CAIRO (Reuters) - Internet campaigns for political reform in Egypt are losing traction because opposition groups have failed to channel online voices into a grass-roots movement capable of challenging the authorities.
Calls for constitutional change by presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, garnered quarter of a million supporters on a Facebook page earlier this year, but the campaign appears to have fizzled.
The web is among the few public platforms for angry voices in Egypt, where rights groups say an emergency law in place since 1981 has been used to silence critics of President Hosni Mubarak, 82, and his ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
Just a week before a parliamentary poll widely expected to produce a routine NDP victory, activists and analysts doubt that online dissent can provoke real change without the backing of a popular opposition leader or a unified opposition movement.
“There are (labor) strikes happening on the ground but has the organized opposition managed to interact with them or not? Unfortunately, I have to say, the opposition’s performance has been largely dismal,” said blogger Hossam Hamalawy.
Facebook campaigns were credited by some for helping galvanize 2008 protests against rising prices and low wages that led to clashes with police in the Delta city of Mahalla el-Kubra. But Hamalawy says the Internet was not the catalyst.
“It was people on the ground not connected to Facebook who rioted...in Mahalla,” he said. “The Internet can just provide a platform for solidarity with that movement on the ground.”
In Iran, social networking sites such as Twitter helped draw huge crowds of protesters onto the streets after a disputed 2009 presidential election. No such scenario seems likely in Egypt for its November 28 poll or its 2011 presidential vote.
“These youth movements are not really tied to any official party,” said Sarah Hassan, regional analyst at IHS Global Insight. “When we see one that has a manifesto and a more organized establishment, that could be a real leap.”
After initial media publicity for his pro-democracy demands, ElBaradei has mostly shunned the spotlight in recent months.
“I voted for ElBaradei online, on his website,” said graphic designer Faris Hassanein, 27. “I even designed posters, but when he didn’t do anything for some time, I just lost interest.”
The main opposition movement, the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood, faces tough restrictions. Police often round up its members without charge and detain them for long periods.
Without openly confronting the state, the group has used the web to promote its rallying cry “Islam is the solution,” despite a ban on election candidates using religion-based slogans.
Many Brotherhood members are young people and university students, said political analyst Nabil Abdel Fattah. “They are the people who use these new (technology) tools the most.”
In an Arab nation of 79 million people, about a quarter of whom are aged 18 to 29, government supporters have also entered the online arena. They sponsor dozens of sites backing Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, who is tipped as a future president if his father opts not to run next year.
The government has said it will let Egyptian rights groups monitor the parliamentary vote but has barred foreign observers. The electoral process is fair and freedom of expression exists, including online, it says. Only up to a point, critics retort.
“They don’t block websites, but they track them very closely,” said Ahmed Zidan, 23, editor of Mideast Youth, noting that Egypt features every year on the “Internet Enemies” report prepared by the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
This month Egypt released Kareem Amer, a blogger who served a four-year prison term for criticizing the president and Islam.
A Facebook group entitled “We are all Khaled Said” rallied hundreds of Egyptians in July to protest in Cairo and other cities over the death of Said, a Web activist who rights groups say was killed as a result of police brutality.
Amr Hamzawy, research director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, said the main obstacle to political mobilization was not fear of state security agencies but the failure of opposition groups to latch onto the daily grievances of Egyptians, a fifth of whom live on less than $1 a day, according to U.N. figures.
“The big difference between Egypt and a place like Iran is not that the security apparatus is strong or less strong, no. In Iran the security is ... even more brutal,” Hamzawy said.
“As long as you are not able to break the gap between political demands and socioeconomic demands, you will always have scattered protest activities which do not mount in total to a big threat to the autocratic ruling establishment,” he said.
The Internet remains limited to a select few, Abdel Fattah said. Over 30 percent of Egyptians are illiterate and, according to a 2008 World Bank report, only 16 percent use the Internet.
But while politics remains calcified, many young Egyptians still click at their computers in the hope of sparking reform.
“We’re under emergency law, of course people have to be scared. They want to do the most they can and still be safe,” said Zidan, who had helped form a Facebook group urging the release of Amer, the blogger.
“The Internet is their way of venting the anger they can’t express on the street.”
Editing by Alistair Lyon and Peter Graff