Yesterday marked one year since Egypt’s liberal Facebook dissidents first launched their technologically innovative – if not entirely successful – protest against the Mubarak regime. To commemorate the occasion, the “April 6th” movement planned a well-publicized general strike, which attracted the support of a broad-based coalition that included the Ghad party, Kefaya, Nasserists, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Well, the official verdict on April 6th II is in: it was a complete failure. For the most part, Egyptians carried on with their day-to-day activities, while April 6th leader Ahmed Maher retreated to an undisclosed location. In turn, the regime declared outright victory, with the state-run al-Ahram boasting that the locations of proposed demonstrations were completely empty.
Of course, these locations were empty because the regime did what it usually does when confronted with possible demonstrations: it stifled them. First, the government packed the downtown areas with police officers and soldiers, thereby preventing protests from occurring in key intersections.
Second, the regime arrested 34 demonstrators from various parts of Egypt to intimidate their peers. (This relatively low number of arrests, however, suggests that there weren’t too many people intent on demonstrating to begin with.)
Third, in the few locations where protests were seen as unavoidable – such as near Cairo’s Muslim-Brotherhood-dominated professional syndicates – the regime dispatched overwhelming police contingents to encircle the demonstrators and thereby prevent others from joining them. In this vein, my UPenn colleague Sarah Salwen reported that 20-30 trailers full of police were lined up along the streets outside the Journalists’ Syndicate, with the police standing shoulder-to-shoulder along barricades for a rally that ultimately drew somewhere between 100-200 mostly seated demonstrators.
Naturally, the stunning failure of April 6th II has left Egypt’s opposition leaders totally dispirited. More importantly, however, it has raised important questions regarding the future of Internet activism, including whether “virtual protests” are giving young dissidents the false impression that they can affect change by simply joining an anti-Mubarak Facebook group. For nearly a year, Egyptian opposition leaders of every political stripe have been counting on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs to provide new mechanisms for evading regime control and organizing the masses. At the very least, yesterday’s disappointment will force them to reconsider the efficacy of this tactic.