In DepthThe QuestionActivism and state tolerance: what’s next for Egypt?


Posted on Tuesday, 08 February 2011 09:39

Activism and state tolerance: what’s next for Egypt?

By Khadija Sharife

The lessons for the authorities in Cairo echo those learned too late in Tunis: cracking down on dissent is not so easy when social network sites and citizen bloggers can gain a global audience in a matter of days. But how does Egypt’s low-profile military actually view the changes now sweeping the country?

There was probably no way for the authorities to prevent the uprising of millions of citizens in Egypt, a country characterised by staggering inequality, human rights violations and corruption. This was especially true after the uprising in neighbouring Tunisia toppled the dictatorship of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali with such astonishing speed. In Cairo alone, there may have been as many as two million protestors at some recent rallies. A nation of usually non-confrontational people has awoken to reclaim the streets, their human rights, and their dignity.

In many ways, the sustained resistance of the youth, drawing strength from their courage and conviction, their rage and despair, is a genuine intifada borne of the old and the new. Traditional methods of communication such as pamphlets, faxes, landlines and ‘stealth meetings’ in homes, street corners and mosques, have been augmented by virtual congregations on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

These cyber-rallies have the obvious advantage of bypassing the dangers inherent to geographically fixed meeting points. In an age where information moves at the speed of light, the internet has become both a brawny social muscle that can be collectively flexed, as well as a vehicle used by repressive states to track and counter activists.

In Iran, where internet penetration rates are estimated at 35%, most service has been disrupted during periods of unrest. However, the government has usually allowed citizens to continue accessing Twitter as a means of intelligence gathering to monitor protests.

In Tunisia, Facebook proved critical when 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who fatally set himself alight in protest at constant police harassment, left a message on the networking site asking his mother for forgiveness. After this was picked up by the Al Jazeera news network, global awareness of the mounting Tunisian rebellion was generated, becoming instrumental in the uprising gaining such swift momentum.

Citizen narratives vs. government backlash

The extraordinary recent events in Tunisia and Egypt have been documented in large part through the use of citizen-generated social media - a substitute for traditional reporting following the suspension of many publications – allowing ordinary people to ‘narrate’ their own struggles.

Moreover, traditional media outlets have often used citizen narratives as a form of transmitting information, leveling the playing field in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel where news outlets are often heavily influenced by, or in favour of, the regimes in power.

Unlike Tunisia, where over a third of the population has internet access, penetration is much lower in Egypt at around 15%. And those accessing the internet in Egypt, such as followers of the April 6 Facebook movement, face a number of obstacles. Among the biggest of these is that operating licenses for internet services are provided by the government, allowing them to access data and know the locations of users, as well as being able to cut connectivity without prior warning.

This makes life very difficult for people such as Wael Ghonim, Google's head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa. Ghonim was released on Monday having spent a week in custody after attending a protest organised by the April 6 movement on 25 January. He rejoined protests in Tahrir Square and went straight back on twitter.

As in Tunisia, where leaked cables provided by WikiLeaks disclosed that the US did not consider Ben Ali an ‘ally’ and preferred his removal from power, Washington has long been collaborating with key leaders from the April 6 movement. The WikiLeaks cables confirmed a change of government in Egypt was predicted in 2011, allowing for negotiations with other parties.

Generally portrayed by the American media as the lesser of two possible evils, President Hosni Mubarak's rule has long been justified by the US as a bastion against militant Islam. But in recent years, bloggers pushing for democratic change have peeled back the myth of the regime. One of Egypt's best-known English-language bloggers, Sandmonkey, was arrested on 2 February while delivering medical supplies to Tahrir Square. He claims he was then roughed up in prison and his blog suspended until his release the next day.

Activists can achieve global profiles

In one of his previous blog posts, he described his extreme fatigue, having been on the run for days. He wrote how “the situation here is bleak to say the least. It didn’t start out that way. On Tuesday January 25 it all started peacefully, and against all odds, we succeeded to gather hundreds of thousands and get them into Tahrir Square, despite being attacked by anti-riot police who are using sticks, tear gas and rubber bullets against us.”

Sandmonkey went on to write: “I was shot at twice that day, [once] with a semi-automatic by a dude in a car that we, the people, took joy in pummeling. The government announced that all prisons were breached, and that the prisoners somehow managed to get weapons and do nothing but randomly attack people. One day we had organized thugs in uniforms firing at us, and the next day they disappeared and were replaced by organized thugs without uniforms firing at us. Somehow the people never made the connection.”

Ahmed Maher, a leader of the April 6 movement whose protest plans have been regularly intercepted by security agents, was also presumed to have been arrested or detained. In an interview with Maher on 2 February, Wired magazine learned he had not been arrested, but would not say whether or not he had been roughed up by the police.

Rewind two years. On 6 February 2009, Philip Rizk, an Egyptian-German filmmaker, was abducted from a police station by secret service agents in the city of Qalyubia, north of Cairo. Rizk had been arrested while campaigning for humanitarian support to Gaza. He claims he was taken to a secret location three floors beneath the surface in unidentified facilities and constantly interrogated about “my activism, my writing, everything.” He was released after being held for four days.

In all likelihood, Rizk may not have been freed so soon, if at all, had his friends and colleagues not mounted an international campaign that caught the attention of the New York Times. Such abductions are par for the course in Egypt, where detainees are routinely held without trial or access to legal representation.

What is the present role of Egypt’s military?

Under the guise of ‘reform’ at the state level, the military has further embedded itself within Egypt’s newly appointed cabinet. When asked about the elevation to vice president of Omar Sulieman, Egypt's former chief of intelligence and Mubarak’s right-hand man, Rizk told The Africa Report that “Egyptians understand this for what it is. It represents no change. As soon as the announcement was made, protestors began chanting against Sulieman, identified as a man of the regime.”

The military has been portrayed by international media as sympathetic, or even protective of the protestors. But very little is known about who controls the armed forces.

Egypt specialist Joshua Stacher of Kent State University recently told CNN that “the military's refusal to act is a highly political act which shows that it is allowing the Egyptian regime to reconstitute itself at the top and is highly, utterly against the protesters.”

But will the US listen? If the military is the power backing the regime, and is financed annually to the tune of $1.3bn by the US government – the US's second largest aid recipient in the world, after Israel – who is responsible for Mubarak's dictatorship?

According to Na'eem Jeenah, executive director of the Johannesburg-based think tank Afro-Middle East Centre, “the whole notion that we've been exposed to recently of these soldiers as benevolent protectors is a myth. In the lower and middle ranks, there is certainly potential for soldiers to switch sides. But it has been a move by those on top to provide a good image of the military, and those from below, who want to win over the soldiers. Some thought it was a great thing when the cabinet was dissolved, but what we're really seeing is the removal of business people and the entrenchment of the military, to ensure that they have the control in the new government.”

Jeenah told The Africa Report that the military had long been in control of key sectors of the country's political economy. In his view, it has “a well designed plan to pace the process and timing of change, to secure the army's role in government and the economy.”

“Once the sun sets,” said Jeenah, “the army will go in and clean up the protestors.”

Even without its figurehead, the Mubarak machinery will be able to ensure the continuation of the same repressive and brutal tactics. Social media can act as the watchdog, when and if the Egyptian government allows it, but who in Egypt will respond to the watchdog?

Last Updated on Tuesday, 08 February 2011 11:01

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