Facebook Faceoff

As spite spurs activism among the nation’s youth, Egypt contemplates banning Facebook- the infamous Social Networking Site (SNS) that has taken the country by storm.

The rising food prices and consequential rise in cost of living in Egypt has caused a great deal of unrest, especially in the lower strata of society. Interestingly, though, it is the middle and upper classes that have been using the Internet (namely social networking sites) and other digital goods as a medium to organize protests and strikes comprising of over 80,000 people. Despite the class divide that is apparent in the Egyptian social structure, it seems that their mutual dislike of the governing system has united them, and thus instilled the use of Facebook and other social networking sites as a means to ‘spread the word.’

In a Los Angeles Times’ op-ed, Sherif Mansour (of the US based human rights group Freedom House) wrote that the Egyptian government is considering blocking Facebook soon; a site that the Egyptian government heeds as an eminent threat to the ruling National Democratic party. Mansour praises Facebook’s ability, or rather the medium it provides for activists, to mobilize and engage massive numbers of young Egyptians. This was confirmed by the crucial role the site played in recent protests against textile workers’ salaries and soaring food prices. Facebook is lauded for having opened real space for media and also for providing a venue for secular activists- as opposed to the Islamist opposition representing the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

The opinion of the Egyptian government, however, differs. Facebook and other social networking activists are being targeted by government-based media campaigns defaming the website and the youth activists who use it. In fact, Egypt has the third highest number of Facebook users - after the U.S. and Canada – but this has not gone unnoticed, and so the deliberation on banning the site altogether continues.

Thus, the government and its state-run media are lashing out against what Mansour describes as the “Facebook movement” and authorities have jailed dissidents like Ahmed Maher who was also tortured for his activities. Young activists have flocked to the site to choreograph widespread protests against President Hosni Mubarak’s 27- year rule as it is the perfect tool for them to voice their opinions, especially in a country that outlaws gatherings of more than five people. With the use of blog sites, Facebook and YouTube, their messages can now be projected not only within the country but also globally.
“They [the government] were horrified by Facebook because it was something totally new that they could not control,” says Nadia, a key promoter of a recent day-long general strike in which three protestors were shot dead and 400 were jailed, including her.

For now the government is only contemplating and hasn’t, as yet, taken any immediate actions to carry out their threats. The only thing that can be stopping them, it seems, is the outrage that will occur with the banning of such a popular site or the fact that many commercial businesses and companies in Egypt use the site to attract consumers and would suffer heavily if it were to be banned.

But is that enough reason to stop the government? Well, that is yet to be seen.

-Kanupriya Tewari