THE MASS protests that began against Egypt’s autocratic government five years ago this month were famously touched off by young people using Facebook and other social media. At that time, Facebook had 4.7 million members in Egypt; today it has some 26 million, more than 30 percent of the country’s population. No wonder that the latest authoritarian regime running the country is directing its repression at the Internet platform as the fifth anniversary of the revolution approaches.
Last week the government of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi shut down a Facebook service called Free Basics, which offered free Internet services to Egyptians on mobile phones. More than 3 million people had signed up for the program in just two months, including more than 1 million who were new to the Internet. That made Egypt’s the most successful of the 36 Free Basics services Facebook has launched in developing countries.
Why shutter an operation that was giving so many people, including in underserved rural areas, access to basic Internet services for the first time? The government claimed it was merely ending what was always intended as a two-month trial. Egyptian activists and media were quick to see through that claim. In fact, they observed, the regime appears to be worried about another popular uprising linked to the anniversary and is responding by closing down the new Facebook service and arresting activists.
Last Saturday, security forces arrested three people who among them administered 23 Facebook pages, according to Egyptian media reports. On Monday, the government ordered 15 days of detention for four activists from the April 6 youth movement, which organized the march of Jan. 25, 2011, that led to the overthrow of the government of Hosni Mubarak. Top leaders of April 6, including Ahmed Maher and Mohammed Adel, are already imprisoned on charges of violating a law banning protests.
In pursuing these tactics, the regime appears oblivious to the fact that the 2011 revolution was triggered by the Mubarak regime’s similar — if generally milder — repression of free speech and political activism. Last week, dozens of prominent Egyptians, including two former presidential candidates, issued a statement condemning the new repression that was posted, as it happens, on Facebook. “The Egyptian regime is deploying the same practices that led to the Jan. 25 glorious revolution,” it said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “Freedoms are seized, pluralism is barred and security authorities rule and control everything.”
According to the Tribune, more than 50,000 people have registered on another Facebook page titled “We’ll bring down autocracy on Jan. 25.” That prediction may or may not come true. But the Sissi regime, and its misguided defenders in the Obama administration and Congress, ought to realize that its attempts to strangle social media, free assembly and peaceful dissent are doomed to backfire.