I'm a Tuk Tuk Graduate: Egypt's Economic Situation Reflected In Social Networking Sites

In this article, Michael Barak addresses the reactions in Egyptian social media to Egypt's troubled economy.

Part of the "I'm a Tuk Tuk Graduate" campaign on Twitter.
Part of the "I'm a Tuk Tuk Graduate" campaign on Twitter.


Social networking sites (SNS) in Egypt responded tumultuously to an al-Hayat TV-Egypt interview with Mustafa Abdel Azim al-Laithi, a 35-year-old Tuk Tuk (rickshaw taxi) driver broadcast on October 12. In the interview, which lasted approximately three minutes, the driver expressed his views about the precarious situation of the Egyptian economy. Al-Achim emphasized the gap between the purported economic growth described by Egyptian establishment media and the severe economic crisis the country is actually facing: “[if] you only watched television, you’d think that Egypt is Vienna, but if you go out to the street, you’ll find that it’s a cousin of Somalia.”[1] The interview was uploaded to social media and quickly went viral, receiving more than 6 million likes on al-Hayat TV’s Facebook page, and being shared more than 500,000 times.[2] It was accompanied by extensive public discourse that revealed intensifying feelings of frustration and bitterness among Egyptian citizens faced with spreading poverty and a rising cost of living, despite the regime’s promises to institute comprehensive reforms that would lead to growth and economic improvement.[3]

Among the many and varied responses to the interview, the most prominent was widespread identification of young Egyptians, including college graduates, with the position of the taxi driver, who was crowned “hero of the day” for daring to speak clearly and precisely on a sensitive subject, giving voice to their frustrations. A lawyer from Cairo wrote: “After three minutes [of an interview], two years of controlled media attempts to brainwash the public went down the drain.”[4] The manager of a plastics factory in Alexandria tweeted, “By the life of Allah, my son you understand better than all the educated people of the land, and have been blessed with a finer conscience than those who rule the country.”[5] On his Facebook page, well-known Egyptian entertainer Bassem Yusuf praised the driver for making the Egyptian people aware of the issue and said that the interview “Broke the barrier of fear surrounding the regime’s oppression, tyranny and despotism.”[6] As a sign of solidarity, the hashtag “I’m a Tuk Tuk graduate” was launched, quoting the Tuk Tuk driver’s response to the interviewer’s question about his education.[7]

Inspired by the interview, on SNS, Egyptian citizens began uploading videos of themselves complaining about the difficulties they have purchasing basic commodities and the government’s disregard for those problems.[8] The interview led to spontaneous demonstrations of young people in the streets of cities like Giza.[9] An extreme expression of the protest occurred several days later, when a 30-year-old Egyptian taxi driver committed suicide by setting himself on fire in front of an Egyptian Army base in Alexandria, while shouting “I don’t get any food [for my mouth]… Step down Sisi.” The incident was documented and widely distributed on SNS. From the perspective of many SNS users,   his suicide was an expression of the despair of poverty. There were even those who called him “the Egyptian Bouazizi,” evoking the Tunisian vegetable vendor Mohamed Ibn Bouazizi whose death by self-immolation in 2010 became a symbol of the Arab Spring.[10] Conversely, supporters of the regime claimed that Shahin set himself on fire because he was in trouble with the law.[11]

The regime’s political rivals took the opportunity to intensify their criticism of the government and President al-Sisi. For example, the April 6 Movement, a secular organization of Egyptian young people, published a PR video on the economic decline of Egypt under the al-Sisi regime and the collapse of the Egyptian pound against the strengthening American dollar. An Egyptian journalist identified with the Muslim Brotherhood urged readers to continue feeding the discourse so that the issue would remain on the agenda.[12] The Qatari network al-Jazeera-Egypt also made a conspicuous contribution to the escalating criticism by broadcasting interviews and articles about increases in the prices of food, fuel, clothing and cigarettes in Egypt.[13] Moreover, activists in the Muslim Brotherhood and young, politically-unaffiliated, secular Egyptians encouraged citizens suffering from the high cost of living to take to the streets on  November 11 in a massive demonstration being called, “The Revolution of the Poor”.[14]

On their part, supporters of the regime responded with their own offensive, sparing no criticism of the interview. They argued that it was staged, and showed signs of being influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar, with intent to incite a rebellion against the regime.[15] For example, they circulated magnified images of the driver’s ear lobe on SNS, showing what they claimed was an earpiece through which he received instructions from members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Furthermore, they distributed an interview with althe Tuk Tuk driver’s brother, who claimed that the driver’s economic situation was relatively stable and alleged that he had ties to the Brotherhood.[16] SNS users greeted this conspiracy theory with scorn, and stressed that it would be better to focus on the driver’s critique than question the authenticity of the interview.[17]

The even more strident responses coming from the Egyptian government itself led to the video being removed from many Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts. Amr al-Laythi, the journalist responsible for the program,[18] was made to explain what happened to al-Sisi’s political advisors. The program was later cancelled, and al-Leithy was forced to take a leave of absence despite his protestations that he had nothing to do with the interview. Moreover, the National Security Council filed charges against al-Leithy and the driver for incitement against the state.

The responses to the interview with the Tuk Tuk driver expose the reality of spreading poverty and Egyptians’ growing dissatisfaction with their economic situation. This reality contrasts with the economic revival described by Egyptian media outlets identified with the regime’s propaganda arm and characterized by biased, misleading reporting that seriously impairs credibility. Due to this lack of credibility, many young people have migrated to SNS, which they use as a tool for creating an alternative, censorship-free discourse, based on more reliable reporting. Additionally, the regime’s conspicuously lacked the suitable tools to address public protests on SNS, and instead subsequently responded with aggressive measures, including removing content and arrests.[19] In Egypt after the revolution of 2011, the impact of SNS is on the rise, as evidenced by the ability of frustrated citizens to lead demonstrations against the regime, as happened in the final days of Mubarak.

Editor's Note: After this article was written, on November 11, due to heavy government security deployment, mass demonstrations failed to materialize, although several small gatherings occurred.  

[2] #سائق_التوكتوك #انا_خريج_توكتوك

[3] The opening of the new Suez Canal in August 2015 and Egypt Vision 2030 (a organized, detailed plan for developing and structuring the economy) are key elements in the regime's efforts to advance the Egyptian economy.

[9] ,مواطن_يشعل_النار_في_نفسه; #بوعزيزي_مصر#


[11] ,مواطن_يشعل_النار_في_نفسه; #بوعزيزي_مصر#


[14] #ثورة_الغلابة; #لا_لإعدام_الغلابة_والمظلومين; #ثورة_الغلابة_11_11

[18] As part of the program “One of the People” which interviews random people on the street about current issues.