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May 6, 2008

Facebookists for Regime Change—الفيسبوكيون لتغيير النظام

Filed under: Masr —مصر — Tags: , , , — admin @ 11:17 am
[singlepic=847,320,240,,center] Collection of Facebook banners by Sami Ben Gharbia/Global Voices Advocacy

This article was commissioned for Is Greater Than

When Mark Zuckerberg, a 19-year-old Harvard drop-out, launched Facebook in 2004, he could not have imagined that one day his project would become the primary organizing tool for a vast movement of anxious, frustrated Egyptian youth.

In March of this year, a woman named Esra’ Abdel Fattah started a Facebook group calling for a general strike on April 6th in solidarity with 20,000 workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla al-Kubra. Workers at that textile mill, historically the vanguard of militant union activity in Egypt, were organizing outside of the official state-controlled union structure for a strike on April 6th, demanding higher food allowances, an adequate minimum wage and the fulfillment of promises won after previous strikes. This was all in the context of rapid inflation, particularly in the prices of staple foods.

Left intellectuals and liberals rallied around the cause and the Kifaya (Enough) Movement and the Nasserist Karama (Dignity) Party endorsed the call for a General Strike. Over the course of two weeks, the main Facebook group’s membership grew to over 60,000 people. By April 6th, the group boasted over 64,000 members. When the date came around, so did a seasonal “khamaseen” sandstorm, imparting a singularly spooky aura to the city of Cairo, helped by the unusually empty streets on a workday. Downtown was largely abandoned, as were many universities. Protests, however, aside from the small core of die-hard Kifaya members in front of the Lawyer’s Syndicate, were nearly non-existent. Central Security troops and hired heavies (Egyptians call them the بلطجية, bultageyya, literally “axemen”) were out in enormous numbers, particularly in the public squares where marchers were to congregate. Small groups and even individuals who found themselves in, for instance, Tahrir (Freedom) Square were told to move along and were prohibited from sitting on the public benches.

Citizen: Why can’t I sit—all these other people are sitting here.
Central Security officer: Yeah, they’re all cops, too.
Citizen [noticing the concealed weapons]: Oh…

Security presence in Mahalla al-Kubra was even more severe. The textile mill had been completely surrounded by security forces and those workers who were not immediately jailed upon arrival (previous strikes had generally been sit-ins and occupations, not stay-at-home strikes), were escorted to their stations and compelled to work. Members of the media were given closely monitored tours of the factory. Residents of the city, where the mill is the primary source of employment, took to the streets in frustration. Security forces attempted to stop the peaceful marches with tear-gas (canisters clearly marked MADE IN USA) and rubber bullets, prompting a violent response from the city’s youth: stones, burning tires, the usual. A few shops owned by ruling NDP members who refused to honor the strike were attacked and looted. Some blamed the attacks on property on agents provocateurs. Running battles between police and local youth continued for days. In the end, three Mahalla residents died, dozens of injured lay handcuffed to their hospital beds and many hundreds were arrested, including journalists.

Esra’ Abdel Fattah, whose name might otherwise have fallen into obscurity among the tens of thousands of other April 6th Group members, suddenly became a household name as Egyptian security forces picked up “the Facebook girl” at a neighborhood cafe. Angry at her arrest, along with that of several other bloggers and Cairo activists, furious at the brutal treatment of the residents of Mahalla and emboldened by the apparently broad response to the first call for a general strike, another call was made on Facebook for a general strike on May 4th, on the occasion of President Hosni Mubarak’s 80th birthday.

Local media began to take this Facebook phenomenon seriously, reporting on developments on the social networking site as news. State-owned newspapers took the time to call for boycotts or bans of both Facebook and YouTube, while President Mubarak himself made veiled references to the wired youth who “propagate calls for skepticism, despair and frustration.”

