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A tool to mobilise?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 08 - 2008

Salonaz Sami wonders whether to sign in or out
With lower access rates compared to Egypt's increasingly conservative media, and offering a degree of anonymity, the Internet has become an important channel for political activists. From blogs to Facebook, sharing social or political ideologies and by default lobbying for such beliefs, cyberspace has become home to a new breed of activists.
The 6 April strike in support of Mahala textile workers is a case in point. Several Facebook groups supported the strike. Less than a month after 6 April, preparations for another strike, on 4 May, spread across cyberspace. The Internet again played a prominent role in mobilising for the event and Facebook users were detained, questioned and later released.
Such detentions are becoming more common. Abel Karim Nabil, 22, was arrested on 5 November 2006 on charges that included questioning Islam and criticising some of its symbols. Earlier Shohdi Sorour, son of the late poet Naguib Sorour, was tried in absentia for posting a poem -- technically banned in Egypt but which had been widely circulated for decades -- online. In another notorious case Ashraf Ibrahim was tried for posting pictures of police brutality during the 2003 anti-Iraq war demonstrations on his site.
These detentions raise serious concerns over the level of respect for freedom in Egypt as well as of the authorities' willingness to intervene in cyber space and online activism, issues that were at the core of the one day conference, held on 22 May by the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR). Security and political experts took part alongside bloggers and online activists, and what started as a relatively sedate discussion soon turned into a heated debate between security and pro-government experts, on one hand, and bloggers on the other.
Political commentator El-Sayed Yassin was the first to attack the bloggers, accusing them of altering the truth and tarnishing Egypt's reputation abroad.
"Foreign embassies follow up on these blogs and groups and report back to their countries," said Yassin. But most, if not all, of the bloggers' posts distort and misrepresent reality. "They send the wrong information about Egypt to the world," he claimed. Councilor Murad Hassan went further, insisting they deliberately manipulated facts, circulated fabricated pictures, and magnified individual incidents to mislead public opinion. "In addition, the kind of language they use to express their opinions is unsuitable and strange to our society," Hassan told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"What some bloggers write about public figures is libellous and punishable by law," says former State Security General Mahmoud Sherif. He urged bloggers to double check their sources when they post. "They often cross the line. They are so involved in their virtual worlds they forget the real world is completely different."
Alaa Seif, one of the 20 bloggers participating in the conference, stressed that they simply record responses to what they see happening around them, and that their aim in exposing corrupt practices is simply to speed up the reform process to which the government has repeatedly claimed it is committed.
What really tarnishes Egypt's reputation, pointed out writer Sakina Fouad, is the "lack of transparency, corruption, as well as a lack of information which these groups and blogs are trying to expose".
"We should allow young people, who make up 40 per cent of our population, freedom to discuss their opinions and problems and we should help them solve those problems rather than shut them down and threatening to arrest them."
Gamal Eid, head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, told the story of a 16-year-old who was detained and questioned in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria after she posted a blog mentioning Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. "Where is the freedom of expression in that," he wondered. "Some blogs get more than 30,000 visitors a day, which is far more than the entire readership of many government-owned newspapers."
The increasingly draconian response to bloggers, argued head of the Democratic Front Party Osama Al-Ghazali Harb, "is an implicit acknowledgment by the authorities of the extent of the space cyber space activists have carved out for themselves".
Necessity is the mother of invention and since there are so few venues available for free expression "it is only normal that young people take their political and social views and opinions to those which offer the most freedom" says blogger Alaa Seif.
If the use of the web has caused the arrest of some activists, it has also helped release others, such as American student James Karl Buck. Detained while photographing the 6 April strike, Buck sent a message that read "arrested" using his cell phone, alerting people about what had happened and allowing them to press for his release.
The 6 April strike, said Harb, showed that virtual activism is beginning to have a grassroots impact. And the fact that the regime felt it necessary to arrest 27-year-old Israa Abdel-Fattah for starting a Facebook group, he argued, "is clear proof of the threat that the regime feels... the Internet is the new battleground between those who want to speak out and those who would stop them". Whatever the ideological leanings of bloggers, said Bahieddin Hassan, head of the Cairo Centre for Human Rights Studies, they have one thing in common: "They are all rejected by the authorities, regardless of their political, social or religious views, on the grounds that what they do is a crime."
"The government has yet to understand that it needs to give these young people a chance to be heard or realise that more censorship will achieve nothing."
Facebook... now an epidemic
EGYPTIANS were introduced to Facebook.com a few months after its launch in 2004, reports Salonaz Sami. Since then numbers using the social utility website have grown drastically, as have the controversies surrounding the free site access to which some governments, including Syria and Iran, now block. Yet Facebook is up and growing, offering a lot more than just a political platform for activists. Users can choose to join different networks organised by city, school or workplace. It allows members to create groups that discuss everything, from politics, philosophy, and history to religion and spirituality.
One of the fastest growing groups, attracting 381,000 members in less than nine months, is Barack Obama's, "One million strong for Barack", an important part of his presidential campaign. "Support the fight against cancer with just a click", which seeks to raise awareness around cancer issues, currently has 811,837 members. Such groups are serious. Others, though, are just for fun, and some might seem completely pointless. "If you remember this you grew up in the 90's" has an astonishing 1,554,028 members, while "Let's set and break a Guinness record", in seeking to attract four million members to a single Facebook group, is offering, as an incentive, a Guinness Book of World Records certificate to applicants should the magic figure be reached.
"Yala nokhrog" (Lets go out) offers its 11,562 members the lowdown on what to do in Egypt if you find yourself at a loose end, providing addresses, phone numbers -- in some cases even the menus -- of every hangout there is. "People who don't sleep enough because they stay up late for no reason" offers insomniacs games and activities to fill the long sleepless nights. Currently it has 261,509 members.
"I can't believe I was once interested in you what was I thinking" is for anyone who has ever been interested in a guy or girl only to later question what the attraction was all about. Among the group's most interactive topics for discussion on the site are "Ever been backstabbed by your so called best friends?" and "What is the best revenge you have had on an ex?"
"Mine was a few months back," reads one reply. "I found out he was in another relation at the same time so I got a knife and scored his credit cards, CDs, DVDs, and everything I was able to put my hands on. And although normally I would have been gutted, the revenge made me feel so good."
Wait till you check out " Mozakkerat taleb fi gamaa khasa -- the diaries of a private university student": the day by day diary of a teenager starting college, with a lot of adventures and some of the funniest stories you will ever read, it is hilarious.
In short, Facebook groups offer anything and everything you could possibly need, whether a movie review, a place to go out or even the track you heard but couldn't find anywhere else.

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