Middle East Features
Egyptian activists take street protest online (News Feature)
By Aya Batrawy Sep 21, 2010, 17:33 GMT
Cairo - Unlike traditional protests, where handwritten posters are the tool of expression, a group of Egyptian activists and bloggers used the internet to carry their message on Tuesday.
In protests that took place in downtown Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt's two largest cities, hundreds of activists from at least 16 different organizations and political parties called for free and fair elections.
They accessed the internet via their mobile phones as a way to keep the world informed minute-by-minute.
'Beware! Mohamed Naguib metro station is packed with security forces,' heeded an online activist to other protesters.
Although security forces were on high alert and barricaded parts of downtown Cairo and Alexandria in anticipation of the demonstration, the organizers managed to carry out their protest.
They navigated past riot police and plain-clothed policemen to get to the main protest squares by posting their movements on Twitter, the micro-blogging platform.
'We have learned from the Iranian protesters how important Twitter can be in delivering a message. It is like an information wire service for all people who are logged on and even quicker than using a phone,' Gamal Eid told the German Press Agency dpa.
Eid, who is head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information and one of the organizers of the protest, was referring to the unrest that followed Iran's 2009 presidential elections and the use of Twitter to update the world about domestic developments.
The unprecedented use of the online platform in Iran was a key source of information as the government moved to expel foreign journalists and clamp down on local media.
In Egypt, protesters used an online language that largely evaded government censors by coding all of their posts with Oraby2010. The code was a reference to the revered Egyptian Army Officer Ahmed Oraby, who revolted - albeit unsucessfuly - against the country's ruler and European domination in 1879.
By using this code, the activists' hoped that they would be followed online easily, yet no one person would be tracked for organizing the protest, as was the case in 2008 when founders of a Facebook group were arrested for calling a nationwide strike on April 6 of that year.
The Oraby2010 protesters were part of a coalition of groups that included the April 6 movement, the politically-banned Muslim Brotherhood and former presidential candidate Ayman Nour's al-Ghad party.
Together, they called on President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power for 29 years, to guarantee that his son, Gamal, does not inherit the post in next year's presidential elections, as was the case in Syria.
Egyptian protesters also held a smaller protest earlier in the week at the Syrian embassy, aimed at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Although only about 50 people took part in that protest, it grew in popularity online because the activists, many of whom were bloggers themselves, capitalized on the growing use of social networking sites to call for change .
The protesters were calling for the release of 19-year-old blogger Tal El-Melouhy, a student who was allegedly arrested in Syria last December for her blog articles supporting the Palestinian cause and criticizing the French initiative for peace between Israel and Syria.
Lest Syrian President Bashar al-Assad not hear the Cairo activists' calls, they uploaded their demands as they chanted them onto Twitter.
It was an online Syrian news website that reported, days after the protest took place, that El-Melouhy was being held at Duma women's prison, some 20 kilomteres outside of Damascus. Her family said they have been unable to confirm her whereabouts since she went missing 10 months ago.
In Syria, the government has banned Facebook, Twitter and the video-sharing website YouTube. But Syrian youth have found ways to bypass the censors, and can easily access these websites.
While Egypt has not banned these websites, the Egyptian Interior Ministry has reacted with alarm at online movements and arrested bloggers.
Although only roughly 13 percent of Egypt's population accesses the internet, some of the country's estimated 10,000 bloggers have broken stories that were eventually picked up by traditional media.
'We are information pushers. That's how influential we are. We basically know where the story is and inform you what is happening in your country,' said Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey, who did not take part in the day's protests, but supports arrested activists through his blog.