No Egyptian on Facebook could possibly ignore the issue as one or two of the strike groups was consistently promoted as the most active groups on users’ start pages. Hundreds of people replaced their usual profile photos with images promoting the strike. By May 3rd, a search for “إضراب” (Idraab, “strike”) yielded 97 separate groups, all but two of them devoted to the May 4th General Strike call (about one-quarter were opposed to it). A search for “May 4” groups yielded a further 71 results, all related to the strike. The original April 6th group continued to grow, reaching over 74,000 members, while the new May 4th group quickly surpassed 20,000. The demands were once again for a minimum wage and a solution to inflation, but with the additional call for the release of all April 6th detainees. Given the security response last time, there was no call for protests, but only to stay home and hang black banners with the group’s slogans from balconies and to wear black if venturing outside. The group also called for a boycott of state-owned newspapers throughout the period until the strike, a boycott of meat for three days and a complete abstention from all financial transactions on May 4th itself.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest parliamentary opposition bloc (though illegal) endorsed the strike call a few days before the 4th of May, having denounced its April 6th predecessor as vague and disorganized. Kifaya Movement, Karama, the Labor Party and al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party followed suit, representing much of the organized opposition.


One Facebook group sprang up declaring “We don’t want the [Muslim] Brothers!” Another called for participants to gather at certain mosques and churches to pray for Egypt on the day of the strike. Playing off the common “If this group reaches 100,000 members then [blank]” theme, one group started declaring “if this group reaches 100,000 members, maybe Hosni Mubarak will fade away!” At just 1150 members, they have a ways to go. One group was so bold as to declare itself the “Facebookist Movement to overthrow Mubarak.” It currently has over 800 members—nothing to shake a stick at. Facetious eCards and homages to the President on the occasion of his 80th birthday circulated around the blogosphere, many including his most recent epithet, “Abu al-Fasaad“, meaning “Father Corruption,” adding to his previous epithet, “La Vache Qui Rit“, a reference to the processed cheese and its mascot.


But, what the Facebook youth possessed in spunk, humor and vim they apparently lacked in “boots-on-the-ground” organizing. Facebook groups, blogs, emails, SMS messages and calls to action scrawled on bank notes were apparently insufficient to get people to stay at home. Even the support from organized opposition parties had no visible effect. The usual suspects showed up on the steps of the Lawyers’ Syndicate, surrounded as always by rows of “Markazy” (short for al-Amn al-Markazy, Central Security), supported by the “Karate Division” and the bultageyya. Elsewhere, the streets were more crowded, if anything, probably due to bottlenecks caused by the enormous blue and green troop transport vehicles of Egyptian security peppered throughout the city. They were at the usual gathering spots: Tahrir (Freedom) Square and the Lawyers’ and the Journalists’ Syndicates, but also this time at the churches and mosques designated as the locations to pray for Egypt, as well as schools throughout Cairo.

The state also enlisted the tools of electronic security, blocking the websites of the Kifaya Movement and the newspaper of the Labor Party to Egyptian visitors. This can only have been a sort of punishment, as neither plays a particularly strong tactical role. Vodafone and Mobinil mobile phone users reported difficulties using SMS and Twitter, both popular organizing tools, with customer service representatives and automated messages directing users to register their information before they can access SMS. Subscribers to TEData, the primary state-owned internet service provider, reported sluggish connections to Facebook (this could simply be due to heavy traffic, as well). There were also reports than some issues of opposition daily newspaper ad-Dustour (The Constitution) were held up at the printer, disrupting distribution.

Once again, the security response in Mahalla al-Kubra was much more severe. The city was described as a “ghost town”, with security forces making a strong show of force on all major thoroughfares and effectively isolating the city from the rest of the world. Journalists were prevented from entering the city and hotels were reported to have been advised not to host them. There were also reports of indiscriminate arrests of some 200 people the previous days and the severing of some satellite receiver connections on rooftops. Others reported telephone, internet and mobile phone service disruptions throughout the day. Automobiles with Cairo plates were turned back at checkpoints.

A report from Abna’ Masr (Sons of Egypt) quoted residents of Mahalla saying that thousands of black t-shirts destined for export were seized by security forces from the textile mill in Mahalla, and that shops in the city had likewise been searched and any black t-shirts in their stocks were confiscated. I’m not sure that I believe this, but, if true, it certainly indicates the desperation and fear of the regime.

