Rumors of a Facebook block persist in Egypt



 
A recent surge of social activism among Egyptians has alerted the government to a networking force that has thus far eluded their control: Facebook. Since the 6 April general strike, rumor has it that the social networking website has been front and center on the Egyptian authorities' radar as they mull over the possibility of a block.
 
By APN
 
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A collection of banners from Egypt's April 6 Facebook group. R.R.

From a business perspective, Facebook is a success story of epic proportions, amalgamating more than 90 million users worldwide since its introduction in 2004. In the Arab world, the social networking platform is ranked among the top ten most visited websites on Alexa (number one in Lebanon and third in Egypt) and has become much more than a place for the region's young adults to stay up-to-date on the goings-on of their social circle.

The social networking powerhouse has become a venue for bloggers to express themselves, organize around political and social causes, and circulate information that would be considered taboo in other media. The general strike that unfolded in Egypt on April 6 was advertised on a Facebook group, which attracted more than 70,000 members and played a significant role in recruiting supporters and increasing turnout for the demonstrations.

Wael Nawara, an avid blogger and vice chairman of Egypt's El Ghad opposition party, once depended on independent El Ghad newspaper to represent an alternative voice to the official publications. The paper was founded in late 2004, with famed Al Dustour editor-in-chief Ibrahim Eissa at the helm, but after a string of scandals, the paper was finally banned in August 2007. Within days of the banning Nawara turned to Facebook as a channel to broadcast his oppositional message, initially starting with two groups: The Third Republic and Egypt Remembers.

'Facebook police'

"Facebook came as a surprise to everyone," Nawara explained. "When the government realized that tens of thousands of people and activists can be rallied in a few days time using viral communication techniques available on Facebook, they started to monitor the social network more closely. The word is that there is even a special division called the State Security Investigation Police for Facebook."

Nawara uses his theory of a "parallel state" to describe the popularity of Facebook in Egypt. He explains that "whenever a formal economic, social, cultural or legal subsystem fails to deliver the basic needs of the people" the people demonstrate "remarkable genius in devising parallel sub-systems to fill that gap, hole or deficit."

The political blogger believes that the overwhelming adoption of Facebook among Internet users in Egypt is a direct result of the masses learning to distrust the national newspapers, radio and TV stations, which Nawara says are "filled with government propaganda."

WaLeed KoraYem, a student in Cairo, broadcasts information and encourages debate about the desire for increased secularism in Egypt on a handful of Facebook groups. One of his groups, Yeah, We are Seculars and We are Proud, currently has 2,459 members, 30 posted videos and 266 topics on the discussion board.

KoraYem explains why he is active on Facebook saying, "There is no freedom of expression and there is no real mass media where we can speak our opinions; so we go to the Internet to speak our opinions with more freedom and increased range."

KoraYem admits to being more comfortable expressing his views and opinions through Facebook than via a personal blog or face-to-face communication, because it gives him a greater sense of community and allows him to elude the "undemocratic laws and rules" that govern public speech.

One million Egyptians on Facebook

However, he acknowledges the value in non-electronic media. "We can't replace the actual world of newspapers and political parties with the hypothetical world of the internet."

There are nearly 500,000 members of Facebook's regional Egypt network today, with another estimated half-million Egyptian members of the global network or belonging to one of the country's 19 college networks or 156 high school networks.

Facebook offers users a space to blog with the "Notes" feature; broadcast opinions on their "Wall," and the Wall's of their friends; post videos and photographs; and create groups and discussion boards where anybody with an opinion can share it with the world.

Though not all created by citizens of Egypt, there are currently more than 500 Facebook groups related to Egypt; some are strictly meant for socializing and amusement, while others act as meeting places for users to publish their thoughts on such topics as religion, politics and sexual harassment in a country where authorities continue to crack down on such topics in the mainstream media.

Perhaps this opportunity for free expression and dissemination of information is the reason why Egyptian authorities are threatening to block access to Facebook within the country. Nothing has been done to restrict access to the site as of yet, but the rumors continue to circulate and the potential to make Facebook disappear from computer monitors across Egypt is real.

University student Mohamed Nagib doesn't believe that a block on Facebook will actually happen. Speaking to the addictive nature of the network, Nagib says, "there are a million users in Egypt, I don't think all those can adapt to a life without Facebook."

Unstoppable?

More seriously, Nagib notes that he doesn't believe the social networking tool will be blocked because it is easy enough to punish those who misuse Facebook, since "tracing them has become easier."

If Egyptian authorities do go ahead with a Facebook, it will not be a first in the Arab world. Users in Tunisia have been unable to access the site since 18 August (leading to the creation of popular protest groups by Tunisian users bypassing the block with a proxy) and it has been blocked in Syria since November 2007.

While accessible right now in the United Arab Emirates, Facebook has been subject to short stints of unexplained inaccessibility over the past two years, which some bloggers believe to be a sign of the authorities testing the waters, seeing how much backlash would occur if they were to permanently block access to the country's seventh most popular website.

Nawara is optimistic.

"I think the time for censorship is gone," he says. "The government realizes this but they are trying until the last minute to slow the wheels of change. Forces of technology, changing cultures, changing modes of communication... This is a phenomenon that no government or alliance of governments can block. This is evolution and no one can stop evolution."



This article was republished with permission from The Arab Press Network (APN), a web portal by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN).