Facebook Becomes Tool For Activists in Egypt
Facebook Becomes Tool For Activists in Egypt
Sunday, May 4,2008 08:53
By Mariam Fam

Facebook here has evolved into a lot more than just a social-networking Web site: It has become one of the latest tools for political dissent in Egypt.

Facebook activists are calling for a day of nation-wide strikes Sunday -- coinciding with President Hosni Mubarak"s 80th birthday -- to protest the surging prices of basic commodities like bread and meat. Their efforts got a boost this week when the Islamist political group Muslim Brotherhood backed the call, saying that the planned strike promotes peaceful opposition.

The activists, who are urging Egyptians to stay home Sunday and boycott buying all commodities through Tuesday, use signs similar to online banner ads on the site to promote the strike. One such banner is fiery red and reads: "May 4, a general strike for the people of Egypt."

The Facebook activism is part of larger efforts by youths across the Arab world to use technology -- from blogs to cellphone text messages to YouTube -- to challenge their governments and push the envelope on dissent in ways older generations didn"t know. The tactics appear to be catching on: The main Facebook group calling for a strike now has more than 74,000 users.

Governments are also learning how to respond. In parts of the Middle East such as Beirut and Tehran, local governments immediately jam cellphones whenever there is civil unrest to prevent it from spreading. In another sign the government is taking the challenge seriously, Egyptian security forces last month arrested a young woman, Esraa Abdel Fattah, after she formed a Facebook group to promote an April strike to protest inflation.

Ms. Abdel Fattah"s arrest prompted many Facebook users to campaign for her release on the site, and other activist groups picked up the cause. She eventually became known simply as the "Facebook girl."

Egyptian officials have taken notice, prompting tech-savvy Interior Ministry officers to browse the site to keep an eye on potential security threats. But that"s hardly deterring activists who continue to brainstorm and mobilize for the upcoming strike on Sunday.

Facebook activist Ahmed Maher, a 27-year-old engineer, praises how technology has opened up infinite and often creative possibilities for youth in the Middle East, who are connecting to the outside world like no other time in their history.

"Facebook is an interactive platform. It"s like we"re in a meeting 24 hours a day," Mr. Maher says. "We see how other people are living and we reject many government policies."

To some of the young online, Facebook and other Internet sites offer an alternative to opposition parties that are weakened by government restrictions and their own divisions and inability to form a popular base of support. Some also see it as a relatively safe medium to voice opposition.

Still, many cyber activists also rely on more traditional methods for getting the word out, such as writing messages on money notes, distributing fliers and sending text messages on cellphones. Other Facebook users have created smaller groups against the calls for strikes, saying they open the door for chaos.

As annual urban inflation hit 14.4% in March and food prices went soaring, protestors took to the street in the industrial town of Mahalla el-Kobra, some 60 miles north of Cairo. That resulted in violent clashes with security forces. In Cairo, strikes fizzled due to government warning and heavy security presence.

As a precaution for Sunday, the Facebook group is urging the public to dress in black and instead of taking to the streets, stand outside their homes, on rooftops and balconies with signs stating their demands.

Hisham Kassem, a well-known democracy activist in Egypt, says Facebook youth are reinvigorating opposition in ways unsettling for the government. "You"re beginning to see the possibility of the end of apathy in political life using personal mass media," he says. "What will [the government] do about it? Shut down Facebook?"

Write to Mariam Fam at [email protected] 

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