- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2008

MIDDLE EAST TIMES

CAIRO — Egyptians are using the online social networking tool Facebook to defy the government’s attempt to muzzle the media and hush reported incidents of police brutality during a strike by workers in a town in the Nile Delta.

Indeed, Internet users in Egypt have given the popular Web site a new role: a platform for political activism, such as promoting anti-government demonstrations.

“The next strike will be the most successful, the strongest and the least in losses,” declares a Facebook group called A General Strike for the Egyptian People — April 6th, which had promoted the work stoppage.

The strike was called as a response to a crisis over rising food prices.

The group, which calls for the Egyptian government to raise wages to match the price increases, as well as respect international human rights, announced a day after the events of April 6 that another strike would take place on May 4, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 80th birthday.

The April 6 strike played out most intensely in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla el-Kobra, where protesters clashed with security forces.

Photographs of police beating civilians and protesters ripping down a giant poster of Mr. Mubarak that day were circulated on Facebook.

Esraa Abdel Fattah, the 27-year-old Egyptian woman who administers the Egyptian Facebook site, was arrested in mid-April in a coffee shop close to her workplace.

She was detained on charges of helping to organize the April 6 protest, but was released last Wednesday after her mother made a personal plea to Mr. Mubarak.

According to Facebook, Mrs. Fattah’s group, one of several on the Web site propagating the strike this Sunday, has more than 73,000 members with the number growing daily.

“Necessity being the mother of invention, as they say, led Egyptians to use Facebook to express themselves politically as well as socially,” said Mona Eltahawy, a journalist who has lectured extensively on blogging and the Arab world, and recently on the Facebook activism phenomenon in Egypt.

“There are very few venues available for Egyptians to express themselves, so it’s natural that they would take their views where there is the most freedom,” she added.

Muhammad Abdel Hai, administrator for the Facebook group We’ll Wear Black Clothes on May 4th and friend of Mrs. Fattah, was involved in the liberal El Ghad political party before using Facebook.

He said Facebook became a natural extension of his political activities, because it is an easy way to connect with other Egyptians who share similar ideologies.

“Because there is no other way I can use [Facebook],” Mr. Hai said. “The first time I saw that it was a better way to broadcast my videos and pictures, and I started to write notes and I found that many people would make comments on my notes, some of them 200 or 300 comments.”

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