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Egyptian Political Dissent Unites Through Facebook
Egyptian Political Dissent Unites Through Facebook
Facebook here has evolved into more than just a social-networking Web site: It is one of the latest tools for political dissent in Egypt.
Monday, May 5,2008 07:03
by MARIAM FAM online.wsj.com

Facebook here has evolved into more than just a social-networking Web site: It is one of the latest tools for political dissent in Egypt.

Activists using Facebook spearheaded a call for a day of nationwide strikes Sunday to protest price increases, coinciding with President Hosni Mubarak"s 80th birthday. Their efforts got a boost when the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that is the main political challenger of the government, backed the call, saying the strike promotes peaceful opposition.

But the calls found little response Sunday, as traffic appeared as heavy as usual on the streets of the capital amid beefed-up security. On Facebook, some of the members who supported the strike argued that a recent announcement by Mr. Mubarak that his government would boost public-sector salaries by 30% may have damped support for the call. Still, many of them vowed to continue their activism.

The main Facebook group that called for the strike has more than 74,000 users; topping its demands is a proposal to tie salaries to inflation. Facebook activists urged Egyptians to stay home Sunday and boycott purchases of all commodities -- even basic food items like bread -- on Sunday, and meat and poultry through Tuesday.

On Facebook, signs similar to online banner ads promoted the strike. The banners often appeared instead of photographs of members. One red banner read: "May 4, a general strike for the people of Egypt."

The activism on Facebook is part of larger efforts by youths across the Arab world to use technology -- from blogs to cellphone text messages to YouTube -- to challenge their governments and push the envelope on dissent in ways older generations didn"t know. In parts of the Middle East such as Beirut and Tehran, local governments immediately jam cellphones if there is civil unrest, to prevent it from spreading.

In a sign the government is taking the challenge seriously, Egyptian security forces last month arrested a young woman, Esraa Abdel Fattah, after she had formed a Facebook group to promote a strike on April 6 over inflation.

Her detention, which lasted just over two weeks, won the site more attention. She was accused of urging people to strike, prompting many Facebook users to campaign for her release on the site.

Egyptian officials have taken notice. Tech-savvy Interior Ministry officers browse the social-networking site to keep an eye on anything they may deem a security threat.

But that hardly deterred activists who in preparation for Sunday continued to use the site to brainstorm and mobilize for the strike.

Ahmed Maher, a 27-year-old engineer and one of the online activists, said technology has opened up infinite and often creative possibilities for youths in the Middle East, who are connecting to the outside world like no other time in their history. "Facebook is an interactive platform. It"s like we"re in a meeting 24 hours a day," Mr. Maher said. "We see how other people are living, and we reject many government policies."

To some of the young people online, Facebook and other Internet sites offer an alternative to opposition political parties that are weakened by government restrictions and their own divisions and inability to form a popular base of support. Some also see it as a relatively safe medium to voice opposition.

Online activism here is curtailed by the limited Internet penetration in Egypt. Many cyberactivists also rely on more traditional methods for getting the word out, such as writing messages on money notes, distributing fliers and sending text messages on cellphones.

Some Facebook users formed smaller groups against Sunday"s strike, saying it opened the door for chaos.

As annual urban inflation hit 14.4% in March and food prices soared, protesters took to the streets last month in the industrial town of Mahalla el-Kobra. That resulted in violent clashes with security forces. In Cairo, the April strikes fizzled because of government warnings and heavy security.

A democracy activist, Hisham Kassem, said Facebook youths are reinvigorating opposition in ways unsettling for the government.

"You"re beginning to see the possibility of the end of apathy in political life using personal mass media" such as Facebook, he said. "What will [the government] do about it? Shut down Facebook?"

Posted in Prisoners of Conscience , Reform Issues , Human Rights , MB Blogs  
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