Local and international media, even opposition papers, are nearly unanimous in their verdict: the May 4th strike was a failure. The BBC, Al-Jazeera, Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France Presse and the Wall Street Journal all agree on that point. It is worth mentioning, however, that every major international wire agency and local paper found it worthwhile to report on the failure of the Facebookists’ maiden voyage unanchored by political parties and established organizations. This, I think was a major success in its own right.

Some mock the April 6th movement as an analogue to the Lebanese “Gucci Revolution”, while partisans of the organized Left proclaim “I told you so,” chastising the “Facebookists” for a sort of electronic parochialism in their failure to get off of their computers and out onto the streets and make common cause with workers and the public. Hossam al-Hamalawy, an Egyptian socialist blogger currently in California had this to say:

This enthusiasm among the youth for strikes and bringing the country to halt as a means of toppling the dictator is a positive phenomenon, yet should be channeled into reaching out to those workers in the factories in the Nile Delta as well as the urban poor in the slums… These workers and urban poor are NOT on Facebook, and I’m afraid I don’t expect them to be on it anytime soon… They will only listen to and liaise with bloggers and activists they see in person.

True enough, the .6% of Egyptians who are on Facebook or the .14% supporting the strike are not likely to make a huge dent in the Egyptian power structure tapping away at their keyboards and keypads. But I think both al-Hamalawy and “political analysts” like Mohammed Sayyed Said, both of whom were quoted in the AP article above, have a critical misunderstanding of the importance of “the Facebook phenomenon.” The Facebookists are not necessarily trying to reach out to some mythical class of “the common people”, as Said puts it, or the very real class of workers and the urban poor in al-Hamalawy’s case. They go out of their way to point out that they are not a political party, nor do they intend to seize power. They are no vanguard. Nor can they be accused of political opportunism, unlike many of the political parties who threw their names behind the call for a general strike.


They are an uneven and contingent constituency, struggling to find its voice and make itself heard. They have their own independent dreams and hopes, and many of them realize—having lived their entire lives under Hosni Mubarak’s reign—that they, like most Egyptians, can only realize their hopes and dreams out from under Abu al-Fasaad’s iron heel. Joel Beinin, Director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo, a few weeks ago explained it this way:

Everything about the way the society is structured is geared toward sitting on young people and not letting them do anything, especially not letting them have sex, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Basically, their whole lives are structured so that they have no freedom of choice, no public culture, no private space—and they found a space. Sixty-some-thousand found a space. And so even though they were not going to organize anything other than some undetermined number of people staying at home, the regime is freaked out. There’s sixty-some-thousand people running amok who they can’t control. That is, potentially, a very big threat.

The partisan left, the liberals, the islamists, and political tendencies of all stripes are eager to claim the Facebook youth as their constituency—to coach them in the proper way to make change—and they will fail. They are threatened and at the same time attracted and repulsed by the Facebookists and الروشنة (ar-raushana, loosely translated as “the hip youth”), generally. The Left, in particular, is fascinated by the April 6th movement, having not heard or read the word “strike” so frequently in their lifetimes. But I think it is a mistake to think that the Facebook youth are using the word in the tradition of Rosa Luxembourg or Ralph Chaplin, or on the other hand that they are somehow misusing it.

And I believe the state has made a critical error as well. Apparently taking the “failure” of the strike as a cue that there is no chance of substantial opposition to its policies, the government is pushing through a sharp increase in the prices and taxes of fuel, transportation and cigarettes, among other things, thus obliterating whatever goodwill it had garnered by promising a 30% raise for government workers. Facebook activists may have little influence in getting people to forgo a day’s wages to make a point, but a sharp increase in the prices of basic commodities—especially one meant to fund the economic scrap the President just threw them last week—is likely to produce more of a broad response.

As has been the case for some time, left intellectuals, Nasserists, revolutionary socialists, islamists, liberals, peasants, public sector workers, private sector workers, the unemployed, the urban poor and the young and pissed off will each have their own response, and to expect users on a social networking website to fall in line with any of these—or even with each other, for that matter—is pure folly. What these groups and the individuals who comprise them all share is, in the words of Joel Beinin, “just a general sense that this regime has got to go.”

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