In March 2008, a young would-be civil engineer named Ahmed Maher created a Facebook page called April 6 Youth with a woman named Issra Abdel-Fattah. Their goal was to support a workers' strike in the Nile River Delta—and to find out if a digital movement could bolster real-life action. In three weeks, the April 6 Youth Facebook group gained 70,000 people. The otherwise barely noticeable strike became a riot, a media event, and an embarrassment to the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
The Facebook group would become an undeniable factor in a movement that helped unseat Mubarak. But as writer David Wolman writes in "The Instigators," the latest offering from longform journalism publication The Atavist (available via smartphone, tablets, and e-readers soon—as a Kindle Single now), the Egyptian government's heavy-handed and often clumsy response was just as important.
When government operatives rode through Tahrir Square on camels, roughing up and whipping protestors, the world took note. But, as Wolman retraces with unique access to Maher and Wael Ghonim, the Google employee caught up in the uprising and eventually jailed by the Egyptian government (and later, a central character in the movement), Mubarak's regime had already begun to fear the online and Facebook opposition organizations. And by the time government agents got physical, they'd already made many clumsy, desperate attempts to infiltrate online assemblies and break them up. Wolman's piece makes it clear that Facebook and social media clearly had a massive impact on the Egyptian uprising—at least Mubarak's people thought so early on.
Resentment against Mubarak had been building for years, even decades, and the country's well-organized labor movement gained strength, power, and influence as the protests continued. But the revolt was also the culmination of years of plotting and daring and experimentation by activists organizing in the virtual world.
The Atavist gave Fast Company a look at the story. Here are some of the biggest, most eye-opening attempts made by regime to undermine the attempts of Maher and his April 6 Youth, A6Y for short.
• Government officials first threatened to block Facebook as early as Spring 2008, after Maher and Abdel-Fattah launched their e-mail and Facebook campaign urging protesters to change their Facebook profile pictures to show themselves wearing A6Y T-shirts. By then Facebook news feeds were a major source of protest-related information.
• After the first strike sponsored by A6Y, the government ramped up its online activity (in addition to beefing up security, cordoning off streets, and instructing telecoms not to connect communications between anonymous users who switched SIM cards to evade eavesdropping). Agents joined the A6Y Facebook group using fake names and created pages slandering Maher. (They also arrested, detained, and beat Maher before releasing him.) But government agents' Facebook pages were "laughably transparent" in many cases, Wolman writes. "The giveaway was that saboteurs' Facebook profiles were nearly blank: few friends, no photos, no wall posts. They had created ciphers, not people." To draw out the phonies, real A6Y organizers put protest plans to votes within their Facebook group. The genuine members' ideas became apparent while would-be infiltrators "pedestrian bad ideas" became outliers.
• When an elite circle within A6Y called "the coordinators" tried to stage a protest along the beach in Alexandria on July 23, 2008, the A6Y T-shirt-clad group were busted up by plainclothes officers before they could start. Wolman, who was with the group at the time, walked away just as a two army trucks approached and soldiers poured out to rough up the group while yelling "Where is Ahmed Maher?" They eventually found and arrested Maher and his brother Mostafa. When his mother came to pick them up, an officer shouted at her when she identified her sons. "Ahmed Maher? He is the leader! The leader of a bunch of criminals! We have all kinds of files on him!" Later in the story, Maher describes the event as one of the most important days in A6Y's history. "They know of this group that is against the government and that we are dangerous to the reign," he tells Wolman of the event.
• In the summer of 2009, Maher and a crew from A6Y, who had found lessons on the Internet about the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and its nonviolent tactics, studied more tactics in Belgrade with the Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies (Canvas). But just as they sought to put their new tools into action, new members of A6Y started seeding chaos within the online group with what Wolman calls "moronic arguments about how using technologies like Google and Facebook was wrong because they were built by American companies." Maher and other longtime members quickly recognized the new members as plants from the regime, Wolman writes. "But before the organizers could weed them out, these foolish kids managed to hack into many Kitchen members' email accounts, which they then made public." An email from Maher was even used as fodder to publicly accuse him of working with a Mossad agent identified as David Wolman, Wolman writes. In retaliation, The Kitchen launched a fake Facebook page full of fake slander about Maher. To get to the good stuff, users were asked for their emails and passwords. It was a data trap. And it worked. The moles' info was shared with A6Y members. By this point, Wolman writes, "Much of the battle between state security and activists had moved online."
• On June 6, 2010, police yanked a 28-year-old businessman named Khalid Mohamed Said out of a cybercafe and brutally beat him to death. A picture of his mangled face was posted online, and it spread like wildfire. An anonymous Facebook user calling himself Al Shaheed, the Martyr, built a page called We Are All Khalid Said, and it quickly got 180,000 fans and became a hub for Egyptians sharing all sorts of thoughts, many, at first, apolitical but notable for their earnestness relating to the state of affairs in an evolving Egypt. On July 8, 2010, the page's founder, using the moniker Khalid Said, reached out to Maher to praise the work of A6Y. It was the beginning of a collaboration that would eventually lead to an elaborate January 25th demonstration put together by the two online groups. Equally vital to the demonstration was a rising tension in Egypt that was further fueled by the bombing of a church in Alexandria on January 1 that killed 21 people—it was suspected to be the work of the regime, an attempt to stoke tensions between Christians and Muslims. News related to the bombing and protests began to spark up on Twitter.
• A week before the January 25 protest, on "Police Day," a 21-year-old Cairo University student named Alya El Hosseiny found the Facebook page for the Jan. 25 demonstration and posted a note on Twitter about it. She tells Wolman, "I looked around and couldn't find an existing hashtag, so I just made up something short and sweet … #jan25."
The details and twists are best read in the full sit-down version of this story in The Atavist, which is quickly proving how it might make a go of this longform journalism model. Get the whole story now as a Kindle Single via Amazon. Or visit The Atavist for this and other unique offerings here.
[Front page image: Flickr user darkroom productions; top image: Washington Post via Getty Images]
Read more of our coverage on Egypt.