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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cairo Activists Use Facebook to Rattle Regime

July 23, 2008. Under the scorching sun on a beach in Alexandria, Egypt, a few dozen political activists snap digital pictures and chatter nervously. Many of them wear matchingwhite T-shirts emblazoned with the image of a fist raised in solidarity and the words "April 6 Youth" splashed across the back. A few of them get to work constructing a giant kite out of bamboo poles and a sheet of plastic painted to look like the Egyptian flag. Most are in their twenties, some younger; one teenage girl wears a teddy bear backpack.

Before the group can get the kite aloft, and well before they have a chance to distribute their pro-democracy leaflets, state security agents swarm across the sand. The cops shout threats to break up what is, by Western standards, a tiny demonstration.

The activists disperse from the beach, feeling hot and frustrated; they didn't even get a chance to fly their kite. Joining up with other friends, they walk together toward the neighborhood of Loran, singing patriotic songs.

Then, as they turn down another street, a group of security agents jump out of nowhere. It's a coordinated assault that explodes into a frenzy of punches and shoves. There are screams and grunts as about a dozen kids fall or are knocked to the ground. The other 30 or so scatter, sprinting for blocks in all directions before slowing enough to send each other hurried text messages: Where are you? What happened?

Those who didn't get away are hustled into a van and two cars. The security men are shouting at them: "Where is Ahmed Maher?"

Three hours before the scuffle and arrests, Ahmed Maher walks briskly toward a dilapidated office building on Alexandria's Abu-Qir Street. Messenger bag draped over a shoulder of his white short-sleeved, collared shirt, he tosses a cigarette into the street before climbing the marble steps.

He speaks softly to fellow activists standing outside an office doorway, but his arrival has an electrifying effect: He's here. Back in March, Maher and a friend launched a Facebook group to promote a protest planned for April 6. It became an Internet phenomenon, quickly attracting more than 70,000 members. The April 6 youth movement — amorphous, lacking a clear mission, and yet a bull's-eye to the zeitgeist — blossomed within days into something influential enough to arouse the ire of Egypt's internal security forces. Maher is part of a new generation in the Middle East that, through blogs, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, and now Facebook, is using virtual reality to combat corrupt and oppressive governments. Their nascent, tech-fired rebellion has triggered a government backlash and captured the world's attention.

Two ceiling fans do little to relieve the stifling summer heat. Forty people are squeezed into the offices of the El-Ghad Party, one of Egypt's more established opposition groups. Three years ago, El-Ghad's leader, Ayman Nour, won 7 percent of the vote in the presidential election. Soon after, he was slapped with forgery charges that are widely viewed as trumped up. Today, despite deteriorating health and a plea for his release from President Bush, Nour remains imprisoned.

But this afternoon, the El-Ghad office is on loan to another upstart political group, the April 6 youth movement. Many of the attendees are connecting for the first time — in the real world, that is. Most know each other only through Facebook, and they're finally matching names and aliases to actual faces. Taped to the wall at the front of the room is a yellow piece of construction paper. The makeshift sign, written in Arabic lettering, reads: welcome to the first dialog meeting of the april 6 youth movement. Young women, some with head scarves and some without, sit in green plastic chairs, while guys in their twenties stand in silence.

Outside, two uniformed cops and a plainclothes officer lean against a shiny sedan with their arms folded, waiting. Another agent is planted in the corner store across the street, eyes fixed on the meeting-place windows. In Egypt today, a gathering of five people or more without a permit is illegal and can result in arrests, beatings, or both. Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, has been in power for nearly three decades and has governed under emergency rule since 1981. The regime is occasionally rebuked by the US and Europe for its abysmal human-rights record. But because Mubarak is considered a valuable US ally on matters concerning Israel and terrorism, Egypt receives nearly $2 billion in US aid every year, second only to Israel.

Photograph: Joerg Klaus

Maher, 27, is a civil engineer who works for a construction firm, hammering away on software programs like AutoCAD and Primavera. A steady job, however, doesn't exactly mesh with full-time political activism. He has failed to show up for work on a number of occasions, and some days he is nearly asleep on his feet after yet another all-nighter at a cybercafe. "Some guys at work saw me in the newspaper, and they were supportive," he says. "Others were not — one guy moved his desk far from mine." Maher doesn't seem to mind offending his coworkers, but he does worry about being fired. How would he support his wife and newborn baby?

During the meeting, Maher holds a mobile phone in one hand, constantly reading messages or texting. With his closely cropped hair and trim goatee, he resembles a compact Vin Diesel. When it's his turn to speak, the others listen intently as he lays out the day's plan. The spot they have picked for their protest this afternoon is already crawling with agents, he tells them, suggesting that the plan is no secret to state security. "We have people out there now, trying to find a new place," he says.

