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[liberationtech] NYT: Revolution, Facebook-Style -- Delete if not interested

Yosem Companys companys at stanford.edu
Sun Jan 25 16:58:26 PST 2009


http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/magazine/25bloggers-t.html?_r=1&ref=technology&pagewanted=all


January 25, 2009
 Revolution, Facebook-Style By SAMANTHA M. SHAPIRO

Only a few hours after
Israel<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/israel/index.html?inline=nyt-geo>'s
first air strike against
Hamas<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/h/hamas/index.html?inline=nyt-org>positions
in the Gaza
Strip<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/gaza_strip/index.html?inline=nyt-geo>late
last month, more than 2,000 protesters marched through the streets of
downtown Cairo, carrying
Palestinian<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/p/palestinians/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier>flags.
This began what would become weeks of protests, in which thousands of
Egyptians of all different political leanings gathered in
Egypt<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/egypt/index.html?inline=nyt-geo>'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<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/m/hosni_mubarak/index.html?inline=nyt-per>.
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<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/business/companies/facebook_inc/index.html?inline=nyt-org>,
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."

Ahmed Maher, a 28-year-old engineer who is one of the group's unofficial
leaders, weighed in. "There are ideas about a big protest for Gaza right
now," he wrote. The April 6 group should join that protest, he agreed, but
"we should link it to our demands, which are of course different from other
peoples' demands, like those of the brotherhood." It was a crucial point:
unlike many protest groups in Egypt that were angry about Gaza, Maher saw
Gaza as a way to stoke and focus discontent against Mubarak and his
government. Maher saw Egypt's relationship with Israel as one symptom of a
larger set of problems — censorship, corruption, joblessness and government
incompetence — whose solution would lie not in resistance in Gaza but in
democratization at home. "We should link politics with economic and social
problems to show that our suffering is caused by a corrupt regime," Maher
wrote.

The fact that tens of thousands of disaffected young Egyptians unhappy with
their government meet online to debate and plan events is remarkable, given
the context of political repression in which it is occurring. Organized
groups opposed to Mubarak's National Democratic Party have long lived under
constant surveillance by the government; their leaders are regularly jailed.
As a result, most Egyptian opposition groups remain small and are often
plagued by infighting. And although about a third of Egypt's population is
between 15 and 29, young Egyptians have for years been politically
disengaged. A 2004 study by the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic
Studies found that 67 percent of young people weren't registered to vote,
and 84 percent had never participated in a public demonstration.

In its official statement, the April 6 movement takes pains to emphasize
that it isn't a political party. But the movement has provided a structure
for a new generation of Egyptians, who aren't part of the nation's small
coterie of activists and opinion-makers, to assemble virtually and
communicate freely about their grievances. When I spoke earlier this month
to Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown
University<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/g/georgetown_university/index.html?inline=nyt-org>,
he said that it was no surprise that young Egyptians have chosen to put
their political energy into a group that is not part of the Egyptian
political process. "The state of the opposition in Egypt is so pathetic that
existing parties have lost all credibility," he told me. "They've been
around for a long time and produced nothing." The April 6 Facebook group, he
said, "has credibility because it hasn't sold out to the regime or played
the pathetic, limited game of politics the regime engages in."

ON A THURSDAY AFTERNOON last fall, I made my way to a Cinnabon cafe in Nasr
City, a well-to-do district of Cairo, to meet with one of the founders of
the April 6 Facebook group, a 30-year-old woman named Esraa Abdel Fattah
Ahmed Rashid, who works as a training coordinator for a company that makes
Islamic DVDs. The Cinnabon was subdued: a few pairs of young women and one
or two married couples were scattered around the seating area with open
laptops and frothy, sweet drinks. Sean Paul's "Temperature" played at a
tasteful volume, low enough that the dance-hall lyrics about "the right
tactics to turn you on" were nearly indecipherable. Rashid was wearing a
meticulously coordinated outfit: brown pants, sandals, T-shirt, eyeliner and
a baby blue tunic with overlapping light blue and brown head scarves.

Rashid has a round face, a high-pitched voice and a plucky sense of
determination — Reese
Witherspoon<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/w/reese_witherspoon/index.html?inline=nyt-per>in
a hijab. Her husband works in Dubai most of the year, and while he is
away, she lives with her mother. She originally joined Facebook to keep up
with friends; she joined groups for fans of the Egyptian singer Mohammed
Mounir and the national soccer team, another for discussions of the Koran
and others that offered updates on the latest styles in pajamas and modest
wedding dresses. But her relationship with Facebook evolved in ways she
could not have predicted. Last spring, the general strike that Rashid and
her friends organized on Facebook landed her in jail, on talk shows and in
newspapers around Egypt and abroad. She was now widely known around Egypt —
even by people who didn't use the Internet — as the Facebook Girl, and she
told me that she was logged into the site pretty much any time she wasn't
working or sleeping. (Like most of the Internet activists I met in Egypt,
Rashid spoke little English, and we communicated mostly through an
interpreter.)

