Facebook Youth challenge Egypt’s ruling party with cyber-conference

Egyptian activists and opposition leaders held a cyber-conference in Cairo last weekend to draw attention away from the ruling National Democratic Party's official conference. It is yet another example of how determined Egypt's so-called 'Facebook Youth' is in helping to spearhead new forms of dissent.
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The slogan for last weekend's cyber-conference was Ma tsada'ash or Don't Believe. R.R.

CAIRO, November 6, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Under the slogan Ma tsada’sh (Don't Believe), a 4-day cyber conference was launched by members of the April 6 opposition movement in Egypt to counter the annual conference of the country's ruling National Democratic Party.

The cyber-conference was the first of its kind and a significant political milestone because no one had dared to organize an opposition conference at the same time as the ruling party conference.

At its core were a small but powerful group of opposition activists and heads of opposition parties, including cyber-activists associated with the 'Facebook Youth' and April 6 movements that came to the forefront after they helped call for a nationwide strike on April 6 against rising commodity prices and soaring wages.

That demo was in support with the textile workers in the Nile Delta City of Mahalla, and three people died in a subsequent government crackdown on workers who took to the streets of Mahalla ripping up posters of President Hosni Mubarak.

According to the organizers, last weekend's cyber-conference was meant to gather the opposition to answer "the imaginative claims of accomplishments made by the (ruling) nationalist party."

The spy's minority'

The cyber-conference website is a smorgasbord of multi-media offerings, and features recorded commentary and critiques by activists and opposition leaders, all gathered under the umbrella of "The Spy's Minority."

As one organizer told MENASSAT, "We used the phrase 'The Spy's Minority' because that's what we are. We are moles planted inside the corruption circle, which has spread in our country. A minority seeking justice and freedom, seeking to reform Egypt."

"The spy's minority" is also a phrase used by the regime and the ruling party to describe any opposition party in Egypt. It was coined by former President Anwar al-Sadat during the 1968 student protests. And like the 1968 student protests, the cyber-conference was also a youth driven enterprise.

A conference statement read:

"We will answer them and expose them to the whole world, with opinions, numbers and statistics. We will show all those who don't know them that they are liars. And if we suspect that some people don't know about their lies, we will expose their lies and failures in the sectors of health, education, development, fighting poverty and corruption. We will show everyone the true face of reform, and that the new mind is nothing but a lie and a deception added to their lies which has lasted for 28 years."

On the organization's blog, young people wrote that the conference was an attempt to raise the readers' awareness, because "every year, they say the same things. Every year, they cook up the same lies. For years, they've repeated their words about the path to future prosperity – something we are not living, a luxury we are not feeling."

Forced to move online

Ahmad Maher, the general coordinator of the April 6 movement, told MENASSAT in a chat session, "The Internet is our field, and the Facebook group freaks the security forces out!"

"In the beginning, we were working against the national party, presenting alternatives suggested by scholars and specialists in Egyptian political matters. At the same time, we wanted to expose corruption and try to stop the brainwashing of the people. However, we failed to do that on the ground, and the security forces were watching us. So let the web be our playground," Maher said.

Eman, another activist in the movement told MENASSAT, "Before the conference, we thought of posting fliers in the streets, but people are nowadays afraid of fliers. These are no longer effective."

"Then we thought of creating a coalition, which failed as well. When the date of their conference came close, we thought of organizing a parallel opposition conference. When we tried to have it in the Journalists' Syndicate or another syndicate, the security forces refused. We had no other choice but the Internet."

Concerning the role of the Internet, Maher said that social networking sites like Facebook are "terrorizing the security forces" because he said they can't control it.

"We are not a party or an association with interests and political rules. We are just a group of young people wanting change without any interests or returns."

Freedom of speech online

During the first virtual conference for "The Spy's Minority," all the opposition leaders attacked the national party and demanded its leaders step down.

Oussama Ghazali Harb, head of the Democratic Front Party, said in this speech during the conference, "Egypt is living a miserable period, and the national party will not present any new matter in its program and policies. The party, after 30 years of failure in the management of Egypt and in providing a good life to the citizens, should leave, as any party that fails in any democratic state."

Hamdin al-Sabahi, head of Al-Karama, a new opposition party, said, "The national party is not allowed to talk about social justice with people it slaughtered with its own hands and policies. Their conference presents politics to soothe the pain, and promises resembling charity for the people."

The assistant secretary general of Egypt's Labor Party, Majdi Qarqar, told MENASSAT, "What encouraged me to join the conference was a chance to work with these young people and participate in the conference. I found the ability to innovate, create and persevere despite the lack of possibilities."

"The ruling party is relying on the resources of the state to organize a useless conference," Qarqar said. "As for the youths, they are practically without any resources. They were able to organize a useful and effective conference with their private efforts."