People have been using Facebook and Twitter to share the most recent information, but online activism is not new for young Egyptians. In one of a series of reports on the state of online activism in a variety of countries, we describe online activities in Egypt over the course of the past year, and activists' attempts at taking this energy onto the streets.
Videos and photos shot on mobile phones have exposed horrific accounts of police brutality. A Facebook group with nearly 300,000 members has coordinated demonstrations across a nation that outlaws protest. A campaign to fight for the release of an imprisoned blogger has sparked gatherings around the world...Change is beginning to happen in Egypt.
The strategic use of social media platforms is giving new life to efforts bringing attention to social and political issues. In this report, learn about digital activism in Egypt as it stands now. Skip ahead to any section using the links below. You can also download this report as a PDF here.
VI. Revolution Timeline
VII. The Future
VIII. Learn More
Online spaces like blogs, YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook have provided new outlets for expression in a country listed as one of the most repressive in the world. A growing youth population, combined with an increasing number of Egyptians going online, have made this possible. The World Bank estimates that approximately 60 percent of the population is under 30 years of age. And while an internet penetration of 15 percent may seem low, it is actually one of the highest on the African continent. Public relations firm Spot-On estimates that there are more than 3 million Facebook users in Egypt. The ICT sector continues to grow and the government has made the expansion of internet services a priority over the past decade.
Unlike many other countries in the Middle East, Egypt is not known for actively censoring and filtering websites. At the same time, bloggers and activists run the risk of being harassed or detained by authorities for sharing their views. Many have chosen to take this risk, and efforts to expose police brutality and human rights abuses have helped begin to break down a culture of fear among many Egyptians. So what type of projects and campaigns have been emerging online?
In Feburary 2007, blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman Amer was sentenced to four years in prison for “incitement to hatred of Islam” and for insulting the president on his blog. Kareem has become the face of online repression in Egypt as he was the first blogger to stand trial and be sentenced for his writings in the country.
Esra’a Al Shafei launched the Free Kareem campaign, creating a website that has served as a hub for learning about Kareem’s incarceration and speaking out against the suppression of free speech. In 2007, there were rallies at the Egyptian embassies in 26 cities. With this wave of protests, Esra’a contacted news organizations and told them about it, giving them contact information for whoever was the point person for that location, and this time, journalists actually started showing up. The Free Kareem campaign finally received the international media attention that Esra’a had been hoping for.
The Free Kareem campaign offers an example of how to combine creative strategies with new media to gain international attention for a cause, and Kareem has said that knowing people are out there thinking of him changed his life and made his time in prison more bearable. The fact remains, though, that despite Esra’a’s valiant efforts, a blogger remained imprisoned for one post and was not released until his sentence was up (in fact, Egyptian authorities kept him in prison for nearly 3 weeks after this date)--and it is difficult to disentangle the effects of Esra'a's campaign from what would have happened to Kareem with or without her and her colleagues' efforts.
Torture Map crowdsources user-submitted reports of torture and human rights abuses and plots them on a map, while the blog Torture in Egypt shares news updates about police brutality and torture in Egypt, as well as victim testimonies.
Flickr group Piggipedia has a pool of more than 250 photos of police officers, some of whom are accused of having committed breaches of human rights. The group has more than 120 members, many of whom have submitted photos. The Flickr group encourages anyone who has photos of police officers attacking people at demonstrations or other events to upload them to the site.
HarassMap was developed using the Ushahidi platform to crowdsource reports of sexual harassment. Mobile phone penetration is extremely high in Egypt and HarassMap has the potential to reach 55 million mobile phone subscribers, plus those who use mobile phones from the kiosk. Women are encouraged to send text messages to anonymously report when and where an incident of sexual harassment has occurred. The incident is then plotted on the map of Egypt. Reports are categorized by type of harassment, such as touching, verbal harassment, stalking, or indecent exposure. Victims receive a response back informing them of available services, such as counseling, legal aid, and a guide on how to make a police report.
In 2008, upward of 70,000 Egyptian youth joined this Facebook page centered around a workers' strike being organized in the industrial town of El-Mahalla El-Kubra and asking members to show their solidarity by participating in a general nationwide strike and boycott. Youth took to the Facebook page and group page to discuss and debate pressing issues like free speech, the economy, and human rights. On April 6, the strike in El-Mahalla El-Kubra turned into a street riot, and the demonstrations in Cairo fizzled. Subsequent demonstrations were largely flops, and Ahmad Maher, the group’s creator, and 14 other participants were arrested in July 2008 and charged with "incitement against the regime." Despite these setbacks, the April 6 Movement has helped to embarass the regime and bring international attention to the plight of Egyptian youth.
