• MB News
  • July 4, 2008
  • 26 minutes read



This week Dateline invites you into the virtual world of Egypt”s online community.

While it”s supposed to be a social networking site, Facebook has become the front line tool for the country”s struggling democracy movement, as Sophie McNeill reports.
Young democracy activists have flocked to the social networking site, to choreograph widespread protests against President Hosni Mubarrak”s 27-year rule.

It”s the perfect tool for them to voice their opinions, especially in a country that outlaws gatherings of more than five people. With the use of blog sites, Facebook and YouTube, their messages can now be projected globally.

“They were horrified by Facebook because it was something totally new that they could not control,” says Nadia, a key promoter of a recent day-long general strike in which three protestors were shot dead and 400 were jailed, including her.

McNeill manages to track down one of the co-creators of the Facebook page that promoted the recent strike. He”s on the run from threats of imprisonment and rape. A few days later, he is dragged off the street by plain-clothed police to be detained and beaten at security headquarters. Upon his release he says;

“All the questions were about people who were members of the Facebook group…this issue of the password made them take off my trousers…saying they would rape me…They were saying ‘think we can’t catch you? We can’. And they wanted to close the Facebook group and control the whole thing.”


In this say-it-yourself age of YouTube and Facebook, it is probably true to say that no moment is private. Right around the globe, via these new on-line forums, tens of millions are now linked. It is a totally new way of communicating, with curious repercussions. For instance, it poses a serious headache for regimes who don”t really believe in free speech or try to keep their own dirty work from prying eyes. Take Egypt. There, a new generation of democracy activists is using the Web to challenge the hard-line rule of Hosni Mubarak. Surreptitiously evading the authorities long enough to track down some of these young cyber-warriors, here is Dateline”s Sophie McNeill in Cairo. A warning though – Sophie”s report does contain some graphic images.


Sophie McNeill

It seems some things never change in Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak has been keeping watch over his people now for over 27 years. Protests, strikes and demonstrations are illegal. People are too scared to speak freely.

REPORTER: Can you tell me what you truly think of President here in Egypt?

TAXI DRIVER (Translation): I understand you but..If anyone asks about this, they will vanish into thin air. Whoever gets involved in this, I mean, talks about politics, I think, receives no mercy. They just vanish into thin air. No one wants to vanish if they have families. No one wants suffering for himself or for those close to him.

But a new generation of Egyptians is now daring to break the silence and I”ve come to Cairo to try and meet them. I soon discover it won”t be easy. On every corner are police who won”t allow any filming. And this government minder has been assigned to watch my every move. Most of this report had to be recorded in secret. I manage to shake off the minder for now and find another taxi driver who has plenty to say.

MOHAMMAD, (Translation): A gang is running the country and no one can stop them.

Mohammad has built up a long list of grievances.

MOHAMMAD, (Translation): Firstly, the unemployment that exists in the country, the high food prices, the police’s maltreatment of the people.. Many things… I don’t know where to start. There is nothing positive to speak of.

Public resentment towards Hosni Mubarak”s regime came to a head on April 6 this year when democracy activists called for a nation-wide strike. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians stayed home in protest while several hundred dared to hold a demonstration. Police shot dead 3 people and threw over 400 in jail. This jail in Cairo is one of the many locations where political prisoners are held. Amnesty International estimates around 18,000 people are detained under the regime”s state of emergency law.
Today, democracy activists are preparing a campaign to release the April 6 detainees. Outside, security and police line the street. My translator Ahmad says they are monitoring everyone who attends the meeting.

AHMAD, TRANSLATOR: They belong to state security and they are specialized with groups of files so they will find out exactly who came and how long did they stay and this is put into our files.

REPORTER: What”s this?

MAN: This is a brochure for our friends in jail.

ACTIVIST, (Translation): Long live the Egyptians’ struggle for a free and democratic society. Long live the forces of nationalism and democracy ..

For years the Egyptian opposition has struggled to build momentum. But these activists are now being inspired by the work of a new generation.

ACTIVIST, (Translation): Those young people who called for the April and May strikes are the hope of Egypt.

The Internet is the new front line for democracy activists in Egypt. In fact, the organisers behind April”s strike were mainly young people who use the social networking web site Facebook.

NADIA, ACTIVIST (Translation): They are terrified of Facebook because it is new to them. It is something they can’t control.

Nadia is a 25-year-old democracy activist. She was arrested during the April 6 strike and has just been released from prison.

NADIA (Translation): I was accused of being part of a crowd, inciting workers to strike and spreading rumours to disrupt national security.

REPORTER: Were they asking you about the Facebook when you were detained, did they ask you about these things?

NADIA (Translation): I was asked about it many times because it was the alledged method of promoting the strike.

