AOL: Lively Internet Front Opens in Egypt’s Political War

AOL: Lively Internet Front Opens in Egypt’s Political War

 Just months ahead of Egyptian parliamentary elections, a restive opposition is opening a new front on the Internet against the entrenched regime of President Hosni Mubarak. 

With more Egyptians logging on than ever before — roughly 21.5 million, or a quarter of the population, according to a recent government report — official websites, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages are mushrooming as groups mount competing campaigns in time for the vote at the end of November. 

Egypt’s Internet scene is remarkably freewheeling, while political expression in the streets can have stark consequences. Riot police broke up a demonstration today in downtown Cairo, where some 300 people chanted and burned posters to protest the apparent rise of Mubarak’s son Gamal toward a slot on next year’s presidential ballot. 
Agence France-Presse reported that police detained at least five protesters in Cairo and another seven at similar protests in Alexandria. 

Screengrab of the Muslim Brotherhood's English website
The Muslim Brotherhood, whose English website is shown above, is Egypt’s largest opposition group and has developed one of the strongest Web presences in the country.

The state has so far not been able to crack down as effectively on the Facebook group “Hosni Mubarak is a cow” or nab the author of the tweet “Cairo says f— Mubarak.”

The Internet has opened a rare space for even intemperate political statements as the Egyptian public’s temper flares. ” I hate Hosni Mubarak! I hate Gamal Mubarak! I hate Mubarak’s Police! I hate Mubarak’s Army! I hate Obama who sponsors Mubarak,” another tweet today read. 

Online discussion is both satirical and serious, but the most threatening aspect of the medium for the old order is its use to unite and organize supporters under political banners. Opposition parties have used the Web to mobilize supporters, polemicize and lay out a range of views on whether to boycott the coming elections. 

“Most actors are using the Internet as a test to position themselves and to place their views,” says Amr Hamzawy, senior associate of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. “We are really seeing the Internet becoming a new battleground approaching elections.” 

One front in the new cyberwar is the downtown office of the Muslim Brotherhood’s 
Arabic websitein Cairo. The gender-segregated rooms are filled with chatter, clicking keystrokes and remnants of lunch wrappers, as young Web staffers sit at computer screens and funnel the Islamist group’s message into cyberspace.

Officially banned but semi-tolerated, the Brotherhood is Egypt’s largest opposition group. Running members as independents in the 2005 elections, the group now controls nearly a quarter of the seats in the outgoing Parliament. 

The Brotherhood manages a slew of Twitter accounts and websites, including those for news in Arabic and in 
English. The tech-savvy group recognized the Internet’s importance early on and in the past five years has developed one of the strongest Web presences in the country. 

“It is important for people to know about the Muslim Brotherhood from us, not from other political groups,” says Abdugalil Alsharnoby, online editor-in-chief, who directs a staff of 60 across the country. “The Internet is not only a way to publish news. It is also a tool for the management and organization of our supporters.” 

Other groups are catching up with the Brotherhood and increasingly relying on the Web to mobilize supporters. Ex-nuclear watchdog chief Mohammad ElBaradei, the unofficial leader of the opposition, uses a 
Twitter account to communicate with a network of over 12,000 followers, often blasting participation in the coming election. 

ElBaradei’s coalition, the National Association for Change (NAC), has launched a signature campaign, both online and on the ground, to change the constitution to allow independents to run in next September’s presidential election. 

“We have a team of very skillful young people to use modern technology in order to outreach as much as they can among the educated population,” says NAC spokesman Hassan Nafaa.

Different secure websites allow Egyptians to register and electronically add their names to the signature campaign, which organizers say has close to 1 million signatures, most of which have come from the Web. “That wouldn’t have been possible six or seven years ago. The Internet has been crucial to mobilizing that number of people,” said Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington.

But just like Egypt’s actual streets, the virtual landscape is not without its dangers for activists. The Brotherhood’s Alsharnoby says all of the organization’s sites have been targeted by hackers and are watched by staff around the clock and around the world.

For the most part, the Egyptian government has left the Web uncensored, unlike many other Middle Eastern countries that maintain a stranglehold over websites. “Restrictions and repression haven’t brought them the expected result. And since two years, I guess, they really shifted in the different direction of ‘Let’s try to compete, let’s try to have some presence everywhere on the websites,’ ” the Carnegie Middle East Center’s Hamzawy said. 

For its part, the ruling National Democratic Party has also been broadening its Internet presence, using its 
website, mailing list and Twitter account to get its own message out. 

Among the more unsavory aspects of Egypt’s Internet battles are calls for violence. One Facebook group features a photo of Mubarak with a bullet hole through his head and the caption “$1,500,000 for executing Mubarak.” There are also anonymous political smear campaigns directed against the opposition through Facebook and websites.

Earlier this month, pictures of ElBaradei’s daughter in a bikini and at a party went viral. No one knows who posted the photos, but the NAC has accused the regime. The pictures disappeared days later, but more campaigns like it are expected as the elections near. And as groups continue to leverage themselves through the Net, the challenge in the online war will be whether they can turn cyber-activists into real-world activists, or even voters.