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On February 11, 2011, change happened.

The fall of a dictator. Constitutional changes that the government resisted for 30 years. Losses amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. Buildings burned, Egyptian artifacts from the times of the Pharaohs ruined, and flags waving as millions screamed for freedom. Hundreds of priceless lives, gone.

And it all started with friends inviting friends to attend a Facebook event called “January 25: Egypt Day of Anger”. It was a part of the “us too!” wave of inspiration that hit the Arab world after Tunisians ousted their dictator, Ben Ali. The organizers of the event were affiliated with “We Are All Khalid Said”, one of the most popular Facebook pages in Egypt, commemorating a young man killed after brutal torture at the hands of the Egyptian police.

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Across the Sinai desert, sitting comfortably at home in Amman, I was one of the thousands to receive an invitation to attend this anger demonstration. The organizers were using various social media channels to circulate a document which described in detail the goals of the Anger Day and how it was to be staged. Their manifesto stressed on the importance of peaceful demonstration as an apolitical show of protest.

That day, I brushed off the invitation with a “decline”, not only because of geography, but also because I thought it was pompous to stage a demonstration using Facebook. After all, I thought then, what kind of “day of anger” can Facebook kids pull off in a country with 15% Internet penetration? The concept was out of touch with reality, being organized by Egypt’s tiny middle class, the worldly Internet dwellers who dream of living in a “normal”, democratic country. Influenced by Hollywood movies and European culture, their standards are very far from the realities of the Middle East.

Fast forward a few days and it is suddenly January 25.

Instead of a bourgeoisie march that everyone expected (including the organizers themselves), hundreds of thousands of people took the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and other towns around Egypt. The police reacted violently, and the crowds started increasing as protesters were injured, kidnapped, and murdered. With no official political presentation, the organizers announced on Facebook that they vowed to stay on the streets until the demands of Egyptians are met: “The people want to bring down the government”.

The regime tried everything to cling to power, including what many thought was unimaginable: unplugging the country from the Internet, the spark behind the protests. Boom. Egypt, a country with a major Internet economy, was off the grid, completely and horrifically offline, for five whole days.

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It was not a smart move. Aside from losses amounting to millions of dollars, the world went berserk at the regime’s attempt to silence dissidence. After all, the Internet generation — not just in Egypt — considers the Internet to be one of life’s necessities. In a wave of defiance, an army of online activists joined the revolution. Government websites were hacked, social media users in other counties relayed information called in by Egyptians, and dial up accounts in countries like France that could be dialed from within the African nation were set up .

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Even major Internet companies like Google and Twitter joined the fight with Speak to Tweet, a product designed specifically for those on the ground in Egypt. It allowed anyone with a voice connection to dial three international numbers and have their voice messages sent out as messages on Twitter with the #egypt hashtag added. “We hope that this will go some way to helping people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time,” wrote AbdelKarim Mardini, product manager, Middle East & North Africa at Google, in a blog post on Google’s official blog.

It was impossible to plug the nonstop flow of protest footage and commentary into YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr.

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A call for peaceful protests on Facebook turned into a full fledged revolution. After 18 days of upheaval, former president Mubarak finally resigned on February 11, bringing an end to his 30 year rule.

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Wael Ghonim, the creator of “We are all Khalid Said” Facebook page who is credited with organizing the demonstrations, thanked Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg for the social network’s role in helping achieve freedom in Egypt. In an interview with CNN, he said, “I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him…. I’m talking on behalf of Egypt. This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook. This revolution started in June 2010 when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians started collaborating content.”

Ponder this: a Facebook event changed Egypt, and probably the Middle East.

Today, I received another Facebook event invitation. “Contribute to a new Egypt – 5.9 million more tourists needed”, read the title of the page. The goal was to have users “pledge to support a peaceful transition to democracy by visiting Egypt this year and contributing to positive development. 17 days at $300 million estimated lost per day, that’s $5.1 billion that have to be injected back into the Egyptian economy. This means 5.9 million more tourists over the next couple of years.”

E-activism. E-tourism. E-love. Break down, rebuild. One thing is clear: What can start online can spark millions offline. My generation is awakened. The citizen participation virus that started with Web 2.0 is now affecting the real world, too.

[Originally published in Venture, written by Roba Al-Assi, February 2011]

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