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.