On June 6, 2010, a young man by the name of Khaled Said was dragged out of an internet cafe by police in Alexandria and beaten to death. Said was apparently targeted because he intended to post a video online that allegedly showed police offers dividing the spoils of a drug bust. Official autopsies said he choked on a plastic roll of drugs, but a cellphone picture of Said’s battered face challenged the government’s assertions. Weeks of protests and newspaper headlines followed. In early July, authorities decided to charge two police officers with illegal arrest, torture, and excessive force; their trial was scheduled to begin on September 25 but has since been postponed to October 23. Outraged by this incident, Egyptians have come together by joining Facebook groups and participating in silent stands, which involve coming together in long chains to stand silently, often while reading the Qur’an or Bible. The English Facebook page has more than 7,000 members, while the Arabic page has more than 275,000 members! Learn more at our page here.
Amnesty International recently released this powerful new video about the case and why Egyptians are demanding that justice must be served.
I asked the administrator for We Are All Khaled Said's English group pages if they were surprised by the number of Egyptians joining:
“At first I was surprised because I never thought we can get a large percentage of Egyptians who are on Facebook to join us in our call to end torture in Egypt. Then I realized that millions of Egyptians are now ready to stand up for their basic rights and that threats of torture or killings similar to Khaled Said are no longer effective. Khaled Said was a simple nonpolitical Egyptian, yet they killed him and tortured him to death. We all now feel that it could happen to any of us anytime. For this reason, I'm no longer surprised if I see thousands upon thousands of Egyptians who are no longer afraid and are ready to take action and stand up against torture.”
The Against Torture campaign was launched by Egypt-based El-Nadim Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. The group behind the movement, known as the “Task Force Against Torture,” is comprised of bloggers, human rights defenders, activists, and journalists “who are willing to say no to torture in Egypt and are willing to help survivors.”
They organized an event this past summer to mark the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, produced a documentary about torture (watch it on their site), and launched a website called against-torture.net. According to the El-Nadim Center, “The website became a portal for anyone who is subjected to torture to find information about what to do if they become a direct victim of torture and how they can contact us with their complaints.”
The U-Shahid project was launched ahead of November 2010 parliamentary elections to crowdsource citizen reports using the Ushahidi platform. The elections were rife with ballot stuffing, street clashes, and voter intimidation. In the face of restrictions on broadcast and print media from covering the elections, many Egyptian citizens took it upon themselves to report of incidents fraud and violence taking place. By the end of election day, the website U-Shahid had mapped over 1,100 reports of voter intimidation, violence, and fraud.
Despite being named one of the worst counties to be a blogger in, Egypt has a vibrant blogosphere with a number of active bloggers, many of whom use their blogs as spaces to comment on current events and the state of affairs in Egypt. Despite the risks taken by sharing their voices, these individuals have used their blogs as platforms to expose state brutality, fraud, corruption, and abuses. They have proven to be central to efforts in Egypt to raise consciousness and speak out.
In 2006, blogger Wael Abbas got a hold of a cellphone video that showed the police torturing and sodomizing a young bus driver. The video went viral and sparked outrage and resulted in the arrest and trial of the two police officers responsible for the abuse.
Blogger Wael Khalil was the first to take notice of newspaper "Al Ahram"’s fraudulent photo that photoshopped a photo of Mubarak with Obama, Bibi, Abu Mazen, and Abdullah II at the White House walking down a corridor. The photoshopped photo placed Mubarak leading the group gathered to discuss Israeli/Palestinian peace talks.
These examples are two of many instances where bloggers have covered and exposed what mainstream media has chosen not to. As Courtney Radsch writes:
“The role of blogs in reporting on the abuses is widely credited by bloggers and journalists with triggering mainstream media coverage and forcing the government to respond.“
You can learn more about the evolution of the Egyptian blogosphere by reading her thoroughly researched article.
Here's a short video about internet freedom in Egypt.
In a tightly controlled society like Egypt, public outlets for exposing police brutality and government misconduct can be limited. The emergency law in the country prevents people from gathering in groups larger than five, making any type of protest difficult to organize. It also grants police and security forces discretionary power to arrest and detain anyone without charge. Bahey Eddin Hassan, general director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, describes the effects of a society under emergency law, saying:
"Under the state of emergency, the power of security forces has become absolute. It has become a hegemonic force in the country, even judicially. Without a real balance of power, you do not have the rule of law and judicial independence. Without real balance, you lose the voice of the people."
