Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 May 2008
Issue No. 895
Egypt
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Facing Facebook

Rumours abound that the government is considering closing down access to Facebook, the website that has become a favourite venue for Egypt's disaffected young. But what good will it do, asks Magda El-Ghitany

Following her release from detention on 23 April Esraa Abdel-Fattah, the founder of the Facebook group "6 April: A Nationwide Strike", told newspapers that she would henceforth avoid any form of "virtual activity".

"I have not heard about any coming strike nor do I want to hear about it," she said. Her uncle has told reporters that she no longer has a computer.

Abdel-Fattah's decision to avoid politics and reluctance to talk about her detention to the press -- Al-Ahram Weekly's attempts to contact her all failed -- comes as no surprise. Although she has reportedly said that she was "treated very well" she questions why she was detained in the first place. Having spent 16 days in prison, only to be unexpectedly released last week, it is only natural that she should be cautious about expressing any public opinions on political matters.

Abdel-Fattah was originally detained on 7 April for allegedly masterminding the 6 April strike and fuelling people's intentions to peacefully protest against rising food prices. Two days later Prosecutor-General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud announced that Abdel-Fattah would be released.

The announcement was overruled by the Interior Ministry and instead of Mahmoud's decision being implemented Abdel-Fattah disappeared for 16 days. Her horrified mother then published a paid statement on 21 April in the daily Al-Masry Al-Yom appealing "from the heart of a mother" to the "heart of President Hosni Mubarak, Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, and Interior Minister Habib El-Adli," to set her daughter free. In response, perhaps, El-Adli issued an order to release Abdel-Fattah. Her detention received heavy coverage in the media and consolidated her image as a popular hero among young Egyptians.

Detention is only one card the state can play in dealing with virtual protesters. There is an ongoing debate over whether the regime intends to block, or at least strictly monitor, the Facebook pages that have become a tool in the political mobilisation of Egypt's disaffected young. Observers approached by the Weekly believe such a security-oriented step is not only destined to fail but may have drastic repercussions.

"It is unwise, not to say impossible, to deal with Egypt's virtual community with the same security-oriented mindset the state uses in confronting on-the-ground challenges," says Amr Elshobaki of Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic and Political Studies". From a purely practical point of view, Elshobaki points out, shutting Facebook will have little impact since "the pages that are closed can easily be re-loaded on other sites."

Technology, says political analyst Nabil Abdel-Fattah, has provided young people with spaces that transcend the barriers that nation-states might want to impose. "There are hundreds of websites that bloggers have created so that their voices can be heard loud and clear."

Nabil Abdel-Fattah believes any attempt to block Facebook will only indicate the state's weakness and inability to confront the digital era in which we all now live. "It is as if the state can come up with nothing but old policies in facing new, revolutionary techniques. This is very unwise and will never work."

Instead of dreaming about controlling cyber space, which is impossible, they argue that the state would better spend its time considering the reasons that made what was conceived as a social utility a venue for political mobilisation in the first place. Facebook, points out Elshobaki, is popular the world over. Only in Egypt, he says, has it been so politicised, one reason being that while other countries have a variety of venues for socio- political expression, including political parties and NGOs, in Egypt this is not the case. "Young people have deserted a reality in which they knew they can change nothing and directed their efforts instead towards this virtual environment." If the state deprives them of even this form of expression then they will look to release their anger elsewhere. "They may," he concludes, "turn to violence."

That Esraa herself has been deterred by the security-oriented mentality does not, argues Nabil Abdel-Fattah, suggest that that strategy will be successful in other cases. There are "hundreds of other young Egyptians who will replace Esraa and use cyber space to express their socio- political demands; no censorship or deterrence strategies can stop them."

A day before Esraa was released, Bilal Diab, a Cairo University student, interrupted a speech delivered by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif on the Internet as a tool of communication. "Prime Minister," Diab told Nazif, "release all 6 April detainees... they are the same young people who used the Internet to express their opinions..."

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