The April 6 movement has its roots in Egypt's brief burst of political
freedom in 2005 and 2006, which came after the Bush administration put
pressure on the Mubarak regime to hold its first multiparty election.
Although the election was far from free, it created new opportunities for
activists to organize and demonstrate, and out of the campaign a loose
coalition of socialist, leftist and Islamist groups emerged called Kefaya
("enough" in Arabic). They focused on direct action and rarely discussed
ideology, but they were united on one issue: that Hosni Mubarak should not
be allowed to transfer power to his son Gamal. Kefaya organized street
protests to pressure Mubarak to step down, hold free elections and allow the
Egyptian judiciary to remain independent. Some demonstrations attracted as
many as 10,000 people.

This flare-up of political activity coincided with the moment Egyptians were
starting to gain access to the Internet in large numbers. Home computers and
Internet cafes were becoming more popular, and the cost of getting online
was dropping, thanks to a government initiative intended to encourage
technological innovation in Egypt. The new technologies and political
movements grew symbiotically. Shortly before Kefaya started, Wael Abbas, who
is now one of Egypt's most influential bloggers, set up a Web site called
Egyptian Awareness, and it quickly became the main source of information on
Kefaya's activities, which were largely ignored by the state-run media.

Abbas and a few other early adopters of blog technology worked
simultaneously as political advocates and crusading journalists. In 2006,
Abbas posted cellphone-video footage of a police officer sodomizing a
screaming minibus driver with an iron rod, which ultimately led to the
officer's conviction. Another prominent blogger and friend of Abbas's, a
woman in her early 30s named Nora Younis, posted stories about sexual
harassment of women who participated in street demonstrations, which helped
spur Egypt's mainstream media to cover the issue. (Younis worked briefly for
The New York Times as a stringer.) Political blogs became essential reading
for opposition parties; in 2005, Al Dustur, a weekly paper opposed to the
regime, started a blog page, which reprinted important posts for readers
without Internet access.

During the 2005 election campaign, Esraa Rashid started volunteering at the
headquarters of El Ghad, a liberal democratic party that was founded in 2004
by Ayman Nour, a wealthy lawyer and member of Parliament. Nour came in
second in the election, behind Mubarak, with 7 percent of the vote; he is
currently in jail for forgery charges that his supporters insist are bogus.
Rashid told me that she loved working at the Ghad office, but she and some
of her friends in the youth wing grew impatient with the party bureaucracy.
Like most political parties in Egypt, El Ghad has a strict hierarchy, and
before deciding to stage an event, the leaders would carefully weigh a
number of factors, including internal office politics and their current
standing with the Mubarak regime. Members of the youth wing, Rashid told me,
didn't have much say in that process, or much interest in the endless
deliberations. So she and some friends turned to Facebook as a quicker,
easier way to plan their own events and protests. Rashid's first foray into
using Facebook for organizing was to coordinate a small demonstration around
the opening of a movie about corruption and torture called "Heya Fawda" or
"This Is Chaos." Rashid invited all her friends on Facebook to the event;
they invited more friends; and in the end, about 100 people showed up. To
Rashid, the event was a huge success; exhilarated, she and friends from El
Ghad planned a few more events the same way.

THEN LAST MARCH, Rashid got a text message on her phone from Maher, the
28-year-old engineer and activist, suggesting that young Egyptians should do
something to support the workers in Mahalla al-Kobra, an industrial town,
who were planning to strike on April 6. For more than a year, workers around
Egypt had been striking, periodically, to protest high rates of inflation
and unemployment, but they never coordinated their protests. Rashid and
Maher met when they were both part of the Ghad youth wing, but Maher had
left the party to devote himself more fully to the youth movement of Kefaya.
Unlike Rashid, he had been active in street protests and had been arrested.
Rashid loved the idea of doing something to support the workers, and she
called Maher immediately. She suggested they create an open group on
Facebook to brainstorm ideas. On March 23, Rashid set up the April 6 Strike
group on Facebook with herself and Maher as administrators.

