As the fifth anniversary of the social media-driven Arab Spring uprisings approaches, Egyptian authorities have arrested three influential Facebook administrators, accusing them of belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
On Saturday Egypt’s Interior Ministry charged two men and one woman, all in their late 20s, with membership in the Muslim Brotherhood and using social media to incite against state institutions. Combined, the three individuals administer 23 Facebook pages.
January 25, 2011 marked the beginning of a massive popular uprising in Egypt that led to the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the dissolution of the ruling National Democratic Party. In the latter days of the Mubarak regime, Egypt imposed a countrywide internet blackout meant to impair communication between protesters, but by then it was too late.
The January 25 revolution was sparked by social media, notably Facebook and Twitter. In 2010, a 29-year-old Google marketing executive named Wael Ghonim created a Facebook page that he called “We Are All Khaled Said,” inspired by an online photo of the bloodied face of a young man who had been beaten to death by Egyptian police.
Just two minutes after Ghonim launched his Facebook page, 300 people had joined it, and after three months the number had grown to more than 250,000.
A year and a half after the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical Islamist group, came to power through a series of popular elections, and Egyptians elected Mohamed Morsi to the presidency. His regime lasted only a little over a year and in July 2013 General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi seized power through a coup d’etat.
After Morsi’s overthrow, Egyptian authorities cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, and blacklisted it as a terrorist organization on Christmas Day 2013.
Now authorities are concerned that social media protests on the fifth anniversary of the January 25 Revolution could spark new waves of protest. Last week, President el-Sisi warned that such protests could end in chaos.
On December 30, Egyptian authorities shut down a Facebook-sponsored program that had been offering free basic Internet services to over three million Egyptians.
In a statement, Facebook said it hoped to “resolve this situation soon” so the program, which it had launched in partnership with Etisalat Egypt in the late fall, could be restored.
“We’re disappointed that Free Basics will no longer be available in Egypt,” it said. “More than 1 million people who were previously unconnected had been using the Internet because of these efforts.”
Free Basics aims to help more people in emerging economies get online, though critics say that it violates net neutrality. Some also challenge Facebook’s motives, since the services included in Free Basics include both its social network and Facebook Messenger.
It was not immediately clear why the program was halted but a government official reportedly said the service was suspended because Facebook had not renewed a necessary permit rather than for security reasons.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome