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Egypt's Facebook Revolution

When most people log onto Facebook, the thought of fomenting revolution is pretty far from their minds. But in the Middle East, and most recently in Egypt, Facebook has become an important platform for dissent in countries that routinely clampdown on liberal activists, and where the mosque has traditionally been the only outlet for venting political frustration.

Last month saw the arrest of Esra Abdel Fattah, 27, after she formed a group on Facebook calling for protests against the high price of food and other commodities in Egypt. Strike action was already planned by factory workers in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla al-Kobra, and the Facebook group, which attracted 64,000 members, tapped into a national mood of unrest. During Fattah’s incarceration, police clashed with protestors in Mahalla, killing three; some 500 people were detained.

By the time Egyptian police freed her two weeks ago, Fattah, an active online activist and member of the liberal al-Ghad political party, had become something of a cyber folk hero, feted by Middle Eastern bloggers and tech-minded students. A second Facebook group began calling for the release of Fattah and the other detainees, and for further protests on May 4th. A Cairo University student even heckled the Egyptian prime minister as he gave a speech at the campus on role of the internet as a communication tool:

“Prime Minister, release all the… detainees,” he said. “They are the same young people who used the Internet to express their opinions."

But on her release, Fattah gave a press conference in which she admitted her Facebook activities were a mistake, and that she would no longer take part in protest networking.

It’s not difficult to imagine the level of intimidation she must have faced from the Egyptian regime, one of the more thuggish in the region. Last week, another Facebook activist Ahmed Mayer Ibrahim was arrested by Egyptian police for his membership of May 4th protest group (the protest led to some shops closing, and a subdued mood on the streets, but on the whole protestors stayed home). The 27-year-old civil engineer was stripped naked and beaten intermittently for 12 hours before being released without charge.

All of this has left Egyptian bloggers and other Facebook activists taking stock of their sudden elevation to the forefront of cyber protest, and the government’s brutal response.
Some, like Mohammed Nabil, a Cairo University student and Facebook activist, remain undeterred and point to a glorious new era of online activism.

“The people who are signing up to protest on Facebook aren’t the sort of people who’d normally get involved in politics. In the past the activists have often been Islamists, but now the Internet is reaching out to a new generation,” said Nabil.

He added that the government would find it impossible to police the internet.

But others are not so sure that Facebook activism isn’t just window-dressing for the more the more important task of “on-the-ground” activism. What scares the government, they say, is not the activities of the privileged middle class who have internet access, but the millions of impoverished laborers, factory hands, and the unemployed. So far the jury is out on Facebook’s ability to mobilize the masses: the April protests that Fattah called coincided with pre-arranged strike plans among workers, but the more purely Facebook phenomenon strike called earlier this month largely petered out.

The popular blog 3arabawy has been keen to play down the role of Facebook:

“I hope our peers in the activist community will wake up and realize now the limitations of online activism…” writes Hossam el-Hamalawy, the blog’s author. “Let’s get back to organizing on the ground, fellow bloggers, and leave behind these cyber-fantasies.”

But although Facebook activism may not be able to spark protest – at least not yet – it has succeeded in advertising and amplifying Egyptian unrest. It may also succeed in aligning radical workers with the dissenting voices in the middle class.

The Egyptian government is certainly worried enough by Facebook to take action against the likes of Fattah (two other online activists who were detained at the same time are still in custody). But in a country where the average age is just 24, and more than 20% of the country lives below the poverty line, the government faces an impossible task in trying to stifle protest. And it may be that Facebook, like the mosque, provides an essential pressure valve for frustration and discontent.

Editor's Note: An editing error left a misspelling in this article's first paragraph that has since been corrected. Thanks to our commenters for pointing it out.

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Comments (15)

nima:

Mofi alKamudi, well said. There will come a day to rise up and I wish you the best of luck with that. Sic semper tyrannis. Meanwhile, the internet can serve as a tool for organizing. Discreetly and carefully. But it is a tool.

Nice of you to note the Filipino "people's revolution." Coming from the nation which cut its teeth on empire-building by taking the Philippines from the Spanish, I am thoroughly ashamed of the history which led to the rise of the reprehensible Marcos. Seems we did not learn our lesson from him, or from Somoza, Pinochet, Pahlavi and all the other Maximum Leaders we supported throughout the 20th Century. Not to mention your Mubarak. Now we're repeating the mistake with Musharraf.

Again, good luck with your pursuit of liberty. Maybe you can learn something from reading our Declaration of Independence. We don't seem to know the words anymore here.

halozcel:

Grammer Police,

Quran says *And from the fruit of the date-palm and the vine,you get wholesome drink* 16.67

How can we interpret this verse ?

Umm Yasmin:

I suspect that internet freedom is a good marker of the level of democracy in a country. Of course, if militant neo-jihadists (eg. al-Qa'idah) can use such technology to nefarious ends, then the use of the internet to mobilise genuine indigenous support for challenge and change against un-democractic regimes is a positive thing.

Mofi alKamudi:

the courage of Facebook activist Esra Abdel Fattah and others, while commendable, is wholly inadequate to worry the brutal egyptian dictatorship! and i agree that "on-line" activism will not rise to the level that would cause categoric concern to Hosni Mubarak and his barbarous military.

Egypt will only change until such time when Egyptians, across geographic, econmic and educational strata, willingly and fearlessly rise up en masse against the Egyptian dictatorship, in like manner as in the "people's revolution," of the courageous Philippino people against the late General Ferdinand Marcos, another despot who ruled supreme against a free people a few decades ago!

until such time, Mubarak and his cronies will will continue to repress the egyptian people with the blessings of the western powers!
what a shame....!
Mofi alKamudi

Anonymous:


grammar Police,

your policing lacks indigenous support. Do you work for Egypt police!! you are full of your self; very obnoxious.

Grammar Police:

Pretty sure Islam frowns on alcohol consumption...

Anonymous:


Where is GWBush values! Isn't silence on regime cruelty appeasement?

SK:

Fermenting revolution? Didn't Ben Franklin try to do that. Delicious.

Gerald:

to
Grammar Police:

It is still "fermenting" in the post. Which proves that we can post whatever we want, nobody is reading it anyway. I have been fooled into posting elsewhere on this postglobal as well.

:)

Grammar Police:

I'm pretty sure you meant to say "fomenting revolution," not "fermenting" it.

Shabana:

What waste of space, this article. Muslims have been using technology to spread the Word, and using the Word to suppress technological advance. It just depends on whether they are trying to go all the back to the prophet's time or see if they hurry us into paradise.

Ramses the Great:

I find it odd that this entry got filed under Islam's advance, since the political protest here is decidedly non-religious in its goals. That said, Egypt is no stranger to cracking down on bloggers and other forms of online grassroots agenda. Unlike Iran, however, the Egyptian regime continues to be propped up by U.S. aid to the detriment of its own people and our standing in the region.

drhat:

We love giving radicals more freedom. IF only they would preserve freedom once they are in control....sadly...history has proved radcials end freedom for views other then their own. Hence, Iran's leaders murder daily any who dare protest.

Fecebook veteran:

When I signed up for this in 2004, it was still called "thefacebook.com", probably had about 50,000 people on it and periodically froze up whenever Mark Zuckerberg spilled beer on the server in his Harvard dorm room (that part I imagined--but it did crash every so often). That it took off like this is hillarious. To think, I only joined because my girlfriend at the time made me!

outlawtorn103:

I find articles like this fascinating - I mean, where else do you find out about information like this in other countries unless some cyclone hits or some dictator takes over. Thanks for this article!

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