CAIRO — Egyptians are using the online social networking tool Facebook to defy the government’s attempt to muzzle the media and hush recent incidents of police brutality during a strike by workers in a town in the Nile Delta.
Indeed, Internet users in Egypt have given the popular Web site Facebook a new role: a platform for political activism, such as promoting anti-government demonstrations.
“The next strike will be the most successful, the strongest, and the least in losses,” declares a Facebook group called ‘A General Strike for the Egyptian People – April 6th,’ which had promoted the work stoppage that occurred just over two weeks ago in Egypt. The strike was called as a response to a crisis over rising food prices that has gripped the nation recently.
The group, which calls for the Egyptian government to increase wages to match the price hike, as well as respect international human rights, announced just one day after the events of April 6 that another strike would take place on May 4 – Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 80th birthday.
The April 6 strike played out most intensely in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla el-Kobra where protestors clashed with security forces. Photographs from the day showing police beating civilians in addition to protesters ripping down a giant poster of Mubarak are being circulated on Facebook.
Esraa Abdel Fattah, the 27-year-old Egyptian woman who administers the Egyptian Facebook site, was arrested mid-April in a coffee shop close to her work. She was being detained on charges of helping to organize the April 6 protest. She was released however on April 23 after a personal plea to Mubarak from her mother.
According to Facebook, Fattah’s group, one of a handful of groups on the Internet Web site propagating the May 4 strike, has over 73,000 members; and the numbers are growing daily.
“Necessity being the mother of invention, as they say, led Egyptians to use Facebook to express themselves politically as well as socially,” said Mona Eltahawy, a journalist who has lectured extensively on blogging and the Arab world, and recently on the Facebook activism phenomenon in Egypt. “There are very few venues available for Egyptians to express themselves so it’s natural that they would take their views where there is the most freedom,” she added.
Muhammad Abdel Hai, administrator for the Facebook group ‘We’ll Wear Black Clothes on May 4th’ and personal friend of Fattah, was involved in the liberal El Ghad political party prior to his use of Facebook. He said that Facebook just became a natural extension of his political activities, because it is an easy way to connect with other Egyptians who share similar ideologies.
“Because there is no other way I can use [Facebook],” Hai said. “The first time I saw that it was a better way to broadcast my videos and pictures, and I started to write notes and I found that many people would make comments on my notes, some of them 200 or 300 comments.”
As for the April 6 strike, Hai asserted that every Egyptian young person who participated did so because of messages that they received via Facebook encouraging them to take part.
Eltahawy believes that this claim just might be true.
“I believe Facebook is having that large of influence,” she said. “There is a tremendous ripple effect – those who read about the strike on Facebook will then tell their friends and so on and so forth.”
The Egyptian government has definitely started to feel the pressure caused by Facebook political activism, according to Eltahawy.
“The fact that a regime that has been in power for 26 years felt it necessary to arrest a 26-year-old woman for starting a Facebook group is clear proof of the threat that the regime feels from Facebook,” she said.
When asked if he was worried that he would be arrested for participating in anti-government activities like his friend Fattah, Hai responded with an empathic “No.”
May 4 as a planned day for political dissent was quickly picked up as news by various media sources, including the Egyptian opposition paper Al-Badil, after it was announced on Facebook.
What are Hai’s goals for May 4?
“First goal is to release my friends. And the second, I would just like more people to think about the country, the life, and political affairs here in Egypt,” he said.