Fiction Meets Reality in Egypt

Thirty four years ago, Egypt’s most celebrated author, Naguib Mahfouz, published his novella Karnak Café. Set in Egypt during the late 1960s, it tells the story of a group of young, idealistic students who become acutely aware of the gap between the ideals espoused by Nasser’s pan-Arab socialism and the realities of Egyptian daily life. The students are arrested and intimidated for calling attention to this gap, alternately accused of belonging to the Communist party or the Muslim Brotherhood.

Today, the nightmarish scenario depicted by Mahfouz threatens to become a reality. On 12 April, the government arrested a young Egyptian woman for creating a group on Facebook (the widely popular social-networking website) that encouraged people in the factory town of Mahalla to protest for higher wages.

This Egyptian woman’s name is Esra Abdel Fattah. An intelligent and socially aware 28-year-old, she has witnessed first-hand the suffering of Mahalla’s residents due to the rising cost of food staples such as bread and cooking oil.

Last March she created a Facebook group encouraging people to go on strike for one day to show the factory – and the government – the extent to which the Egyptian people are suffering from soaring prices and stagnant wages. The strike was set to take place on 6 April but was violently suppressed by the government, which deployed large numbers of security forces in the streets. Six days later, Fattah was arrested, accused of masterminding a plot to foment dissent.

Despite her lawyers’ insistence that the accusations against her are baseless, the court refused Fattah an appeal. The Egyptian newspaper ad-Dustur reported that Fattah claimed she received information about a strike on 6 April and merely sought to discuss the idea with others over the internet.

The Facebook group she created still exists and has been updated, presumably by a colleague or friend, to reflect the events that have taken place since. The group currently has more than 73,000 members, or roughly 17 percent of the 440,000 people who make up the Egypt network on Facebook.

Fattah’s arrest is significant for two reasons. For starters, her reaction to the injustice of her neighbours’ suffering was completely non-violent in nature, despite the government’s treatment of the strike as though it were a bloody coup attempt. Regardless of whether Fattah encouraged people to strike on 6 April or merely discussed the idea, nothing suggests that she sought anything more than to help the people of Mahalla to live in dignity.

The second and even more important reason that Fattah’s arrest is significant is that the means she chose to publicise the strike was remarkably effective. Only a small minority of Egypt’s 80 million citizens are familiar with Facebook. And yet her online group, calling for the strike, quickly caught the attention of Egyptian Facebook users – some of whom undoubtedly were already conscientious activists, some of whom were not.

From there, word of the planned protest spread so extensively that Cairo was largely quiet on 6 April, with many people staying at home, either out of solidarity or fear. Just as satellite television and cell phones with cameras and SMS capabilities did before, social networking sites like Facebook have exposed a crack in the government’s ability to prevent its citizens from organising and publicly demonstrating their dissatisfaction.

Fattah’s arrest and detention spurred her mother to publish a successful open letter to Mubarak on 21 April in the popular Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Yowm asking the president to intercede and release her daughter. She was released on 23 April.

The nightmare recorded by Naguib Mahfouz more than three decades ago is still looming, and yet the end remains unknown. It remains to be seen if the government will continue to mimic the role it played in Mahfouz’s novella, or if the Egyptian people will succeed in writing a different, better ending for their reality and future.