July 23rd marked the 58th anniversary of the end of the monarchy and the birth of the Egyptian republic. All three Egyptian Presidents since 1952--Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak--have used heavy-handed approaches to maintain a firm grip on power while allowing for occasional political expression to air out the pressure pot of anger and frustration in Egyptian society. This summer, possibly a landmark period in modern Egyptian politics, it appears the regime has little control of political dissent in the country.
Many observers believe the current maelstrom in Egypt is a perfect storm, with some western media overzealously and prematurely declaring this the end of an era, Yet, virtually every article about the impending post-Mubarak era declares that Egypt is a nation filled with reluctant dissent and political passivity, including references to the Pharaohnic roots of Egyptian subservience to authority. Yet there is significant evidence to the contrary.
While presidential hopeful Elbaradei seems to monopolize coverage of the opposition movement, beneath the headlines, Egypt's youth are abuzz and it has little to do with Elbaradei. An online sensation, the Elbaradei campaign has already made the transition from alternative to traditional media. This may be a coming of age for his campaign, but it left an online framework for dissent, giving us a glimpse of the internet's growing potential in Egypt.
This potential was tested on June 7th, when a 28-year old Alexandrian, Khaled Said was brutalized by policemen at the steps of an Internet café. With a large number people witnessing the event, few believed the state's assertion that Said died due to asphyxiation from swallowing a bag of drugs. At best it seemed like a clumsy mistake and at worst an intentional cover-up by the police. The following day a Facebook group called "We are all Khaled Said" was created to protest the incident. A leaked image of Khaled's contorted bloody face went viral. In just five weeks, the Facebook group boasts 200,000 members, a feat for Egyptian social networking groups.
Unlike any other fan page, "We are all Khaled Said" is a bustling metropolis of public expression and activism. In a short month, the group's members have staged three major stands against police brutality across Egypt, many of which were replicated by Egyptians living abroad, including London, Washington, DC, Abu Dhabi and Sydney. The most unique characteristic of all these expressions of dissent is the uncanny silence.
Described by some as flashmobs, these protests have called on Egyptians young and old, men and women, parents and children to wear black during one of the country's hottest summer seasons and converge on the waterfronts of the Nile and sea from Alexandria to Aswan. They are asked to stand, side by side, in silent contemplation and read from Korans and Bibles.
Stand they did. With each protest, the numbers swelled, documentation with cameras and phones became more adept, and the mobilization was more effective. Conversely, the state has responded with a substantial show of force, in some cases deploying thousands of police for every handful of silent protesters. The result are Tienanmen Square-like photographs juxtaposing the peaceful protestors confronted by the state's police authority which only further enraged the public and provoked more protests.
The facebook page called for a raptuous-yet-inaudible crescendo last Friday, July 23rd, the anniversary of the Free Officers coup. The Facebook youth ambitiously declared it the "Revolution of Silence" and used popular cultural depictions of anti-authoritarian motifs such as a subtitled montage of speeches from the Wachowski brothers' film "V for Vendetta"to popularize the stand.
The group's unique mobilization and decentralization methods have led to surprisingly high participation. The average posting on the page receives over two hundred comments and the group's regular opinion surveys on how to strategize are often completed by thousands of participations within hours after posting. All decisions in the group are determined by polls, from calls to inscribe banknotes with messages like "No to the Emergency Law, No to Torture, This is our Country, We are all Khaled Said" to a Facebook message campaign directed at police officers' profiles imploring them to refrain from torture. It appears the group's strength comes not only from its egalitarian disposition but also, dare I say, democratic procedure.
This equal participation on the Facebook page has mobilized tens of thousands of youth to identify with a diffuse-yet-unrelenting social justice movement and translate cyber-solidarity into street stands.
The groups's continued success so far comes from the organizers' ability to protect their security and identities and more importantly from safeguarding their anti-torture message from both state pressure and political opportunism. Rather than seek hyperbolic goals like regime change, the group has three clear objectives--absolute justice for Khaled Said, an end to torture and police brutality in all its forms, and an end to the Emergency Law. This focus and clarity in mission and the message's appeal to all Egyptians has effectively immunized the Khaled Said movement from mediocrity, modest expectations, and state criticism.
While change is in the air, its sluggishness may be dampening hopes again. Nevertheless, for the Facebook youth--the thousands who all go by the moniker Khaled Said--their successive bouts of silence, despite their colossal disadvantage, amount to rare thunderclaps over the Nile.