Egypt's military regime faces off with public on Facebook

But newfound liberties aren't distributed equally to all Egyptians after blogger gets 3 years in jail for allegedly defaming army.

May 4, 2011 20:05
Egyptian shop owners read newspapers in Cairo.

egypt newspaper_311 reuters. (photo credit: Peter Andrews / Reuters)

Banned by the government and ignored by most people until just a few months ago, Facebook is rapidly becoming the communications medium of choice for Egyptians and an expression of their new-found freedom to speak freely about anything and everything (except the army).

Glorified as a hero of the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February and now used by the government itself, Facebook has seen usage growing by leaps and bounds. Some seven million Egyptians were using it in March, a third more than in December, making the country one of the fastest growing markets for the social media tool, according to web analyst Nick Gonzalez, whose site monitors the social network.

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Among Facebook’s most active users is none other than the transitional government. The Official Page of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has nearly one million fans and is the main mode of communication between the government and the public. Nothing but official statements are posted on the page, which range from public announcements to congratulatory letters. In the new Egypt, ordinary citizens are free to comment on them.

"Democracy and dialogue are new experiences for Egyptians," said Muhammad Kadri Said, a retired major general in the Egyptian army who currently heads the Security Studies Unit at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a Cairo-based think tank. "Before, people used to fear speaking about the president or the military but today people joke about the Supreme Military Council on Facebook."

As Egypt struggles to find a path to democracy and stabilize its economy, one of the biggest changes it can point to since protests coalesced in Tahrir Square last January is a blossoming of free speech and media. Even semi-official media like the Al-Ahram newspaper had stories on Wednesday about an embarrassing prison break and calls for a governor’s resignation.

The Supreme Council’s web page is no exception. On Wednesday, Hany Adel, describing himself as a civil servant in the Education Ministry in Alexandria, used Facebook's comment option to complain about his delayed salary.

“To this day, May 4, my April salary was not paid, along with a group of workers in the Ministry of Education," he wrote, adding his full name and social security number.

Another man, Tarek Mostafa, criticized the government itself. "To the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces: Are you the counter-revolution? Because if you're not, why are Generals accused of murdering protesters promoted or transferred to other governorates while keeping their jobs to this day?"

Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian blogger and director of the North Africa branch of the American Islamic Congress, said the new-found access to Egypt's military establishment was a very positive development.

"The military was always such a closed institution," Ziada told The Media Line. "Now, the Supreme Council issues statements almost every week."

The Supreme Council was wise to use Facebook as a means of communication, shunning traditional state-owned television channels, she said. Young Egyptians who led the revolution used the site regularly, Ziada added, noting that many of her friends followed the Supreme Council's announcements on a regular basis and could comment on them.

In fact, the Supreme Council’s page is so widely read and important that it’s inspired copycats. But rather than closing them down as it might have done in the old days, the Supreme Council issued communiqué No. 45 on Monday, which warned Egyptians of the perils of Facebook and the Internet.

"A number of accounts were monitored on the Facebook social network site … inciting sectarian strife and violence, spreading rumors intended to destabilize the nation," the statement read, noting that the sites were based in foreign countries and were therefore difficult to track. "The Supreme Council of the Armed forces urges Egyptians to beware of rumors circulated on the Internet."     

Commenting on the military's warning of online incitement to sectarian violence, Said of the Al-Ahram Center said he believed the exchange of opinions, extreme as they may be, was positive.

"Facebook provides a platform for presenting ideas, some more extreme than others," he told The Media Line. "I think this will actually prevent civil strife, because people will weigh the different opinions against each other."

Rania Al-Malki, editor-in-chief of the English-language Daily News Egypt told The Media Line she is convinced the new freedom is here to stay.

"Just a few weeks ago, three members of the military council appeared for the first time on a prime time television show and the host of the show was asking them questions about all kinds of things," Al-Malki said. "They were basically being grilled live on air for everyone to see. The threshold has shifted completely and it's never going to go back to how it was before."

Still, both the government and ordinary Egyptians are still feeling their way into the era. In an article appearing in Al-Ahram last month, Said said the army will have to learn to be more accountable towards the parliament and towards local media.

"The army, like the Egyptian public, is going through a learning process in this transitional period," he said. "Today the military can be criticized like any other professional sector, just like doctors or teachers."

Well, not quite. The army sent what human rights activists said is a disturbing message last month when it arrested a 25-year-old blogger, Maikel Nabil Sanad, for allegedly defaming the armed forces and sentenced him to three years in prison by a military court.

“The methods used by the Egyptian military do not seem to have evolved since Hosni Mubarak’s fall,” Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Jean-François Julliard said in response to the sentence. “They show the degree to which the military still cannot be criticized and are still a taboo subject. A civilian should not be tried by a military court. This is not the way things are done in the democratic society to which Egyptians aspire.”

Ziada, the blogger, admitted that self-censorship was practiced by Egypt's mainstream media with regards to the Supreme Council, but added that many individuals openly criticized the army on Facebook and Twitter.

"Fear of criticism is our heritage of past years," she said. "It used to be taboo, a red line."

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