Rebels with a cause: Egypt's 'Facebook Youth'

Egypt is continuing to crack down on Internet users, be it the thirty young activists who were arrested in Alexandria in July and have since become known as the 'Facebook Youth,' or the new rules requiring WiFi users in Cairo's cafes to provide their personal information.
internet 6 april
Esraa Abdel Fatah and Ahmad Maher are founding members of Egypt's 'Facebook Youth.' Both have been subjected to arrest. R.R.

BEIRUT, August 12, 2008 (MENASSAT) – It was supposed to be a day-trip to the beach, and a commemoration of Egypt's 1952 revolution. But the day turned ugly when some thirty young Egyptians were arrested on July 23 in Alexandria for openly opposing the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak.

Many of the young activists detained were in their late teens and early twenties. They have since become known as "The Facebook Youth" because they were all members of the 64,000 member-strong Facebook group linked to the opposition April 6 Movement.

Fourteen of the detained activists were released between July 31 and August 4. None have been formally charged.


One demonstrator, Mohammed Abdel Aziz, told MENASSAT, "We were heading for Sidi Beshr beach [in Alexandria] on July 23, but a policeman prevented us from getting there. We had a large kite painted with the Egyptian flag and we were wearing T-shirts with a sign of April 6 Movement printed on them."

The April 6 Movement had called for a nationwide strike on April 6 against rising commodity prices and soaring wages, in support with the textile workers in the Nile Delta City of Mahalla. Three people were killed when workers took to the streets of Mahalla ripping up posters of President Mubarak.

Ahmed Maher was one of the fourteen activists arrested in July and released without charge. One of the administrators of the April 6 Facebook group, Maher said it was the third time he had been arrested for actions against the Egyptian regime.

"The July 23 event was not a huge demonstration. We weren't more than 100 people walking down the street when state security approached us and asked what we were doing."

Maher claims that some of the activists were beaten when they were taken into custody. Amnesty International later said the activists were denied visits throughout their detainment and weren't provided with enough food or clothing.

A legal complaint about the youths' mistreatment while in custody has been filed.

"It was the international attention, through Amnesty International and other activist efforts, that spurred the quick release of our members," Maher told MENASSAT.

Esraa Abdel Fattah, the 27-year old activist who originally started the Facebook group for set up the April 6 Movement, was detained along with several other Egyptian bloggers ahead of the planned rally in April. Abdel Fattah was later released after her mother made a personal appeal to the Egyptian Interior Minister, Habib Al-Adli.

Tracking WiFi users

Meanwhile, Egyptian NGO’s are accusing the government of increasing censorship on web usage in public cafes with wireless connections.

According to a statement issued by the Cairo-based Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), users are now asked to fill out a form providing their names, email addresses and phone numbers before using the Internet services in coffee shops.

"This regulation, which represents a clear invasion of privacy and a form of censorship on Internet users, became a reality a few months ago," ANHRI said.

Wael Abbas, of the popular blog Egyptian Awareness, said in a phone interview with MENASSAT that many of the big chain coffee shops in Cairo, such as Cilantro, Costa Coffee and Beanos, were enforcing the new rules.

"Those wanting to use the Internet are given a scratch card and instructed to log onto the home page of the Internet provider where they fill out their names and phone numbers. You can always fake your name , of course, but by giving out your phone number the government can track you through the Telecommunications authority," he said.

The blogger and human rights activist claims he first noticed the phenomenon three months ago, in the aftermath of the April 6 workers' strike which was mobilized in part through social networking on the Internet.  

"An Internet provider official told an Egyptian newspaper that they were doing it to decrease credit card and identity theft," Abbas said. "But if they were after money you would just buy a card with a user name and pin code. The fact that you have to give them your name and phone number does not support that theory."

The ANHRI echoed Abbas' assessment. "This severely abusive procedure comes to prove the security policies and aims to impose constraints and censorship on the Internet users with assistance of the Internet and telecommunications service companies."

And a draft media bill leaks out

Indeed, the Egyptian regime appears determined to keep President Mubarak's cyber critics at bay. Following the recent wave of arrests, a controversial draft bill providing the Egyptian government with greater control over the mass media was leaked to the Egyptian press last month.

The would-be legislation would grant President Mubarak total control over all visual and audio transmissions in Egypt, including the Internet. If passed, Facebook activists and bloggers would face legal repercussions under the new bill.

But Egypt's outspoken bloggers appear equally determined to their cause.

"Word has it today that there is a cafe in the Dokki area of Cairo that does not require Internet users to provide their personal information," said Wael Abbas.