In a dictatorship like Egypt, the Internet is the perfect communication tool for activists trying to keep a low profile. And Facebook threatens the regime”s control.
This morning, the government daily newspaper, “Al Alhram”, has come out with a big editorial saying that Facebook is a harmful application and that it”s being used to wrongly defame Egypt”s reputation. 27-year-old Esraa Abdel Fattah created this site on Facebook to promote the strike in April. But state security officials tracked her down and Esraa was arrested and thrown into jail. When she was released 18 days later, state television showed Esraa vowing never to use Facebook again.

ESRAA, ACYIVIST (Translation): They used my words to imply I repented and won’t do it again. It was all media propaganda, nothing more.

Esraa has no doubts what message the government was trying to send.

ESRAA, (Translation): To calm people down, to make them realise I had a rough time and that if they express an opinion again, they will face the same fate and they will regret it. So it was media propaganda to calm people down and to stop future strikes and protests.

Not long out of jail, Esraa is still very scared of the authorities. She won”t tell me more about her activism, where she lives, nor about her time in prison, except to say she has no regrets.

ESRAA (Translation): I didn’t do anything wrong, I did nothing wrong. I expressed my opinion and I have the right to do so. I expressed my views peacefully, on the internet, that’s all. Why should I regret it?

The Egyptian police are still trying to catch the other creator of the Facebook page, 28-year-old Ahmad Mehr. After trying to track him down myself, I receive a text message late one night telling me to meet him downtown. Since the police started looking for him, Ahmad”s been sleeping in his car and keeping on the move. He too is nervous about appearing on camera.

AHMAD MEHR, ACTIVIST (Translation): After April 6, I received text messages on my mobile, messages on Facebook and emails saying I was lucky not to be arrested on April 6 but that they are close by and I could be arrested another time and when it happens I will be detained and beaten up. They even went on to say that I could be raped at State Security or in prison. I don’t deny I was scared.

I asked Ahmad why he”s continuing his Internet activism despite the obvious threats to his safety.

AHMAD MEHR (Translation): Many reasons, during all these years of Mubarak’s rule, he has been keen on terrifying the people and killing their political awareness by making them fear politics. I believe it should be the opposite. Everyone should be interested in politics, I think it is worth the trouble and being in prison for a month or two.

Democracy activists are up against a continual barrage of pro-Mubarak propaganda from the state media. The way Egyptians see and hear their President is carefully controlled.

NEWS READER (Translation): Mubarak is visiting industrial projects in sadat City and praising the role of industry in the economy.

News bulletins are more like promotional videos than any kind of independent journalism.

JOURNALIST (Translation): Mr President..The wage rise you have granted on Labour Day is a gift to labourers. They appreciate your support and solidarity.

MR MUBARAK, EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT (Translation): We value our labourers, no question about that. They are the core of industry and development in Egypt.

While most media toe the official line, some brave journalists refuse to be silenced. Ibrahim Issa in the editor of “Al-Doustour”, The most controversial opposition newspaper in Egypt.

IBRAHIM ISSA, EDITOR ‘AL-DOUSTOUR’ (Translation): Conventional media are no longer so powerful or effective. the government’s ownership of the Egyptian media is no longer very effective at controlling people’s minds and awareness, or at shaping public opinion.

Issa believes the Internet is successfully weakening the regime”s propaganda. Ibrahim Issa knows all too well the daily obstacles traditional reporters are up against. He”s facing six months in prison for an article he wrote commenting on President Mubarak”s state of health.

IBRAHIM ISSA, (Translation): A strong country does not fear an article, a strong regime does not fear an article. In my opinion it shows their fear, their fear of free speech and true opposition. Their fear of a popular opposition newspaper.

More and more young Egyptians are being inspired to challenge the regime. 20-year-old Belal Diab is one of them.

BELAL DIAB, ACTIVIST (Translation): I was at the Dome when I went to see the Prime Minister..

During a recent speech by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif at Cairo university, Belal interrupted and started yelling out in protest.

BELAL DIAB (Translation): I told him Egypt was sad, ‘the flower of Egyptian youth was in detention, we want you to release the detainees of 6 April.’ They are the youth of the internet age.’

In a country where few would dare heckle the Prime Minister, young Belal made headlines across Egypt. After his protest, Belal managed to run away before security officials could arrest him but his family told him not to come home that night.

BELAL DIAB (Translation): My family was afraid, they would not spend the night at home, they spent the night at my sister’s in another neighbourhood far away from home.

To spread his message as wide as possible, Belal had a friend film his protest with a mobile phone and place it on the video sharing web site YouTube.

BELAL DIAB (Translation): YouTube is being used because most young people have high tech mobile phones and they film the outrageous things that take place, like torture in police stations, corruption, rigging of elections. All this is then uploaded on YouTube. When things like this are posted on the internet and YouTube, everyone goes on line to check the day’s latest news. It breaks people’s fear barrier, step by step and people start talking, that’s all.

Hundreds of anti-government videos have now been uploaded on YouTube.

