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By SAMANTHA M. SHAPIRO
Published: January 22, 2009
Only a few hours after Israel’s first air strike against Hamas positions in the Gaza Strip late last month, more than 2,000 protesters marched through the streets of downtown Cairo, carrying Palestinian flags. This began what would become weeks of protests, in which thousands of Egyptians of all different political leanings gathered in Egypt’s main cities, in public squares and at mosques and universities. Hundreds were arrested. In every city, the biggest presence at the protests was the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political organization, active in many countries throughout the Middle East, that seeks to govern according to Islamic law. Other, smaller demonstrations were put together, sometimes spontaneously, by leftist groups and student organizations.
Anti-Israel demonstrations in Arab capitals are nothing new. From Amman to Riyadh, governments have long viewed protests against Israel as a useful safety valve to allow citizens to let off steam without addressing grievances closer to home. But in Egypt, this time, the protests were different: some of the anger was aimed directly at the government of President Hosni Mubarak. In defiance of threats from the police, and in contravention of a national taboo, some demonstrators chanted slogans against Mubarak, condemning his government for maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel, for exporting natural gas to the country and for restricting movement through Egypt’s border with Gaza.
As the street protests went on, young Egyptians also were mobilizing and venting their anger over Gaza on what would, until recently, have seemed an unlikely venue: Facebook, the social-networking site. In most countries in the Arab world, Facebook is now one of the 10 most-visited Web sites, and in Egypt it ranks third, after Google and Yahoo. About one in nine Egyptians has Internet access, and around 9 percent of that group are on Facebook — a total of almost 800,000 members. This month, hundreds of Egyptian Facebook members, in private homes and at Internet cafes, have set up Gaza-related “groups.” Most expressed hatred for Israel and the United States, but each one had its own focus. Some sought to coordinate humanitarian aid to Gaza, some criticized the Egyptian government, some criticized other Arab countries for blaming Egypt for the conflict and still others railed against Hamas. When I sat down in the middle of January with an Arabic-language translator to look through Facebook, we found one new group with almost 2,000 members called “I’m sure I can find 1,000,000 members who hate Israel!!!” and another called “With all due respect, Gaza, I don’t support you,” which blamed Palestinian suffering on Hamas and lamented the recent shooting of two Egyptian border guards, which had been attributed to Hamas fire. Another group implored God to “destroy and burn the hearts of the Zionists.” Some Egyptian Facebook users had joined all three groups.
Freedom of speech and the right to assemble are limited in Egypt, which since 1981 has been ruled by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party under a permanent state-of-emergency law. An estimated 18,000 Egyptians are imprisoned under the law, which allows the police to arrest people without charges, allows the government to ban political organizations and makes it illegal for more than five people to gather without a license from the government. Newspapers are monitored by the Ministry of Information and generally refrain from directly criticizing Mubarak. And so for young people in Egypt, Facebook, which allows users to speak freely to one another and encourages them to form groups, is irresistible as a platform not only for social interaction but also for dissent.
Although there are countless political Facebook groups in Egypt, many of which flare up and fall into disuse in a matter of days, the one with the most dynamic debates is that of the April 6 Youth Movement, a group of 70,000 mostly young and educated Egyptians, most of whom had never been involved with politics before joining the group. The movement is less than a year old; it formed more or less spontaneously on Facebook last spring around an effort to stage a general nationwide strike. Members coalesce around a few issues — free speech, economic stagnation and government nepotism — and they share their ideas for improving Egypt. But they do more than just chat: they have tried to organize street protests to free jailed journalists, and this month, hundreds of young people from the April 6 group participated in demonstrations about Gaza, some of which were coordinated on Facebook, and at least eight members of the group were detained by police.
As with any group on Facebook, members can post comments or share news articles, videos or notes on the group’s communal “wall.” The wall of the April 6 group is constantly being updated with new posts, and the talk is often heated and intense. On a recent afternoon, members were discussing photographs that had just been posted on the Muslim Brotherhood Web site of a mass protest in Alexandria against Israel’s actions in Gaza, in which thousands of members of the brotherhood took to the streets.
“They are real men!” posted a young woman using the alias Mona Liza.
“Something like this should happen in Cairo,” another member typed. “People should go to the streets of Cairo until the Jewish crusaders’ government falls.”
Another member dissented: “We need strong actions, not protests like the brotherhood’s where they sing religious songs and go home.”