Helped by the internet, “the times, they are a-changin” in Egypt

I got home yesterday morning from a three-day trip to Hurghada, Egypt.  Hurghada is a sprawling resort town on the Red Sea frequented by scuba divers.  I was there to complete my PADI Open Water Diving certification.  As it happened, I had the April 5th issue of The New Yorker magazine with me, which featured an article by Joshua Hammer on the upcoming Presidential elections in Egypt.

The current Egyptian leader, Hosni Mubarak, became President in 1981 following the assassination of Anwar Sadat.  He has since been “re-elected” every six years by national referendum with no opposition candidates, except in 2005 when the Bush administration pressured him to allow multiparty Presidential elections.  The fairness of those elections has been challenged, with human rights watchers reporting massive suppression of the opposition in the weeks leading up to the voting and on election day.

Election year 2011 looks to be different, with several factors potentially ushering in real change.

One is that Mubarak is now 81.  While he once told the Egyptian parliament that he would stay in office until his last, dying breath, he has recently been grooming  possible successors, including his son Gamal.

Another catalyst of change is Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who recently returned to his hometown of Cairo for the first time since retiring as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.  ElBaradei was the man who questioned the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion and urged that inspections continue.  He has now heeded the call from different constituencies in Egypt and is assessing a possible run for the Presidency.

And finally, there’s the internet.  According to the New Yorker article, 16 million Egyptians are now online, most of them under the age of 35.  That’s relatively low for a population of about 80 million.  Nevertheless, Gamal Mubarak, who is trying to position himself as the leader of Egypt’s youth hosted a recent webcast with college students, and more are planned.  (One could also imagine him launching the Arab equivalent of The Great Schlep, the online campaign that mobilized young Jewish voters in the U.S. to get their non-internet affine grandparents living in Florida to vote for Obama.)  ElBaradei has created the National Front for Change, which includes a web site that is collecting signatures for adjustments in the law to make the election fairer.  And unknown to him, supporters also created a Facebook fan page.  Joshua Hammer reported that there were 76,000 fans at the time he wrote the article.  I just looked and there are now over 91,000.

Bloggers are also active in Egypt, although those critical of governmental policies have been called in for questioning and in some cases jailed.  Referring to these incidences, Mohamed Gamal, a leader in Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, said, “There might be some individual cases, but no government can crack down on the internet.”  One wonders if that statement is just a propaganda ploy to play down the ruling party’s efforts to suppress criticism online, or a sincere acknowledgment that in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, the times, they are a-changin in Egypt.  One hopes it’s the latter.

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