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Facebook As a Platform for Anti-Establishment Protests in Egypt
Facebook As a Platform for Anti-Establishment Protests in Egypt
She uses the protests during the Israel-Palestine Gaza crisis as a starting point to outline a history of online activism in Egypt and specifically looks at how Facebook — the third most-visited website in Egypt with almost 800,000 members, almost a tenth of Egypt’s online population — has become the center of anti-Mubarak dissent in the country.
Sunday, January 25,2009 17:12
by Gauravonomics Blog

Samantha M. Shapiro has a fascinating piece in New York Times on Egyptian youth using Facebook as a platform to organize anti-establishment protests.

She uses the protests during the Israel-Palestine Gaza crisis as a starting point to outline a history of online activism in Egypt and specifically looks at how Facebook — the third most-visited website in Egypt with almost 800,000 members, almost a tenth of Egypt’s online population — has become the center of anti-Mubarak dissent in the country.

As background, Egypt has been ruled since 1981 by Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party under a permanent state-of-emergency law which severely limits freedom of expression and the right to assemble. As a result, some of the most prominent Islamic (Abdel Monem Mahmoud) and liberal (Wael Abbas and Nora Younis) activists in Egypt have turned to the internet to spread their message and organize their protests.

The April 6 Youth Movement Facebook Group, which has more than 700000 members, is especially noteworthy. It was started last Spring by Esraa Rashid and Ahmad Maher to support the workers in Mahalla al-Kobra, an industrial town, who were planning to strike on April 6.

Shapiro sees the April 6 Youth Movement as a liberal alternative to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (Wikipedia). She also compares it to Kefaya (see Wikipedia and RAND Corporation case study), or the Egyptian Movement for Change, the loose coalition of anti-Mubarak but ideologically diverse socialist, leftist and Islamist groups that emerged in 2004.

However, the April 6 group has been far less successful in organizing offline protests recently, partly because of differences between Rashid and Maher.

Shapiro also quotes Ethan Zuckerman, who refers to his “cute-cat theory of digital activism” —

Web sites or proxy servers created specifically for activists are easy for a government to shut down… but around the world, dissidents thrive on sites, like Facebook, that are used primarily for more mundane purposes (like exchanging pictures of cute cats). Authoritarian regimes can’t block political Facebook groups without blocking all the “American Idol” fans and cat lovers as well… The government can’t simply shut down Facebook, because doing so would alert a large group of people who they can’t afford to radicalize.

Facebook has indeed emerged as an important platform to quickly mobilize support for causes (see DigiActive’s Introduction to Facebook Activism). However, it seems to me that Facebook has perhaps made activism too easy, whereas offline collective action remains difficult, resulting in a wide gap between online activism and offline action.

Which leaves us with three questions:

- How valuable is online activism without offline action?
- What are the conditions under which online activism leads to offline action?
- In general, how does one reduce the gap between online activism and offline action?


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