A few hours later, a taxi carrying Maher and his friends is zooming north along the coast, heading toward the rally location. The car stops suddenly at a beach called Sidi Bishr. The activists are hoping to draw attention to their cause among poor and working class Egyptians enjoying a summer afternoon lounging beneath rented umbrellas while children splash in the Mediterranean. The plan is to sing songs and fly a kite, with the simple goal of meeting and speaking freely with people. "We don't want conflict," one activist tells me. "We want peace and freedom."

Facebook is the third-most visited Web site in Egypt, after Google and Yahoo. Wael Nawara, cofounder of the El-Ghad Party, has closely observed the site's rapid ascent. (When I caught up with Nawara at his home in Heliopolis, his laptop had six browser tabs open, all of them Facebook pages.) "The big bang was really this past January, with the Africa Cup," he says. Egypt's national soccer team had reached the final of the continental championships, and a Facebook group launched by fans suddenly swelled to 45,000 members. During the soccer frenzy, Nawara noticed that the number of Facebookers in Egypt jumped dramatically. Today, close to 1 million Egyptians are on the site, about 11 percent of the total online population.

Maher created the April 6 youth movement with a woman named Israa Abdel-Fattah. They had become friendly two years earlier as volunteers for the El-Ghad Party. Maher had already been politically active; he was arrested in 2006 during a sit-in alongside judges protesting state interference with the judiciary. Abdel-Fattah, 27, had never taken part in a demonstration. She worked in the human resources department of a Cairo company and had only recently begun volunteering at El-Ghad. They were both Facebook users, of course, busy posting in various political forums. But to Maher Facebook was an echo chamber, not a movement.

In March, he learned that workers in the industrial city of El-Mahalla el-Kobra were planning a strike on April 6 to protest paltry wages and soaring food prices. Maher and Abdel-Fattah were sympathetic to the cause and wondered whether Facebook might be a way to spread the word about the strike, arrange more demonstrations in Cairo, and enlist support for a nationwide shopping boycott.

The duo launched the April 6 group on March 23. They used their real names for their Facebook profiles, and they were both listed as administrators for the group. That night, they sent out 300 invitations urging people to join. By the next morning, 3,000 people had signed up. Invitees weren't just joining — they were recruiting everyone they knew. It was the kind of viral growth Silicon Valley executives fantasize about, and the chain reaction was just beginning.

Maher was as stunned as he was delighted. This could be something, he thought. He set about encouraging new members to launch whole new subgroups, while also contacting bloggers and other politically oriented online forums — 800 people here, 2,600 people there — asking them to support the workers by joining the April 6 group.

On more than one occasion, Maher's Facebook account was disabled — not by Egyptian officials but by the site itself. To combat spammers, Facebook automatically shuts down accounts that have large volumes of outgoing messages. But in this case, the messaging deluge was just Maher corresponding like crazy. By the end of March, the group was pushing 40,000 members. Participants began changing their profile pictures to the April 6 logo, which meant the logo kept popping up in the News Feed of anyone on Facebook who was connected to someone in the April 6 group. Adding to this barrage, the activists kept loading a link to the group into their Status Update fields, further flooding Egypt's Facebook universe with connections to the group and its message.

To get their ideas to people who weren't online, the activists scribbled details about the strike on currency notes and bought TV ads in the form of notices running along the bottom of the screen like a news ticker — a common method in the Arab world for making short community announcements.

Israa Abdel-Fattah cofounded the April 6 Facebook group. After her arrest, she renounced it.
Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The group's message was inclusive and earnest, factors that proved essential for amplifying interest and participation in the boycott and scattered demonstrations. Like minority opposition groups everywhere, Egypt's are rife with infighting. The April 6 group, in contrast, benefited from a constituency of young people — many of whom had little or no political experience — and a broad message of solidarity for workers and the poor that made it easy for people to say, "Yeah, I'm into that." Click.

Yet the ease of participation cuts both ways. At first glance, this form of online activism might seem ineffectual, even frivolous — a brand of sacrifice-free protest sometimes derided as "slactivism." After all, the Facebook group Bring Back Arrested Development has, at last count, 15,889 members, the group FREE TIBET! has 120,126, and Maher's group has 70,000. Big deal. But in places like Egypt, these virtual gatherings are a big deal. Although freedom of speech and freedom of religion may be democracy's headliners, it's the less sexy-sounding freedom of assembly that, when prohibited, can effectively asphyxiate political organization. Uniting 70,000 people is no easy feat in a country where collective action is so risky. Social networking has changed that. In turn, it is changing the dynamics of political dissent.

On the night of April 5, the streets of Cairo were full of police. Maher got a call from Abdel-Fattah. "She said she was scared," Maher says. "I told her not to be. 'You're a woman. I'm a man. I'm the one who would get arrested.'"

