Two leaders of Egypt’s youth movement described this evening how they combined non-violent ideals with online social networking to nurture labor and democracy protests over a three-year period, culminating in the massive Cairo protests and the February ouster of strongman Hosni Mubarak.
“Facebook was used–as everywhere else–to exchange photos and other things. We thought we could use it as a political platform,” said Ahmed Maher, a civil engineer and a leader of youth movement. He spoke through a translator to about 200 people at an event at MIT’s Media Lab
In 2008, Maher and others tried to organize a general strike in an industrial city called El-Mahalla El-Kubra, in part through blogs, text-messages, and a Facebook page. This was known as the “April 6 Youth Movement” because it sought a strike on that date. Their Facebook announcement spread rapidly. “We sent it to 300 members and by end of the day we had 3,000 members. By the end of ten days we had 70,000 members,” he said. “People asked ‘What can we do?’ We said to spread the idea as far and wide as we can.”
In May of 2008 he was arrested and, he said, tortured by Egyptian authorities who wanted to shut down the movement and its Facebook platform.
Asked about the role of government in trying to block communication technologies, another organizer, Waleed Rasheed, said: “I would like to thank Mubarak so much…. he disconnected mobile phones on Jan. 27. More people came down to the streets on the 28th of January because he disconnected.” By February 1, the protests had swelled to at least 1 million people, and Mubarak stepped down four days later.
The two men said they wanted to now expand their use of social technologies to advance democracy in Egypt, organize political events, and monitor elections. A full webcast of the 90-minute event is expected to be available here within a few days.