Clubhouse Chat App Creates Space for Debate in Land of the Nile

Clubhouse Chat App Creates Space for Debate in Land of the Nile

Citizens look for ways to communicate free from state monitoring

[Cairo] Clubhouse, an invitation-only audio-chat iPhone app launched in April 2020, is taking the Middle East, and Egypt in particular, by storm. A version for Android phones is in the works.

Thousands of Egyptians are flocking to join the app, which offers users private “discussion rooms” on sensitive topics, away from the eyes and ears of the security services. Any user can create a public or private virtual room, with moderators, speakers and audiences.

The app, mainly used for political topics, offers Egyptians hungry to speak their minds a window to a world they rarely experience, including unfettered discussion with people abroad. Topics range from freedom of expression and democracy to terrorism.

The direct communication takes place away from the security apparatus, and cannot be recorded by users. Clubhouse, does, however, require users to provide their names and phone numbers.

But Egyptians are wondering how long it will before the government takes notice of these discussion circles and shuts them down.

Indeed, some Egyptian media outlets have been quick to criticize the app, even before they were able to assess users’ experience with it.

Clubhouse is owned by Alpha Exploration Co. In May 2020, one month after its launch, its value was estimated at $100 million, and on January 21, 2021, it reached $1 billion.

The app’s users skyrocketed in number after entrepreneur Elon Musk tweeted on January 31 about an unrelated audio app of the same name.

Then, on February 10, Musk tweeted that he agreed to do Clubhouse with rapper Kanye West. On February 13, Musk tweeted at the official account of Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking, “Would you like join me for a conversation on Clubhouse?”

Clubhouse has 10 million users, up from 1,500 in May 2020 and 2 million last month, according to CEO Paul Davidson.

Ahmad al-Khatib, the chairman of data analytics company Auspex International and a former member of the board at Cambridge Analytica, told The Media Line that “Clubhouse gives you the opportunity to express your opinion and to speak to people you never expected to talk to. …

“I think the good feature of Clubhouse is that everyone has a voice and is able to communicate and spread their point of view through the live-speech method,” Khatib added. “In general, it’s a good opportunity to benefit from an exchange of information. You can meet with people from various fields and benefit from them. It is a really good opportunity.

“For me, freedom of speech is a right and extremely important, but your freedom of speech stops at my freedom to have a peaceful life,” he stressed. “There are groups inside [Clubhouse] rooms that we can say are spreading harmful ideas, but at the same time, there are groups that discuss useful ideas.

“I don’t think the platform is bad, but rather there are users who may be bad or good. I don’t think we can describe any social media platform as good or bad, but you can say that some people use it for bad purposes and could cause harm,” Khatib said.

But some state-linked media have described the app as a “back door for terrorist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood” to spread their ideas.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, then-defence minister, came to power after overthrowing in 2013 his elected predecessor, Mohammed Morsi, a leader of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, following protests against the latter’s rule.

Amira Qandil, a member of the Egyptian Parliament and a biochemist by training, told The Media Line, “I heard about Clubhouse from some people on Facebook whose opinions I trust and it’s nice what’s going on out there.

“After trying this application for 12 days, … I think that it is one of the most important and most dangerous social media and that this is the result of the right circumstances at the right time for all that people in Egypt were missing. There is definitely an absence of a culture of dialogue,” Qandil said.

“After the [2013] revolution, Egyptians [of all political and intellectual currents] were confined to closed ‘ghettos,’ and dialogue was absent, and no one spoke to anyone. We were not raised in a culture of dialogue, nor was there any debate at any stage of education within schools or universities and even in the press. We are not used to discussing the different ‘other,’ and that is nothing new in Egyptian society,” she added.

“This thing [Clubhouse] came out of nowhere and we are not obliged to report each other’s posts and tweets because of differences of opinion, as happens on Twitter or Facebook. I believe there is something very human about audio [instead of written texts] and it has the highest degree of impact,” Qandil said.

“Yes, there are some members of the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist group who use this application to gain sympathy and a strong emotional impact because of their flight from Egypt, as if we did not suffer from their regime in 2013,” she continued.

“Clubhouse is like any other platform on the internet and it is a way for me as a member of Parliament to reach out to high-end intellectual people and find them there. Everyone has his own agenda,” she said.

“As a result of our discussions on Clubhouse, I will hold two roundtables. One of them will be about entrepreneurship at AUC [the American University in Cairo], to draft laws that support small enterprise,” Qandil said.

Mariam Elias, an Egyptian writer with American master’s degrees in art direction and global strategic communication, told The Media Line, “For me, Clubhouse is a reminder of how the internet used to be and how it should be. For many, it reminded them of Paltalk, Yahoo forums and even Usenet.

“It appeared at a critical time when people miss human communication in their lives and many simply need to talk during their [coronavirus] lockdown. With Clubhouse, there is no instant gratification of waiting for likes and shares as in Facebook, nor do you need to portray an ideal image of yourself like with Instagram. It is a platform based on pure communication, and that has in fact opened a chance for a decentralized conversation, away from the official mainstream media or even its capitalist alternative,” Elias said.

“Egyptians [Clubhouse] rooms are surely politically driven more so than Jordanians’ and Lebanese’s, who are more concerned with socioeconomic subjects. That is because social media is their [Egyptians’] only tool to vent about their circumstances,” she continued.

“Sadly, the Egyptian government thought it was another Facebook page that would create an ‘event’ that would turn into a revolution that could topple the regime. They directly delivered the message like a Big Brother that ‘We are watching you and we have all your recordings.’

“I have wished they would realize that Clubhouse is a two-way communication tool, and that it is a chance for the government to enter and create rooms to engage with citizens from various backgrounds. Imagine a room shared by a minister or an official with speakers from the country’s various sects! Wouldn’t it be an unprecedented act of comprehension and a chance to be really understood!” Elias said.

Asmaa Khairy, an Egyptian human rights researcher who lives in São Paulo, Brazil, and who has gained users’ trust by her fair moderating of conversations in several virtual rooms, told The Media Line, “I believe the Egyptian interest in Clubhouse is relatively significant and interesting. It has caught the attention of all political parties and not only that; it also encouraged them to engage in discussions about almost everything, from meat roast to political integration and socio-political change. It is a very rich community that is eager to connect to one another.

“Clubhouse may seem like a VoIP [Voice over Internet Protocol] hack that will soon fade, but the exclusivity which boosted it will soon regain ground and this community will remain fruitful for the people who choose to stick around,” Khairy said.

“It is also an intercultural medium of connection and spreads expertise faster than annual conferences,” she added.

“The most interesting thing to note is that all followers, feeds and interaction are organic, and that is sincerely missed elsewhere and provides a real indicator of influences and public opinion,” Khairy said.

Related story: Gulf, Egyptian Authorities Keep Clubhouse Chat App Users on a Tight Leash

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