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Fledgling Rebellion on Facebook Is Struck Down by Force in Egypt

"Ninety-five percent of the members of the Facebook group have no previous political party -- we are not a political group," Maher said in a Cairo cafe two days before the planned May 4 protests. "Our main job is that the people have awareness of their rights and know how to break their handcuffs and remove their shackles."

Surmising that the government was watching their efforts, leaders created Facebook subgroups with innocuous names such as Eggplant and Cucumber.

Online, they swapped ideas and plotted strategy: They would ask people to stay home that Sunday, a workday here. The bravest would gather for protests, in sites to be announced via text messages. The less brave would be asked to wear black T-shirts or hang Egyptian flags on their doors or roofs. Organizers deleted any messages calling for violence.

Maher said many of the most committed were girls and young women. Israa Mustafa, an 18-year-old college sophomore in Cairo, had never taken part in a protest, joined a movement or voted. She joined the Facebook group at the start. Police briefly arrested her April 6. The arrest strengthened her, Mustafa said. "I realized what I was doing was only my legitimate right," she said.

The activists knew some of the challenges they faced: More than a quarter of Egypt's 80 million people are illiterate. Only 8 percent have access to the Internet.

To get the word out, the Facebook group encouraged its members to use spray paint and banners to advertise the strike. They wrote slogans on currency, choosing notes of the smallest denomination to better reach the poor.

On Friday, May 2, security forces tailed, then chased Maher, Mustafa and another young Facebook member through downtown Cairo, Maher and Mustafa said. Maher ducked into a shop to escape. Mustafa fled into Cairo's subway and a women-only carriage, where other women evicted security men trying to arrest her.

Maher went into hiding. He said goodbye to his 3-month-old daughter and his wife, who worried he would go to jail and lose his job.

Political veterans mocked the Facebook members for calling on people to stay home -- a passive people, they said, protesting by becoming more passive.

The government took actions of its own as May 4 approached. Authorities announced bonuses for the Mahalla textile workers and a 30 percent raise for civil servants, defusing some anger over rising prices.

Officials also ordered cellphone companies to block all text-messaging and voice services for anonymous subscribers. The government filed charges against a broadcaster that had distributed images of protesters tearing down Mubarak's portrait.

On May 4, Cairenes woke to new billboards in main squares. "Young people love Egypt," the signs said. "Serious people create, not destroy."


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