And according to Threatened Voices, a project of Global Voices Advocacy, there have been 30 cases of bloggers either being arrested or threatened by the government. Six bloggers are currently under arrest, and 19 other bloggers have been released. There have been numerous reports of government authorities harassing bloggers at airports and confiscating their electronics.
While the state does not filter websites, the Ministry of the Interior recently established a special security department to monitor Facebook activities and content. What implications will this have on future efforts to organize? Instead of creating Facebook groups, will activists find other, more covert ways to promote their causes? Also of great concern is
the frequency with which activists and members of opposition parties are being arrested and detained. In early September 2010, three Egyptian dissidents/members of the opposition party were arrested and detained within a period of days. A statement issued by the Arabian Network for Human Rights Information on the matter said: "The frequent disappearance of activists lately without any comment from the Ministry of Interior and with the...silence of the prosecution and reluctance to investigate (these incidents) clearly points to the highest levels of government." These three activists were each released.
Human rights advocates have also been arrested and charged with defamation, blackmail, and misuse of the internet.
As mentioned above, under Egypt’s emergency law, citizens cannot gather in groups. This obviously makes holding a demonstration or protest a near impossibility. The We Are All Khaled Said campaign, however, has gotten around the law by holding a series of “silent stands” over the past few months, where participants stand silently a few feet apart from one another. The silent stands have attracted thousands of Egyptians across cities in Egypt. The most recent one was held on August 20. The stands have garnered international media attention, especially when opposition candidate Mohamed ElBaradei joined one.
Image of a silent stand from Flickr user s a l m a.
When asked about public reaction to the campaign, a spokesperson for the El-Nadim Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence said:
“One of the reasons that the public reaction has been so strong was that people could see what had happened to Khaled from the pictures that were circulating all over the internet. They could see what he looked like before and after his death....Many Egyptian youths identified with Khaled Said. He was a young man with no political affiliations or criminal record. He was simply on the internet, like so many other young people who visit internet cafes and link together. He could have been any one of them.”
Recently, a group of 30 activists participated in a protest outside the Syrian embassy in Cairo to denounce the detention of Syrian student and blogger Tal al-Mallohi, who was arrested last year for writing that the Syrian government should do more for Palestinians. While the stand immediately drew security forces, it was another example of small strides being made by Arab activists.
In another example of the growing discontent amongst Egyptians and the willingness to take on the system, demonstrations were held on September 21 in Alexandria and Cairo to protest President Hosni Mubarak’s rumored plans to hand power to his son Gamal.
According to reports, the gatherings were organized by pro-democracy and opposition groups like the April 6 Youth Movement and Kefaya. Not surprisingly, police were quickly on the scene even before the protests began and prevented many from reaching Abdeen Square in central Cairo where the rally was held.
Twitter users both at the protests and following the events from afar began using the hashtag #oraby2010 to tweet about what was happening. The tag was also used in the days leading up to the protests to organize and recruit protesters, in hopes of preventing authorities from easily tracking what was happening. Gamal Eid, founder and director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, told the German press agency dpa: “We have learned from the Iranian protesters how important Twitter can be in delivering a message. It is like an information wire service for all people who are logged on and even quicker than using a phone.”
Protesters burned images of Mubarak and chanted, "No inheritance after today, no freedom without blood" and "We are not slaves or property. God created us free people." Journalist Mohamed Effat was tweeting from the protest in Cairo. Among his tweets:
Security trying to snatch a protester, protesters are trying to break the cordon to help. #Oraby2010
News that more than 30 protesters were detained in Alexandria, most of them are girls with tore cloths#Oraby2010
Security is cracking down on protesters hitting randomly, chants heat up #Oraby 2010
I'm out of the protest, police are letting protesters out one by one after filming their faces #Oraby2010
Photos and video from the ground were taken with mobile phones and uploaded to Twitter, Flickr, and other websites. The Front to Defend Egypt Protesters posted news that there were 29 individuals being detained in Alexandria, while at least 14 Egyptians were detained and released in Cairo.