Rashid expected this protest would develop more or less like her movie
outing. But almost as soon as she set up the group, there were 16 members;
when she refreshed the page a few minutes later, there were more than 60.
The next day, more than 1,000. Rashid watched with fear and excitement as
thousands of people, then tens of thousands, started joining and posting to
the group. Eventually, the number reached 76,000. As the group's
administrators, she and Maher could approve messages as they were posted,
and it was their responsibility to delete spam or inappropriate posts; the
two took turns monitoring the site day and night.

The group never developed a unified plan of action for April 6. Rashid
initially proposed that people stay home and not buy anything in solidarity
with the workers — unless they weren't afraid of protesting, in which case
they should take to the streets. One girl suggested that everyone who
protested on the street should give flowers to the security forces to disarm
them, an idea Rashid supported. Maher started sending so many messages to
the group that Facebook canceled his account; the site's automated filters
presumed him to be a spammer. That left Rashid as the group's sole
administrator. As the April 6 group grew, its call for a strike was endorsed
by a variety of groups — political parties, labor groups, the Muslim
Brotherhood, student organizations, the Kefaya movement. On the streets,
supporters handed out leaflets and sprayed graffiti to make non-Internet
users aware of the action.

Members who identified themselves as government security agents joined the
April 6 group, too, posting comments under the insignia of the Egyptian
police, and as April 6 approached, the government issued a strong warning
against participation in the strike. Rashid told me that she was scared to
go out on the street that day. She would have stayed home, she said, but she
felt she owed it to all the people she'd been communicating with to come
out. She posted her plans on Facebook; on the day of the strike, she said,
she'd meet people at the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Tahrir Square downtown.
She told people what she'd be wearing and gave out her cellphone number.

On April 6 in Mahalla, thousands of workers rioted, tearing down a Mubarak
billboard. There were many arrests and at least three deaths. When Rashid
headed out toward Tahrir Square, she was shocked to see police and military
vehicles blocking off streets; soldiers and police officers, it seemed, were
everywhere. As Rashid approached the Kentucky Fried Chicken, she found it
was surrounded by police. She called some friends and told them to meet her
at a nearby cafe to decide what to do next. Police swept in and arrested
Rashid at the cafe; they took her to jail, where she stayed for more than
two weeks.

Rashid was not prepared for a jail term. She had never been away from her
mother for even a day without checking in, and although her mother knew she
did clerical work for El Ghad, she had no idea that Rashid had been involved
in organizing a general strike. Rashid's mother was beside herself, and she
appeared on TV, begging the authorities to release her daughter.

While Rashid was in prison, members of the April 6 Strike Facebook group
replaced their profile pictures with an image of Rashid with the words "Free
Esraa!" printed below. And when Egypt's prime minister, Ahmed Nazif, came to
speak at Cairo University about the government's technology initiatives, a
20-year-old member of the April 6 group named Blal Diab stood up and heckled
him, urging him to free Rashid and other jailed activists from the April 6
movement. "They are the same young people who used the Internet to express
their opinions!" he yelled, to thunderous applause. (One of Diab's friends
captured the whole thing on his cellphone, and the video was shared widely
over YouTube and on blogs.)

Rashid's release from prison was shown on live television, and it was quite
a show. She ran out the door of the jail into her mother's arms, wailing. An
unbelievable amount of screaming and crying ensued. Rashid's mother tilted
her face to the sky and issued a continuous stream of praise and thanks to
Allah. Rashid said, tearfully, that she didn't expect that posting on the
Internet would get her sent to jail, and that if she'd known what would
happen, she wouldn't have done it. "They treated me well!" she sobbed. "They
let me remain a girl. I missed you, Mom. I prayed to God every day."

When Rashid started playing the video on her laptop for me, she had to get
up and walk away. Watching it still makes her cry.

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN, a research fellow at
Harvard<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/h/harvard_university/index.html?inline=nyt-org>'s
Berkman Center for Internet and Society, told me that the April 6 movement
illustrates what he calls the "cute-cat theory of digital activism." Web
sites or proxy servers created specifically for activists are easy for a
government to shut down, Zuckerman says, but around the world, dissidents
thrive on sites, like Facebook, that are used primarily for more mundane
purposes (like exchanging pictures of cute cats). Authoritarian regimes
can't block political Facebook groups without blocking all the "American
Idol"<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/a/american_idol/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier>fans
and cat lovers as well. "The government can't simply shut down
Facebook, because doing so would alert a large group of people who they
can't afford to radicalize," Zuckerman explained.

