Revenge of the pyjamahedeen

In the old days when you wanted to suppress a general strike you just sent in the troops to crack some heads. Nowadays, Egypt's security forces are facing an army of Internet-savvy activists using Twitter, Facebook, text messaging and blogging as their weapons.
In order to better squelch street protests Egyptian authorities have taken to preemptive arrests of activist bloggers. © Jano Charbel

BEIRUT/CAIRO, April 7, 2008 (MENASSAT) – It's Monday morning, the day after a general strike in Egypt was partly thwarted by a preemptive crackdown by the country's security forces. In his Cairo apartment, award-winning blogger Wael Abbas is frantically typing away on his blog, Egyptian Awareness, and uploading photos from the street rallies. The Egyptian news is blaring in the background and Abbas' mobile phone is constantly beeping from incoming text messages.

Abbas has been at it for hours; providing fellow activists, the media, and random Internet users with the latest updates on the uprisings that are currently sweeping through his country. Photos on his blog show protesters shouting slogans in Cairo's main square, Midan Tahrir, before a field of security troops and plainclothes officers. On Abbas' blog is a link to his Twitter account where one can find out precisely who has been arrested, released, and re-arrested over the past two days.

It is a picture of Egypt that the authorities do not want the outside world to see. And while the state-run mainstream media routinely oblige the government by ignoring the protests, Egypt's bloggers are not so easily shut up.

Which goes a long way to explain why among yesterday's detainees were not only demonstrators and political activists but also a number of bloggers.

"Malik, Sharkawy and several independent bloggers as well as some web activists from the labor party were detained," Abbas told MENASSAT over the phone.

The strike in Cairo and in the industrial city of Mahalla el-Kubra was directed against rising prices, stagnating wages and the increasing gap between rich and poor in Egypt.


To be sure, last weekend's protest was not quite the national uprising against the regime of president Hosni Mubarak it was billed to be – thousands of riot police made sure of that.

Nearly 300 demonstrators were reportedly arrested. At least two schools were burned to the ground and security troops were met by stone-throwing crowds around the factories of Mahalla el-Kubra, the nucleus of the nation's textile industry.

In downtown Cairo, the streets were mostly empty as demonstrators were confronted by hundreds of trucks filled with anti-riot troops. One security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told MENASSAT that the security forces had been given the green light to use "tough methods" in order to retain control of the streets.

Egypt’s outspoken bloggers constitute one of the most active blogging communities in the Arab world and their online activism has become a constant pain for the authorities. Waging war on the regime from their bedrooms, they sometimes proudly refer to themselves as the "pyjamahedeen."

In a country where rights groups cite a deteriorating press environment and severe crackdowns on free speech, the web activists are often the first to break stories on sensitive issues, such as police abuse and torture. Moreover, their activities often play a key role in the organizing of demonstrations and anti-governmental rallies.

"The role of the bloggers in Egypt is really important. People depend on us to receive news and to know what’s happening in the country," blogger Wa7damasrya (Egyptian girl) told MENASSAT.

A journalist in Cairo said, "One must read the blogs these days in order to find out what’s really happening in Egypt."

But the authorities are catching on, and web activism in Egypt comes with a price tag these days. Many bloggers claim to have been subjected to arrest, harassment, detainment, and even imprisonment - an indication to that the regime is becoming increasingly aware of the power of web activism.

Last weekend's protests were no exception. Egyptian activists started campaigning online a few weeks ago, urging their fellow citizens to participate in a nation-wide protest. 

Preemptive arrests of bloggers

The crowds soon mobilized in large numbers on the blogs and through the popular social networking site Facebook and mobile phone text messaging. The Facebook group that was created for the event has almost 2,000 members.

"I first heard about the strike through an email and then I joined the Facebook group," said Dahlia, a public relations employee at a private firm in Cairo.

Emails and text messages urged people to not leave their homes on Sunday. "Don't go to work, don't go to school," became the adopted slogan.

On Sunday afternoon, the virtual protest moved into the real world when a thousand protestors gathered in downtown Cairo shouting anti-government slogans such as "Down down with Mubarak" - and were met by a huge force of very real members of the security forces.

Wa7damasreya, who attended the rally, referred to the event as a clear illustration of the "terrorism of the state," saying she came close to being arrested herself.

"State security tried to confiscate my camera. Several students from the American University were taken away. It was completely chaotic," she told MENASSAT.

Wa7damasreya shortly thereafter gave an eyewitness account of the Cairo tumult to the sattelite TV channel Al-Hurra.

Further proof of the importance of web activism is that the authorities have taken to preemptive arrests of bloggers ahead of street protests. On Saturday night, Egyptian police reportedly paid an unannounced visit to the apartment of blogger Mohammed el-Sharkawy in Cairo and arrested him. Another prominent web activist known as ‘Malik’ was also arrested before Sunday’s big showdown.

Mohamed Abdel Kuddous, a journalist and a member of the opposition movement Kefaya (‘enough’ in Arabic), says he was detained by plainclothes police when leaving his house in the early morning hours to attend the protest.

"They blindfolded me and took me to a police camp on the outskirts of Cairo. This is evidence that this is a weak dictatorship, a military regime which is based on repression," Kuddous told MENASSAT.

Meanwhile, in the state-run media...

The bloggers were quick to respond, setting up several 'web hotlines,' among them, where  activists could find up-to-date information and useful phone numbers. Abbas' own hotline served as "one of the most important outlets for activists," said Wa7damasreya.

Predictably, the government-controlled mass media provided a somewhat different picture of Sunday than that of the blogs and the independent media.

State-owned TV stations and newspapers broadcast a statement from the Ministry of Interior warning people against participating in the "illegitimate strikes." During Sunday's protests, the same TV stations showed students on their way to school in an aim to prove ‘the failure of the strike’.

Egypt's most prominent state-run daily, Al-Ahram, ran a first page article entitled "Work went on as usual across Egypt," while the Rosalusef newspaper featured titles such as "The failure of the chaos campaigners." 

The country's opposition press did not quite agree with the official reports and instead described the strikes as ‘successful’.

El Dostour featured photos showing the main squares throughout Egypt jam-packed with security police while the independent daily al-Masry el-Youm emphasized the mass detentions of demonstrators. "Security aborts demonstrations - Citizens stay home in fear of violence," read one of the headlines.  

"The state media want to convey that everything is OK and that nothing took place while in reality the strikes illustrated a deep political and economic crisis," commented journalist Yehia Kallash.