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The end of the beginning: The failure of April 6th and the future of electronic activism in Egypt

Issue 9, Fall 2009

By David M. Faris

From Digiactive.org under a Creative Commons License

From Digiactive.org under a Creative Commons License

Observers of the Egyptian April 6th Facebook Group and its online mobilization in 2008 lavished attention on the possibilities of so-called “Facebook activism.” Western journalists and activists alike touted the potential of using Facebook to organize, a process imagined as “tapping into the ready-made structure of online social networks to make joining a group as quick as a click of a button.”[1] On the valuable piece of real estate known as the Washington Post’s op-ed page, Nir Boms hailed Facebook as the latest weapon against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. “Facebook,” he claimed, “is quickly turning into a hotbed of ‘actual’ activism - a cause for alarm for many autocratic regimes in the Middle East....”[2] Newsweek’s Jack Fairweather called Facebook “an important platform for dissent” in the Middle East.[3]

 

Much of this attention was inspired by the perceived success of the April 6th Facebook activists in organizing a general strike in authoritarian Egypt. Barely a year later, however, local and global enthusiasm for the potential of Facebook activism was severely challenged when the group’s one-year follow-up strike ended as a highly publicized failure. Particularly in Egypt, Facebook activism is now dismissed as useless at best, and the failure of the April 6th group to engender a lasting political movement has come to symbolize the futility of even trying. However, a closer look at what really happened on April 6th of each year may offer some hope for the future of electronic activism in Egypt, as well as a more realistic appraisal of its possibilities and limitations. In particular, we need to understand how Facebook and other applications of Web 2.0 might contribute to the kind of broad-based grassroots political coalition that could in fact force the Mubarak regime into a genuine process of democratization.[4]

 

Activism and demonstrations in authoritarian Egypt

 

In Khaled Al Khamissi’s wildly popular Taxi, the author relates a conversation with a cab driver who ridicules the size of a Cairo street demonstration held by the opposition group Kefaya [5]. “In the old days,” said the driver, “we used to go out on the streets with 50,000 people, with 100,000. But now there’s nothing that matters.”[6] The driver located what he called “the beginning of the end” with the bread riots that rattled the Sadat regime in January 1977. The regime quashed that proto-revolution, “And since then the government has planted in us a fear of hunger….They planted hunger in the belly of every Egyptian, a terror that made everyone look out for himself or say ‘Why should I make it my problem?’” Clearly rattled by the driver, who was able to recall the exact dates of the 1977 demonstrations, Al Khamissi wondered what “the end” actually was.

 

Perhaps the end was the decades-long interregnum in street protests in Egypt, a pause that seemingly came to a close with the Second Intifada and the demonstration wave that has swept Egypt since 2003. But it is certainly true that opposition forces outside of the labor movement have struggled to put those kinds of numbers on the streets – a feat that might truly threaten the regime of Hosni Mubarak and the emergency law that has governed Egypt throughout his near 28 years of rule. Most demonstrations today consist of more riot police and plainclothes police (the dreaded bultagiyya, or thugs) than actual demonstrators. Al Khamissi’s driver put his finger on precisely the obstacle to collective action that plagues any attempt to spur change from below in Egypt – the question of why anyone should make anything their problem.

 

This assumption of apathy is perhaps why the regime appeared so threatened by the April 6, 2008 general strike, above and beyond the labor-based tumult that took place in Mahalla, north of Cairo. A Facebook group, which gathered more than 70,000 supporters in a few short weeks, organized a sympathy strike with the Mahalla textile workers that drew national and international attention, and arguably succeeded in shutting down daily activity in parts of Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt. If nothing else, the state took the threat of these activists quite seriously, even  political observers in the country dismissed them as an ephemeral phenomenon, or worse, as dilettantes distracting organizers from the hard work of building a real opposition movement.

 

Since the 2008 strike, the leaders of the April 6th Youth Movement, as it came to be called, have been harassed and imprisoned, and the movement itself is now riven with the kind of factional splits the regime has long exploited to destroy its opposition, its de facto leader accused of seeking money from an American organization believed to have ties to the CIA. And the 2009 follow-up strike, staged on the one-year anniversary of the 2008 action, was widely regarded a colossal failure, another end to another beginning.

Like most political protests in Egypt today, it consisted of a few demonstrators surrounded by riot police, and the Egyptian public apparently ignored the call to stay at home in protest. This 2009 failure has led to an epidemic of cynicism, with activists believing that the halting openings in Egyptian public life that appeared between 2003 and 2006 have now been closed for good.

 

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[1]Jay, Paul. “The Rise of Facebook Activism.” CBC News. September 9, 2008. http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2008/09/05/f-online-protest.html

[2]Boms, Nil. “Facebook in the Middle East.” The Washington Post, June 2, 2008. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2008/jun/26/facebook-in-the-middle-east/

[3]Fairweather, Jack. “Egypt's Facebook Revolution.” Islam's Advance. May 13, 2008. http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal/islamsadvance/2008/05/egypts_facebook_revolution.html

[4] Web 2.0 refers to internet applications that emphasize collaboration, sharing, and linking among users. Examples include the auction site eBay, the social networking site Facebook, a service that allows users to share links – del.ici.ous, and the photo-sharing site Flickr.

