On the eve of Egypt's parliamentary elections this weekend, President Hosni Mubarak's regime has further tightened its control of the process as the country braces for a succession battle as early as next year.
Over the weekend, the government arrested more than 200 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest opposition group, which had already seen hundreds imprisoned. It has rejected US calls for international election monitors, and in recent weeks has cracked down on independent news broadcasts that could have brought greater transparency.
All this has opposition figures and independent analysts predicting that the Nov. 28 election – held to decide the 518 members of Egypt's lower house of parliament – will be even less free and fair than the previous one, in 2005.
"Unfortunately most of the indications are very terrible, very negative, very worrying, especially the fight which has been launched against the independent media," says Bahey el-Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
While that bodes ill for Mr. Mubarak's promise that the election will be clean, a group of bloggers and activists are using the Internet, cellphones, and citizen engagement to create a monitoring process they predict will expose government misbehavior.
How Twitter could tweak the election scene
The website U-Shahid.org, which means "you are a witness," will plot reports of election irregularities on an interactive map of Egypt. Citizens can submit reports via text message, Twitter, or e-mail, along with photo or video verification. The effort's organizers hope it will push regular citizens toward political participation.
"We think it's a new tool for election monitoring that will attract more people to participate," says Esraa Abdel Fattah, a project organizer and activist who was arrested after she used a social-networking site to help organize a national strike in 2008. "We want them to feel there is something happening in Egypt. They should participate and they should see there is something illegal going on. This election is window dressing to say to the world that we have elections and democracy in Egypt. But we have no democracy. It's fake."
The project – which is indirectly funded by the United States – is rallying young Egyptians to the cause and hopes to create a new generation of democracy activists.
125 volunteers to fill a void
The group has recruited 125 volunteers from around the country, and those people have used their own networks to recruit and train more volunteers. Most of the people involved are regular citizens, not seasoned activists, says Kamal Nabil, director of the Development and Institutionalization Support Center, the Egyptian nongovernmental organization administering the project.
On a recent afternoon, about 35 volunteers gathered for training. As the late-afternoon sun streamed through the window, they learned how to manage the mapping technology and contribute photos and videos through Twitter to report election violations.
They will be filling a void. In addition to barring international election monitors, local civil society groups are expecting obstacles to their own monitoring efforts. The government recently closed a slew of satellite stations and placed restrictions on live television broadcasts and mass text messaging.
Recruiting everyday Egyptians, not just activists
While online activism using blogs, Twitter, and Facebook is widespread in Egypt, it has tended to remain firmly in the digital sphere and attempts to move to on-the-ground action have had mixed results.
But Ms. Abdel Fattah remains hopeful. She says social media can put pressure on traditional media to cover issues. She points to the case of Khalid Said, who was beaten to death by Egyptian policemen. Media covered the story after it spread like wildfire on Facebook. "We want to do that with U-Shahid," she says.
The restriction on text messaging will affect U-Shahid, which has also faced monitoring by state security and has taken precautions in case of attempts to shut down the site or arrest the organizers on election day.
But the organizers and volunteers have not been deterred. Hossam Eldin Ali, who leads the U-Shahid group in Port Said, says all the volunteers at the recent training session had been warned of the dangers of activism "but nobody left." He estimates that only 10 percent of the volunteers he's recruited in Port Said were previously politically active.
He says Egyptians have been discouraged from participating by the feeling they can't make a difference, but efforts like his are changing that.
"We have to fight," he says. "We're spreading the feeling that we can do something. Not for the present, but maybe for my son's future. The thing that is pushing me is to prepare the platform for my son. Because my father didn't do it for me."