The Arab world has never seen anything similar to the excitement and enthusiasm triggered by upcoming presidential polls in Egypt. The thrill and interest are fueled by close contest and fierce competition between the candidates but also by soap Turkish movies. This strange mix renders the elections all the more unpredictable, being the first in the Arab world in which the winner is not known in advance and the results not a forgone conclusion.
The polls also stand out on number of other accounts, including the sweeping impact of social media on candidates' campaigns as well as their tour plans across the country. This role raises the important question of whether these media tools were able to really shape the elections, and to what extent?
Media expert and writer, Salam Abdelhameed, cites a breakdown of examples that elucidate how electoral campaigns were affected by the debates and exchanges on social media. "Almost all frontrunners' campaigns are positively or negatively impacted by social media and statements by the different hopefuls are attempts to respond to rumors or questions posted on of Facebook or Twitter," he argues.
He adds further "attacks on candidates originate in the first place from social websites as well. A case in point is when the candidate Abulfutuh was accused of having links with Brotherhood movement. It turned out that the charge was first posted and circulated on Facbook. The same is true to attacks on Hamdeen Sabahi for taking sides with Kaddafi of Libya and Assad of Syria. Similar accusations were repeatedly registered against different candidates, prompting them to monitor social media around the clock."
Some political experts play down the role of social media in affecting the choices of the voters or the chances of the candidates. "What happened in the parliament showed that there is a total divorce between social media and the street," affirms Mohamed Amin, a leader of Brotherhood movement.
He argues that the referendum on the constitution held after the fall of Mubarak showed that "social media networks got it wrong when they called for rejecting the constitutional amendments only to be met with an overwhelming yes in the referendum. Few, then, thought that the users of these media tools had such little impact on what was going on in the country."
Although these incidents show social media and the street in Egypt to be worlds apart, some still contend that the impact of these websites on the candidates themselves cannot be dismissed or denied. "The ability of social media to shape events on the street could be very limited, but it is all the more felt on candidates, their programmes, plans and campaigns," says Salama Abdelmajeed.
He also elaborates further "The influence that social media have on candidates will inevitably impact the entire process of the elections."
One of the strengths of these tools lies in their ability to conduct a series polls in a very short period of time. Respondents to these polls sometimes exceed 300.000, revealing the widespread use of social media among Egyptian public.
Yet press department chair at Cairo university and head of the committee in charge of monitoring media performance during the elections, Safwatt Al-Alem, voices concerns about the credibility of these polls, saying that they are not trustworthy "polls have criteria and rules that define polling samples, something completely lacking in polls ran by social media."
Al-Alem's scientific worries are quite legitimate yet the question of whether polls should comply with conventional procedures and resist change is still an open one. Social media polls, to be sure, have their flaws and should not be adopted wholeheartedly but they remain a reflection of a large segment of Egyptian youth.
This view is supported by the very nature of election campaigns which rely heavily among other things on media and public relations to woo voters and to get their message across. "Most of the candidates hired public relations companies to run their campaigns, something which is seen a new development in the Arabic world even though it is long-standing tradition in Europe and America," points out Rweida Bibers, PR expert.
What is new in these PR campaigns, according to Rweida, is the increasing role played by social media in painting the candidates' public image and orientating their campaigns in ways unseen before in Europe and America. Videos, comments and pictures posted by the users of these websites direct and influence campaign staff and subsequently impact candidates' speeches and plans.
Sometimes it takes only opening a group page or creating an account for a public figure for the youth to flood them with news, pictures and videos about presidential elections. Most of these youth are highly engaged and motivated to promote their favorites' ideas and political agendas or to attack their opponents.
Some of the youth use social media not out of a personal desire to share their ideas with the general public but they do so within the framework and policy of their campaign structures. These fall in two categories: first there are those who promote the programme of their candidate on a voluntary basis and through direct or indirect coordination with the campaign staff. Then, there is the second category of youth who get paid for it.
Ahmed Nadeem, who is in charge of social media at ONTV channel, says that these youth and what they offer are on high demands both in the forthcoming presidential polls and previous legislative elections.
"The idea of using specialised youth to orient and shape online debates started with the former ruling party before its demise, but it has now become a common thing to do to promote the programmes of the different elections hopefuls," asserts Nadeem.
What all this says about social media is that they have become indispensable to political life in Egypt, becoming more and more influential in determining the course of public events. This is amply clear in the fact that the call to the revolution started from Facebook page "We are all Khalid Said". So was the news of the resignation of the chair of the council of ministers, Ahmed Shafik, which first appeared on the Military Council's Facebook page. These and many more indicate the clout that social media and their users enjoy in Egypt's political life.