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Behind Egypt's revolution: youth and the internet

How youth activists used social media to counter Egypt's security forces.

Egypt anti-government protestersEnlarge
Egyptian anti-government protesters shout slogans against President Hosni Mubarak during a demonstration outside the parliament near Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 9, 2011. (Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt — Abdel Rahman Faris never saw it coming.

When the news of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation reached Faris’ tent in Tahrir Square on Friday, the 30-year-old blogger, along with tens of thousands around him, erupted in jubilation.

Faris was one of several youth activists behind what was planned to be a small demonstration in Egypt’s capital on Jan. 25.

But the result — tens of thousands of protesters spontaneously taking to the streets of Cairo — defied all expectations.

“None of this could have happened even in our wildest dreams,” said Faris. “Our maximum objective was to move with 5,000 people around Cairo. We never even thought we would reach Tahrir.”

Very few people in the Middle East could have imagined that Mubarak's regime — which reigned supreme for 30 years — would be toppled in a mere 18 days, following massive protests and strikes across the Arab world’s most populous nation.

After all, Mubarak’s Egypt was the model of stability in the Middle East. Small-scale street protests had become increasingly common in recent years, but these were easily quelled by the country’s all-powerful internal security forces.

Egypt’s recent uprising, inspired by similar unrest in neighboring Tunisia in January, arose seemingly without external causes or premeditation by any one group, while at the same time attracting a broad range of Egyptians that transcended political, social and cultural divisions.

But the initial days of the demonstrations, in Cairo at least, were meticulously mapped out — at least one month in advance — by a group of young Egyptian activists long determined to bring about political change.

Interviews with two members of the so-called Revolutionary Youth Council — a group of 14 tech-savvy Egyptians selected to represent thousands of young protesters in Tahrir Square — shed some light on the ways that social media, secrecy and strategic maneuvering were deployed to counter Egypt’s vast security apparatus and eventually topple one of the most entrenched autocracies in the Middle East.

“We didn’t plan the demonstrations that happened in Tahrir [starting in January]. We were just a catalyst in the chemical equation,” said Amr Salah, a 25-year-old human rights activists with a university degree in chemistry.

Salah and Faris met each other at a small protest a few years ago.

Both champions for human rights, Faris drew inspiration from Voltaire's Enlightenment writings, and Salah from documentary films on the 1989 democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe.

“I dreamt that we could do the same thing in Egypt,” said Salah.

In 2008, they both found a potential vehicle for change in the Sixth of April Youth movement, a group of activists who used Facebook to encourage solidarity with striking textile workers in the northern Delta town of Mahalla. Low workers’ wages, along with rising food prices, sparked the largest demonstrations in Egypt since bread riots in the late 1970s.

Egyptian security forces eventually crushed this protest — but not before they took note of several of the young activists.

Salah said security followed him closely and called him often after 2008. In 2010, Salah disappeared when he was arbitrarily detained for 30 hours — security gave no notification to his terrified family.

Faris has been arrested at least once per year since 2005, most likely, he says, because his family belongs to the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Largely due to the fear of similar arrests, Egyptian youth activism remained out of the mainstream until the summer of 2010, when a young Alexandrian named Khaled Said was found dead, allegedly tortured and killed by the police in Egypt’s second largest city.

An anonymous Facebook group — run by an Egyptian Google executive named Wael Ghonim — was launched to disseminate news about Said, which re-inspired young political activism in the country. The page received hundreds of thousands of fans within months.

“Before, when we called for something on Facebook, we didn’t get a lot of feedback. But after Khaled Said, people really started responding to calls for solidarity,” said Faris. “That page was able to easily gather people in groups online, because it was harder and harder to do it on the street.”

In late 2010, members of the Revolutionary Youth Council began to plan a solidarity protest for Khaled Said for early 2011.

Members of the Revolutionary Youth Council deliberately chose Egypt’s national Police Day — Jan. 25 — to publicly disdain rather than commemorate a security force marked by a long history of brutality and human rights abuses.

But none of them envisioned that their plans would eventually spark the largest popular uprising in Egypt's modern history.

The group used a combination of coordinated tactics — including the use of Facebook and Twitter — to deceive state security forces regarding their intentions.

Strategy sessions were always conducted in different locations and, as an extra precaution, an “intelligence unit” conducted reconnaissance of the specified meeting places an hour in advance to ensure police were not lying in wait for them, said Faris. Mobile phones, which members believed to be under surveillance, were turned off during meetings.

“We also took the batteries out, because the police have the ability to listen in even when phones are off,” said Salah.