Middle East

Egyptian politics descends into smear campaigns

Mohamed ElBaradei at demo in Alexandria - June 2010
Eye of the storm: ElBaradei has become a target for pro-government websites

One of Egypt's leading opposition figures, Mohamed ElBaradei, once joked with me that he was like Teflon, easily able to resist any jibes or criticism thrown at him.

After all, he was once the head of the UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, forced to withstand attacks from the top ranks of the Bush administration for his stance on Iran's nuclear programme.

But in recent days he has clearly been rattled by a website showing images of his daughter in a bikini and at events serving alcohol.

Articles have raised questions about hi family's religious views, claiming that Laila ElBaradei listed her personal beliefs as agnostic on the social-networking website Facebook and was married in a church.

"It's a smear campaign," Mr ElBaradei said firmly as his supporters gathered for an iftar, the meal to break the daily fast in the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. "It's all lies and fabrications."

"All it does is make people aware of how desperate the regime is and make people much more eager to go for change."

The creator of the Facebook page carrying the claims about Laila ElBaradei page remains anonymous but their apparent aim is to discredit Mr ElBaradei's reform campaign and possible presidential bid in this largely conservative Muslim country.

'Dirty politics'

Playing dirty is not new in Egyptian politics but the internet provides a new arena for battles to be played out between opposition forces and the government.

A Facebook site backing Mr ElBaradei has almost 250,000 members while his online petition for constitutional changes has collected nearly a million signatures. He has embraced the microblogging site Twitter as a way to reach out to followers and has just launched a new official website.

Although the ruling party denies involvement, there are now also dozens of sites proposing the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, as a candidate if his 82-year-old father does not stand in elections due next year.

One was recently hacked and the profile photo replaced with a new picture bearing a red X over the politician's face. A message below read: "We don't want you".

For now it is the opposition that most often wins online spats and campaigns.

Web campaigning

With a ban on the biggest movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, and public gatherings severely restricted by emergency law, activists have learnt to harness the power of new media.

"The internet has revolutionised political life in Egypt," comments Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyid, a politics professor at the American University in Cairo.

"It's a tool enabling opposition groups, particularly those who are subject to suppression by the government, to communicate with their members and co-ordinate activities."

Ahead of the last presidential and parliamentary elections in 2005, blogs became an important voice amid unprecedented agitation for democratic reform.

The potential of social networking sites then became clear when the April 6th Youth Movement started a Facebook page calling for a national strike in spring 2008.

Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and blogs were used to announce plans, alert members about police activity and gain publicity.

The group quickly became an internet phenomenon with 70,000 members, most of them young, well-educated Egyptians who were not previously politically active.

Riot police usually clamp down heavily on public demonstrations

Despite close monitoring by state security, the April 6th Movement organised the welcoming committee that met Mr ElBaradei at Cairo airport on his return to Egypt.

It also helped draw attention to the death of a young activist, Khaled Said, in police custody that led to large protests.

Reaching the millions

"The success of social media can clearly be seen in organising and launching such events," says Ahmed Maher, a leader of the April 6th Movement .

But with only 13 million internet users in a population of 80 million, he worries the medium has its limits.

"The rest of the population still isn't reached," Mr Maher points out. "We need to find ways to reach the street. The ruling party is allowing internet use while it oppresses any opposition presence in the streets because it doesn't see the internet as a real threat."

That perception may change. Online debate is increasingly picked up by the mainstream media - both newspapers and TV chat-shows - helping to shape political discourse.

As the political climate heats up ahead of a parliamentary poll in November, virtual combat may also lead to more direct challenges to the ruling party.

Mr ElBaradei's Tweets argue the need for a boycott of the vote.

"Regrettably in an authoritarian regime election boycotts, petitions, demonstrations and civil disobedience are the only means available for change," he writes.

The Muslim Brotherhood, his ally in demands for political reform - which also controls one fifth of parliamentary seats - has yet to decide its strategy.

However, on the issue of his daughter's swimwear, the Islamist group responded swiftly.

Its English website, Ikhwanweb, published an article headlined "Freedom and democracy are more important than Laila ElBaradei's bikini".

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