The Facebook trigger to Egypt’s revolution

Posted on February 4, 2011


Edited copy from Eva Haroun

Virtually nobody trusted or listened to them, the educated Egyptian youth who were angry at the corruption and nepotism of an authoritarian state. Even after April 2008 when young men and women in their thousands joined a Facebook group that became the major platform for debate about the state of Egypt, the security forces saw this as having little more than annoyance value.

Yet it was this group, started by two young activists, Ahmed Maher and Ahmed Salah, that morphed into the April 6 movement that triggered the popular rebellion that now convulses the country.  It was started as an internet group to support workers who intended to strike on April 6, 2008 and took its name from the day.

As members — most are between the ages of 16 and 30 — signed up and the strike went ahead, Twitter Flickr provided regular updates and photographs of the workers and police action against them.  As early as May 2008, the police tried to shut down what quickly became a platform for debate about political,  economic and social transformation.

April 6 Facebook members were harrassed and several detained for various periods.  But on the security front, the police were more concerned with formal political organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood;  they — and, it seems everybody else — failed to see that the best organised political opposition group in the country was in the process formation.

Just how widespread and organised it had become was evident on January 25, the first day of the uprising when a call from what is now generally being called the April 6 Youth Movement brought tens of thousands of Egyptians onto the streets of the country. From Cairo to Alexandria, from Suez to Mansoura and as far afield as Sohag and Aswan in Upper Egypt, people rallied for what the Facebook group called the Day of Rage.

The order of the day on the streets, duly posted in the internet, was:  “No to violence; Stick together; Bring the people to join you.”  What soon became evident as thousands of people took to the streets, was that it was April 6 members who were providing guidance and advice.  They also established media groups to film the events and to post them on the internet.   Medical and legal aid centres to assist those injured or arrested were also in evidence.

But although they they thought there would be a big turnout on January 25, even April 6 members, interviewed in Cairo, did not themselves expect a response that, within days, saw President Hosni Mubarak desperately trying to save his regime by dismissing his entire cabinet.  The response from the street was:  “Leave Us! Leave Us! Go to hell and don’t come back.”
This was the culmination of pressure on the regime that the young internet activists had started exerting in the months before the November 2010 elections. At least two of April 6 members went to Serbia and to be trained by Otpor Canvas, the non-violent direct action group that played a leading role in the protests that brought down the Milosovich regime.

Back from Serbia, they trained other April 6 members and activists in Serbian Otpor style civil disobedience.  Already, by the end of 2009, the Facebook group had more than 70 000 members in a country where 20 million citizens are estimated to have internet access.

After most direct action training sessions, the activists watched and analysed The Battle in Seattle, the film about the mass protest in Seattle, Washington, in 1999 against the World Trade Organisation ministerial conference.  According to several young people who attended these training sessions, debate centred on how to avoid initially orderly and peaceful protest turning into violent confrontation and anarchy.

If and when the time came for taking to the streets, hopefully in huge numbers, April 6 members and supporters wanted to be ready for any eventuality.  In the meantime, agitation moved beyond the internet and onto the streets in the run-up to the recent election, now regarded as the most farcical of any held in Egypt.

Following discussions on Facebook, members of April 6 issued pamphlets about the invariably fraudulent poll.  They also stressed that parliament worked, not for the benefit the people of Egypt, but for a small elite.

In October last year, on the eve of the election, there was evidence that, in less than three years, April 6 had become a force to be reckoned with.  The group called for demonstrations in the major Egyptian cities to protest at the death of a young student, Khaled Said and several thousand demonstrators protested mainly in Cairo and Alexandria.

They supported another, largely internet rallied, group named after Khalid Said, who was beaten and killed by plainclothes police in June last year.  They attacked him in front of terrified patrons in an internet cafe in Alexandria and he died after the police smashed his head onto a marble table top.

Apparently emboldened by the support for the Khalid Said demonstrations, April 6 and others operating blogs, called for a boycott of the November election.  There was a massive stay-away, but this was, at least in part, a result of the apathy that has been evident in successive polls.

But then came Tunisia — and a massive shot in the arm for  the by then, more than 100 000 members of April 6.  Encouraged by the by then substantial core of trained non-violent direct action members, the Day of Rage was announced.  What has happened since then has taken on a life of its own, although, throughout this past week and certainly in Cairo, April 6 organisation has been very much to the forefront.

However, the major unifying factor in what is clearly a revolutionary tide, is the removal of Mubarak and his cronies and a move toward free and fair elections.  There is no clearly defined and agreed upon politial or economic programme and April 6 continues to stress that it is not a political party.

And while this movement of the youth triggered and still seems largely to control the protest a number of other groups — the established political parties belatedly — have now come into play.  There are already signs of clashing agendas as the army continues to keep a watching brief as events unfold.

Because of decades of repression, pro-democracy forces in Egypt have never been very strong.  For example, it is only since January 25 that a new and independent trade union movement has emerged.

In the final analysis, it may well be the army, probably from junior officer level down, that will be the only force to halt a slide into factionalism and anarchy.  The hope then, will be for  a speedy move to genuinely free and fair elections that would almost certainly change the face of Egyptian politics.

Posted in: Edited material