[5] Kefaya literally means “Enough” in Egyptian Arabic; the organization took shape in 2004, dedicated to ending the authoritarian system of Hosni Mubarak. For more information, see Shorbaghy, Manar. “The Egyptian Movement For Change – Kefaya: Redefining Politics in Egypt.” Public Culture 19/1 (2007): 175-196 and El-Mahdi, Rabab, “Enough: Egypt’s Quest for Democracy.” Comparative Political Studies 42/8 (2009): 1011-1039.

[6]Al Khamissi, Khaled. Taxi. Translated by Jonathan Wright. Wiltshire, UK: Aflame Books, 2008. Pp. 24-25.

[7]Interview with Hossam El-Hamalawy, Cairo, Egypt, May 27, 2009.

[8] “What to make of the ‘general strike’. The Arabist. April 7th, 2008. http://arabist.net/archives/2008/04/07/what-to-make-of-the-general-strike/

[9]Arab Network For Human Rights Information. “Istihdaf al-mudawineen al-masriyeen: arad al-mustamir.”  http://www.katib.org/node/7888

[10] The Infitah refers to the economic opening and restructuring first inaugurated by President Anwar Sadat, which has gained momentum under the leadership of President Hosni Mubarak.

[11] “ of April 6th…again!” Rantings of a Sandmonkey. April 6th 4th, 2009. http://www.sandmonkey.org/2009/04/04/-of-April 6thagain/

[12] El-Hamalawy, Hossam. “Revolt in Mahalla.” International Socialist Review 59 (May-June 2008). http://www.isreview.org/issues/59/rep-mahalla.shtml

[13] Pripstein-Posusney, Marsha. Labor and the State in Egypt: Workers, Unions and Economic Restructuring.

[14] Abdelhamid, Doha. “Mind the Gap.” Al-Ahram Weekly. 14-20 May 2009.

[15] Carr, Sarah. “Doctors’ Group Skeptical of Wage Increase Promised By Government.” Daily News Egypt. July 1, 2008.

[16]Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.

[17] Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2008. p. 221.

[18] “A Joint Statement by Ahmed Maher and Diaa Elsawy on the April 6 youth movement and the stand for foreign involvement.” Islamonline. Discussion forum. May 28, 2009. http://www.islamonline.net/discussione/thread.jspa?messageID=176658

[19]Interviews with Ahmed Abdel Fattah, Cairo, Egypt, June 14, 2009, and Mohamed El-Gohary, Cairo, Egypt, June 13, 2009.

[20]6 April 2009, General Strike in Egypt.” 6 April Movement. Saturday, April 4, 2009. http://6aprilmove.blogspot.com/2009/04/6-april-2009-general-strike-in-egypt.html

[21] Zuckerman, Ethan. “Prost and Cons of Facebook Activism.” ...My Heart's in Accra. February 8, 2008. http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/02/08/pros-and-cons-of-facebook-activism/

[22]Conversation with April 6th movement leader, Cairo, Egypt, June 10, 2009.

[23] http://6aprilmove.blogspot.com

[24]Zuckerman, Ethan. “Pros and Cons of Facebook Activism.” ...My Heart's in Accra. February 8, 2008. http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/02/08/pros-and-cons-of-facebook-activism/

[25]Interview with Hossam El-Hamalawy. Cairo, Egypt, May 27, 2009.

[26] Interview with Demagh MAK. Cairo, Egypt, June 18, 2009.

[27]Interview with April 6th movement leader, Cairo, Egypt, June 10, 2009.

[28] “Egypt: Increase in Censorship and Internet Users’ Privacy Violation.” Arab Network For Human Rights Information. Press Release. August 9, 2008.

[29]Several mobile phone service centers in Zamalek refused to sell me this device in May and June of 2009 without proof of residency in Egypt and requested my passport and address.

[30] Zittrain, Jonathan. The Future of the Internet – And How To Stop It.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

[31] Foster, Patrick. Iran election: state moves to end ‘Facebook revolution.’” Times Online.  June 14th, 2009. http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/article6497569.ece

[32] Hendler, James and Jennifer Golbeck. “Metcalfe’s Law, Web 2.0 and the Semantic Web.” http://www.cs.umd.edu/~golbeck/downloads/Web20-SW-JWS-webVersion.pdf

[33]The April 6th organizers Mohamed Adel, for instance was detained for several months in 2008.

[34] Elaasar, Aladdin. “Is Egypt Stable?” Middle East Quarterly 16/3 (Summer 2009): 69-75.

[35]El-Ghobashy, Mona. “Constitutionalist Contention in Egypt.” American Behavioral Scientist, April 29, 2008. P.7

[36] El-Hamalawy, Hossam. “Tanta Flax strike continues.” 3Arabawy. August 11th, 2009. http://arabist.net/arabawy/2009/08/11/tanta-flax-strike-continues-2/

 

[37]Interview with Hossam El-Hamalawy, Cairo, Egypt, May 27, 2009

[38] Rutherford, Bruce K. Egypt After Mubarak. 2008.