Image above from Flickr user Wild_atHeart
Taken collectively, these efforts to organize and demonstrate against the government mark a turning point in Egyptian civil society. While small in size, they show that more and more Egyptians are willing to take risks to express their discontent with the status quo. Said Sadek, Professor of Sociology at the American University in Cairo, notes:
“[These] protests against political inheritance sent an embarrassing media message abroad that there is a genuine rejection of Gamal with burning his photo and the slogans used against him [and] a blow to the PR campaign Jimmy (Gamal’s nickname) had been making for years.”
While the internet penetration rate is growing in Egypt, there are still millions without access. I asked the administrator of the We Are All Khaled Said campaign if average Egyptians who aren’t online would be as aware of campaigns against police brutality and human rights abuse as those who do have internet access. The admin responded:
“You will be surprised that we get a lot of contacts from really poor individuals and families who never used the internet before but have heard about us and who want us to help them highlight their case. This usually happens through members on our page who would know or heard of this poor family and get them to contact us and facilitate sending their details. The majority of Egyptians are fully aware of Egyptian police brutality as they face it every day. The way they view it and react to it is different. Some have lived all their lives in the current 30 years running Emergency law in Egypt and it became something they are used to it and learnt how to cope with it. Many others like me have reached the level where they believe that enough is enough and we have to do something peaceful but effective about it to stop it and end this torture permanently.”
Professor Sadek offered his thoughts:
“Police brutality and torture are known by the average Egyptian regardless of internet sites. These sites make the difference in giving the chance to all to access the real facts, raise awareness and social solidarity. However, they should not scare people and consolidate the existing culture of fear. Torture like rigging elections are well-known practices in Egypt regardless of the internet. Campaigns should use both the internet and traditional media to guide the public for specific actions or reactions.
What's in store for activists, bloggers, and others in Egypt using social media to share their thoughts about police brutality and run awareness campaigns? The admin for the Khaled Said campaign is optimistic about the future of the movement, telling us:
“I honestly believe that sooner rather than later we will succeed. What we are asking for is our simple and basic rights. Egyptians in general are fed up with the current situation and Egyptian police brutality. Many young Egyptians are looking forward to the day that policemen will treat them with respect similar to the rest of the civilized world. Change is happening regardless of what those who oppose it think.”
Professor Sadek believes that movements like April 6 and We Are All Khaled Said have earned respect “in the street and among intellectuals” because
“They, unlike the traditional opposition parties, do not sell out or bargain with authorities. They seem to be more...sincere than the traditional politicians. Both have long-term objectives to be realized: ending autocracy, political inheritance projects, and violation of human rights. Their existence is important in showing that the Egyptians are not a flock of sheep brainwashed by government media. They break, along with Kifaya and ElGhad party of Ayman Nour and ElBaradei, the culture of fear.”
Recently, at the Google Liberty at 2010 conference in Budapest, Lucie Morillon of Reporters Without Borders moderated a panel of bloggers from various countries. Esraa Rashid, an Egyptian blogger, was asked whether or not international attention being given to arrested bloggers helps or causes more harm. As Jillian York, who was live blogging the event, noted, Rashid responded that "international attention helps, because it forces organizations to make statements calling for freedom for bloggers; Rashid thinks international attention might provoke a response from the Egyptian government. Generally, she thinks international solidarity can advance human rights, but that she thinks political influence needs to remain outside of it.” The admin for We Are All Khaled Said echoed these sentiments, stating, “International awareness can help limit arrests and torture of activists and eventually the end of the 30 years running Emergency law in Egypt. The apartheid system was brought down in South Africa with the help and efforts of international supporters and we hope we will end torture and Emergency law in Egypt the same way.” Global Voices contributor Anas Qtiesh writes, “These bloggers, activists, and techies have managed to use freely available tools and online services to internationally embarrass the Egyptian government and pressure it into action against those abuses.”
Many of the grassroots movements mentioned above demonstrate how online organization and participation can be an effective gateway to offline engagement. Egyptians, as well as individuals around the world, have been mobilized to take action on the streets, whether it be through participating in a silent stand, taking photos of police officers attacking crowds, or attending a rally. What does the future hold for activists in Egypt?
VI. Revolution Timeline
2003: Anti iraq invasion protests
2003: Pro palestinian protests
2004: Kefaya (enough) is launched
2005: New political parties
2005: Wael Abbas police brutality videos
2008: April 6th
2009: Khaled Said murder
Visit the sites of the bloggers and movements mentioned in this post. Other organizations in Egypt working to fight for citizens’ rights include Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and Crowdvoice.
For more information about the Egyptian activists in our network contact: Egypt@movements.org