CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians who turned to Facebook and Twitter to galvanize their revolt against Hosni Mubarak are starting to wonder whether faith in social media as the key to Egypt’s democratic future might be a little overdone.
As candidates jostle in the run-up to elections to replace military rule with a civilian democracy, politicians have latched onto the Web to show they are in tune with the youngsters who began the uprising against the veteran leader.
Many, including former United Nations nuclear watchdog Mohamed ElBaradei, have made it their campaign medium of choice for rallying local support and gathering funds, using Facebook’s interactivity to spread an image of democratic accountability.
But with illiteracy widespread and only a minority of Egypt’s 80 million population using the Internet, relying on Facebook to drum up support could be a risky strategy.
Some candidates are sticking to old-fashioned tactics -- pounding the streets, shaking hands and holding rallies before an election date has even been set.
Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh, once a senior figure in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, is holding conferences in the sprawling suburbs of Cairo and other cities.
His speeches are big on patriotic rhetoric and thin on policy, but they allow ordinary voters to identify one man among a potentially confusing array of candidates.
“I will be Egypt’s servant, not the president of Egypt. I’ll be working for you all,” he told residents packed into a large tent in al-Matariya, a poor district north of Cairo, last month.
“I was born and raised in the old neighbourhoods of Egypt,” Abul Futuh told the crowd. “I know that what the citizen needs is to secure his needs and those of his family, in dignity.”
He then mingled with the residents to debate their problems.
Charm offensives like these are a novelty for many citizens, who used to equate elections with vote buying, ballot stuffing and intimidation by Mubarak supporters.
The Brotherhood was officially banned but tolerated under Mubarak and managed to win one fifth of seats in the lower house of Parliament in 2005 by running candidates as independents.
It has formed a new party, “Freedom and Justice,” which is targeting half the seats in the legislature.
The Brotherhood expelled Abul Futuh on June 18 after he defied its pledge not to run for the presidency, but analysts say he still has support from former colleagues.
The popular touch and slick campaigning that he honed during years in the movement go some way to explain why the Brotherhood is seen as political force to be reckoned with.
Preparations for the parliamentary election are set to start on September 18, while the presidential vote is due by year-end.
Secular liberal groups, wary of the Brotherhood’s support base, have called for the parliamentary vote to be delayed so they have more time to raise their profile.
Even the activists who used Facebook to channel popular anger into a force powerful enough to eject Egypt’s veteran leader say Internet campaigning will not win a fair election.
“I don’t see how Egyptians, either young or old, could give their votes to people they did not see touring the streets to meet the people, know their problems, check their condition and see reality on the ground,” said Mohammed Adel, a member of the April 6 Youth group.
Followers of ElBaradei, widely known in the West as a Nobel peace prize winner and former head of the U.N. nuclear agency, are sticking to Facebook, for now, to lobby for their man.
“I admit the Brotherhood have an advantage over us as they have a very organised party and have been in politics for many years, while we have only been on the scene for a year and half,” said ElBaradei campaigner Abdel Rahman Samir.
“For now, we see Facebook as the best and cheapest way to spread our campaign, but later we will certainly need to go out to the streets and talk to people face-to-face,” he said.
An online poll to test the popularity of potential presidential candidates run by Egypt’s military rulers posted on its Facebook page in June for a month showed ElBaradei won the votes of one quarter of the 270,000 or so who participated.
Egypt’s military rulers embraced social media shortly after taking power, launching a Facebook page to detail their plans and sometimes using the site to announce major news before it appeared anywhere else.
The cabinet, Interior Ministry and other state bodies have followed suit.
ElBaradei spent years campaigning for democratic reform and a modernisation of Egypt’s state institutions and is now drafting a bill of rights for the country.
But critics say he must do more to reach out to the suburbs and rural towns where most Egyptians live.
“Islamists have an advantage because they have a strong organisation that is capable of helping them reach out to the masses,” said political analyst and university professor Mustapha al-Sayyid, who estimated that only 6 million of Egypt’s 80 million population uses the Internet.
Since Mubarak’s overthrow on February 11, new parties have emerged to fill the void left by his disbanded National Democratic Party (NDP) and old ones are struggling to adapt to a new political landscape.
In a country wracked by poverty, a failing education system and cynicism towards politics ingrained during Mubarak’s three decades in power, their challenge is not just to win votes, but to tell citizens what it means to vote.
With the Brotherhood party seen as the ones to beat, secular rivals have launched their own grass-roots campaigns in earnest, reaching into Egypt’s towns and villages and across class and religious divides in the search for critical voting mass.
Some are also teaching the uneducated about their civic duties to try to head off attempts by local dignitaries to win them over using bribes and stop Islamists luring the population by advertising themselves as God’s chosen candidates.
Last Saturday the Al Masreyeen Al Ahrar (Free Egyptians) party led by telecoms tycoon Naguib Sawiris, a Christian, took part in the festival of Mawled, which celebrates the birth of one of the Prophet Mohammed’s wives, in the Cairo district of Alsaydah Aisha.
“We feel it is very important and crucial for us to be present in the streets, see the people, talk to them about our party and its plans and provide services to the people in the different areas,” said Khaled Abu Heikal, a member of the party.
He said the party had recently launched campaigns to clean the streets and explain the principles of politics to citizens.
Sayyid said it was too early to write off any candidate for the presidency.
At least 10 people have so far said they intend to run, including public figures, activists, judges, former diplomats, former military officials and Islamists.
“Those with the best chance to win are the ones who combine all methods and effectively use them to convey their messages,” said Sayyid.
Editing by Tom Pfeiffer