The name Ahmed Maher may not mean much to the average Iranian, but there is a direct link between the 25-year-old Egyptian engineer and the events of the last 48 hours in Iran. Maher was one of the organizers of the 80,000 people-strong rally in Cairo last April that also became know as "the bread riots." This protest was organized mainly through Facebook.
In Iran, where Facebook has been blocked for two weeks, it was Twitter. Anyone following the recent elections in Iran and the clashes that ensued could not overlook the central role the internet and the new media played in the events, especially at the hands of the opposition.
In an interview to al-Jazeera, Saeed Shariati, one of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reformist opponents, said: "For us the internet is like the air force in a military operation. It bombards the enemy's outposts and lays the ground for the invasion of the infantries – our activists, to win the battle."
By this time Shariati has most likely been locked up and silenced.
But nevertheless, it is impossible to keep everyone quiet, especially given the fact that about half of the 46 million voters in the Iranian elections were under the age of 30, the age group that comprises the majority of internet users in a country where the technology's penetration rate has already reached, by some estimates, to 34%.
110 million text messages a day
The Iranian authorities didn't take any chances: Ahead of the elections any website that was deemed likely to jeopardize the regime – from Facebook to Ynetnews – has been blocked. The opponents then turned to another effective mass media tool: The text message, which allowed them to organize rallies supporting the opposition and to update their Twitter accounts, in which they told the world of the developments taking place behind the Persian iron curtain.
However, the government quickly blocked this channel of communication as well, after more than 110 million text messages had been sent on a daily basis in the days preceding the vote.
This was when Twitter, the hottest update service in the Western hemisphere, was recruited for a more noble purpose: Protecting freedom of speech and freedom of choice.
Iranians who own smartphones (like Israelis, the Iranians are big technology buffs), or surfers using services that bypass the blocking imposed on internet providers, continued to use Twitter to organize mass protests against what was later perceived as election fraud by the regime.
Iranian web activists have also managed to develop Twitter navigation tools like the twazzup website, which concentrates all Iran-relevant updates according to categories.
Where is my vote?
Roozbeh Farahanipour, an activist of the Marze Por Gohar opposition party, told Ynet that the most popular social tool among Iranians is not Twitter, but rather Facebook. But when it was down along with the cellular networks that were blocked, activists reverted to sending messages through carriers to places in where the network was still functioning or to activists abroad, who in turn put them up on YouTube.
Other Iranian activists, who managed to bypass the blockage, launched a campaign titled "Where is my vote?." The campaign's initiators succeeded in getting 17,000 new members join their Facebook group in one day.
A search in Flickr under the category "Iran elections" leads the surfer to the campaign's Flicker version. Here too, huge amounts of materials seem to have been uploaded to the web within two days.
Farahanipour said that there were no real elections in Iran in the past 12 years – all of them had been forged. But now, he explained, a new generation of Iranians is rising, a generation more politically and socially conscious and better equipped technologically.
Despite of the military rule in Iran, the masses flood the streets and are not afraid to clash with the police and send live videos of themselves to the world. The Tehran Live website, is run by Amir Sadeghi, a photography students who started taking pictures in Iran using a simple three mega-pixel Sony camera in 2002.
Minutes after exit polls were published, photos from the protest rallies, accompanied by short texts written by the photographers, had already been posted on the site.
From the net these materials quickly find their way into the mainstream media, and are reprinted in many languages.
At a press conference held after the official election results were published, and in light of allegations regarding election fraud, President Ahmadinejad was asked how much freedom Iranian citizens enjoyed. He replied smugly that, "There is no need to worry about freedom of speech in Iran… newspapers come and go and there's simply no need to worry about these issues."
Another Iranian we spoke to confirmed this statement. The problem in Iran is not freedom of speech, he said, but rather "freedom after speaking."
Niv Lilien, editor-in-chief of Ynet's Computers and Internet channel
Nir Boms, vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East