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The dangers of online political activism in Egypt

22 May, 2008
By Allison Orr

In Egypt, Facebook is evolving into a tool for political dissent, with activists recently using the social networking site to organise a nationwide strike to coincide with President Hisni Mubarak’s 80th birthday.  The Facebook group, which had 74,000 members, called for people to stay home on May 4 and boycott all commodities, even basic food items.

The call found little response and traffic was as heavy as usual, however, it seems that the Egyptian government is seeing Internet-organised political activity as a challenge.  According to an article in the Wall Street journal officers from the Interior Ministry browse Facebook to keep an eye on political activity.  While some people see Facebook and the Internet as offering alternatives for activists in a country were government restrictions weaken other forms of political action, it’s clear that it’s not always a safe alternative.

Ahmed Maher-Ibrahim, a 27 year old civil engineer, was detained and beaten for using Facebook to support the May 4 strike.  Maher told Human Rights Watch that he was apprehended on the street in Cairo, blindfolded, taken to a police station where he was stripped naken and beaten for 12 hours.  He was later released without charge.  While at the police station, he was asked for the password of the Facebook group and about the other members of the group.

The previous month, authorities arrested and detained for two weeks Esraa Abdel Fattah for setting up a Facebook group to promote a strike in early April.  The strike that month was unsuccessful due to government warnings and heavy security.

Broad based online activism is limited in Egypt as Internet penetration is only 7.5 per cent.

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