Taking their fight online, as a means of spreading awareness, Egyptians logged on to Twitter and Facebook yesterday in their first official e-protest against the inordinate number of Egyptian citizens who have been tried in the country’s military courts in the past 6 months.
Organized by the Alexandria branch of a group of activists who have been campaigning for months against military trials for civilians, the e-protest was slated to last one hour, but participants continued to tweet and post long after the hour was over.
On Twitter, the hashtag #NoMilTrials was chosen as a way of distinguishing the ‘e-protest.’
On Facebook, an event was created inviting users to participate by commenting on official governmental Facebook pages. The event itself received over 7,000 positive responses, while participants left an avalanche of thousands of comments on the social network.
Participation on Twitter was just as significant, with the hashtag reaching its highest peak yesterday, since it was first used in February.
Tweets revealed statistics of over 12,000 civilians tried in military courts, while many of the online protesters spread the story of Maikel Nabil, an Egyptian blogger who received a 3 year prison sentence in a military court for a blog post in which he openly criticized the Egyptian military.
Evronia Azer, one of the coordinators of the movement in Alexandria, spoke to The Next Web about the online initiative, saying:
The idea of this e-protest is for people to gather at the same time and post comments on certain pages on Facebook expressing total rejection to military trials for civilians. This doesn’t mean the exclusion or stoppage of other methods of self expression like street protests, it’s just a way for those unable to join the street protests and for all those on Facebook, which our biggest gathering medium. Social media has a wide radius of influence so our target is to show that stopping military trials is a popular demand from everyone and not just those who stand in protests in front of military courts when there is a trial. And one more important goal was that when someone writes something on social networks, it will attract his/her friends’ attention towards the injustice of military trials, so the e-protest acted as an awareness campaign for those who knew little of the matter.
Asking Evronia about the effectiveness of the method, she feels that the e-protest was a success:
Statistics show that the use of the hashtag increased greatly yesterday. Presidential candidates in Egypt like Mohamed El Baradei and Ayman Nour also took part in the protest on Twitter, along with many activists. Almost all [local] newspapers wrote about the protest and some talk shows mentioned it as well, and talked to members of our group. I believe we attracted attention with the protest and sent a message to the SCAF [Supreme Council of Armed Forces] that stopping military trials is a popular demand not just from famous activists.
The e-protest was quick to pick up steam, as Evronia’s statistics prove:
In the first 10 minutes of the protest, we had no less than 15,000 comments on Facebook’s SCAF page alone, and many people continued writing comments even after the 1-hour protest time was over, and by the end of the day we had more than 100,000 comments against military trials for civilians on Facebook, let alone Twitter.
But the movement wasn’t without its detractors:
Some people started spamming our event’s wall with “Yes to military trials,” all of them writing similar messages and some insults, and I’ve read in Ahram Newspaper [a major local newspaper] that some are organizing a “Yes to military trials e-protest”!
Cairo-based journalist Abdel-Rahman Hussein spoke to The Next Web about the e-protest saying:
Usually what is termed electronic activism is dismissed as frivolous and an extremely poor substitute for activism on the ground. Most of the time that’s true, but in this case however I think it was an interesting approach.
This is because the military has shut off all avenues of actual protest, mostly through violent means. This e-protest shows that dissent isn’t permanently silenced just because you’ve invaded and cleared Tahrir Square and annexed the roundabout.
As for whether it achieved anything, it’s too early to tell but I think having over 100,000 comments explicitly stating an objection to military trials for civilians is quite a message. It will be seen by people who will visit the SCAF page and thus will be made aware that this is an issue many are concerned about.
Activists have found themselves in the military’s line of sight due to their online activities. Asmaa Mahfouz, a former member of the April 6 Movement and online activist, was summoned by the Military Prosecution for questioning, following statements she made on Twitter and Facebook. After being released on bail, pending charges, Mahfouz later received a military pardon.