When I was 7 years old, I once had a showdown with my Brownies (it’s like Cub Scouts — junior girl scouts) about whether or not Egypt was in Africa. I had given a presentation about the history and culture of Egypt to my fellow Brownies in pursuit of a badge. And the Brownies leader mommy was like: “That was very good dear, except that…Egypt isn’t in Africa!” She said it so sweetly too. My mother started laughing.

I stood her down. She stood her ground. I insisted that we get out a map or a globe. My moms told me that she didn’t interfere — I had it under control.

Anyway, what’s interesting to me about these 2 stories about Facebook and political protest in Egypt is a) Egypt is in Africa b) Egypt borders the Sudan, which is also in Africa and needs a regime change badly c) the numbers: whether it’s 64,000 or 75,000 people joining a group, that’s a lot of people coming together around an issue very quickly in a way that wasn’t possible before.

Here’s a snippet from one article “Egypt’s Facebook Revolution”:

Last month saw the arrest of Esra Abdel Fattah, 27, after she formed a group on Facebook calling for protests against the high price of food and other commodities in Egypt. Strike action was already planned by factory workers in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla al-Kobra, and the Facebook group, which attracted 64,000 members, tapped into a national mood of unrest. During Fattah’s incarceration, police clashed with protestors in Mahalla, killing three; some 500 people were detained.

By the time Egyptian police freed her two weeks ago, Fattah, an active online activist and member of the liberal al-Ghad political party, had become something of a cyber folk hero, feted by Middle Eastern bloggers and tech-minded students. A second Facebook group began calling for the release of Fattah and the other detainees, and for further protests on May 4th. A Cairo University student even heckled the Egyptian prime minister as he gave a speech at the campus on role of the internet as a communication tool:

“Prime Minister, release all the… detainees,” he said. “They are the same young people who used the Internet to express their opinions.”

[...]

But although Facebook activism may not be able to spark protest – at least not yet – it has succeeded in advertising and amplifying Egyptian unrest. It may also succeed in aligning radical workers with the dissenting voices in the middle class.

The Egyptian government is certainly worried enough by Facebook to take action against the likes of Fattah (two other online activists who were detained at the same time are still in custody). But in a country where the average age is just 24, and more than 20% of the country lives below the poverty line, the government faces an impossible task in trying to stifle protest. And it may be that Facebook, like the mosque, provides an essential pressure valve for frustration and discontent.

Bloggers and journalists overseas face intense pressure and real hurdles to sharing the truth, and not just in their home countries. From The Princess and the Facebook Girl:

Yet beware, too, the white knights. Just ask Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj, finally released after six years imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, and AP photographer Bilal Hussein, who served 735 days in American detention in Iraq. No evidence, no charges, no trial in either case.

The problem for governments like Egypt is that you can’t arrest every single person who protests online. Arresting Fattah did not silence her. It made her famous and spread her story which is actually the story of the 75,000 people who joined her Facebook group, btw, around the world. It galvanized her supporters. I am Spartacus, etc. Yes, online recruitment to causes has to be united with strong offline action to be successful. And it will. It is — Barack Obama’s ascendency probably wouldn’t have been possible without online and offline integrated calls to action.

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