When I spoke to Wael Nawara, a 47-year-old Ghad activist who is a co-founder
of the party, he explained why, for him, getting on Facebook was such a big
eye-opener. If you look at Egyptian politics on the surface, he said, you
might think that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only alternative to the
Mubarak regime. But "Facebook revealed a liberal undercurrent in Egyptian
society," Nawara said. "In general, there's this kind of apathy, a sense
that there is nothing we can do to change the situation. But with Facebook
you realize there are others who think alike and share the same ideals. You
can find Islamists there, but it is really dominated by liberal voices."

Interestingly, young Islamists in Egypt have also started blogging in ways
that challenge their elders, often posting critical comments about the
senior leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the past, this kind of
internal dialogue was suppressed by the brotherhood's leadership, or at
least hidden from view, since the brotherhood's newspapers were outlawed.
But the official leaders of the brotherhood and younger malcontents have
both found a happy home on the Internet. Abdel Monem Mahmoud, one of the
most prominent young Muslim Brotherhood bloggers, recently wrote a scathing
critique of an article by a brotherhood leader arguing that all politicians
must be devoted Muslims. And when the brotherhood circulated a draft of a
political platform — the first step toward becoming an official political
party — a 28-year-old brotherhood member named Mustafa Naggar used his blog
to publish critiques of the platform's prohibition against electing women or
Coptic Christians to the presidency.

A somewhat-grudging alliance has developed among some of the young Islamist
bloggers and their secular-liberal compatriots over issues of free speech
and the rights of opposition parties. I met Naggar one afternoon in a Cairo
coffee shop just after he had recited the midday prayer. He told me Wael
Abbas and Nora Younis's blogs are required reading for him; he visits them
every day to stay current, although, he said, it really bothers him that
Abbas often uses curse words in his posts. When I spoke to Asmaa Aly, a
feminist blogger, she said that she was put off by the practice of many
brotherhood members never to touch women other than their wives. "I could
never be friends with someone who won't shake my hand!" she said
emphatically. But she added that if a brotherhood blogger was jailed, she
would definitely show up for a protest.

In Washington, there is increasing interest in the April 6 Youth Movement.
James Glassman, the outgoing under secretary of state for public diplomacy,
told me he followed the group closely. "It's not easy in Egypt, and in other
countries in the Middle East, to form robust civil-society organizations,"
he said. "And in a way that's what these groups are doing, although they're
certainly unconventional."

Other State Department officials told me they believe that social-networking
software like Facebook's has the potential to become a powerful
pro-democracy tool. They pointed to recent developments in Saudi Arabia,
where in November a Facebook group helped organize a national hunger strike
against the kingdom's imprisonment of political opponents, and in Colombia,
where activists last February used Facebook to organize one of the largest
protests ever held in that country, a nationwide series of demonstrations
against the FARC<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/r/revolutionary_armed_forces_of_colombia/index.html?inline=nyt-org>insurgency.
Not long ago, the State Department created its own group on
Facebook called "Alliance of Youth Movements," a coalition of groups from a
dozen countries who use Facebook for political organizing. Last month, they
brought an international collection of young online political activists,
including one from the April 6 group, as well as Facebook executives and
representatives from Google and
MTV<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/business/companies/mtv_networks/index.html?inline=nyt-org>,
to New York for a three-day conference.

IN RECENT MONTHS, Ahmed Maher has edged Rashid out of the leadership role
they initially shared. When she was in jail, Rashid gave Maher the password
to be the administrator of the April 6 Facebook group. He changed it, and
ever since, he has declined to tell her the new password. Soon after Rashid
was released from jail, she was married and left for her honeymoon. In May,
Maher says, state-security officers picked him up and beat him
intermittently for 12 hours to try to get him to give up the password for
the Facebook group. Abbas posted pictures of Maher's bruised back on his
blog, and an opposition newspaper printed Maher's account of the incident.
Maher and other April 6 members set up a variety of steering groups for the
movement, each of which is also on Facebook; using the wall, steering-group
members discuss and vote on the direction the movement should go next. The
new steering groups are not open to everyone, as the original group is, and
Rashid has not been invited to join.

Some Egyptian bloggers and activists told me they resented Rashid's
emotional display when she was released from jail — particularly the fact
that she said she wouldn't have organized the protest if she'd known she
would be arrested for it. (Rashid later recanted that apology at a meeting
of the April 6 group; she quoted a lyric from a Mohammed Mounir song: "I
didn't need to repent; loving Egypt is not a sin.") Abbas told me that other
female activists, including the blogger Asmaa Aly, had been arrested before
— Aly spent a month in jail in 2006 for participating in a Kefaya-organized
sit-in for judicial independence — and when they were released, they didn't
cry or apologize.

