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Is 'Arab Spring' Coming To Kabul?

Are Afghan students the next front of "Facebook revolutionaries"?
Are Afghan students the next front of "Facebook revolutionaries"?
The recent emergence of the first, large-scale Facebook movement among Afghan university students calling for reform can't help but raise the question -- will the wave of antigovernment dissent in the Middle East reach Afghanistan?

Since March, some 1,500 university students in Kabul, and another 3,000 elsewhere around the country, have "friended" the Facebook page "Reformists." There, they meet daily for discussions about how to exert grassroots pressure on the government -- pressure that barely exists in Afghanistan today.

In some ways, the movement is very much like similar Facebook groups in the Arab world.

One of the spokespersons, Asar Hakimi, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, that the movement is inspired by the "awakenings" in the Middle East.

He says the Afghan version, too, is a response to "the existence of corruption in the government, the lack of an active opposition group in the country, and the weakness of the Kabul government in addressing the basic needs of the people."

But in other ways the Arab and Afghan movements are very different.

The Afghan students say that after three decades of constant war and violence in their country, the last thing they want is yet another street revolution that brings yet another force to power.

Instead, Hakimi says, they want to engage in street protests but "keep them as peaceful as possible."

"The reason we do not like to become strict revolutionaries is that in Afghanistan there is always a vicious idea behind revolutions," he says.

That's prudent thinking, certainly. But it also raises the question of how, then, can an Afghan Facebook revolution bring change?

The answer is pending, but the movement's first public actions may provide some clues.

In April, the students sent an open letter to the Afghan parliament, in which they demanded the removal of the minister of higher education on charges of incompetence. This year's final exams were so chaotically administered that 75,000 out of 117,000 students could not graduate and gain access to the country's university system.

At the same time, the students have asked the parliament to remove two other cabinet members -- the ministers of education as well as information and culture -- because of allegations of corruption.

The challenge now, of course, is how to give the movement longevity. In the Middle East and elsewhere, Facebook revolts so far have proved highly effective in mobilizing street power for regime change but have yet to prove themselves as long-term pressure groups.

The Afghan students are trying to organize for the long haul by charging membership fees and establishing planning, communications, and other committees that integrate Facebook "friends" into a working structure.

It being Afghanistan, the membership fees are a sliding structure. Students pay 200 afghanis ($4.6) as membership fees, people with solid government jobs pay 3,000 ($70), and people with dream jobs with foreign NGOs pay 10,000 ($232).

Does all this sound like today's Facebook movement could become tomorrow's new political party? Keep logging on to find out.

-- Mustafa Sarwar