Last August, when I was working on a story for Online Journalism Review about activists using technology to organize protests in Egypt, I made the mistake of focusing too much on blogs. One of the people I interviewed, Alaa Abd El Fattah, was quick to pounce on me for asking about blogs and only blogs, when Egyptians were using so many other means to organize.
“How important do you think blogs have been in helping give the opposition in Egypt a platform?” I asked Alaa via email back then.
“The web has been very important — not necessarily blogs,” Alaa shot back. “The interesting story is how all the various websites which includes blogs, forums, independent news pages, official pages of political groups, etc. together became very much the opposition platform. A blog is a piece of software, focusing on them and ignoring other similar pieces of software is ridiculous…But since this is what gives you reporters your kicks I’ll bite and answer your questions as if the web consists of nothing but blogs.”
Alaa made his point, and my headline took in the entirety of the situation in Egypt last summer: “Blogs, SMS, email: Egyptians organize protests as elections near.” Now the elections have come and gone, and President Hosni Mubarak remains in power as he has since 1981. And in the past few weeks, the government has clamped down violently on protesters, arresting hundreds of activists including Alaa and a handful of other bloggers.
Alaa was arrested on May 7 at a street demonstration in Cairo to support other activists who had been jailed in support of two judges who stood up to Mubarak. The judges had called for a more independent judiciary and reported there was fraud in last year’s elections — only to be charged for speaking out. Over the past 12 months, street protests were largely tolerated by Egyptian police, until late April when police started beating up protesters and arresting them in a show of force. (Reuters reports on one recent protest here.
Multi-Faceted Effort for Multi-Faceted Activist
For some time, Alaa and his wife, Manal Hassan — the pair are pictured above — have had a popular web hub called Manal and Alaa’s Bit Bucket. While it does include a blog in Arabic and English, the site has much more to it. Alaa told me last summer that the site was built to showcase their skills as open-source software and web developers. He ticked off all the features of the site beyond the blog: an aggregator of Egyptian blogs; free hosting for non-profit sites; events calendar; photo galleries; encrypted private spaces for secret online discussions; videos of violence against protesters; reviews of WiFi hotspots around Cairo.
So after Alaa’s detention on May 7, the reaction from the blogosphere and other activists around the globe was swift. They created a multi-faceted campaign to free him and bring attention to his plight in a way that fit with his tech-savvy personality. The Global Voices blog set up a special wiki, which lists all the ways people are promoting his release online and offline. Anyone can edit the wiki to add their own activity or ideas.
So far, there’s been a Flash animation, an online petition (signed by 1,100+ people so far), badges to post on websites and blogs, and a special Wikipedia entry. People have even tried a Google bomb strategy, where they link the Free Alaa blog with the word “Egypt” so that Google searches for Egypt will pull up the blog. It hasn’t worked well so far, but the idea is innovative.
As DemoBlogger points out on the Free Alaa blog: “The total cost of launching a global human rights campaign using digital tools: $0. The total time needed to launch a global human rights campaign using digital tools: 24 hours.”
Alaa, who’s 25 years old, was initially detained for 15 days, and then the authorities decided to keep him for another 15 days. During that time, he has managed to get letters smuggled out of prison and posted to his blog — one in English and one in Arabic.
“I am writing this in English to prevent my cellmates from reading over my shoulders, not that I am sure this will work,” he wrote in the English post. “They are all educated and some are very knowledgeable. In the span of two days we discussed everything, from Egyptology to biology to economics, lots of politics…I have to explain about the judges and I have to explain why I’m here, why it’s worth it, and to be frank I’ve no idea why.”
Beyond having the blogging and human rights groups on his side, Alaa also has a strong family to lean on. His father, Ahmed Seif Al Islam, is a well known activist and lawyer at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in Cairo, while his mother Laila Suief is an activist and science professor at Cairo University. When I called Ahmed to talk the other night, he was fast asleep after having spent nearly 48 hours dealing with hundreds of people who had been detained after protests. I spoke to Laila, and she told me she had seen Alaa and that he was coping with his situation in jail as best as he could.
The next day, I spoke to Ahmed, who told me he had come from the prosecutor’s office, where he had just heard that Alaa would be held another 15 days, as he had expected. I asked Ahmed how it felt to have his son in jail and what it was like representing him as a lawyer, just as he represented so many other detainees.