Today, this demonstration is calling for the release of jailed activists. The police have been sent out in force to quash it but there”s no stopping Nadia, who I”d met at the activists” meeting a few days before.

NADIA (Translation): Detain us, detain us. Detain me, detain me. You won’t see fear in my eyes.

REPORTER: Nadia, you just got out of jail. Why are you out here protesting so soon after you just got released?

NADIA (Translation): Because detention does not mean anything. On the 6th April, we knew we would be arrested and detained. We knew it could happen again today. No problem. This is the price we pay for standing against the government.

But arrest isn”t the worst thing that happens to those that challenge the Egyptian police. Amnesty International says at least 20 Egyptians died last year as a result of police torture. Blogger Wael Abbas does his best to let the world know what”s going on.

WAEL ABBAS, INTERNET ACTIVIST: It depicts an Egyptian citizen being tortured and sodomised inside an Egyptian police station.

Wael”s become famous for posting leaked videos of Egyptian police torturing their suspects, videos like this one.

WAEL ABBAS: I personally have published over a dozen of these videos and only very few of them have been investigated.

Instead of tackling the problem, the government”s response was to ban mobile phones inside police stations and, since posting the videos, Wael has been targeted by the authorities.

WAEL ABBAS: My phone is being tapped. I”m being followed sometimes. You know – the usual stuff that happens to anybody who tackles the issues of human rights and freedom in Egypt.

In recent months, Egyptians have suffered sharply rising food prices and it”s fuelling widespread anger. So bloggers like Wael and the Facebook activists have been working online to organise another national day of protest. It”s scheduled for today, Mubarak”s 80th birthday and downtown, security is on high alert.

AHMAD: Those blue trucks are prison trucks. That”s where they collect the detainees or hostages they take.

On the steps of the lawyers” association, a small crowd has gathered. Outside, the police are trying to make sure the protest doesn”t spread.

AHMAD: The police are stopping people from coming in front of the syndicate or passing next to it. They are deterring people from coming near to the syndicate.

Despite the activist”s best efforts, most people watching don”t join in. The brutal crackdown after April”s strike has left many people scared. While I”m in Egypt, President Bush arrives to attend the World Economic Forum. Egypt is the second largest recipient of American foreign aid, receiving around $2 billion each year.

KENT PATTON, US STATE DEPARTMENT: Egypt has been a long-standing ally of the United States.

Kent Patton is the deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department.

KENT PATTON: I don”t believe any government in the world would stop diplomatic relations because of single events or single human rights abuses.

For the United States, stability in the Middle East is the number-one priority.

KENT PATTON: When we see things that tend to be in conflict with some of the international agreements that Egypt has aligned itself with or has signed on to, then we voice our concerns, but the totality of our relationship with Egypt is one in which we know that if there is going to be a Palestinian state, if we are going to have peace within Israel in the region, Egypt will have to be a part of that.

IBRAHIM ISSA (Translation): All the nations know Mubarack is a dictator and a despot, they know that Mubarak is like Robert Mugabe.

Newspaper editor Ibrahim Issa argues the West”s support for Mubarak could backfire in the long-term.

IBRAHIM ISSA (Translation): If anyone is going to bring the Islamic stream to power, it will be the west with its stupid support of despots. It is despots themselves who were able to sell to the West the ides that it’s either them or the Islamists, as if these were the only alternatives for these nations.

REPORTER: How can the people of Egypt take the United States seriously when it talks about democracy in the Middle East?

KENT PATTON: I think the activists in Egypt and those who are working to build a more democratic, a freer Egypt, understand that we support them. But I”ll leave it up to the Egyptian people and the activists there to decide on whether they can agree with what we do.

There”s not much democracy at work for Facebook activist Ahmad Mehr.

AHMAD MEHR (Translation): They were punching me in the head, hitting me on my neck and my back.

The authorities finally caught up with him. He was on his way to work when plainclothes officers forced him inside an unmarked van and took him to the state security headquarters.

AHMAD MEHR (Translation): All the questions were about the group on Facebook. ‘Who is Fatima?’ ‘I don’t anyone by that name.’ ‘You do.’ Then they beat me up. She is one of the Facebook group. I don’t know her personally ‘Where does she live?’ ‘No idea.’ My hands are stretched and tied up and they pulled me along the floor.

The security officers demanded Ahmad reveal the password to his Facebook account.

AHMAD MEHR (Translation): Just for the password they took my trousers off, he said “We can rape you, we can put a stick in.’ They wanted to close the Facebook group, they wanted control over it.

He was released after giving a false password. Egyptians dreaming of freedom know it”s going to take a lot more than Facebook to overthrow their dictator. But for many, the growing influence of the online opposition is giving them hope for the future.

BELAL DIAB (Translation): Our generation believes it is like planting a palm tree. We might not eat its dates, but the next generation will. Change won’t happen overnight, it will happen in stages, nothing comes easy, sacrifices must be made. Someone has to stand up to them.





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