A screenshot of Egyptian riot police, taken from a video about protests on the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights' YouTube channel.
A screenshot of Egyptian riot police, taken from a video about protests on the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights' YouTube channel. EIPR/YouTube
Young Egyptians are using social media to fight police brutality and urge a more open government. Critics say that not a single Arab dictator has been overthrown by protests on the Web. But young activists say their goal is to raise awareness among Egyptians.
Wael Abbas is one of the leading bloggers in Egypt's social media movement. So when he tweeted the proceedings of a recent trial involving the Web, his words were widely read.
"The judge himself said, 'I don't understand the Internet.' How can you be a judge in a case that you don't understand anything about?" Abbas tapped out the details on his cell phone, sitting on a wooden bench at the back of the court.
This trial, against two leading human rights activists and a well-known blogger, is another example of a government crackdown on social media activists who use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as tools of protest. Gamal Eid, Ahmed Seif and Amr Gharbeia are charged with defamation, the use of threats and the misuse of communication. The serious charges could result in fines and prison terms.
As the defendants faced the judge, other young bloggers added to the chorus of details streaming out of the packed courtroom and onto the Web.
"They monitor the trials. I was following the minute details," says Said Sadek, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo. Sadek monitors the social media movement and the generation behind it: Egypt's baby boomers, a majority in a country where two-thirds of the population is under 30.
"They see the future as bleak," Sadek says. "They don't know about the job, marriage, housing — they see torture. They see corruption. They see rigged elections. What can they do? Of course: The only tool in their hands is their fingertips. And the keyboard."
Egypt's social media movement is the oldest and largest in the Arab world, with thousands of bloggers online. The movement is a model in a region where young people are the majority. Technology is drastically changing their lives. Smart phones and Internet cafes are widely available. Some 15 million Egyptians are Web users.
At the office of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent human rights organization, Ramy Raoof, the online media and press officer, looks at his computer screen.
"Tweets," he says. "We have millions of tweets going, day by day. I always send live pictures from any demonstrations. Pictures and videos."
Media activists also post names of police officers accused of beating demonstrators or torturing prisoners. This is a new challenge to state authority, and it has forced some government action.
From The Web To The Streets: Ahmed Nasser (right) and Shahinaz Abdel-Wahab hand out petitions for better governance in the Mahdi neighborhood in Cairo. They are part of the April 6th movement, political activists who started as an Egyptian Facebook group.
From The Web To The Streets: Ahmed Nasser (right) and Shahinaz Abdel-Wahab hand out petitions for better governance in the Mahdi neighborhood in Cairo. They are part of the April 6th movement, political activists who started as an Egyptian Facebook group. Deborah Amos/NPR
Bloggers took up the case of Khalid Said, a young businessman who witnesses say was dragged out of an Internet cafe by police and beaten to death on the street.
More than 10,000 Egyptians responded to a Facebook call for protests, and an Egyptian hip-hop group posted a dedication to Said's case on YouTube. The government was forced to open an investigation in a case that was widely seen as government-sanctioned police brutality.
For the social media movement, the Khalid Said campaign was the most successful yet, but the movement continues to play a cat-and-mouse game with Egyptian authorities, who are now keeping a close watch on Web sites and jailing activists.
"The Ministry of Interior, they are not stupid. They are very smart people," Raoof says. "They know about Twitter and Facebook. As we are improving ourselves online, they are also doing the same."
"Those people are really revolutionary," Sadek, the professor, says of the bloggers. "They are breaking from this malfunctioning system and trying to do something different."
The Egyptian government has reacted with tentative political steps to counter the bloggers, but they have mostly failed, Sadek says. He points to the website for President Hosni Mubarak, the 82-year-old leader of the country.
"It is still under construction," Sadek says. "The presidency is still under construction. And that shows you."
But the Egyptian government has found other tools to suppress the movement, says Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
"Once they figured out they were a challenge, they throw them in jail," Lynch says. "A few of them get international campaigns. Most of them don't, and that has a chilling effect."
The early excitement of the pioneers of the social media movement has been dimmed as a tool to bring democracy to Egypt.
"That first generation of bloggers and activists has been deeply frustrated. Many of these people thought that there was a chance for change, and they found out that they were wrong."
At 34, Wael Abbas is part of the first generation of bloggers. He lives on the outskirts of Cairo. The most prominent furnishings in his sparsely decorated apartment are a computer and a large TV.
Keeping the lights low against the summer heat, Abbas spends his spare time watching Arabic translations of the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants — a hero, he says, because SpongeBob is an ordinary guy doing good things.
Abbas, one of the oldest bloggers, says he tried to do good things, too, but now he's pessimistic about a movement he helped to define.
"I know the limits of social media," he says. "I know what we can win and what we can lose."
He knows because he's been arrested for his online journalism. And he's often detained for hours at the airport when he returns to Egypt, as the government increases surveillance of activists and Web sites, Abbas says.
"They are getting smarter, and they are getting tougher and stronger," he says. But his complaints are also against the international community, and especially the U.S. government, for diluting support for the democracy movement in Egypt.
"Nobody gives a damn of what's going on in Egypt," Abbas says. "Mubarak is a friend, and he's allowing McDonald's and Hardee's and Pizza Hut. To hell with the Egyptian people. If they want democracy, we don't care."
But on the streets of a working-class neighborhood, a new group of democracy activists are collecting signatures. They hand out petitions calling for an end to rigged elections in Egypt.
Ahmed Nasser, a young lawyer, says it is up to his generation to reform Egypt.
"I don't want for my generation to be like the one before, because they are responsible for what we are in now," he says as he hands out petitions. "I am from this generation, a new one, and I want it to be different."
Nasser is part of the April 6th Movement, which started as a Facebook group to support striking laborers. Since then, the group has moved from computer protests to actions on the streets.
Nasser hands a petition to passerby Mustapha Abbas Khalil, a government bureaucrat who is out for a shopping trip. Khalil reads the demands and agrees to sign, including his full name. And he recites his I.D. number to be sure that Nasser gets it right.
Does Khalil think that Egypt's young generation can change the country? "Inshallah," says Khalil — God willing.
Deborah Amos' report is a collaboration with America Abroad, a monthly public radio program about international affairs. America Abroad is currently producing a three-part series on the challenges confronting Arab youth.