Facebook's increasingly ambiguous role in the Middle East

Haaretz reports that a new, anonymously created Facebook page is calling for a rally this Friday aimed at overthrowing the Hamas-led government in the Gaza strip: 

The page, titled Honor Revolution (Thauret al-Karama in Arabic), urges Gazans to take to the street after Muslim Friday prayers to topple the de-facto government of the Islamist movement.

"The young people of the beloved Gaza Strip will carry out a grand act that will change the face of history," a message posted on the page reads.

"We derived our inspiration from the revolutions in green Tunisia and Egypt of the pharaohs, which joined the struggle for freedom," it says.

The group's stated aim is to end the split between Gaza and the West Bank, which came about when Hamas seized sole control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. By Wednesday afternoon, 2,338 people had joined it by clicking "like."

Hamas has allowed some Facebook-organized anti-Mubarak demonstrations, but has cracked down on others since the Egypt crisis began. The Palestinian Authority, an ally of Mubarak, has banned solidarity demonstrations on the West Bank. 

In other Facebook news, Syria has lifted its five-year ban on the site, a move praised by the U.S. State Department. In a somewhat more sinister development, Sudanese President Hassan Omar al-Bashir is encouraging supporters to sign up for Facebook in order to counter the country's opposition movement. Regime officials revealed that they were heavily monitoring anti-regime Facebook pages during Egypt- and Tunisia-inspired demonstrations in Khartoum last month.

Perhaps Syria, like Sudan, has realized that keeping a close eye on the Facebook youth can be more productive than blocking them. 



Monsieur Fillon's Holiday

Another day, another French cabinet minister/Middle Eastern dictator vacation scandal. This one involving Prime Minister François Fillon. The Financial Times reports

Mr Fillon came under attack after it emerged that he and his family had accepted an invitation from President Hosni Mubarak to spend the new year in Egypt at Cairo’s expense. The news added to a growing sense of public anger over the close links between some of France’s most respected politicians and the regimes of Tunisia and Egypt.

Michèle Alliot-Marie, foreign minister, first drew attention to those links when it emerged that France had offered the Tunisian regime of Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali its savoir faire in controlling the protests that unseated him.

Mr Fillon’s office said the trip to Egypt had taken place between December 26 and January 2, before the protests began, and had never been kept secret. The Fillon family had been housed by the Egyptian government, which also offered a Nile cruise and a flight to the temple of Abu Simbel.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has dealt with his own vacation mini-scandals in the past, has instructed his ministers to vacation in France from now on:

“Contemporary demands in matters of public morality have considerably strengthened in recent years. What was common a few years ago can shock today,” the president said. “We must understand this and draw the consequences. From now on, for their holidays, members of the government should favour France.”

In a move to distance itself from the Mubarak regime, France has suspended arms sales to Egypt this week, though these sales have been fairly minimal in recent years.