Egypt Facebook Activist Undeterred
The crackdown on Facebook activists in Egypt has not deterred them from using the popular website for mobilizing people and propagating their political ideas at a time when cyber space has become the outlet for Egypt’s disaffected youth.
Ahmad Maher is still hopeful. The 27-year-old engineer smiles as he recalls his conversation with a senior security official at the SSI headquarters in Lazoghli.
“He warned me against using Facebook thenceforth,” he says as we are chatting in a northern Cairo café.
“But I replied: I can’t promise you to stop facebooking, but I can promise to continue my peaceful struggle without causing any damage to the country.”
Perhaps those who haven’t met Maher have met with his bruising back on the front pages of opposition newspapers last May 8 in stories reporting the torture he had undergone the previous day at the hands of SSI officers.
He shows me his ailing thumb. “It is still hurting; they dragged me across the floor from my handcuffs.”
Human Rights Watch has condemned the incident, and called for an immediate investigation and prosecution of those security officials responsible for beating Maher.
On May 7, he narrates, he was kidnapped from the street by some 12 men in civilian clothes who pulled him into a van where they handcuffed and blindfolded him.
He was first taken to the New Cairo police station where he was beaten and insulted by men he could not identify because he was blindfolded, then moved to Lazoghli where his captors stripped him down to his underwear, threatened to rape him with a stick, and continued kicking, beating and insulting him.
The incident made him another Facebook hero, says his friend Abdul Monem Mahmoud -a famous Muslim Brotherhood blogger. Another heroine was Esraa Abdel Fattah, his partner in the call for April 6 strike, who was arrested on April 6 from a downtown café.
The story began as Maher received an SMS in March calling for a strike on April 6 in solidarity with Al Mahalla workers.
“I felt that we have a huge responsibility to disseminate this call as the least sign of solidarity with our brothers in Mahalla,” he tells me.
“The first one I called was Esraa, who became very enthusiastic about the idea and we began brainstorming ways to spread the word.”
Apparently, Facebook was their choice. Besides forwarding the message to everyone they knew, Maher and Esraa formed a Facebook group with the name “April 6: A Nationwide Strike,” and wrote a statement for it.
“At the end of that day, the group had 3000 members. A week later, they exceeded 70,000. Besides, every member acted as a strike advocate in the society and took the call from PC screens to everyone he/she knows.”
While I am photographing him, Maher laughs as he remembers the empty streets of April 6.
“When I woke up that day, I was thrilled to see the streets empty. I began to take photos not believing that our call through Facebook has resonated that much among people.”
Now he is no longer smiling. He recalls the arrest of his friend Esraa. “Most of the phone calls I received that day were news of the arrest of my friends. Esraa was arrested while I was talking to her on the phone.”
The call for April 6 strike has given rise to a vibrant youth movement generally described as the Facebook generation who became weary of a narrow margin of freedom their country’s regime provides in real life, and so resorted to the internet as the safest and broadest outlet for freedom of expression.
At the beginning, Maher was against internet activism, he says, as change must come from the street. However, he decided to endorse Facebook activism with the purpose of raising people’s awareness about their country’s status quo and urging them to start fighting for their rights. “This is the whole idea behind April 6 group or any other cyber activity,” he tells me.
“Facebook is a perfect means of communication. It’s a social website; we gather together, think together, and then we have to move to the streets.”
He says the internet is not an end in itself, since the majority of Egyptians do not have access to it. It is only the safest venue for brainstorming ideas and mobilizing others to adopt them.
Maher was an activist four years before he became known. He even spent two months in jail after participating in parallel sit-ins to the judges’ movement in 2006. He was a member of Kefaya’s youth branch.
About his plans for the future, he simply says, “I will continue running my group and I will have further communication with people both inside and outside Facebook.”
When I ask him if torture has left an impact on his will, he shakes his head and says, “The only thing that changed in me is that I became a heavy smoker.”