Egypt’s political battle lines drawn on the web
A web page casting doubt on the religious credentials of the family of Egyptian presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei has become the latest focus of an online battle for votes.
The creators of a Facebook page carrying images of ElBaradei’s daughter Laila at events serving alcohol and wearing a bikini on a beach are anonymous. But the aim seems clear: to discredit her father’s campaign for political change, and a possible run for president next year, in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim.
The web has become a main field of political conflict in Egypt, where around a quarter of the 78 million population are aged 18-29. It is also one of the few public arenas where opposition and pro-government voices can spar openly.
“Everyone is resorting to the Internet because it has more impact on younger generations in Egypt, and because politics is in a state of death in the real sphere,” said political analyst Nabil Abdel Fattah.
The authorities are quick to quash public political protests, and severely restrict the activities repress the main political opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood.
But online, opposition forces can draw levels of support that could never be mustered on the street.
A Facebook page backing ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog who has called for constitutional change, now numbers a quarter of a million followers.
The number of his online supporters shot up after state newspapers, using more traditional media weapons, disparaged ElBaradei in coverage and columns earlier this year.
It is far from clear whether the opposition can turn online support into a movement that can challenge a well-established security apparatus. But it is certain that government supporters are now also turning their attention to the online arena.
Dozens of sites have emerged supporting Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, who is tipped as a future president if his 82-year-old father, Hosni Mubarak, chooses not to run next year.
Ruling party officials deny any role in the pro-Gamal campaign, just as they have denied a role in the latest website targeting Laila ElBaradei.
Opponents are not convinced.
“This (campaign against Laila ElBaradei) proves we face a regime that will not refrain from using the dirtiest means to achieve its political ends,” ElBaradei publicity coordinator Abdul Rahman Yusuf told Reuters.
Alongside photos, the site highlights Laila ElBaradei’s own Facebook page, where it indicates that she described her religious views as “agnostic”.
The statement could damage her father’s reputation in a country where many, though not all, hold conservative Muslim views. Most Egyptian women wear the Islamic headscarf in public, but alcohol, banned by Islam, is available.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest opposition group which backs ElBaradei’s call for change but also calls for the peaceful establishment of an Islamic state, said it set little store by the website.
In an online article, it said democracy was “more important than Laila ElBaradei’s bikini”. (Writing by Shaimaa Fayed and Edmund Blair; Editing by Kevin Liffey)