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Facebook page helped catalyze Egypt unrest

NYT: The death of  a 28-year-old Egyptian businessman at the hands of  the police  offered Egyptians a rare forum to bond over their outrage about government abuses.
An activist carries a picture of slain businessman Khaled Said with Arabic words that read "Why was Khaled killed?" in Cairo on June 19.
An activist carries a picture of slain businessman Khaled Said with Arabic words that read "Why was Khaled killed?" in Cairo on June 19. Nasser Nasser / Associated Press
/ Source: The New York Times

If there is a face to the revolt that has sprouted in Egypt, it may be the face of Khaled Said.

That 28-year-old Egyptian businessman was pulled from an Internet cafe in Alexandria last June by two plainclothes police officers who beat him to death in the lobby of a residential building after they learned that he had posted a video on his personal blog showing them with illegal drugs.

The Egyptian police and security services have a well-earned reputation for brutality and snuffing out political opposition. But in Mr. Said, they unwittingly chose the wrong target.

Within five days of his death, an anonymous human rights activist created a Facebook page — — that posted of his battered and bloodied face, and other contrasting his corpse with pictures of his bright and smiling face from happier days. By mid-June, 130,000 people joined the page to get and share updates about the case.

It became and remains the biggest dissident Facebook page in Egypt, even as protests continue to sweep the country, with more than 473,000 users, and it has helped spread the word about the demonstrations in Egypt, which were ignited after a revolt in neighboring Tunisia toppled the government there.

“There were many catalysts of the uprising,” said Ahmed Zidan, an online political activist marching toward Tahrir Square for a protest last week. “The first was the brutal murder of Khalid Said.”

The Tunisian rebellion was set off after a fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, burned himself to death after being humiliated by the police. His desperate act led to protests, which were recorded on mobile phones, posted on the Internet, shared on Facebook and eventually broadcast by Al Jazeera.

But Mr. Said’s death may be the starkest example yet of the special power of social networking tools like Facebook even — or especially — in a police state. The Facebook page set up around his death offered Egyptians a rare forum to bond over their outrage about government abuses.

“Prior to the murder of Khaled Said, there were blogs and YouTube videos that existed about police torture, but there wasn’t a strong community around them,” said Jillian C. York, the project coordinator for the OpenNet Initiative of the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard University. “This case changed that.”

While it is almost impossible to isolate the impact of social media tools from the general swirl of events that set off the popular uprisings across the Middle East, there is little doubt that they provided a new means for ordinary people to connect with human rights advocates trying to amass support against police abuse, torture and the Mubarak government’s permanent emergency laws allowing people to be jailed without charges.

Facebook and YouTube also offered a way for the discontented to organize and mobilize — and allowed secular-minded young people to seize the momentum from Egypt’s relatively neutered, organized opposition.

Far more decentralized than political parties, the strength and agility of the networks clearly caught Egyptian authorities — and American intelligence analysts — by surprise, even as the Egytian government quickly attempted to shut them down.

Mr. Said, who was from a middle-class family and worked in the import-export business, was not an activist or involved in politics: he was simply offended by the corruption he saw. After police officials lied to his family, saying he was involved in drugs and died of asphyxiation from swallowing a package of marijuana while in police custody, witnesses went public, telling their stories in YouTube videos. Cellphone photos of Mr. Said’s shattered and broken face began to circulate online and provided evidence that eventually authorities could not ignore.

“What made this case different is that Khaled Said was just an ordinary person,” said Gamal Eid, 47, a lawyer and executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information in Cairo. “He was just a guy who found evidence of corruption and he published it. Then when people learned what happened to him, when people saw pictures of his face, people got very angry.”

Mr. Eid said that Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and mobile phones made it easy for human rights advocates to get out the news and for ordinary people to spread and discuss their outrage about his death in a country where freedom of speech and the right to assemble are limited and the government monitors newspapers and state television.

“He is a big part of our revolution,” said Hudaifa Nabawi, a 20-year-old student in Tahrir Square on Saturday.“ Khalid Said was a special case. He didn’t belong to any faction, and he didn’t do anything wrong. He became the way to focus our perceptions around the oppression that all the youth all face. You can consider him a symbol.”

Facebook has been the social networking tool of choice for human rights activists in Egypt. There are five million Facebook users in Egypt, the highest number in any Middle Eastern or North African country.

Its power and importance has been building for years. In 2008, the April 6 Youth Movement used Facebook to gain more than 70,000 supporters to help raise awareness for striking workers in Mahalla al-Kobra, Egypt.

In the last two years, that movement and other human rights advocates have also turned to Twitter and to YouTube, the third most visited Web site in Egypt after Google and Facebook. YouTube, which human rights advocates have used to upload dozens of videos showing Egyptian police torture and abuse, has evolved as an enormously powerful social media tool as more people have been able to capture and share video on cellphones.

When the Mr. Said’s video of the corrupt police officers with drugs was uploaded on YouTube on June 11, 2010, a member of the April 6 Youth Movement left a message in Arabic on the video that said: “We are Khaled. Each one of us can be Khaled.”

The message urged people to stand up against police abuse and torture and say no to “bullying police.” This single video has been viewed more than 500,000 times since June and spawned dozens more videos about Mr. Said, including rap songs and more solemn presentations with haunting music.

Last June, besides providing regular Facebook updates about the stalled police investigation into Mr. Said’s death, the anonymous administrator of the Facebook page began posting invitations to join street protests and silent protests in Alexandria and Cairo, which spread to nine other cities. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief of the United Nations Nuclear Agency and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was among thousands attending the protest in Alexandria.

With the conversation on social networks translating into street protests — and with the well-documented evidence of the police abuse posted online for hundreds of thousands to see — prosecutors were forced to arrest the two police officers in early July in connection with Mr. Said’s death. But the case remains unresolved.

Other Egyptians continued to die at the hands of the police last summer. The protests continued, first every week or so, and then sporadically last fall, until Tunisia fell and then the and the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page began inviting Egyptians to a Jan. 25 protest.

Signaling the Mubarak government’s growing awareness about the powerful role that social media is playing in Egypt now, pro-Mubarak supporters began jumping into the Khaled Said Facebook page’s conversation soon after the Internet was restored last week.

There are now wall posts and comments on the page, blasting antigovernment supporters, demanding that Mr. Mubarak be given a chance and spreading disinformation, including that the “day of departure” protest on Friday was canceled.

But that did little to deter the protesters. “If you think you can go on Facebook and tell the people to go home, it’s too late for that,” said Omar Ghoneim, 32, who walked to Friday’s protest, wearing two band-aids on his right hand from throwing tear gas canisters back at the police.


David D. Kirkpatrick, Kareem Fahim and Anthony Shadid contributed reporting from Cairo.

This article, "Outrage and a Facebook Page That Gave It a Voice," originally appeared in The New York Times.