Egypt: Internet activists and “influence”

Egypt: Internet activists and “influence”

The use of the Internet in Egypt as a platform for political activism has been the topic of discussion in various political circles and in the media.

Bloggers have come under the spotlight when they started to expose and bring to public attention cases of human rights violations and physical abuse against detainees in police stations. Others have been expressing their political views, which are quite critical of the government and the policies of the state as a whole.

They have managed to grab the attention of the media at home and human rights and media freedom organizations abroad.

Likewise, the social networking website Facebook has been utilized by activists who promoted and called for a number of general strikes in protest against soaring prices and poor wages.

This kind of online activism is, by all means, a positive phenomenon in a country where, in the past, people had no access to any such platform to express their anti-government ideas freely. However, this phenomenon should still be kept in perspective.

Some people have to talk about the “influence” of online activists on society. It seems far too early to speak about “influence” at this stage if we are realistic.

We have first to take a look at some facts; Internet penetration in Egypt is as low as 13% and those interested in the internet are mostly the youths.

It is no secret that most of the young Egyptian people who have internet access are more concerned to look for entertainment on the cyberspace than get involved in politics.

If you visit any Internet café in Egypt and have a look around at the computer screens, you would find 99% of the users are chatting with girls.

Without the mainstream media, online activism would not have been easily heard of. It was newspapers and TV stations that shed light on their activities and their presence.

The phenomenon of bloggers and Facebook activists still remains confined to boundaries. There is a barrier between them and the ordinary Egyptian citizen. If you ask an Egyptian in his 40 or 50 on the street or even young people who do not read newspapers (and how many they are) if they know anything about mudawin (blogger), they would mostly say “No.”

Most of the young people are interested in entertainment and a variety of other things and old people are more concerned to find a living to provide for their families in a difficult economic situation where prices of commodities have been soaring and the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. Forty percent of Egyptians live below or around the poverty line of less than two dollars a day.

I recall here why the recent call for a stay-at-home strike by the 6th of April Youth Movement fell flat among people. Simply because there is a missing link, ordinary people may not have even heard of it. Even if they did, how they would just answer a call for a general strike coming from people they do not know or see or even trust.

To have influence on people, Internet activists have first to be on the street, have to connect with people, and have to say we are here, not in a far virtual world.