Revolution Facebooked in Egypt

Tuesday 10 June 2008, by Sarah Mostafa-Kamel

The April 6 and May 4 general strikes in Egypt revealed an important new political phenomenon in Egypt: the use of information technology for human rights advocacy by young Egyptians. Newcomers such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter have joined SMS, e-mail, and blogs as the new squares for political mobilization, both by President Mubarak’s dissidents and his supporters. With more than 64,000 Facebook users in Egypt, it is clear that cyberspace activists have become a growing threat for the Egyptian government who impose severe punishments against the upstarts, including imprisonment and beatings.

Facebook activism in Egypt was first noticed when thousands of Egyptians stayed in their homes refusing to go to work as a response to the rise in the price of basic foodstuffs, chronic inflation and rampant unemployment. According to the Washington Post, 74,000 people have joined the group “6 April: A Nationwide Strike,” created by cyber activist Esraa Abdel Fattah demonstrating their disaffection with Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

While dissident Egyptians online are politicizing cyberspace, some Egyptians are still suspicious about human rights advocacy. Human rights activist, Mr. Bahey Eldin Hassan who was in Montreal for a conference at Alternatives on human rights and democratization in the Middle East, explained the multifaceted and seemingly contradictory views of Arabs on human rights advocacy. While Arabs embrace human rights, understanding that their grievances arise from its violations and may be elevated through recourse to human rights law, in certain cases they also perceive human rights as a western import that is unsuitable for their societies.

As the Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Hassan strives to demonstrate that human rights advocacy is not a western tool to subjugate Arab societies or undermine Islam, and to “disabuse people of these notions and accentuate the importance of rights in people’s daily lives.”

Human Rights defenders in all of the Middle East face tremendous challenges from oppressive governments, opposition parties and Islamist groups. Regardless of their mobilization methods, be it traditional or non-traditional, they have to confront diverse challenges; while activists face death threats and constant harassment in Iraq and forced exile in Libya, Egyptian cyber activists get their share of arrests, detentions and police brutality. Ahmed Maher, one of the mobilizers of the May 4 strike, was detained, interrogated and allegedly harassed by the security services while Esraa Abdel Fattah was detained for 16 days after her arrest.

Institutional challenges prevent human rights defenders from making headway as the Egyptian government has designed penal codes that protect the state against their citizens as opposed to the contrary. Although the banning of websites or blogs is usually practiced with illegitimate legal procedures, President Mubarak usually recourses to Article 2 of the Emergency Law to crush any type of opposition in Egypt. The law permits the government to “censor messages of any kind and newspapers, flyers, printouts, editorials, cartoons, and other tools of expression and advertisements.”

Another significant source of threat for human rights defendants is the growth of religious extremism in the region, whose adherents believe that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is in contradiction with religious beliefs and practices. Whereas Islamist groups have the resources to organize themselves in places such as mosques, human rights organizations have to be a lot more careful and secretive so as not to be targeted by extremists or the security service.

Human rights defenders are divided over the effectiveness of cyber activism. For Mr. Hassan, the innovative use of information technology for the mobilization of human rights is a sign of hope and an exciting development for activists. Others are more skeptical. Outspoken Egyptian blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy declared he did not endorse the May 4 strike writing, “some have thrown both their feet as well as brains in the cyberspace and are living some virtual reality, mistakenly believing (helped by the media sensationalist coverage of the “facebook activism”) that they are the ones behind the events in Mahalla…”

While the effectiveness of cyber activism remains to be seen, the arrests of cyber activists makes it clear that cyberspace, where dissident Egyptians are politicizing the Egyptian public, has become a new political battleground.

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