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Fledgling Rebellion on Facebook Is Struck Down by Force in Egypt

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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 18, 2008

CAIRO -- At 1:49 a.m. in an Internet cafe only then quieting after Cairo's daily rumble, 27-year-old Ahmed Maher worked at a computer. He wore the same shirt he had had on for two days. The essentials of his life on the run lay splayed out next to his keyboard -- car keys, cigarettes, prepaid cellphone.

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Maher pursed his lips, typing intently. His dream of a people's uprising organized on Facebook was beginning to slip through his scrabbling fingers.

Worries about the risks of political activism in Egypt were spilling onto his screen. It won't work, one man wrote. The government's already infiltrated us, wrote another. This is stupid, wrote a third.

Since late March, 74,000 people had registered on a Facebook page created and run by Maher and a few other young Egyptians, most of them newcomers to activism. Even some of Egypt's older, more disillusioned proponents of democracy had let themselves hope that a social networking Web site created by American college students could become an electronic rallying point for protest against President Hosni Mubarak's 27-year rule.

But the experience of the Facebook activists showed the limits of technology as a means of organizing dissent against a repressive government. Maher would end up among what rights groups said were 500 Egyptians arrested during two months of political activism in Egypt -- and find himself stripped and beaten in a Cairo police station, he said.

In the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, May 4, the day of a planned strike, the failure of his Facebook movement was only just becoming clear. Maher and other organizers worked to prop up the spirits of their supporters. We've got to do something, Maher insisted online.

At 7 a.m., he leaned back and let himself close his eyes for the first time that night. Opening them again an hour later, he saw a message saying his account had been shut down. He had sent so many messages, Facebook suspected him of spamming.

Strategizing Online

Israa Abdel Fattah, a 27-year-old human resources administrator with no political experience, launched the online movement with Maher, sending out an open invitation to join an April 6 strike against Egypt's rising food prices.

When the strike overlapped with a textile workers' walkout over low wages and soaring prices, the result was one of the most dramatic political protests in Egypt in years.

In the city of El Mahalla el Kubra, two hours from Cairo, security forces battled civilians, killing at least two people and injuring dozens. Many in Egypt gasped at scenes of protesters toppling a giant billboard of Mubarak, wondering if it marked a turning point.

Security forces around the country arrested hundreds, including Abdel Fattah, who had become known as "Facebook Girl" after she co-founded the April 6 group. She came out of jail swearing off activism.

Maher took over for the May 4 strike, called to mark Mubarak's 80th birthday.


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