Mohamed al-Gendy Death Shows Online Activism is a Catch-22 in Egypt

In Egypt, young millennial online activists use social networks and blogs to support and enhance direct action for political change. Many charge that they are the deliberate targets of vicious state repression, including the excessive use of force, arrests, and beatings, often fatally.

Official statements and registries from Helal hospital in Cairo state that activist Mohamed al-Gendy was admitted as a victim of a hit-and-run car accident in early January. However, inconsistent reports, the nature of the fatal wounds that ultimately took his life, and the Egyptian police’s infamous reputation for brutality, are adding to suspicions of foul play and cover-up.

Mohamed al-Gendy was 30-years-old and an active “Facebook activist” — one of a growing number of global citizens using the internet and social networking technologies to advance ideas and organize for action. As a member of the leftist “Popular Current” movement, al-Gendy was publicly critical of the Muslim Brotherhood’s grip on power in his country, and was at the forefront of demands for accountability among the Egyptian police force; known for decades of torture and routine abuse.

In 2010, Egyptian police beat Khaled Said to death, causing a public outcry. His murder was emblematic of the country’s violent regime under then-president Hosni Mubarak, and became a rallying cry for international support and fearless activism in the eventual revolution.

Two years later, activists like al-Gendy face similar government coercion and violence, as Gaber Salah and Mohamed Hussein were also recently killed in protests. Both were known to be active on Facebook with pages critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, President Mohamed Morsi, and the current government’s unpopular initiatives. 

As recently as March 25, Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd el-Fattah was arrested and, along with four other prominent political activists, are accused of stirring violence against the government. Egypt state media reports justify these kinds of arrests by stressing the distinction between “political work, freedom of expression and opinion and violence, thuggery and calling for them.” This, under a regime that was supposed to govern quite differently than Mubarak's had; but it seems that the new regime has learned nothing from the past.  

Online activists in Egypt find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.  

On one hand, online activism facilitates organizing for local action, sharing relevant news updates, and building international solidarity around a particular issue. Twitter reporting, independent journalism, blogs, and Facebook political groups have the potential to reach millions in an instant, supplementing the still necessary real life organizing and action. On the other hand, these online efforts have made the more prominent political voices easy targets for repression and police violence.