CAIRO — Ayman Moussa’s father died on Nov. 12. But there was little hope, it seemed, of the young engineering student and activist making it to the funeral. Moussa was locked up in Cairo’s notorious Wadi al-Natrun prison, serving 15 years for participating in an illegal protest. And Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi wasn’t known for doing favors for activists.
Moussa’s friends tried to figure out how to get him a temporary release so he could pay his last respects. Articles in the traditional media were out—Egypt’s free press is anything but. Any demonstrations in the street are ruthlessly smacked down.
But there was something the regime seemed to respond to: pressure from social media. At least on Twitter or Facebook, the government sometimes listens. Social media “is the only thing that scares them,” Moussa’s friend Mustafa told The Daily Beast.
So Mustafa—who asked not be named, to protect himself from reprisals—got together with a few others and started a hashtag campaign on Twitter and Facebook. #letAymanburyhisfather soon swept across thousands of Egypt’s screens.
The next day, Moussa was put into a police wagon and driven home.
In the last six months, dozens of social media campaigns have been launched across Egypt. In an increasingly furtive state—where families are not told for weeks about their loved one’s capture—social media has become a forum for both the state and its opponents to bolster their causes. The Egyptian government, fearing a hashtag campaign could erupt into another 2011-style uprising, is apt to respond to such campaigns before they evolve into something bigger, even as it ignores requests through more traditional outlets. Activists have used the campaigns to force the government to admit an arrest, stop a torture session before it begins—even prompt the release of those held on spurious charges. Oftentimes, lawyers and family members only find out where a suspect is being held after a social media campaign.
The government “feels [it is better] to calm down the situation than to be stubborn,” explained Mustafa. “They are afraid of a lot of things. Things are unstable [in the country.] The hostility towards [President] Sissi is increasing.”
How long social media can quell tensions remains unclear, especially after social media helped Egyptians found out about the death of Luxor resident Talaat Shabeeb while in police custody. In part through social media, Egyptians learned amid police denials that Shabeeb was tortured.
Over the past week, as national outrage grew louder, the government detained four police officers on suspicions on police brutality, an unusual concession by a government that considers police a protector of fragile order and apt to ignore such claims.
“Social media and [traditional] media protect people more than laws” from torture and mistreatment in Egypt’s prisons, said Halim Hanish, a lawyer representing Esraa El-Taweel, a jailed young woman at the center of the hashtag campaign #FreedomforEsraaTaweel. Supporters say she will be permanently disabled if she does not receive medical care.
Last month alone, in addition to Taweel and Moussa’s cases, there was a campaign for an Alexandria groom swiped by a swarm of police at his wedding (#theykidnappedthegroom), and a prominent investigative journalist and human-rights advocate summoned by military intelligence (#freehossambaghat).
Alaa al Attar, 23, was held for several days in May after holding a sit-in for a fellow student who was run over and killed by a school bus at German University in Cairo. Al Attar’s father is a judge. And yet, she said, it was a social media campaign, #freedomforthegucstudents, that led to her release. The case against her, which alleges she and two other students assaulted the university’s president and security personnel, remains open.
Social media “is the only solution we have now because if you protest, it is a crime. And if you don’t speak about it, no one will do anything about it. So social media is the only way out,” al Attar explained to The Daily Beast while attending Moussa’s father’s funeral.
Perhaps the most popular social media campaign was on behalf of three al Jazeera journalists charged with running a terrorist cell inside a luxurious hotel. But that case began nearly two years ago and was fueled by a popular news channel.
In recent months, anonymous voices are as effective as al Jazeera.
Each successful case led to coverage by local and state media, bringing the issue to the forefront of all Egyptians—and the government.
That both the government and its opponents feel social media is more effective speaks to an evolution born out of the 2011 uprising. Burned by the Arab Spring, which in today’s Egypt has led to the return of a more aggressive kind of state they sought to upend, activists said they still seek the overthrow of a regime, but this time by calling attention to individual cases that are emblematic of bigger problems. Changing the leader is not enough.
“The main goal of overthrowing or dissolving the regime is still there. To do that, we need to focus on smaller issues. Even though we have had different rulers since 2011, the mechanism by which the state functions and the machine it uses consists of the same corrupt and aggressive measures,” said Mona Seif, a leading activist. “We focus on cases that bring to the public’s attention bigger issues, like the law itself, the mistreatment in prisons and proper health measures for all Egyptians.”
In some instances, hashtag campaigns are the only way people can learn where a loved one is being held. When Badr Mohammed, 27, was snatched from the car by a swarm of police officers as he left his wedding, neither his bride nor his family knew where he had been taken.
After four days of an aggressive Twitter campaign, fueled by shock that someone could disappear on his wedding day, the Interior Ministry, which first denied having him, issued a statement saying Mohammed was being held at the Alexandria Police Directorate.
His wife, Abrar Ali, 22, went to visit him the next day.
She said “he looked like a robot. He was in a state of shock because of the way he had been taken,” Rofyda Mohammed, his sister, explained to The Daily Beast. And even in describing her shock at his appearance, the sister seemed grateful. Without the campaign “we wouldn’t have known where my brother was for two to four months.”
Ayman Moussa had been in prison since September 2014 before the hashtag campaign that seemed to push government forces to drive him to his Cairo home. The cops didn’t tell him where he was going or why. He walked into a nearly empty house as no one amongst his family knew he was coming. His mother had gone to Kafr el Zaayat, in the central Nile delta, to bury her husband.
At the house, Moussa’s first taste of freedom, an aunt told him his father was dead. He left immediately.
Then Sisi’s goons brought Moussa back to prison.
There were efforts to get Moussa released the next day for the funeral, but the government did not respond. They didn’t need to. By temporarily releasing Moussa, even if he didn’t get to see his family, they appeared responsive. Local pressure whittled down.
On Friday, inside the brightly lit funeral hall, the services for Ayman Moussa’s father, Ali, began. Friends of the Moussa family and local activists paid their respects to a man many said died of a devastated heart over his son’s imprisonment. Outside, some looked out to the street on the slim chance that the police would arrive, bringing Ayman with them.
But there were no police wagons. The Twitter campaign only went so far. It couldn’t bring Ayman Moussa home to say goodbye to his dad.