"What the hell was she saying?" Abbas asked, referring to Rashid's televised
apology. "The girl is chicken. I am sorry to say stuff like that, but people
are going to think that everyone who is active online is chicken like her.
We are in the streets taking videos and photos. We aren't only sitting in
our bedroom in our pajamas." (Once, looking at Rashid's Facebook profile
with her, I pointed out that Facebook's software had included Wael Abbas on
her page, under a tab labeled "People You May Know." Rashid looked at his
picture and shook her head. "We will not be friends," she said firmly.)

Ahmed Maher and a number of his friends in the activist-blogger community
spoke with respect about what Rashid had accomplished, but they agreed with
Abbas that she didn't have the right stuff to run the movement. Some
activists working with Maher questioned her lack of experience and said it
wouldn't be appropriate for a woman to lead the group, given that the
government had tortured Ahmed Maher and sent Rashid to prison once already.

Rashid says she is not happy about any of this. When she and I met in early
October, she said that a month earlier, at the beginning of
Ramadan<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/r/ramadan/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier>,
she told Maher he had until the end of the holiday to give her back the
password. Now Ramadan had just ended. "The longer he takes, the more
forceful my response will be," she said fiercely.

It was in many ways the unideological, unedited voice that Rashid
represented — someone who described herself as "a girl who loves Egypt" and
who thought giving flowers to the police might be a good idea — that
attracted people to the April 6 movement in such numbers. Young people were
drawn to the fact that the movement wasn't part of Egypt's calcified party
politics. ("I am involved in no parties, never," one teenage boy told me at
a protest. "I just go to Facebook events, wherever they are. I'm in the
Facebook Party.") But for April 6 to keep growing, some say, that may have
to change. As Amr Hamzawy, an Egyptian political scientist who is currently
a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told
me: "Just saying you are against Mubarak automatically gets a certain number
of people behind you, but it's not enough. Kefaya wasn't capable and ready
for the next step. They needed to put forth a positive platform as well as a
critique of Mubarak in order to move beyond the base of elites in Cairo.
April 6 will have to do this. It will have to become more organized in order
to succeed where Kefaya failed."

THE APRIL 6 STRIKE was a success partly because it had its roots offline,
among a cohesive, organized group of laborers; their protest was then vastly
amplified by the Facebook activists. A number of the events created last
summer and fall by the April 6 Youth Movement did not succeed in the same
way. Protests were typically attended by only a few dozen of the group's
supporters and often shut down by the police before they even began. Back in
July, Maher tried to organize a "flash mob" on the beach in Alexandria that
would sing patriotic songs and fly a kite with the Egyptian flag painted on
it. But on the day of the protest, Maher and his crew of about 30 young
people were stopped by the police before they were even able to finish
unfurling their kite.

This month, as the university exam period began to cut into members' free
time, the group's involvement in Gaza protests seemed to diminish. The
decline in turnout led to a flurry of accusations, reflections and
recriminations on Facebook. On Jan. 10, a young woman named Asmaa Mahfouz
posted an angry screed on the April 6 site titled, "Are you all fed up, or
what?" She accused members of opting out of protests because they thought
things couldn't change, no matter how many strikes and demonstrations were
organized. "Is this a reasonable way of thinking???!!!" she wrote,
punctuation marks flying. "Is it reasonable???? No, no, no, nooooo,
absolutely not!"

A young man named Mahmoud Dahshan Ahmed replied that he thought the group
needed to coordinate with the Muslim Brotherhood if they were to have an
impact. "Frankly, I am fed up," he wrote. "What is the point of us
demonstrating and marching from noon till 6 p.m., when nothing ever
changes?"

By organizing online, the April 6 movement avoids some of the pitfalls of
party politics in Egypt — censorship, bureaucracy, compromise with the
regime. But whenever the movement's members try to migrate offline, they
find they are still playing by Egypt's rules. They almost never meet in real
life, certainly not in large groups, and when they do, the police often show
up.

Online, members of the movement are casting votes on the Web site's walls,
publishing notes with their views on the political situation and creating
groups to draft a constitution for their movement. But what does it mean to
have a vibrant civil society on your computer screen and a police state in
the street? When I spoke to Nora Younis, she described the April 6 strike as
a practice session for the new generation. "It's a rehearsal for a bigger
thing," she said. "Right now, we are just testing the power of each other."

Samantha M. Shapiro is a contributing writer who frequently reports for the
magazine from the Middle East.
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