• April 3, 2009

Backgrounder: Egypt’s 6 April Movement

Backgrounder: Egypt’s 6 April Movement

Now that we”ve reached the beginning of April, the threat of a major general strike in Egypt on April 6 looms nearer. This gives me an opportunity to mention one of the most vigorous online opposition groups to emerge in the age of Web 2.0, the Facebook group known as the 6 April Movement. Begun last year as a youth movement formed to support the striking workers at the big textile complex in Al-Mahallat al-Kubra, the movement has been harassed and its leaders arrested more than once, but it has blossomed into an opposition group primarily communicating through social networking, particularly its eponymous Facebook group, which currently has some 73,000 members (and is currently reporting a wave of arrests). I”ve commented previously on Web 2.0 and Authoritarianiam, after Egyptian police were attacked by Armed Forces cadets and video was up quickly even though there was a ban on all reporting of the incident. I”ve also noted that some young, web-savvy Egyptians have even found ways to make fun of the security police on Twitter.

Despite the fact that Reporters Without Borders recently listed Egypt as one of the top twelve “Internet Enemies” in the world — (my report here, the full Reporters Without Borders report here, with the section on Egypt on pages 11 and 12) — the 6 April movement has continued to grow. From the Reporters Without Borders report (punctuation in original):

“Unlike its Saudi and Syrian neighbours, Egypt is a country in which freedom of speech does still exist. An independent press has developed and criticism is permitted.

“More than a space for expression, the Web has become a space for action, particularly through social networks, which little by little have started taking on the role of trade unions, which were banned under the state of emergency law. In force since 1981, the emergency legislation banned trade unions from political activities. But the most active Internet users call virtual rallies that can give rise to genuine political demands. One group, created on the social networking site Facebook, and boasting more than 65,000 members, [Today it”s showing 73,000 — MCD] was used to channel protests in April 2008. Calling on Egyptians to “stay home”, it contributed to a general strike and one of the largest expressions of unrest in several years. Since no law regulated this space, the interior ministry in 2002 set up a department responsible for investigating online offences. As a result, security forces arrested around 100 bloggers in 2008 for “damaging national security”.

“One of the members of the 6 April Facebook group, Esraa Abdel Fattah Ahmed spent two weeks in prison for being a member of this group. Its creator, Ahmed Maher, a 27-year-old engineer, was detained and beaten for 12 hours by police in Mahalla, north of Cairo, who wanted to identify the rest of the group. Shortly afterwards, another blogger, Kareem El-Beheiri, spent 73 days in custody in connection with articles posted on his blog (http://egyworkers.blogspot.com/), dealing with workers’ rights and official corruption.”

And it gained a fair amount of attention worldwide. Among background reports on the movement, see this New York Times Magazine article; a writeup on Wikipedia; a feature story from Wired; and a page on the movement”s website explaining themselves in English. Another mostly English website is here, but hasn”t been updated since January. Those who read Arabic can consult the Facebook page, this Arabic website and its “About” page, and links from there. The genius of the blogging medium is that I can point my readers to lots of background information without having to repeat the information here: click away.

The efforts to pull off a general strike last year were met with heavy-handed security presence, a sealing off of the textile plants at Mahalla from Cairo to prevent protestors from the capital reaching them, and a heavy presence throughout Cairo as well; but Twitter and YouTube and other such services soon had plenty of firsthand accounts of events. The security forces prevented an explosion, but the social networking sites made sure the opposition knew what was going on.

The 6 April Movement has been calling for a new general strike and “Day of Anger” this April 6. You can even download your anti-Mubarak posters from Flickr. So expect a reasonably tense day of protests next Monday.

The future of social networking sites as hotbeds of protest or even revolution remains to be proven, and certainly the North Koreas and Burmas of the world can shut out the sites by keeping computers and Internet access limited, but countries that are part of the global information system will find it harder and harder to suppress the use of social networking.

The interesting thing is that until quite recently, Facebook did not have an Arabic-language “front end”; there were plenty of Arabic pages and Arabic groups, but one still had to have some knowledge of a Western language to navigate the buttons, etc. Last month it became available in a fully Arabic format. Perhaps to show evenhandedness, a Hebrew front end was launched at the same time. (To switch to either, in Facebook one goes to “Settings,” then “My Account,” then you have to scroll down as the languages are listed in their own alphabets after the Roman-Alphabet languages. Except for East Asian languages which are in the proper alphabetical place. Consistency is hard in cross-language matters.)

And I just followed some links and discovered this Arabic-language website explaining Web 2.0 step by step and service by service: a sort of introduction for the masses; it seems to have been around since January.


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