When Egypt’s secular opposition groups called for a nationwide strike to support disgruntled factory workers last April, Ahmed Maher wanted to help. So he did what many middle-class 20-somethings here do: He logged onto Facebook.
Two weeks before the strike, he and a friend, Esraa Abdel Fattah, started a group on the popular social-networking site to support the walkout and invited friends to join. But soon they realized they had much more than just a new Facebook group on their hands.
In Egypt, a country still under the iron-fisted rule of President Hosni Mubarak, even something as seemingly innocuous as Facebook can run afoul of the red lines around unacceptable political activity.
And as the popularity of the page grew, Egyptian authorities took notice.
“We started a group and sent it to 160 people on her friend list and 140 people on my friend list, and at the end of the day, there were almost 3,000 people in the group,” says Mr. Maher. “We were both really surprised.”
By the day of the strike, more than 60,000 Egyptians had joined the group, and Maher went into hiding rather than face the possible wrath of the country’s feared State Security Investigations (SSI) unit.
When opposition leaders called a second strike, since the first one didn’t materialize, he decided to stay on the run until it was over. He slept in his car, under his desk at work, and in friends’ apartments. All the while, his family was watched by security forces.
“I heard rumors that state security might start taking people, so I got ready in case it happened to me,” he says. “I would drive my car somewhere deserted and sleep there, or sleep at work. I tried to disappear.”
Even though the second nationwide strike never got off the ground, Maher was arrested in early May, just two days after he had returned home, by four carloads of plainclothes police.
In an interview last week, Maher says he was shackled, blindfolded, and stripped. He says the police dragged him across the floor and beat him for almost 12 hours. They demanded to know the password to his Facebook account and asked for information about the 60,000 people in the group, then threatened to rape him if he would not comply, he says.
“Maher’s treatment is part of a pattern of abuse and extralegal intimidation by state officials,” says Joe Stork, Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt needs to put an end to the lawlessness of its law enforcement officers.”
“The government must show that those responsible for upholding the law are also subject to the law,” he added, calling the SSI units “thugs.”
After his 12-hour ordeal, Maher was put in a small cell where officers treated his bruises and tried to explain themselves. “They came to me and tried to apologize,” says Maher. “They kept saying ‘Oh, the men who beat you were just a few bad guys. We love Egypt, too. We love this country as much as you do, but Egyptians aren’t ready for democracy. Just look at what happened in Iraq.”
In Egypt, opposing the government is risky. Since the country’s brief flirtation with political liberalization in 2005, the government has imprisoned critics and challengers. Among them is Ayman Nour, the runner-up to President Mubarak in the last election, who won less than 10 percent of the vote.
“In 2005 and 2006, a lot of young people were going out into the streets and telling people that the government has obligations and duties to protect them, and that they should demand their rights,” says Maher. “But the last few years, all these people have been arrested and tortured. Now we are back [to] the historical problem we have here, that everyone thinks that getting involved in politics is really dangerous,” he adds.
Maher says that he still receives harassing phone calls and threats of rape from the Egyptian authorities, but remains intent on transforming his Facebook group, which is still online, into a real political organization. He recently met with opposition leaders to brainstorm ideas for a movement called “Facebook Youth.”
In a politically repressive environment, some activists find websites such as Facebook appealing because they offer anonymity. But critics say it’s a mistake to look to websites like Facebook or personal blogs as the seeds of a meaningful political movement.
“People are talking about Facebook the same way they used to talk about blogs and ‘the bloggers,’ saying that it is going to bring about freedom and change,” says a well-known Egyptian opposition blogger who goes by the name Sandmonkey. He doesn’t use his real name for fear of government reprisal. “It’s not going to bring about anything. These sites are just a way to express your opinions. It is just a bunch of disgruntled people sitting around online.”
He worries that Egyptians who join online anti-government groups will not want to take to the streets. Without actual contact, a movement is hard to build.
But the government’s response to Maher’s site shows that it is nonetheless concerned by Internet activism.