Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Net Benefit?

-Cairo - April 2008
-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'

Government hypocrisy is so endemic in Egypt, and its practitioners so blatant in their craft, that the worst displays of naked phoniness in the public sphere often go unchallenged. Given their frequency, it would take an inordinate amount of energy to greet each new example of sanctimonious tripe from ruling politicians with anything more than a weary sigh of resignation.

Which is why under-fire prime minister Ahmed Nazif must have been so surprised to find himself interrupted by a heckler when he spoke to students at Cairo University last week. Nazif had been waxing lyrical about the merits of the internet, and was just in the middle of encouraging young Egyptians to use the web to express their opinions when a member of the audience stood up and loudly pointed out that all those who had followed Nazif's advice in recent weeks were now sitting behind bars.

Belal Diab, the 20-year-old literature student responsible, was swiftly bundled off by security officials - but not before most of the audience had erupted into passionate applause for the young man. The prime minister's hollow praise for the internet as a tool of social empowerment in the world's most populous Arab country, and the simple way in which Diab demolished that pretence, reveals much about the ambiguous part new technology is playing in Egypt's growing opposition movement.

The internet's role in fuelling the wave of protests that swept the country on April 6 has been picked over endlessly by local and international media, and with good reason. In a state where public outlets for expressing discontent are few and far between, the relatively unregulated world of the web is becoming a focal point for a new generation of potential dissidents.

A Facebook group which helped co-ordinate some of the public actions earlier this month has seen its membership rise to more than 70,000 in the past week, as the next round of planned demonstrations against the regime - President Hosni Mubarak's birthday on May 4 - fast approaches. Egypt's vibrant blogging community has long been at the forefront of political activism and is quick to harness technological developments such as Twitter's micro-blogging service, which some journalists and protesters utilised on April 6 to stay one step ahead of the police.

The government's response to online opposition has been predictably schizophrenic. Even as leading politicians like Nazif publicly "embraced" cyberspace, scores of online activists were being detained. Esra Abdel Fattah, the founder of the April 6 Facebook group, was arrested the day before the protests, and has only just been released. In tandem with the security crackdown on web opposition to the regime, state-controlled media outlets have been promoting a vitriolic campaign against the web itself.

In the past week al-Ahram newspaper ran a feature on "The dark realm of the internet in Egypt: revealing pictures, obscenities, and incitement to commit violence". Al-Gomhuriya called upon its readers to boycott Facebook and Youtube, and Rose el-Youssef magazine declared that Facebook "is a secret room aimed at running Egypt".

But the really interesting debate here isn't over the official reaction to online activism, which was always going to be as fierce as it was two-faced. Rather, it is the questions swirling around opposition currents themselves - questions as to whether the internet is really as progressive and effective a tool in shaping public protest in Egypt as many, at home and abroad, have excitedly made it out to be. At the heart of these concerns lies the nature of the opposition movement itself, and uncertainty over what outcome it is trying to achieve.

The country's last major uprising against the government took place back in 1977, when President Sadat's free-market reforms sent prices spiralling and threatened the supply of subsidised bread to the poor. A similar situation prevails today, and for millions of Egypt's long-suffering families, it is this financial squeeze - and not the demands for democratisation and political pluralism that motivate much of the younger, web-savvy generation - that is driving their dissatisfaction with Mubarak's rule.

More than ever, it is the government's American-backed neoliberal economic reform measures that are creating real hardship in Egypt, with Nazif's cabinet pushing through a ruthless programme of privatisation since taking office in 2004. And, as Professor Joel Benin has persuasively argued, the real potential for meaningful change in this context lies in the increasing number of collective actions by the working class; the number of strikes appears to have been rising almost exponentially in the past few years, and some significant concessions have been won by workers.

Talk of old-style industrial militancy and trade union committees sounds like it belongs in a different world from the bright new universe inhabited by the likes of Facebook and Twitter, and in many ways the two do have an uneasy relationship. For a start, only 7.5% of Egypt's 80m citizens have stable access to the internet; needless to say, those that do enjoy that privilege aren't, for the most part, the ones feeling the pinch of rising bread prices. Nor are they the ones leading the walkouts on factory floors. This is a problem; how can a unified opposition movement be constructed over the internet if most of the movement's foot-soldiers can't play a part in its organisation?

This leads into an important argument over who is leading whom when it comes to initiating public action against the regime. The legions of cyber-activists have been quick to celebrate their role in building the April 6 protests, despite the fact that the only reason April 6 became a flashpoint was because of the decision of textile workers in the city of Mahalla to hold a major strike that day. Buoyed by their success, online opponents of Mubarak have thrown themselves into preparations for May 4 - but seemingly without co-ordinating with trade union leaders or trying to bring working-class based collectives into the picture.

This approach has split the blogging community, and one of its most influential members has already declared that he does not endorse the demand for a general strike in May. "This is a call that is coming from the cyberspace by bloggers, 'Facebook activists' and the Islamist-leaning Labour Party whose leaders have declared themselves more or less as some 'provisional government' in cyber-exile," wrote Hossam el-Hamalawy last week. "We, the Egyptian bloggers, have always prided ourselves on the fact that we have one foot on the ground and the other in the cyberspace ... But this time, it seems some have thrown both their feet as well as brains [into] cyberspace."

In the fight against Egypt's ruling clique, the divide between the so-called "Facebook activists" and working-class Egyptians is not insurmountable. The former do not form a homogenous bloc; some bloggers, such as el-Hamalawy, are acutely aware of the importance of working-class struggle within the movement, and even the contentious April 6 Facebook group refers on its homepage to the problems of businessmen being close to the seat of power, and demands an end to price rises and an increase in the national minimum wage - all concerns shared by industrial workers. Moreover, when it comes to political opposition, the internet is not solely the preserve of spectacular calls for general strikes; local struggles, such as the battle by residents of the Mediterranean town of Damietta against the constructors of a huge new fertiliser plant in the region, have also found a voice on the web.

Clearly the internet has a vital role to play in channelling resistance movements in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. But those leading the online charge must recognise the limitations as well as the opportunities of the medium if they want to work towards a genuine mass-level mobilisation of opposition to the government. The vast majority of Egyptians have been socially and politically disfranchised by their rulers for decades; the "Facebook activists" cannot risk making the same the mistake.

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