Facebook , gets a young Eygptian in trouble

July 8th, 2008 - 3:11 pm ICT by Amrit Rashmisrisethi  

When Egypt’s secular opposition groups called for a nationwide strike to support disgruntled factory workers last April, Ahmed Maher wanted to help. So he did what many middle-class 20’s do: He logged onto Facebook.

Esraa Abdel Fattah, started a group on the popular social-networking site to support the walkout and invited friends to join, they realized they had much more than just a new Facebook group on their hands. This was two weeks before the strike

“We started a group and sent it to 160 people on her friend list and 140 people on my friend list, and at the end of the day, there were almost 3,000 people in the group,” says Mr. Maher. “We were both really surprised.”

At the day of the strike, more than 60,000 Egyptians had joined the group.

When opposition leaders called a second strike, since the first one didn’t materialize, he decided to stay on the run till it was over. He slept in his car, under his desk at work, and in friends’ apartments.

“I heard rumors that state security might start taking people, so I got ready in case it happened to me,” he says. “I would drive my car somewhere deserted and sleep there, or sleep at work. I tried to disappear.”

In an interview last week, Maher says he was shackled, blindfolded, and stripped. He says the police dragged him across the floor and beat him for almost 12 hours. They demanded to know the password to his Facebook account and asked for information about the 60,000 people in the group, then threatened to rape him if he would not comply, he says.

“Maher’s treatment is part of a pattern of abuse and extralegal intimidation by state officials,” says Joe Stork, Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt needs to put an end to the lawlessness of its law enforcement officers.”

“The government must show that those responsible for upholding the law are also subject to the law,” he added, calling the SSI units “thugs.”

“In 2005 and 2006, a lot of young people were going out into the streets and telling people that the government has obligations and duties to protect them, and that they should demand their rights,” says Maher. “But the last few years, all these people have been arrested and tortured. Now we are back [to] the historical problem we have here, that everyone thinks that getting involved in politics is really dangerous,” he adds.

Maher says that he still receives harassing phone calls and threats of rape from the Egyptian authorities, but remains intent on transforming his Facebook group, which is still online, into a real political organization. He recently met with opposition leaders to brainstorm ideas for a movement called “Facebook Youth.”

“People are talking about Facebook the same way they used to talk about blogs and ‘the bloggers,’ saying that it is going to bring about freedom and change,” says a well-known Egyptian opposition blogger who goes by the name Sandmonkey. He doesn’t use his real name for fear of government reprisal. “It’s not going to bring about anything. These sites are just a way to express your opinions. It is just a bunch of disgruntled people sitting around online.”

He worries that Egyptians who join online anti-government groups will not want to take to the streets. Without actual contact, a movement is hard to build.

But the government’s response to Maher’s site shows that it is nonetheless concerned by Internet activism.

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