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Egypt's Facebook showdown

The online gathering place for young people poses a challenge to authorities.

June 02, 2008|Sherif Mansour | Sherif Mansour works at Freedom House, a human rights organization that has been monitoring political rights and civil liberties in Egypt since 1972. He can be reached at .

Right now, the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is considering blocking Facebook, the social networking website that has become a popular hangout for twentysomethings worldwide and a favorite venue for Egypt's disaffected youth. The reason: In April, one group of young citizens mobilized 80,000 supporters to protest rising food prices. Facebook networking played a crucial role in broadening support and turnout for an April 6 textile workers' strike and protest.

The Egyptian government, which has governed for 25 years under emergency law and doesn't allow more than five people to gather unregistered, hit back hard, jailing young dissidents and torturing Ahmed Maher, a young activist who tried, unsuccessfully, to organize a second demonstration in early May.

Despite these setbacks, the "Facebook movement" in Egypt is significant for several reasons. First, it challenges the perception that there is no prospect for independent, secular opposition in the country. The majority of Egyptians are under 30 and have known no other ruler than Mubarak. They have not seen real political parties because the government has long restricted opposition parties and free media. The Facebook movement engaged large numbers of youth for the first time.

Second, the Web offers a safe political space -- a role the mosque has traditionally played in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood has for decades been the only viable opposition. With Facebook, young secular people can communicate, build relationships and express their opinions freely. (Significantly, the Muslim Brotherhood opposed the successful April demonstration but supported the unsuccessful May event.) Every member in the 100,000-strong online community could be, at any given moment, a leader of a movement.

Third, engaging Egypt's youth is an important item on the agenda of Mubarak's son, Gamal, as he works to gain support for his succession to power. As a young politician, Gamal established the Future Generation Foundation in 2000, which incubated many of the current leaders of the ruling National Democratic Party and the new Cabinet. Facebook activists and their supporters should be able to turn to this group for support. A few weeks ago, Belal Diab, a 20-year-old college student, interrupted one of the Egyptian prime minister's speeches to protest the arrests of Facebook activists, shouting: "Look who are you fighting; it is us, the younger generation who stood with you and supported you!"

Nevertheless, Facebook activists are being targeted by government-based media campaigns defaming the website and the youth activists who use it. The government also warns media not to talk about the phenomenon. I saw the heavy-handed efforts of the government while recording a TV show with Maher. During the taping, Egyptian police broke into the studio, threatened the station manager and forced the guest outside the room.

What can be done to help this movement? The international community and the U.S. government should pressure the Egyptian government to support Internet freedom and keep Facebook accessible to Egyptians. One young activist, Ahmad Samih, is campaigning to gain local and international support to prevent the Egyptian government from blocking Facebook. So far, nearly 20 Egyptian human rights organizations are supporting this cause. International human rights organizations should publicly join in that show of support.

Egyptian democrats are "Facebooking" their advocacy in order to escape heavy recriminations. It would be shameful for the international community not to stand up on their behalf against a government that seeks to deny them even that small space to express themselves. Otherwise, Mubarak's self-fulfilling prophesy as the only alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood will continue to hold Egypt back from the democracy its people deserve.

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