Egyptian protesters who rioted against rising food prices have today been sentenced to between three and five years in prison by a special tribunal.
Shouts and calls for justice greeted the surprise verdicts as 22 people were jailed on charges of looting, attacking police officers and possessing firearms.
Outside the court, hundreds of supporters chanted anti-government slogans, demanding their release. Defence lawyer Ahmed Higazi called the verdict “blatant injustice,” asking:
“What has the government done for the people? Is this what they do to the people?”
The riots in the town of Mahalla al-Kobra in April were the worst Egypt has seen in more than 30 years. Security forces killed three civilians and arrested hundreds more as an industrial strike escalated into violent protests that gripped the city for two days.
Egypt has been hit hard by the economic crisis. The World Bank estimated at the time that global food prices had increased 83% in the past three years and earlier this year, 11 people were killed queuing for government-subsidised bread.
While protests have died down in recent months as food prices have fallen, there remains a tangible sense of disillusionment among Egyptian youth at the state of their country. The majority of Egyptians are under 30 and many have lived their lives solely under the near-dictatorship of Mubarak’s government. Many are calling for change.
On May 4, to mark the President’s 80th birthday, some 74,000 young Egyptians joined a Facebook group that demanded a minimum wage, salary raises linked to inflation, and legislation and other measures to control prices.
The group urged members to strike, wear black, and write “No” to Mubarak on their money.
The growing influence of the “Political Party of the Internet” in Egyptian politics has been greeted with dismay by the government. Young dissidents have been thrown in prison for their online activism and many bloggers fear persecution for expressing their views.
Esra Abdel Fattah, 27, was thrown in jail for more than three weeks for starting a Facebook group to organise a general strike. More than 60,o00 people joined the group.
Fattah was only released when her mother personally appealed to Mubarak, though her case only worked to inspire others: We are all Esra became the name of a popular group on Facebook.
Fattah is not alone. Others, such as Noha Atef, who runs the Torture in Egypt site, Al-Tatheeb fi Masr, claims to have received death threats against her and her family because of her dedicated years of blogging.
Yet not all of Egypt’s parties fear the internet. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic opposition movement banned in Egypt since the 50s, has used the internet with deft skill to spread its message in the face of government attempts to silence traditional electoral campaigns.
Unlike the current government, the Brotherhood in Egypt is young, dynamic and, significantly, technically literate. Where the current government has tried to silence the multitudes on the internet, the Brotherhood speak to them in their own language.
Asem Shalaby, a publisher and Brotherhood leader, said the BBC: “The media campaign has become much more important than the electoral campaign as we know we are never going to win the elections.”
In July of this year, the Brotherhood launched a Facebook group to spread Islam and promote political activism among young Muslims around the world. It now has 1,637 members.
One journalist I spoke to who has spent many years reporting on Egyptian affairs, says that if put to a free vote today, he believes the Brotherhood would win an election.
He said: “The government can’t escape the fact that it’s completely morally bankrupt. The Muslim Brotherhood is very plugged in and, in the end, the internet is more likely to bring the rise of political Islam than democracy.”