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How a brutal beating and Facebook led to Egyptian protests

Angry Egyptian activist shouts at anti-riot policemen who block the way leading to journalists syndicate in downtown Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011. A small gathering of Egyptian anti-government activists tried to stage a second day of protests in Cairo Wednesday in defiance of a ban on any gatherings, but police quickly moved in and used force to disperse the group.

Ben Curtis/The Associated Press/Ben Curtis/The Associated Press

Over the past three decades, tensions in Egypt would periodically rise over issues such as the price of food or police brutality: small embers of dissent that would ultimately die out. This week, however, it appears things are different. There is no one reason to explain why tens of thousands of Egyptians are taking part in the largest protests in a generation, calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. It is, rather, a combustible combination of factors ranging from the torture killing of a twenty-something businessman to the emerging political force of Facebook in the Arab world.

'We are all Khaled Said'

Khaled Said was a shy, soft-spoken 28-year-old who ran a small business in Alexandria.

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Last summer, he came across a video that appeared to show local police officers dividing up the spoils of a drug bust, so on June 6, he posted it on his blog.

A few hours later, two plainclothes officers emerged from a nearby police station to pay Mr. Said a visit. They found him in an Internet café by his house, just off the harbour, and dragged him to the street.

Twenty minutes later, Mr. Said was dead, his head smashed against a marble staircase in the lobby of the building next door.

An autopsy conducted by the Interior Ministry claimed Mr. Said suffocated after swallowing a bag of drugs he tried to hide from police.

A gruesome photograph, however, started circulating online, showing Mr. Said's battered face, with missing teeth, a ripped lower lip, a broken jaw and bloody head. Mr. Said's family has confirmed the photograph is of their son.

Mr. Said's case was not the first of alleged torture at the hands of Egypt's notorious police, nor was it the worst. However, it captured the imagination of young Egyptians who decided to turn to social media as a tool of protest.

A Facebook page appeared under the name " We Are All Khaled Said," which is run by an anonymous administrator who uses the moniker "Khaled Said."

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The page has transformed into a virtual central square for those who want to protest against police brutality and human rights abuses.

Users post photos and video, and list the names of allegedly abusive police officers. The group organized a series of demonstrations in memory of Mr. Said after his death and, with a membership topping 500,000, it has become Egypt's most popular online human rights group.

In the immediate wake of protests in Tunisia, the page issued a rallying call for a massive demonstration to take place in Cairo on Jan. 25, national police day.

The Facebook factor

An estimated 3.4 million Egyptians use the social networking site, the vast majority under the age of 25. Egypt is the No. 1 user of Facebook in the Arab world, and No. 23 globally. It is the third most-visited website in the country, after Google and Yahoo.

With freedom of speech and the right to assemble severely limited in Egypt, which has been ruled under a state-of-emergency law since 1981, Facebook provides one of the only forums for dissent.

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Unsurprisingly, in recent years, Egyptian activists have moved online, launching an anti-torture website with a hotline to report instances of police brutality, for example.

The El Nadim Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence publishes a diary on its website that has documented hundreds of allegations of abuse in the past year.

After the picture of Mr. Said's battered body began circulating online, Egyptians used Facebook and Twitter to successfully organize a large, rare protest outside the Interior Ministry.

A thousand people, many of them strangers, attended Mr. Said's funeral.

According to Reuters, as many as 8,000 people dressed in black demonstrated in Alexandria, answering a call issued on Facebook.

After the government attempted to discredit Mr. Said by alleging his brothers had converted to Judaism, a group of Egyptian rappers penned a song in his memory.

"They think the people are stupid." That video went viral on YouTube.

A youth movement

In the spring of 2008, a 28-year-old engineer named Ahmad Maher started a movement to support the workers in El-Mahalla El-Kubra, an industrial town, who were planning to strike on April 6.

The movement called on demonstrators, who were seeking better wages and working conditions, to wear black and stay home on the day of the strike. The protest was successful and the Facebook group got traction, mushrooming to 70,000 members.

However, unlike the "We Are All Khaled Said" page, the April 6 movement was unfocused. Its vagueness, ironically, attracted a new breed of Egyptian, many of whom had never been involved in politics before, but were fed up with the economic status quo.

The group evolved, calling for a general nationwide strike to protest against Egypt's economic stagnation and government corruption. It has also organized protests around other causes -- from the minimum wage to Gaza.

The April 6 movement has, in the past, sought to stress that it is not a political party, but it has provided a virtual rallying point for young Egyptians.

In the lead up to continuing protests, the page has become more politicized, echoing calls for mass protests on Jan. 25.

"The Egyptian left has been trying to connect the demands of labour involved in April 6 with the overarching political situation in the country and make them realize that the root of the problem is the Egyptian government," said Blake Hounshell, editor of Foreign Policy, who has been blogging about the protests.

The Tunisia Effect

Television images of the Tunisian uprising have emboldened Egyptians to challenge their own government's autocratic rule.

Leftists and human-rights activists in Cairo and elsewhere have been calling for mass demonstrations like this week's for years, however, average Egyptians were too scared of the consequences to take to the streets.

Evidence of the inspirational link between Tunisia and Egypt are apparent in some of the most iconic images of the protests.

Egyptian protesters hold loaves of bread, the same symbol used by demonstrators in Tunisia. They carry Tunisian flags. One of the most popular placard slogans reads "Yesterday Tunisia. Today Egypt."

Tunisia's revolution marked the first time Arabs ousted one of their leaders. Watching events unfold there appears to have enabled Egyptians to break the myth of Arab "slactivists" -- protesters who are quick to criticize online, but refuse to brave the streets.

The silence of the Muslim Brotherhood

The world's oldest and largest Islamist group, the Brotherhood is banned in Egypt and has been curiously absent from the mass protests.

While individual members are among protesters, the Brotherhood itself has said it would symbolically support activists' calls to protest, but would not mobilize as a group.

This has been a blessing to the protesters, whose demands have been decidedly secular, winning them credibility in Egypt and around the world.

Protesters in Cairo are chanting "The people want the ouster of the regime" and "Down with Mubarak," not "Death to America."

Egypt's Interior Ministry, meanwhile, has sought to recast the protest, accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of fomenting public disorder. It is a charge the group flatly denies.

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