As dawn broke on April 6, residents of El-Mahalla el-Kobra — a city of some 400,000 about 75 miles north of Cairo — finished their morning prayers. Maher, Abdel-Fattah, and other Facebookers fired off last-minute emails and texts about their demonstration plans, still unsure as to whether anyone outside their network had heard or cared about the call to support the workers and boycott stores.

In El-Mahalla el-Kobra, where the strike was slated to occur, thousands of workers took to the streets. The scene turned ugly, with widespread rioting, scores of arrests, and at least three deaths. At one point, a group of agitators managed to trash a billboard displaying a picture of Mubarak. Censors suppressed video and photographic records of the incident in the mainstream media. But bloggers and members of the Facebook group quickly posted the images.

State security was aware of online dissidents but was completely caught off guard by the popularity of the Facebook group. In recent years, agents had concentrated intimidation efforts on individuals, especially bloggers with a significant readership. In 2006, for instance, a blogger named Mohammed el-Sharqawi was detained and sodomized for repeatedly participating in street protests. Another blogger, Abdel-Kareem Soliman, is serving a four-year prison term for insulting the president and Islam. But social networking was something new. Security officials, perhaps believing that Facebook was no more than a mechanism for kids to vent angst, paid little attention to the crescendo leading up to April 6, underestimating the network's ability to galvanize opposition.

The April 6 demonstrations in Cairo were not well attended; the real fireworks of the day were the riots in El-Mahalla el-Kobra. And that could have been the end of it — just another isolated, barely reported episode of social unrest in an overlooked corner of the Middle East. But Egyptian security made a major miscalculation. That morning, they found Abdel-Fattah sitting with friends at a Cairo cafè9 popular with activists and intellectuals. As an administrator of the high-profile Facebook group, she was a valuable catch, and her arrest would send an unequivocal message to other aspiring cyberactivists.

Gameela Ismail is a political activist who is married to the jailed president of El-Ghad, one of Egypt's leading opposition parties.
Photograph: Joerg Klaus

Gameela Ismail, the 42-year-old wife of the imprisoned opposition leader, had worked with Abdel-Fattah at the El-Ghad Party headquarters and had watched the Facebook group take shape. When she learned that Abdel-Fattah and others had been picked up, she figured the police would follow the usual routine of low-grade intimidation: drive the offenders around for a while and eventually drop them on the outskirts of Cairo.

Ismail decided to go look for Abdel-Fattah. She drove to Giza Square, Tahrir Square, and Amr Ibn el-Aass mosque. At each place she found only riot police, security trucks, and clean-shaven men speaking into walkie-talkies. Then Ismail got a text from Abdel-Fattah herself, saying that she'd been arrested and that she would likely face prosecution. Based on the country's emergency law, Egyptian authorities can hold citizens without any charge under what's known as a detention decree. According to Ismail, it was the first such decree levied against a woman in recent memory.

At a hearing the next day, Ismail was able to briefly meet Abdel- Fattah in the ladies' room at the courthouse. According to Ismail, the younger woman barely spoke and appeared to be in shock. Ismail slipped her some anxiety medication, tissues, money, and cigarettes for bartering in jail.

Foreign media and the few Egyptian newspapers that dare to resist state censors latched on to the story of Facebook Girl. It had an irresistible combination of ingredients: hip technology, government oppressors, an Arab woman speaking out. Instead of scaring other Facebookers away from activism, the arrest and publicity turned this meek Cairo clerk into a heroine. Members of the April 6 group began changing their profile picture to show the face of Abdel-Fattah, and (of course) launched another Facebook group calling for her release. Within days, that group had thousands of members. Abdel-Fattah became the symbol of a movement.

And then she was gone. After about two weeks in prison, she was released — and immediately made a brief public statement renouncing political activism. Sources say she was then married off and has since largely disappeared from the political scene. But what precisely happened to her — and to what degree her repentant statement represents her true beliefs — may never be known.

In the wake of the April 6 crackdowns, Maher watched as thousands of Facebook-using Egyptians left the group, and by extension the upstart movement. State security operatives had infiltrated the open network, sometimes brazenly so, using the golden eagle that appears on the Egyptian flag for their profile pictures. At other times, agents assumed aliases of fictional activists, trying to glean personal information about group members. A few times they even created accounts under the name Ahmed Maher. "They are easy enough to identify," Maher says. "When you look at their friends, it's practically an empty profile."

Ahmed Maher is a reluctant leader. He's hardly an orator. He's not very calculating, tending to trust people and blurt whatever is on his mind. He can be sloppy with the cloak-and-dagger stuff, like mentioning his location when talking on a mobile phone. And he doesn't bother with disguises. "He should grow something," a friend says. "Shave sometimes. Change the way he dresses."

