Monday, October 12, 2009

Virtual world provides some Real Freedom to Egyptians

Egyptians critical of their government are using new media and the Internet to expose its improprieties and press for social change. Twitter users in Egypt have provided minute-by-minute coverage of labour strikes, while Facebook groups are rallying opposition against the ruling party and its policies. But perhaps the most striking example of new media activism are the dozens of videos of police brutality - many filmed using mobile phone cameras - that have been uploaded to blogs and YouTube.

"The Internet has created a new type of activism," says blogger Sherif Abdel Aziz. "It took the political voice from activists and gave it to the average citizen." Internet use is growing rapidly in Egypt as connection costs fall. More than 12 million Egyptians, about 15 percent of the population, are logging on regularly. And in doing so, they are being exposed to a flood of news and views outside the sphere of the state-dominated press.

At the same time, says rights lawyer Ahmed Seif, executive director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, blogs, online forums and social networking sites are allowing many opposition voices to be heard for the first time.

"Previously, it was very difficult to have dissenting views published in Egypt," Seif told IPS. "Now it is the decision of every person to publish, and nobody needs to wait for an editor to give them the green light - it's all instantaneous. As a result, during the last five years we've seen more (critical) material published than ever before."

A report released last year by the government-run Information and Decision Support Centre (IDSC) put the number of bloggers in Egypt at 160,000. Social networking site Facebook claims to have over 800,000 members in Egypt, while Twitter use among Arabs jumped more than 260 percent last quarter.

Activists in particular have been quick to adopt these Internet-based applications, and often employ multiple platforms. "I'm a big Twitter fan because it's a very fast medium to disseminate information," says Hossam El-Hamalawy, a journalist and labour activist. "If I receive breaking news, I usually Twitter it. And then when I have the time, I'll sit down and write a proper post for my blog and upload photos to my Flikr group."

Noha Atef, founder of the human rights blog Torture in Egypt, says the speed and scale of the Internet make it an effective tool for activism and citizen journalism.
"It has become impossible for the government to suppress our reports," she says. "With Twitter, for instance, you can send a message from your mobile phone in seconds, and they cannot stop it."

In fact, the government could stop it, but appears to have recognised that if it blocks certain websites, activists will quickly migrate to other sites. At the same time, engaging in this cat and mouse game would risk aggravating the millions of Egyptians who are not using these sites for political purposes.

"The Egyptian government has no intention of imposing restrictions on the political use of the Internet or blocking sites simply because it is aware that to do so would be futile," says Adel Abdel Sadek, head of Internet and IT Studies at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. "Besides, many of these same sites can also be used to support the government's position."

Political analysts point to the role that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube played in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, with campaigns employing new media to court younger voters. They argue that in a country like Egypt, where over half the population is under 25, the ruling party must take a similar approach or risk alienating the younger segment of society.

The President's son and presumed successor, Gamal Mubarak, recently used Facebook to engage the Egyptian public in an open discussion. His unofficial fan club on the social network has 1,300 members, but is overshadowed by dozens of anti-government groups. The largest of these, the 6th of April Youth Movement, claims over 70,000 members.

Egyptian authorities have permitted the Internet to operate relatively free of censorship, but there are other informal methods that establish red lines. State security officials monitor Internet usage, and take note of those whose online writings are critical of the regime or its values.

In 2007, blogger Kareem Amer was sentenced to four years in prison for insulting Islam and the President on his blog. Dozens of other bloggers have been threatened, arrested, and in some cases, tortured.

Karim El-Beheiry, a prominent blogger and labour activist, says the sheer number of Egyptians criticising the government online makes it impractical to arrest all of them. Instead, the state targets dissidents who attempt to transform their virtual activism into a physical movement. "It's not dangerous to criticise the government online," he says. "It's dangerous to write, then go down into the street (to join a demonstration). That's when they arrest you."

(Source: IPS)