Autocracy Meets Facebook, Or How The Internets Ate Egypt

by Tommy Brown

Egypt has been one of America’s staunchest allies since we wooed them away from the Soviets after the disaster that was the Yom Kippur War. The billions in aid we give them ensure their gratitude. The country is theoretically a democracy of some sort, but in reality it is a brutal military government that brooks no political dissent or opposition parties, especially concerning their current maximum leader, Hosni Mubarak.

The secular pan-Arab movement was first created in Egypt, under the watchful eye of original gangster Gamal Abdel Nasser, and spread across the Middle East throughout the Fifties and Sixties. Its utter failure as a political system, following two crushing defeats by Israel and the Camp David Accords, is one of the key reasons political Islamists have enjoyed such resurgence in the last three decades. Along with Syria, it is one of the last countries to still govern by what is generally considered a failed ideology.

But things are changing, thanks to the spread of internet social networking, as pointed out by this New York Times article:

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.

So, through the magic of the interwebs, your activist Egyptian youngster can now criticize the Mubarak government (or the Israelis or Hamas) without being hauled away by the Mukhabarat in the middle of the night. This is undoubtedly a positive development, as there seems to be a genuine thirst for real democracy in the country. In fact, Hosni Mubarak was worried enough to pull a head-fake of massive proportions in 2005, when he agreed to allow a real election with actual opposition parties; then, when the dissenters came out of the woodwork, he had them jailed, exiled or disappeared.

Now, the downside: The best-organized resistance to the Mubarak junta is the Ikwhan al Muslimun, the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical Islamist organization that plays Sinn Fein to Al Qaeda’s and Hamas’ IRA. Any loosening of the brutal Egyptian regime would likely lead to large political gains for the Ikwhan and people who want an Islamic government in general. Thus, Mubarak uses the same “devil you know” argument with America employed by Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf: I might be bad, and repressive, but take me out of power and the Islamists will be running the country tomorrow.

A Facebook-organized democratic resistance to the Egyptian government is already coalescing. The trick is, how do you promote the people who want pluralistic democracy while restraining the groups that want to install a Saudi-style theocracy?<–>

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