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Facebook Fractures

Needless to say, the situation in Cairo has grown all the more heated after the latest round of massacres of pro-Muslim Brotherhood protestors. With the army taking charge in such a heavy handed way, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for people to stick to the black-and-white positions many of them had taken in the run-up to the June 30th ouster of former president Mohammed Morsi.

Not that they’re not trying. As an employee of the Egyptian Consulate in New York told me when I was there getting my boys’ birth certificates notarized, Egyptians are not good at accepting that others can hold differing opinions, or agreeing to disagree, so to speak. They’re also not particularly comfortable with acknowledging gray areas, preferring to paint things in absolute terms.  But given what’s gone on in Egypt over the past few days, it’s hard for anyone except the most polarized to acknowledge at least some level of murkiness in the situation there. There are plenty of people who were happy to see Morsi go who are now deeply disturbed at the sight of protestors being shot with live ammunition and the obvious ascendance of the Army. People don’t know what side to come down on anymore.

In a country where political discourse had been effectively shut down for the better part of 60 years, learning to disagree amicably isn’t coming easy. My contact in the Egyptian consulate told me his school friends are hardly capable of having civil conversations with him these days because of their divergent views on Morsi’s removal, and my Arabic tutor said that members of his extended family won’t even eat meals at the same table together—during Ramadan, of all times.

My own family seems to be staging a war of their own, with cousin openly bashing cousin on Facebook. I got dragged into it a couple of weeks ago—which got me thinking about the dark side of social media. Much is made about the power of social media to shrink the world, and that’s true, but it can expose previously invisible fault lines in relationships as well.

In the days before social media, I had no idea what my relatives in Egypt thought about politics, as it was rarely a topic of discussion during our visits there—at least in my presence. Now, not only are Egyptians freer in expressing their political opinions than they were under Mubarak, but social media allows the world to see what they think.

Facebook has transformed my interactions with my family, and not always for the better. Our differences have been laid bare and exchanges often get heated. I was on the receiving end of a barrage venomous enough that a friend messaged me offline to comment on it, then tried futilely to defend me by posting a comment elaborating on the point I was trying to make. (Interestingly, my family was much more polite when disagreeing with him; Egyptian hospitality toward strangers reigns supreme even during political discourse). There was even an insult hurled—granted, it was a generalization about Americans, but it was directed squarely at me, and it stung.

Sure, all families have fights, particularly about issues as sensitive as politics. But a disagreement around the Thanksgiving table is likely to be punctuated with moments of fondness and levity, reminders that one is among people whom, ultimately, one loves. Facebook encounters don’t provide these palliative moments. The very technology that has allowed me to maintain closer ties with my relatives in Egypt has revealed just how far apart we are on sensitive issues—all without the comfort of a slice of warm apple pie.

Our move to Cairo is now less than two weeks away, and by the time we get there it’s likely that some attempt will have been made to clear the pro-Morsi sit ins. There’s no way to know how that will turn out—although past performance doesn’t bode well—or what repercussions will be lingering when we arrive. In all likelihood the atmosphere will be tense. That goes, too, for the first Friday night dinner we will spend with my extended family. I just have to hope that being there in person and being reminded of mutual affection will make all the difference.


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