Egypt's Facebook front
Hosni Mubarak's administration may see the Muslim Brotherhood as its biggest threat, but it should probably be more concerned about Egypt's young online activists
Could Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who this month began his 30th year in office, have imagined he would have to conduct his political battles via computer? Via the "curse of the Internet"? Against bloggers and Facebook? Could he have conceived that one day he would have to relinquish his monopoly over public discourse to young people aged 18 to 25, who send messages to millions of potential voters in Egypt with the tap of a finger?
The Kafia (Enough ) movement, which was formally established in 2004, became active online during the 2005 election campaign. In its wake a dozen movements have arisen demanding regime change. Around the time when the Kafia website was established, the Muslim Brotherhood was also working on its own site. Each of these movements was immediately joined by long lists of bloggers, who helped foment demonstrations, strikes and an entire, new national discourse in which the regime has hardly any presence.
According to statistics published at internetworldstats.com, which tracks the distribution of Internet usage around the world, in 2000 there were only 450,000 internet users in Egypt. Now there are 18 million - approximately 22 percent of the population. This is also about the same proportion of the population that is between the ages of 18 and 27 - the segment likely to determine the outcome of the next election.
Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a Nobel Prize laureate, is now devoting most of his energies to this public. Although he has not yet declared himself a presidential candidate for next fall's election, his slogan is "Change will come via the young." His supporters have launched a Facebook group listing his demands for changing the constitution, and have more than 129,000 followers.
Supporters of the president's son Gamal Mubarak, considered the front-runner at present, set up their own Facebook group attacking ElBaradei, and published photos of his daughter Laila wearing a bathing suit.
The presidential election campaign, which has started early, is closely linked to the parliamentary elections scheduled for next month, under the assumption that the latter will be an early test of the presidential race. However, it appears the regime has not yet appreciated the essence of the demographic change: It believes the main threat is not young people, but rather the Muslim Brotherhood, which until recently was torn over whether to participate in the elections or to boycott them along with other opposition movements.
As the group wavered, debates flared online between bloggers and on Facebook. "For whom should I vote when it is the government that determines who gets elected?" wrote one reader in response to the coverage in the Al-Masri Al-Youm newspaper. "Don't make a laughingstock of yourselves - after all, you know that whether or not we vote, it's the government that decides," wrote another reader.
In the end the Brotherhood decided to run, and put together a list of about 160 candidates. Though it is an illegal movement and is prohibited from forming a political party, its candidates' identities are known and they will run as independents. In the previous elections they got 88 representatives (out of 454 ) into Parliament, and are now expecting to win nearly double that number of seats and become a powerful faction.
However, the number of candidates the Brotherhood hopes to get into parliament indicates it is not aspiring to "conquer the legislature" per se. It wants to demonstrate power but not be a threat. Otherwise, it would have put together a list of at least 300 candidates.
The regime is not impressed by the Muslim Brotherhood's "modest" approach, and considers it to be the main political threat. The regime is working against the movement both on the "traditional" level - nearly 200 activists have been arrested - and on the "electronic" level. First, the regime shut down four satellite stations that broadcast religious programming and informed them they would no longer be able to use Nilesat satellite services unless they upheld the terms of their licenses. These terms prohibit broadcasting content harmful to Christians and Shiites, limit religious content to 50 percent of all broadcasts, ban the broadcast of items "liable to disturb order and arouse civil war," and mandate allocating specific amounts of airtime to films and music.
Now, media and official bodies are also required to apply for a permit to disseminate messages via SMS. Movements that do not enjoy official status, like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Kafia movement, the National Association for Change headed by ElBaradei and the Nasserist Al-Karama party, cannot receive permits.
However, these restrictions - which have made Egypt a focus of international criticism - cannot prevent activity on Facebook or stop bloggers from disseminating messages via their own personal sites.
When both the demography of Egypt is working against the regime and the "arsenal" is changing, perhaps Mubarak himself - like his colleague President Shimon Peres - will also have to open a Facebook group.