But he has at least two things going for him: sincerity and bravery. "Maher is an example of a person who can make things happen on the Web," says Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. "He's a regular guy who became fed up with corruption and gained the courage to act against it."

Even before the smoke of April 6 cleared, Maher was planning another demonstration — target date May 4, Mubarak's 80th birthday. He and his friends tried to replicate what had happened in April, urging people to stay home from work, hang black flags outside their windows, boycott state-owned newspapers — do something.

But as public protests go, May 4 was a flop. Egyptians in the capital went on about their lives largely ignoring the call for a strike. Telcos were ordered to block services for all anonymous subscribers, which meant disabling the phones of most activists. And just before the planned event, Mubarak announced a salary increase for workers. (Days later, the government levied yet another price hike, canceling out any gains from the short-lived wage increase, but by then May 4 had passed.) The authorities had prevailed, and all that was left to do was take down the Facebook network.

Maher knew that security personnel would be looking for him and by May 7, he hadn't been home for days. In April, he'd sent his wife and baby to live with his in-laws. Since then, he had holed up in cybercafes and slept on friends' couches.

That morning he needed to go back to work. When he was almost there, he spotted a speeding Peugeot in his rearview mirror. A moment later, a minibus pulled up in front of him, filled with bald guys wearing sunglasses. They jumped out and quickly surrounded Maher's car. They pulled him out and took turns punching him. Then they shoved him into the van, blindfolded him, and tied his hands behind his back.

On April 6, demonstrators marched in Cairo.
Photograph: Getty Images: AP Photo

It was a rough night in custody. According to Maher, the agents stripped him, beat him, and dragged him on the floor. "So, you're the one acting like a leader and saying you don't care about state security," he remembers one of them telling him. Then they threatened him with "electricity" and rape. They wanted his Facebook password (but not, strangely, the accompanying email address required to log in). Early that morning, Maher finally gave the authorities a password, and they released him. This time, the officers said, they were letting him off easy.

In a twisted way, though, even the quashed demonstration of May 4 was a success, maybe more so because of Maher's arrest. For one thing, it illustrated how just a little digital organizing can trigger a resource-sucking counteroffensive from state security. After the non-news of May 4 and the ongoing manhunt for Maher, there has been talk of new censorship legislation. Rights groups say that the bill, if passed, will give a supreme monitoring authority power to arrest anyone involved in the dissemination of information — like starting a Facebook group. (Authorities in Syria have taken a far more direct approach by simply blocking access to Facebook.)

Government retaliation against the youth movement has also embarrassed the regime. Many Egyptian citizens are rooting for the idealistic Facebook kids, and the international media look favorably on their cause, or at least tend to portray the activists as David to the regime's Goliath: "fledgling rebellion on facebook is struck down by force in egypt" (The Washington Post), "crackdown on facebook activists" (Los Angeles Times blog), "egypt detains facebook activists — again" (The Christian Science Monitor), "egypt faces new media censorship" (Al Jazeera). Not exactly flattering headlines for one of America's best friends in the Middle East.

The April 6 demonstration in El-Mahalla El-Kobra turned into a violent clash with police.
Photograph: Joerg Klaus

July 24, 2008

Maher is on the run again in Alexandria, after the failed protest on the beach. He tries to mix things up, hopping into a store and switching between taxis and the city's rundown tramway. Believing he has finally ditched the agents, he texts a couple of activist friends for a meetup at an outdoor juice cart.

Within minutes state security officers descend on the group. Everyone scatters, and the cops let them flee — except Maher. They throw him facedown onto the pavement. They pinned Maher's arms and started kicking and hitting him.

Maher thinks back to his arrest in May. Agents let him go after he gave up the password — a fake one. Payback seems inevitable. In any case, he has a better plan in place this time: He has given one of his friends his password, with instructions to change it immediately if Maher is arrested. That way, even if Maher is broken by torture, he won't be able to give the authorities the information they need to take control of the April 6 network.

At a nearby police station, an officer makes a call to Cairo: "We have Ahmed Maher, sir." Soon Maher meets with prosecutors who lay out the charges: using Facebook to establish an illegal organization aiming to overthrow the regime and annul the constitution, funding and printing T-shirts that call for disruption of public peace, spreading rumors and tension to incite hatred of the government, gathering illegally, defaming the president and police, and disrupting traffic.

But Maher isn't tortured. No one can say why his treatment in custody is more lenient this time around. One possibility is that, lacking specific orders to beat or harm him, his captors in Alexandria just went easy.

There is another hypothesis, though, one that many people familiar with Egyptian politics have suggested: Maher's star has risen. His real-world profile is now high enough that torturing him could backfire, inspiring countless networked young people to take action. The last thing Hosni Mubarak needs is to turn this Facebooking regular guy into a full-fledged hero.