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A new revolution

Egyptian Facebook activists visit MIT, representing a new non-violent movement in the Middle East.
A crowd demonstrates peacefully in Cairo.
A crowd demonstrates peacefully in Cairo.
Photo: Rowan El Shimi/flickr

Even before his death, many observers felt Osama bin Laden’s terrorist tactics had been upstaged by the success of recent civilian protests and public uprisings in the quest for Arab liberation. Some now see Bin Laden’s death as the end of an extremist era, replaced with a more moderate age of civil engagement and empowerment.

Two central figures in this new civil movement came to speak at MIT just days before Bin Laden’s death. Ahmed Maher, 30, and Waleed Rashed, 27, are co-founders of the April 6 Youth Movement, an Egyptian Facebook group that mobilized thousands of citizens to take to the streets in protest, leading to the February overthrow of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Maher and Rashed participated in a Starr Forum event, sponsored by the Center for International Studies and Technology Review. In a panel discussion moderated by Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief of Technology Review and MIT’s director of media, the Facebook activists spoke about the challenge of changing the political regime in Egypt, and on galvanizing citizens to rebuild the country.

“Thirty percent of Egyptians are illiterate,” Rashed said. “We must create ways to reach them, for them to come down to the streets and protest. This is the meaning of revolution.”

The April 6 Youth Movement began in 2008, during a time of political oppression and militant control. At the time, groups of five or more were considered illegal without a permit, and punishable by beatings or arrests. Working around the rules, Maher looked to the Internet as a meeting place and a way to build support. “In the beginning, we used Yahoo, [text messaging] and blogs,” Maher said through a translator. “Then there was this small web site people started to use, called Facebook.”

Maher set up an account and invited 300 friends to join his group. By the end of the day, 3,000 people had joined; after 10 days, the group had grown to 70,000. Maher used Facebook as a political platform, encouraging Egyptian citizens to join him in a general strike on April 6, 2008, to protest low wages and skyrocketing food prices. He instructed his followers to stay home from work that day and hang black flags on their windows in protest.

On the day of the protest, public response was minimal. Yet Maher pressed on, using Facebook and other methods to reach a fearful public. State security forces soon caught wind of the online movement and arrested Maher, beating him and demanding to know two things: the identities of his Facebook-based followers and his Facebook password. When he refused to provide either, he was released.

Since then, he and Rashed have pushed to reach more citizens, distributing fliers and holding impromptu “press conferences” where they film themselves in highly populated areas, such as subway stations, to draw attention to the civil movement. Maher, a civil engineer by training, said his technical background came in handy in figuring out ways to organize protests — how to quickly change locations and find escape routes to avoid security forces.

“As an engineer, you study planning and how to make systems better,” Maher said. “It was clear from the experience in Egypt that there’s no way to make the system better unless the regime is removed.”

Leading up to the pivotal uprisings in January of this year, Rashed said Egyptian taxi drivers proved invaluable in spreading the word. “Taxi drivers in Egypt can’t be silent,” Rashed quipped. Several days before the uprisings began, Rashed took a taxi to meet Maher. In the cab, he spoke to Maher on the phone, enunciating clearly and loudly all the details of the protest they were organizing in Tahrir Square. A few days later, Rashed was riding in another taxi when the driver turned around to tell him about his own plans. “He said, ‘Do you know about these crazy guys who want to take down Mubarak?’” Rashed said.

Since Mubarak’s resignation, Maher and Rashed have pressed harder for citizen involvement, saying that real regime change is up to the Egyptian people. “This is your choice,” Rashed said. “We can’t go to Tahrir Square every year to start a new revolution.”

As Egypt prepares for a presidential election this fall, Maher says his group will take videos at polling places and post them on the Internet, increasing transparency in the voting process. He also plans to use new Facebook apps and software programs to help spread the message for regime change throughout Egypt and surrounding countries, including Syria and Sudan. 

Maher said he has no plans to form a political party in Egypt; instead, he will work to build a social network to support and promote any party that stands for democracy and social justice. “We have groups in all the neighborhoods active in the revolution,” Maher said. “So we will have an impact, but we won’t necessarily be in power. This gives us power, but also freedom.”

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