The Next Page / Good morning, Egypt: A revolution fueled by the Internet, and the new power of women
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ERBIL, Iraq -- In the morning of Thursday, Jan. 27, a group of Iraqi journalists huddled around a 15-inch MacBook Pro screen inside of one of the conference rooms of the Erbil Rotana hotel. We were at grand wooden conference tables, our plush leather chairs wheeling about the newly carpeted floor.
It was the unlikely setting for a brief 15-minute session on digital subversion.
In the heart of the luxury hotel, the participants of a workshop on new media strategies for journalists were listening to an exhausted activist -- for the past two days he had been evading and confronting police via Nile boat, car and alleyways -- whose apartment is littered with existential literature, and speaks in loud bursts of commentary punctuated with the Egyptian phrase "a'ha."
"A'ha" is an exclamation point that can only be surmised as the one-syllable sound for "bullshit."
He is the Sandmonkey, Mahmoud Salem, an Egyptian blogger and activist (sandmonkey.org). Despite being well-read, intelligent, media-savvy and a quote generator, he has no external diplomacy meter. He will listen to you present your argument only to grin and tear it to shreds. He often refers to a group of people he speaks with as "ya awo'lad," or "kids."
"Kids, with these technologies, BlackBerries, Twitter," he spoke while in an early-morning stupor through Skype, "we can effectively play hide-and-seek with the security apparatus."
The Egyptian government, as if listening to his words through the speakers, would turn off the lights on Salem and his compatriots who were leading the online charge against the three-decade rule of Hosni Mubarak, which has often been violent, unforgiving against opponents and fond of using heavy-handed techniques to stifle expression and dissent.
As if channeling his oafishness and disregard for all tact when addressing his people, Mubarak would disconnect the Internet in Egypt, effectively, or at least in his estimation, tuning out the voices of dissent fomenting crisis in a land that has seen five U.S. presidents during the term of one Egyptian counterpart. He is Mubarak. An American ally who has wielded power for most of his tenure as a man at the helm of a light switch, turning off the lights to his suiting when it is 85 million Egyptians who ultimately pay the price.
Salem is one of those Egyptians. "We have one of the laziest active dictatorships in the world," he exclaimed to a group of media academics last summer at a UNDP forum on social media and mobilization. "We are not Tunisia, yes we probably have people who monitor and stuff like that, but they are not as advanced, they're not as interested, and they're not as on the ball."
Yet, despite the security apparatus, despite the massive army, and U.S.-provided military aid at the Pharaoh's disposal, Salem and his colleagues have been utilizing tools such as cell phones and Internet as a means to fight the system since 2004-05. Rather than extolling the virtues of what is often touted as revolutionary technologies, Salem and others see it as the logical extension of their fight for democracy. It is a means to free themselves from the emergency rule in place since Anwar Sadat's assassination meant to stifle protests, media independence and civil liberties. Consider it the calendar and datebook for confronting your tired, ossified regime.
Each and every social media and networking tool has its own space within the Internet ecosystem. It is Facebook that organizes events. It is blogging sites that give insightful and in-depth commentary. It is Twitter that gives continuous live updates. It is SMS (Short Message Service) and now MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) that primes the instantaneous social media chain that begin turning its gears to free a captured compatriot, report a crime or pen an anti-government chant.
Mubarak was familiar with these tools. His security apparatus knew their potential for galvanizing actions. Now, they were introducing their own Internet security tool -- the Net Blackout.
He did not have the calculation to block sites bothersome to his rule. He did not have the time to selectively disable in-country access of Twitter or Facebook.
So he did what thugs do -- turn off the lights.
There would be no more hide and seek. The government would seek. It was an unprecedented response. A complete shutdown of Internet service. An interruption of cell phone service that would lead to a complete shut down of cellular service as well.
Somewhere in the dark, Mahmoud Salem was saying "a'ha."
In an ABC TV interview broadcast on Thursday, the octogenarian autocrat flashed a bit of his hand when he stopped and remarked "there will be chaos if I resign." Chaos is how Mubarak thrives. As if speed-flicking the light switch, the techniques he uses to wield power are neither sophisticated or tactful. They are, however, unforgiving and calculated.
Information blackouts are key to warfare, and Mubarak sees the demonstrators standing between his retirement in Sharm el-Shiekh as an enemy that deserves no mercy. The Internet is not some isolated strategic battleground; it has multiple theatres.
Mubarak has learned that his game of turning off the lights has been strategically compromised. As Egyptians steadily dropped off of Gmail chat lists, AIM friends vanished, Skype family members going from green to gray, mobilizing efforts offshore stepped in.
There were contingency plans in place. Salem was tweeting through a friend in Jordan despite spotty cellular service. Internet service provider the Noor Group was allowing Egyptians to connect to an albeit slow connection to the Net. Those with private Virtual Private Networks like HideMyAss were thriving despite the blackout.
Mubarak would squeeze harder. Google and Twitter would strike back. In an online workaround that will be analyzed by experts and academics in the coming months, the search engine helped set up Speak2Tweet, a multilayered platform that used SayNow, a Google site, Twitter and Google documents to allow Egyptians to call in Tweets.
