Facebook Parties?

Facebook Parties?

Turning off his mobile phone and hiding it in a distant closet, Egyptian Facebook activist feels ready to talk about his would-be Facebook party away from the ears of a vigilant State Security Intelligence.

Despite the latest SSI crackdown on Facebook activists Esraa Abdel Fattah and Ahmad Maher (arresting the former and torturing the latter), Egypt"s disaffected youth are still intent on using the social networking website as an alternative for real life political activism.

The success of Facebook group "April 6: A Nationwide strike," founded by Fattah and Maher, has given rise to a plethora of politically-oriented groups expressing discontent on Egypt"s political and economic status quo in the relatively free environment that the website provides.

"We Can" [or Ne"dar] is an example of these groups, yet with a different spirit. Moderators of the group intend to establish a political party, for which Facebook is the best tool for the time being, they think.

Mohamed Mustafa -not his real name- is one of the two admins of "We Can." Informing me by SMS, he preferred to meet me in his clinic (he is a dentist) although we originally set an appointment elsewhere. The reason, he says, is that SSI might be taping his cell phone. "That is how they arrest activists. By eavesdropping our phone calls, they get to know our whereabouts," he says laughingly.

Mustafa believes that April 6 youth movement was immense, yet it resembles "a body without a head." He thinks that his group can act as the head to this movement.

"We Can" comprises a colorful blend of activists from across the political spectrum. Islamists (like himself), Leftists, Liberals, Copts, Nasserites, Secularists, all agreed to form a different youth movement whose aim is to "bring about peaceful change, and establish a civil state without any discrimination whatsoever based on religion, sex, thought, or political affiliation," as written in the group"s manifesto.

A workshop organized by founders of the group culminated in a semi-party-platform, which Mustafa calls "an outline." It is the product of days-long brainstorming of ideas, and is divided into sections representing the group"s perception of reform. They include chapters on political, judicial, economic, and social reform, as well as two special sections on women rights and youth.

"We circulated the outline among intellectuals and political activists to know their feedbacks," he told me.

A Fantasy World

On his way to a satellite interview on Facebook activism, Amr El Shobki of Al Ahram center for Political and Strategic Studies describes to me Facebook, in a phone interview, as "a fantasy world."

In a world offering them very few venues to express themselves, he says, Egyptian youth resorted to that world of fantasy.

"They found that political parties are dead, professional syndicates on hold, and NGOs ineffective, so they transcended that real world to the world of Facebook in which they were able to establish alternative parties, elect their president, and voice their political ideas."

Shobki was among those who received a copy of "We Can" platform. He views it as idealistic. Like other attempts to form parties, he says, such an idea will be doomed to failure.

However, it might act as a powerful means of pressure on the government through its mobilization of enthusiastic youth who will embrace the ideas of change proposed in its platform, he says.

Ahmad Maher has a different argument though. He believes that establishing a party is exactly what the SSI wish he and other cyber activists would do. "Should we establish parties, it will no longer be difficult for them to detect us. They will have access to all information about members, and will subsequently crackdown on them," he tells me in a café on the outskirts of Cairo.

When he was arrested on the heels of May 4 strike, he narrates, a senior security official threateningly told him, "Form a political party, or join an NGO, but don"t use Facebook."


Though he questions the effectiveness of Facebook in causing real progress, Shobki admits its role in April 6 strike when it formed a "lobby" against the government.

This was clear in the statement of the Ministry of Interior on the day of the strike in the front page of Al Ahram newspaper warning people against riots or demos. It indicated the government"s fear, which a group of youth has caused, he tells me.

Maher says his group has attracted 3000 members on the first day he launched it. After a weak, they were above 70,000. Every member acted as a strike advocate in the society and took the call from PC screens to everyone he/she knows.

"When I woke up on the day of the strike, 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."

It is impossible that the government can stop them from doing this job, Shobki told me. It should consider solutions for Egypt"s chronic social and political problems instead of confronting a group of dreaming youth.


"Raising awareness"

Back to his clinic, Mustafa says that a priority for his group for the time being is not to found a party, but rather to raise people"s awareness concerning their country"s problems.

"Though we advocate the worker"s struggle, we strongly believe that the root of the problem is political despotism and the absence of real democracy. This is what we want people to be aware of."

Similarly, Maher says he endorsed cyber activism as "a means to raise people"s awareness and to urge them start fighting for their rights."

"We want this spirit to keep going. We don"t wish to see the death of the April 6 generation," Mustafa says.