Is Egypt Next?
Tunisia’s uprising last week invigorated frustrated activists around the region. A upcoming protest in Cairo could mark the beginning of another upheaval.
Khaled Said, a small businessman in the historic Egyptian city of Alexandria, was dragged from an Internet café by police and beaten to death in the street last summer. Said wasn’t known as a political type. But according to human-rights groups, the attack was retaliation for the decision to post a video of cops divvying up drugs from a bust on his personal blog.
The murder clearly struck a nerve. Egyptian activists have waged a longstanding campaign against police brutality and torture, mostly outside the mainstream, and many were surprised by how quickly the news spread among regular folk. “The thing is, he wasn’t really a threat,” says Sherif Mansour, a senior program officer who focuses on new media in Egypt for Freedom House, a watchdog group. “His death made the connection between advocacy and the everyday life of Egyptians. It made the point that everyone can be affected.”
Shortly after the murder, a Facebook page appeared under the name “We Are All Khaled Said.” Run by an obsessively anonymous administrator, it started with posts about Said’s case. But the page quickly spiraled into an all-out campaign against police brutality and rights abuses in Egypt—becoming a clearinghouse for information, posting often-graphic photo and video, and publishing the names of allegedly abusive cops. Mansour credits the page with turning police brutality into a popular debate. The group has organized demonstrations in honor of Said, and today its membership is approaching 380,000, which makes it the country’s largest and most active online human-rights activist group.
Now the group has set its sights on a much bigger cause—taking on authoritarian rule in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak has been in power nearly 30 years.
After protesters in Tunisia ousted their country’s autocratic president, “We Are All Khaled Said” shifted gears to an aggressive political tone. Within days, the page began sounding the call for a large-scale demonstration in Cairo on Tuesday, Jan. 25, with demands ranging from ending police brutality and raising the minimum wage to $180 a month to dissolving Parliament. The page’s administrator, who insisted on speaking via Gmail chat and asked to be cited as “ElShaheeed,” tells NEWSWEEK that events in Tunisia have made people in Egypt take note. “It just provided all of us with hope that things can change,” he says.
As of Friday morning, nearly 69,000 people had signed up for the Jan. 25 protest on the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page.
Traditional opposition groups have also started to join the call for protest on Tuesday. Mohamed ElBaradei, a key opposition figure who had warned of a “Tunisia-style explosion” in Egypt, stopped just short of backing the demonstration. On Thursday night, he finally offered tacit support, if only via Twitter: “Fully support call 4 peaceful demonstrations vs. repression,” he tweeted.
And so clues to how Tunisia’s revolution will affect the region’s other autocratic regimes might be found in Cairo in the coming week, especially since cyberactivists and traditional ones alike seem to be joining forces. Tuesday will be the first real test of whether the revolution is contagious.
Opposition to Mubarak has been brewing for some time, but only disjointedly. Protests have come and gone, and plans for large-scale demonstrations often fizzle. The Egyptian police state, meanwhile, can be brutally effective at crushing dissent. And in the aftermath of Tunisia, the government is paying close attention; it has unleashed a wave of positive propaganda and released political prisoners.
But following November’s especially contentious parliamentary elections—where the ruling party won an improbable 97 percent of the seats amid accusations of massive vote-rigging—the forces for change had already been agitating, notes Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations who left for Cairo last week. A smaller rally against police brutality had already been in the works for Jan. 25, a national holiday in honor of police. But the events in Tunisia could give these forces a substantial push. “Tunisia is not causing these things. But it’s certainly adding momentum to the pretty significant opposition that already exists,” Cook says.
Ahmed Salah, a veteran activist in Cairo, points out that the Tunisia revolution happened spontaneously, prompted by the self-immolation of an unemployed university graduate—not at the direction of a political movement or concerted protest push. Yet Salah says the recent spate of copycats across Egypt (there have been nine so far this week) show that agitation is in the air—and, crucially, they’ve been regular Egyptians, not activist types.
Activists are trying to capitalize by bringing news of the protest to regular Egyptians however they can, from passing out fliers on the street to word-of-mouth and text messages. Social media have been another tool—and a crucial one—both in coordinating among activists and in spreading the word, particularly since Egyptian media are so tightly controlled. “I don’t know how we could do without it under the current circumstances,” Salah says. “Before, it was so much more difficult to reach out.”
Despite all the buzz building up to the Jan. 25 protest, however, ElShaheeed is well aware of the difficulties in translating Internet clicks to support on the ground. To that end, he has been using the page to urge people to organize by traditional means as well, even posting links to fliers to be downloaded and distributed—last week activists distributed leaflets to people coming out of Friday prayers. But he says only Tuesday will tell whether these efforts have been enough.
“We’re hoping a lot of people turn up, and that people in the street see us, connect with our demands, and join us,” he says. And if the effort fails, “I’d learn from the lesson, move forward, and do something else.”