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Egyptian Digital Activism and State Suppression

Following the examples of Burma and Colombia, digital activists in Egypt organized an online campaign using facebook, blogs, yahoo groups and SMS to organize strikes in Egypt on April 6 to protest the government’s economic policies and to demand political reform.

Users have created an official facebook group whose membership reached over 66,800 on the day of the planned strikes and protests.

The activists have also created a special blog (in Arabic) and posted updates from around the country throughout the day with reports and photos about the strike and demonstrations, as well as arrests made by the Egyptian police and security forces. The activists have also created another facebook group where they published information about how many people participated, where and when.

The protests and strikes on April 6 were limited in some places such as the state-owned textile factory, where police stopped workers from organizing and protesting, but a group of them broke away and managed to start a protest, despite some of them being dispersed by police with batons.

AFP reported that traffic around the country was unusually light for a Sunday, the first business day in Egypt, and that some classes at the American University in Cairo were canceled, while attendance was generally low at schools and universities.

The creator of the Facebook’s April 6 group was arrested by the Egyptian police on Sunday, but cyber-dissidents decided to undertake additional anti-government activities on May 4, the same day Egyptian President Mubarak turns 80.

As fresh clashes broke out the next day, a governor of a northern Egyptian province announced a commercially-financed project to distribute free bread to poverty stricken families “in a gesture reflecting worries by authorities over further unrest.”

While Internet users managed to use several technology tools available to them to campaign and publicize their efforts, the government has used various suppression measures in response. For example, the Ministry of Interior on Saturday threatened “immediate and firm measures against any attempt to demonstrate, disrupt road traffic or the running of public establishments and against all attempts to incite such acts.” Also, more than 200 people, including bloggers and politicians, were arrested.

The digital activists’ arguably limited success in organizing massive strikes and protests can be attributed to the power of state’s suppression and intimidation, rather than the ineffectiveness of the online tools. After all, the activists managed to not just mobilize individuals and groups, but also to make the state take their tools seriously.

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