Cyberspace Link-Ups

At the end of last year, access to the US-based Facebook website became available to users throughout the world. Egyptian teenagers have been as enthusiastic as any of their contemporaries when it comes to exploring the pros and cons of networking. By Sherif Abdel Samad

Users of the German website StudiVZ will already be familiar with the Facebook premise. The basic idea underlying such social networking websites is that they allow members to set up their own profile page where private photos can be posted, as well as enabling them to network with friends.

The idea, which was dreamt up in February of 2004 by Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg, has since attracted millions of Internet users throughout the world.

The only place to be for the young middle-class

In the meantime, members of Cairo's trendy youth scene are very likely to find themselves quickly demoted to the ranks of the decidedly uncool should they provide a negative response to the question: "Are you in Facebook yet?" Facebook, it seems, is currently the most visited Internet site for the young middle-class of Cairo – and the trend is showing no signs of waning.

"Facebook is brilliant," enthuses the young Rania who spent hours on her computer during the first weeks. "It lets you get into contact with so many people you haven't heard from for years." She and her husband have even begun a bit of friendly competition over which of them can find most friends via Facebook. Her total so far is 198.

A popular feature of Facebook is that each user has an Internet forum on which friends can leave messages, which can also be read by all the user's other friends as well. It is reminiscent in a way of the sort of television programmes that encourage self-presentation, the kind of thing that is currently so popular both in Europe and in the Arab world.

Public secrets

Self-promotion is not the least of the attractions here either. Everyone wants to give the best possible impression of themselves, to show their best photographs, their favourite books, and their public activities.

A click on the 'Home' option reveals at a glance all the activities of all the user's friends. That A is now going out with B, for example, or that B's latest photos are online.

It's a click that may have embarrassing consequences, however, as the young Nihal found out. After confiding to her website that she was sad and single, she was surprised to find that this information was also visible to all of her friends as well, her break up with her boyfriend had well and truly gone public.

The "Home" option also reveals which member has joined which group. And the groups, in turn, are extremely revealing in the picture they provide of what it is that motivates and interests the youth of Cairo. From humour and entertainment to politics, the entire spectrum is here.


There is for instance a group which goes by the name of "I'm Muslim & I'm Proud", a reference to the James Brown song: "Say it loud, I am black and I am proud". The group has 11,381 members and discusses everything from religion to politics, as well as more general topics.

Though the name may seem to suggest that the membership includes fundamental followers of Islam, this is not the case. On the contrary, it's a lively, colourful and vibrant mix of people who are involved: pretty, veiled as well as unveiled women, liberally-minded Muslims, who define themselves first and foremost as Muslims, exchanging opinions on their religion or on politics.

Other similar groups include "Prophet Mohamed {S.A.A.S.} lovers", or "1,000,000 MUSLIMS!"

A recently opened political group which goes by the name of "Ask Oprah to visit the West Bank & Gaza too!!" was started by young people after it became known that American talk show host Oprah Winfrey wanted to have an Israeli friend in Israel as a mark of solidarity with Israel in its fight against terrorism.

The group's aim is to persuade the TV presenter to travel to Palestine and see for herself how the occupation is at close quarters.

Domestic political problems also feature on Facebook. The group "Stop The EGYPTIAN POLICE Brutality...!!", for example, attempts to draw attention to the subject of police brutality in Egypt, providing links to YouTube videos from its website.

Mobilisation via the Internet

It remains to be seen how long it will take until Facebook takes on a political function at demonstrations. The announcement and coordination of opposition protests in Cairo, for instance, have already been partly carried out via blog pages.

Facebook has certainly proved its value as a medium of communication in Cairo. As Mido, journalist on the successful youth magazine Croc, explains, all that is needed in order to make sure that young people in Cairo are informed about upcoming concerts is to place an ad on the Croc page on Facebook.

The influence of these pages should not be underestimated. The groups give young people a voice – as well as an audience of hundreds. More than just providing a forum, they create a feeling of solidarity.

Even if there are some who might see it all as nothing more than a way of passing the time, there is no doubt that Facebook has succeeded in bringing together an entire generation of Egyptian youth, a generation who want to decide for themselves who they are and want it is they want to talk to each other about.

Sherif Abdel Samad

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

© 2007

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