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.
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.
"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."Bitter Outcome
At 2 p.m. that day, cars clogged Cairo's busiest streets. There were no signs of a popular strike. Maher, cruising the capital in a car, took a call from his wife, who was increasingly distraught over the dangers of his activism.
She had taken the baby and gone to her parents, she told him. Maher, in a black T-shirt and sunglasses shoved up on his shaved head, stared at his phone after the call. "All this for nothing," he said.
In front of Cairo's main scene of recent protests, security forces stood guard. A few young men in black T-shirts handed out pamphlets. Some women chanted in an area ringed by police and State Security agents. When two young men walked up to join the women, police pushed them away.
Elsewhere in the city, some heeded the call to strike.
Poor people, even more than the middle class, knew what the strike was about, Hibba Imam, 22, said in the decayed and crowded quarter of Imbaba. "The connected people, they don't feel the suffering. They don't see the bread lines," she said, adding that she had stayed indoors until Sunday afternoon. Imam had heard of Facebook, she said. Many others in the neighborhood said they never had.
By late afternoon, of the 74,000 people who had registered on the Facebook protest page, only 15 -- three men and 12 women -- were still eager to gather for a protest. Maher was not one of them.
"What should I do?" Mustafa asked Maher by cellphone after police forced her back from the main protest area. "Go home," Maher told her.
"By the end of the day, I was sobbing," Mustafa said later. Bitter, she deleted herself from the Facebook group. After a few hours, she signed back up.
The next day, Monday, May 5, the government stunned Egyptians by increasing fuel prices more than 40 percent.
That Wednesday, police arrested Maher as he tried to return to his empty home for the first time in days. Police and then State Security forces beat him from 1 p.m. Wednesday until 3 a.m. Thursday, stripping him naked, slapping him, dragging him across the floor tied to a rope and threatening to rape him, Maher said. They demanded passwords to the Facebook groups, although the groups do not require passwords, and the real names of those who had registered, he said.
Maher was released with bruises and one ear deafened by blows. "This time we were just tugging on your ear," Maher quoted a State Security official telling him. "Next time it will be serious."
Special correspondent Nora Younis contributed to this report.