In my recent visit to Cairo I became aware of how Egyptian pro democracy activisits are adopting simple social tools such as facebook, twitter and blogs for coordinating collective political action and positive change in the country. Democracy activists around the world have an interest in free speech, and these tools are allowing citizens to report the news when they see it, without having to go through (or face delay and censorship by) official news channels. Egyptian authorities however are blocking dozens of websites, blogs and arresting prodemocracy activists, on the grounds that the sites insult the Quran, God, the President and the country.
Alaa Abd El Fatah is an Egyptian programmer, democracy activist, and blogger living in Cairo. When Egyptian pro-democracy bloggers like him started covering the proposed censorship, the blog sites were added to the list of sites to be banned. Alaa was arrested in May 2006, along with several other bloggers and democracy activists, and spent 45 days in jail. Alaa used Twitter to coordinate users' reactions to the state and his eventual release. "We use it to keep a tight network of activists informed about security action in protests. The activists would then use Twitter to coordinate a reaction." Because prodemocracy activits are watched so carefully, Twitter allows them a combination of real-time and group coordination that helps tip the balance of action in their favour.
Esraa Abdel Fattah is a young Egyptian woman who with her friends created a Facebook group calling for a peaceful strike all over Egypt in protest to the rising food prices which has hit Egyptians in the last few months. The prices have gone up threefold and fourfold with no parallel increase in salaries. On the day of the strike which had been planned to be on the 6th April 2008, and as a preventive measure, Esraa and her friends were arrested before even starting to take any action. They were placed in provisional detention for over 15 days under investigation for provoking public unrest and calling for a strike which is against an emergency law that has been implemented in Egypt now for more than 25 years. Esraa was released this past week following social protest from thousands of supporters.
In Clay Shirky's words in his great book The Power of Organizing without Organizations:
As more people adopt simple social tools, and as those tools allow increasingly rapid communication, the speed of group action also increases, and just as more is different, faster is different.
People are willing and even eager to come together and affect the world. Motivation, energy, and talent for action are all present in those sorts of groups - what was not present until recently, was the ability to coordinate easily. Social tools don't create collective action - they merely remove obstacles to it. Revolution doesn't happen when society adopts new technologies - it happens when society adopts new behaviours."
Unfortunately, some bloggers who have been jailed by Egyptian authorities, such as Karim Amer, are still waiting to be released. Take a look at the site of the Committee to Protect Bloggers for more information on the human rights situation of bloggers around the world.