate at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and now, a revolution had succeeded. Mubarak, the eighty-two-year-old president—the man who came to power after the assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat, an Egyptian hero given the Nobel Peace Prize for stabilizing the Middle East—was gone.
An international expert on social media in the Middle East, el-Nawawy was in the midst of incredible good fortune. Suddenly, his research and writings were converging with history.
Five years earlier, before a half-million Egyptians gathered on Facebook to pledge solidarity against Mubarak, el-Nawawy began studying bloggers in the Middle East. Social media was providing a place for young Arabs to express their views, enabling them to mobilize. As a researcher, el-Nawawy had become increasingly interested in how they were connecting to each other and in what they were saying. He had transitioned from a journalist to a researcher in the mid-1990s, pursuing a masters degree that was the first step toward an academic career. He wrote and coauthored books that challenged the West to see Arab culture through the eyes of Arabs. His 2003 book on Al-Jazeera portrayed a news network that was redefining journalism in the Arab world. A 2009 book, Islam Dot Com, explored what Muslims discussed on Islamic-oriented websites. At Queens, el-Nawawy connected his students to their counterparts in the Middle East, facilitating the exchange of differing worldviews.
In recent weeks, The New York Times and CNN sought him out as an expert on Middle East social media. Ray Suarez interviewed him on PBS NewsHour. On that program, his answers cut to the heart of what was taking place, six days into Egypt’s demonstrations. Yes, he said, computers and smartphones accelerated the unrest. “But I always say that new media and social media do not topple governments—people have to do that, and that’s what we are seeing today,” he said. Frustrated with thirty years of emergency law, Egyptians were demanding change. “They started the message on their blogs and Facebook and now the people are taking it to the streets, from the virtual world to the real world,” he told Suarez.