RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Walk down most any busy street in the Middle East and you'll see young people, lots of them. In fact, two-thirds of the people in the region are under the age of 30. It's a youth bulge that points to the possibility of dramatic change. Many of these young people are educated, yet jobs are scarce and in an era of new forms of communication the young are much more aware than their parents of the world beyond their borders. We begin an occasional series on youth in the Middle East in Cairo, where social media like Facebook and Twitter are the new tools of protest for a struggling generation. Here's NPR's Deborah Amos.
DEBORAH AMOS: It is a sweltering summer day and this Cairo courtroom is packed with lawyers and observers. The standing crowd strains to hear the judge in a case against three human rights activists. They're charged with defaming a government official on the Internet - a serious offense. It's an important case for Egypt's Facebook generation, says 22-year-old blogger Mahmoud Sabre.
Mr. MAHMOUD SABRE (Blogger): Definitely the government's trying all of the ways to shut down the blogosphere and the actions and everything we are doing.
AMOS: Everything they're doing is on display inside the courtroom where bloggers turn this private trial into a public event.
Mr. WAEL ABBAS: We were tweeting, actually, trying to tell the people whats going on inside the court.
AMOS: And so you tweeted the whole trial?
Mr. ABBAS: Yeah, yeah.
AMOS: Wael Abbas tapped out every detail on his phone including this observation about the judge.
Mr. ABBAS: And the judge himself said that, I dont understand the Internet, I never use the Internet. And how can you be a judge in a case that you dont understand anything about?
(Soundbite of phone ringing)
AMOS: The Internet is well understood by many here. It's the office of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. And Ramy Raoof demonstrates what's on his computer.
Mr. RAMY RAOFF (Office of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights): Tweets, we have million of tweets going day by day, so...
AMOS: So on your photo stream, what do you have?
Mr. RAOFF: I always send live pictures from any demonstrations, pictures and videos. Thats it.
AMOS: Media activists also post names of police officers accused of beating demonstrators or torturing prisoners, says Raoof. He uses new technologies to turn a cell phone into a device that can stream live video directly onto the Web.
Mr. RAOOF: Once we go live broadcasting, the cell phone turns to red lights. So the police officers around us come to us and ask us what are you doing, excuse me.
AMOS: So this is a cat and mouse game?
Mr. RAOOF: The ministry of interior, they are not stupid. They are very smart people. So they know about Twitter, about Facebook, about - as we are improving ourselves online, they are also doing the same.
AMOS: This is a new challenge to state authority, says professor Said Sadek, who monitors the social media movement and the generation behind it.
Professor SAID SADEK: They see the future bleak. They dont know about the job, marriage, housing, they see torture. They see corruption. What can they do? Of course the only tool in their hands is, you know, their fingertips and the keyboard. And they use that as a tool for, you know, raising awareness.
AMOS: This awareness has forced the government to take some action, says Sadek. Bloggers have documented cases of police torture, sexual harassment, and government corruption, stories that are picked up by popular satellite stations and then the print press.
Mr. SADEK: So those people are really revolutionary, they are breaking from this malfunctioning system and trying to do something different. If you go to the presidential site of the president of Egypt, it is still under construction, the presidency is under construction. And that shows you.
AMOS: Egypt's social media movement is the oldest and the largest in the Arab world, a model in a region where young people are the majority, and new technologies, from smart phones to Internet cafes, are available almost everywhere. But like Iran's green movement and its widespread Web campaign, Egyptian bloggers haven't been able to deliver much in the way of lasting change.
Marc Lynch is the Director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at George Washington University, and he follows these movements.
Mr. MARC LYNCH (George Washington University): That first generation of bloggers and of activists have been deeply frustrated. Many of these people thought that there was a chance for change and they found out that they were wrong.
(Soundbite of typing)
AMOS: One member of that generation is Wael Abbas. On this day, at his apartment, the lights are off and he's watching an Arabic translation of the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Spongebob Squarepants")
Unidentified Woman (Actor): (as character) (Speaking in foreign language)
Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) (Speaking in foreign language)
AMOS: His favorite, he says, because Spongebob is an ordinary guy who does good things. At 34, Abbas is one of the oldest bloggers. He says he tried to do good things but is now pessimistic about the movement.
Mr. ABBAS: And I dont want people to be disillusioned. I know my limits. I know the limits of social media. And I know what we can win and what we can lose.
AMOS: He knows because he's been arrested more than once for his online journalism. At first the Mubarek government ignored the bloggers. Now there's increased government surveillance of activists and websites, says Abbas.
Mr. ABBAS: They are getting smarter and they are getting tougher and stronger and the international pressure on them is not as it used to be in the past. Nobody gives a damn about whats going on in Egypt. Mubarak is a friend and hes allowing McDonalds and Hardys and Pizza Hut. To the hell with the Egyptian people. If they want democracy, we dont care.
(Soundbite of traffic)
AMOS: Here on the streets of a working class neighborhood, a new group of activists collects signatures. They're handing out a petition calling for an end to rigged elections in Egypt. There is corruption everywhere, says Ahmed Nasser, a young lawyer. We have to do something now.
Mr. AHMED NASSER (Lawyer): I dont want for my generation to be like the one before, because they are responsible for what we are in now. I am from this (unintelligible) new one, and I want it to be different. Thats why Im working from that.
AMOS: Nasser is a part of the April 6th movement. It started as a Facebook group that supported striking laborers. Then April 6th moved from computer screen protest to actions on the street.
Mr. MUSTAPHA ABBAS KHALIL: Mustapha Abbas Khalil.
AMOS: Nasser hands a petition to passerby Mustapha Abbas Khalil. He reads the demands and he agrees to sign. He includes his ID number and his full name.
Do you think that these young people are brave to be doing what they are doing?
Mr. KHALIL: Yes.
AMOS: And does he think these young people can bring change to Egypt? Yes, he says, God willing.
Mr. KHALIL: (Foreign language spoken)
Mr. NASSER: He trusts us, we are his children.
AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News.
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MONTAGNE: Deborah's report is a collaboration with America Abroad. That's a monthly public radio program about international affairs.