NEW YORK – When a young Egyptian died from what his family, activists and witnesses say was a savage police beating, many of his peers – the generation of Egyptians who have known no other leader than President Hosni Mubarak – protested and mourned in the way they know best: by going online.
Generation Mubarak is also Generation Facebook.
Two young Egyptian Facebook friends alerted me to Said’s death with a link to the page “I am Khaled Said” which was set up on June 11, five days after he died. It now has more than 225,000 fans.
Many Egyptians on Facebook changed their profile picture to one of Said alive – bright eyed, clean cut, looking barely old enough to shave despite his 28 years. Others switched to a picture of his corpse – teeth missing, lip torn, jaw broken and blood pouring from his head. His family has confirmed it is indeed his shattered body.
But Generation Facebook doesn’t just vent online. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube aren’t just for party pictures or flirting but have become slingshots aimed at a regime Generation Mubarak never imagined they could take on.
Social networking sites connect activists with ordinary people who are joining demonstrations in numbers unheard of in Egypt: a protest outside the Interior Ministry in Cairo was the largest in living memory against police brutality.
In Alexandria, Said’s hometown, up to 8,000 Egyptians wearing black protested along the corniche; some recited verses of the Koran and Bible.
Generation Facebook moves to fill in the holes of mainstream media. Blogger and citizen journalist Mohamed Abdelfattah, recorded an on-camera interview with witnesses to Said’s death (it was picked up by an independent Egyptian daily) and filmed that Alexandria silent protest (it has gone viral).
Generation Facebook’s embrace of the social networking site has made Egypt its number one user in the Arab world and 23rd globally. Egypt has the highest number of blogs in the Arabic-speaking Middle East.
The Interior Ministry claims Said died after swallowing a pack of drugs. Activists say undercover police beat him to death after he posted an Internet video, which his family said showed police sharing the profits of a drug bust.
After the public outrage, including at his funeral in Alexandria which at least 1,000 people attended, a new autopsy was ordered but it just confirmed the ministry’s initial claim. Generation Facebook went into action: the Khaled Said Facebook page urged Egyptians to dress in black and to hold silent protests across the country.
Many Egyptians replaced their profile pictures with banners announcing the place and time of the protest they would be attending.
At anti-police brutality protests on June 12, activists held banners with a picture of Mubarak next to one of Said before and after his death. In power 29 years, Mubarak is the longest serving ruler in Egypt’s modern history. For every one of those years Egypt has been under a state of emergency that has turned it into a police state where torture is systematic and where there are an estimated 12,000 to 14,000 detained persons.
That juxtaposition of pictures of Said alive and dead chillingly brought home for Generation Mubarak what living under emergency law their entire lives has meant. If any thought arbitrary arrests and detention happened to others – political activists or the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood – they learned that Said was involved with neither.
If they imagined police brutality was confined to criminals or the poor, such as 13-year old Mohamed Abdel-Aziz whose battered body brought prosecutors to tears in 2007 as they examined his family’s allegations that he was beaten and electrocuted by police who arrested him for allegedly stealing four packs of tea, then Said’s shattered face was their wakeup call.
Occasionally a few officers are convicted of torture but they usually return to their jobs after cosmetic sentences. That won’t change as long as Emergency Law is in effect. A month before Khaled Said’s death it was extended for two more years.
Blogs and social networking didn’t invent courage – activists have been protesting against Mubarak for years – but have connected Egyptians and amplified their voices.
In 2007, two police officers were sentenced to three years in jail for sodomizing a bus driver with a stick. Evidence used against them included video the officers shot of the assault that blogger Wael Abbas posted to his site.
Dozens more videos exposing police brutality have gone online. There’s an anti-torture Web site with a hotline to report incidents. There’s another with advice on what to do if you’re tortured or beaten up by police.
Egyptians make another link – between Mubarak and successive U.S. administrations which for years have been his biggest ally and whose support has been vital for his 29-year political survival.
It’s not just U.S. administrations that have ignored Mubarak’s oppressive rule. Media focus on Iranian demonstrators and online activists who deservedly garner headlines for their courage, but those same media outlets ignore their Egyptian counterparts because Mubarak is “our friend” and stands stalwartly against the kind of Muslim fundamentalists who run Iran.
“Khaled is our Neda,” Generation Facebook says, citing the young Iranian woman whose death in a post-election Tehran demonstration last year was captured by mobile phone.
If she was the everywoman whose on-camera demise shook our eyes open to the Iranian regime’s brutality, then Khaled Said’s shattered face could belong to any one of Generation Mubarak.
Mona Eltahawy is a syndicated columnist.