Egypt's 'Facebook Girl' eagerly awaits possible Nobel Peace Prize

If Egyptian organizer Esraa Abdel Fattah wins the Nobel Peace Prize tomorrow, it could reinvigorate Egypt's flagging activists. But some say it could overstate social media's role in Egypt's revolution.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Esraa Abdel Fattah on the office balcony of the Egyptian Democratic Academy in Cairo, where she is a project coordinator, on Oct. 3. Ms. Abdel Fattah, as well as Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for playing a part in protests that led to the revolution in Egypt.

Esraa Abdel Fattah was once known as Facebook Girl. In 2008, the young activist helped organize a Facebook page calling for a national strike that some see as one of the seeds of Egypt’s revolution. When she was arrested and held for 18 days because of her role, she became a symbol of resistance to the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak.

So it was only fitting that it was on Facebook that she saw the news last week that she had been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, along with April 6 Youth, an organization that grew out of the 2008 strike, for the roles they played in the mass mobilization of Egyptians that led to the revolution.

Her first action after digesting the Facebook message was to call her mother, who didn’t believe her. “She said ‘No no, you are lying, you are kidding,’ ” says Ms. Abdel Fattah, who is eagerly awaiting tomorrow's announcement. If she is crowned this year's Nobel peace laureate, she says, it would mean bringing home one of the world's most prestigious awards not just for herself, but on behalf of all the Egyptians who rose up and toppled their dictator.

“I feel that it is for Egypt,” she says. “If I win this, if any Egyptian wins this prize, it will be for Egypt's revolution. It's for the Egyptians in the street.”

If Abdel Fattah or the other Egyptian nominee, Wael Ghonim, takes home the Nobel prize, it could be a bright spot in what has become a bleak post-revolutionary landscape for Egyptian activists. The majority of Egyptians have stood by as the military that promised to guard Egypt’s revolution has instead been censoring newspapers, raiding satellite television stations, beating and imprisoning protesters, extending the hated emergency law, and drawing out the timeline for the transition to civilian rule, leaving activists bitter and disappointed.

Abdel Fattah says that international recognition of activists like herself and others in the April 6 movement would also restore their reputation and disprove the military’s accusations that groups like April 6 are foreign agents seeking to undermine Egypt’s stability. But at home, her nomination has already touched off criticism, with some Egyptians complaining it de-emphasizes the grassroots nature of the uprising and overplays the role of social media.

Confident and gracious

Though Abdel Fattah is eagerly awaiting the announcement tomorrow, she’s also afraid – worried about the weight of responsibility that success would bring.

But she has little time to dwell on such worries. Sitting in her office at the Egyptian Democratic Academy, wearing a canary-yellow scarf, she fields phone call after phone call, dividing her time between planning political awareness activities with the Academy, promoting women’s participation in politics, tweeting, and preparing for a likely run for parliament herself with the Democratic Front Party.

The 33-year-old talks a mile a minute in English, and even faster in Arabic. She doesn’t look like a powerful woman, but she exudes confidence. She is gracious, but also assertive.

In a seminar she moderated Monday, at which political party leaders discussed election strategies, she was not flustered when a questioner runs on and tries to drown her out. Looking at her watch, she insistently cuts him off and turns to the next question.

While monitoring Egypt’s parliamentary elections in fall 2010, widely recognized as one of the most fraudulent votes in Egypt’s history, she raced from polling station to polling station to observe. When she found what appeared to be a violation saw at the Qasr el Nil polling station, she aggressively confronted the police in what turned into a passionate shouting match.

A humble start

Yet in 2005, she was a quiet young woman who was treasurer of a committee for the Ghad political party, an opposition party which was harassed by the regime, says Egyptian Democratic Academy Bassem Samir. When he met her back then, says Mr. Samir, he never would have guessed that she would turn into the well-known activist she is today.

By 2008, workers in Egypt were organizing strikes, and Mr. Mubarak’s regime was cracking down hard. Abdel Fattah helped set up a Facebook group calling for a nationwide strike on April 6 to support the workers.

On the day of the strike, it was difficult to gauge its success. But the regime was apparently scared. That morning they arrested Abdel Fattah, and she was detained for 18 days. People rallied to her cause. When she was released, TV cameras showed her crying loudly as she embraced her mother.

After her release, Abdel Fattah pledged publicly to leave political activism – something her mother made her promise, she says. But that was never possible for her. As she began inching her way back into activism, the regime had not forgotten her. She was fired from her human resources job and could not find new work as companies were pressured by state security not to hire her.

'I cannot go back'

So she turned to activism full-time in 2009, helping to found the Egyptian Democratic Academy with Samir. She asked to leave her name off the official paperwork in order not to attract trouble for the organization, but the authorities continued their harassment.

Samir says all the trouble she has faced only made her stronger. “I think that Esraa, although she has faced a lot of problems, and all these problems were enough to destroy her totally, but she believed in herself and she believed that she can make a better future for Egypt,” he says.

One of the ways she may try to do that is by running for parliament with the Democratic Front Party. Shehab Abdel Meguid, a leader in the party, says Abdel Fattah is “a real activist who represents the real soul of the Egyptian revolution and the real ideas of the party.” She would be a powerful force in parliament, he says, yet he would advise her not to run if she wins the Nobel because she would have larger responsibilities.

Tomorrow, Abdel Fattah says she will turn off her mobile phone and sit at home with her mother, watching television and the Internet for news of the announcement. If she wins, she’s not sure what she’ll do – except to keep working to make Egypt free.

“I cannot go back,” she says. “I will not stop now until we find Egypt a very democratic and free country. We will stay in opposition, we will stay monitoring, we will stay making pressure. We need all the world to talk about Egypt, as they talked about Egypt in the revolution.”

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