The lights were out, the thugs were thriving and there in the dark of Tahrir Square near the Gamal Abdel Nasser metro stop, Egyptians were Tweeting with their cell phones. SayNow an online voicemail system recorded a message. Volunteer transcribers from the international community created a transcript to be Tweeted despite the regime's best repressive measures.
Brian Conley, of Small World News, organized the Twittersphere around its galvanized Arabic-speaking user base to translate Arabic voice messages transcribed into a Google spreadsheet. The tweets were translated into four languages, sometimes more. Arabic. English. Spanish. French. The Skype chatroom created around the translation of the messages became populated with more than 30 translators at a time, continually shifting and all being organized via the Web outside of Egypt.
It was subversive Internet at its finest. Messages of plainclothes policemen riding in civilian cars, firing at protesters in Benha, 40 miles from Cairo, were being broadcast from cell phones. Messages compared the Internet to basic human necessities. Mubarak's curtain had been penetrated.
In a chaotic environment like the past 12 days of protests in the largest Arab country, Mubarak was counting on the shock to the system cutting information to its populace would do. He was predicting the chaos involved without knowing if people knew what was going on in the streets of Tahrir Square would shock the Egyptian populace into submission.
Instead, he was met with the Internet community that thrives off chaos and can organize despite roadblocks. A system formulated by the U.S. government to survive a nuclear holocaust, once known as ARPANet, was now circumventing the security apparatus of a Department of Defense ally.
On Wednesday night, Internet trickled back on in Egypt. Unsure of how long the Web would last, pictures, videos and rants flooded Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs. Mubarak, sensing the masses would not be shocked into a chaotic stupor, reverted to "baltagi" -- thug tactics -- and deployed undercover police to intimidate, maim and kill protesters in Tahrir Square.
Salem was one of those protesters. He was returning to a square populated with hundreds of thousands of protesters. He was "ambushed" by police. They beat him, held him for two hours as they ripped his car apart. One of the thugs stole his cell phone. In the larger game of hide and seek, he was found.
President Mubarak and his blackout thriving in an aura of chaos.
• Moustafa Ayad, a former Post-Gazette staff writer and a native of Egypt, is an independent contractor who trains journalists throughout the Middle East (firstname.lastname@example.org).
By now, the world has a clear picture of the Egyptian people's frustration with the Hosni Mubarak regime and the magnitude of the Egyptian protests. The international media coverage of the Lotus Revolution has circulated many snapshots of the youth involved in igniting the unrest, flashing images of young men frustrated with police brutality, unemployment, rising sectarian violence and economic injustice.
This coverage, however, has not done justice to the incredible role played by Egyptian women throughout these protests -- as well as the spectacular change that has taken place in terms of the treatment of women on the streets of Cairo.
As a foreign woman living in Cairo, I have complained endlessly about the everyday harassment that all women -- foreign or Egyptian -- face in the streets of Egypt. On my way to class during the summer and fall semesters, men would whistle and chase me down the street with catcalls. Last year, while visiting me in Cairo, a close friend was groped by a young man walking by us in broad daylight. And hers is not an isolated case -- thousands of women report this type of sexual harassment in Egypt every year.
But the recent protests have given me reason to hope that women will soon feel safer on the streets of Egypt. I, along with millions of others currently in Cairo, have attended the protests at Tahrir Square in the city's downtown and, astonishingly, with over 1 million people packed into the square, I have never once experienced nor witnessed any act of sexual harassment.
To me this indicates an important feature of this revolution: It has given the Egyptian people a high-minded objective to aspire to, and, as they seek to overcome the political indignity to which Mubarak's regime has subjected them for decades, they may cast aside certain social conventions -- like rampant sexual harassment -- as well.
Perhaps a more important factor in this apparent decrease in sexual harassment is the actions of the Egyptian women themselves. Egyptian women have asserted themselves as equal partners in the fight for dignity and political rights since the revolution began on Jan. 25. They have participated on the frontlines of the protests, battling police and leading chants in front of crowds of thousands of Egyptians.
When the riot police pushed back the crowds on the 26th of July Bridge in Zamalek on Jan. 28, one Egyptian woman ran up the bridge toward the police alone, calling on the others to follow her once again as she fought her way to Tahrir Square. Since Egyptians began assembling in the square, the role of women in the Lotus Revolution has only grown. One older woman led the call for the protesters to collect the trash that was beginning to pile up in Tahrir Square and the surrounding streets, while another group of women organized security checkpoints for women at the entrances to the square.
And like the male protesters, the Egyptian female protesters are representative of all socioeconomic classes, religions and generations in Egypt. Some arrive on the square wearing the niqab, or the full-face veil, while others arrive in tight-fitting designer jeans. But they all share the same goal. As one young girl yelled from her father's shoulders: "The people want the overthrow of the president."
In the end, the Lotus Revolution is about dignity. With the Egyptian people finally demanding the rights and respect they deserve, women in the streets of Cairo are one step closer to securing the same from their male counterparts. The spirit of hope and change has certainly captured the hearts of millions of Egyptians and given them reason to fight for a better Egypt, one that most of them hardly imagined only a month ago.
The United States government would be wise to believe in these Egyptians and a better Egypt, rather than an aging autocrat who has treated all his people -- men and women alike -- with remarkably little dignity and respect.
First Published February 6, 2011 12:00 am