“As a father, it’s tough to be outside of the jail and have my son in jail,” Ahmed said. “But this is the price we must pay to make change in society here. It’s a complicated feeling for me.”
Alaa Asking for Trouble?
Not everyone believes that Alaa made the right choice by going out to protest on May 7, after so many people had already been arrested for protesting. One associate of his, who wished not to be named for my story, had mixed feelings about Alaa going to jail.
“Alaa was not arrested for blogging, he was in the streets,” this person told me. “There were arrests on the 24th, 27th and 28th of April, and it was becoming known that if you were out in the streets protesting you were going to go to jail. So he was on the street protesting on the 7th of May and was arrested…Alaa was pushing his luck in the street. It wasn’t just him showing up at a protest. He was known for getting into pushing matches with security forces, and it’s really unfortunate, and I feel really bad for him and his wife, who’s really heartbroken. It’s not an easy situation right now.”
This source also mentioned a post that Alaa had made to his blog on May 4 in Arabic, coinciding with Mubarak’s birthday. According to my source, part of the post read: “They say that insulting the president is a crime. All right then, f—- Mubarak.”
Another Egyptian blogger known as Sandmonkey confirmed to me that Alaa had written that on his blog in Arabic, but said that wasn’t what got him arrested.
“Alaa did have such a posting up on his blog at some point, but no, that isn’t what caused trouble for him,” Sandmonkey wrote to me in an email. “What caused trouble was the fact that he was organizing protests and informing people about them. That he was always at every single protest, so much that the police was just itching for the excuse to arrest him. His participation in the last protest was all the excuse they needed.”
Last summer, Alaa told me about what he considered “minor trouble” he had had with the law during the infamous protests last May 25, when female protesters were molested, while police stood by and did nothing.
“On the day of the referendum, the 25th of May (a.k.a. Black Wednesday), after being attacked by tens of hired thugs I noticed a uniformed police general (they use ranks similar to the military) was supervising the whole thing,” he said. “I stood up and took photos of him, he ordered the thugs to grab my camera, but I fought back and managed to save it. We later used the photo as evidence against him (state prosecutors put the case on hold) so I printed it on large banners and brought the banners to all political events (the guy’s photo is now an icon of police brutality against protesters).
“Annoyed by the coverage and pressure he tried to intimidate me once after a protest. I nearly lost control and attacked him. Turned out it was a trap, there where cameras there waiting to take photos of me attacking a uniformed cop (a major offense). That’s about all the trouble I got because of it, pretty minor [by] Egyptian standards.”
Now it’s not as minor, and I asked Sandmonkey if he thought Alaa should have considered the consequences of his actions, especially the possibility that the government will be much more attuned to his online activism.
“Mark, if one always considered the smart thing to do in terms of dealing with consequences or punishment, no one would’ve ever fought a tyrannical leader or government,” Sandmonkey pointed out. “You do what you can because you feel compelled to do it. Because it’s the right thing to do!”
Western Governments and Media
So why did the Egyptian government allow so many peaceful protests last year, and then change its mind and start rounding people up and detaining them on trumped-up charges? And why are the U.S. and other Western governments only making token comments condemning Mubarak’s actions? It’s possible that during last year’s elections, Mubarak had to allow a more open exchange of ideas and freedom of expression, but when that passed, he felt he had a free hand to punish the judges and protesters.
(I queried Egyptian government officials, including Egypt’s ambassador to the U.S., Nabil Sahmy, but haven’t heard back from them yet. I will update this story with any comments they may have.)
Alaa’s father and mother both spoke harshly about the U.S. and other Western governments not exerting pressure on Egypt.
“The Western governments don’t really care about democracy and human rights here,” Alaa’s father Ahmed said. “They support Mubarak’s government because of his help on issues like Palestine and Iran, and don’t really care about freedom or human rights. They talk a lot about it, but it’s just blah, blah, blah nonsense. We suffer from that policy of Western governments to support Mubarak in this way, and those governments care more about what’s happening in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Palestine than here. We get more help from the non-governmental organizations and human rights movements than the governments.”
Adding to that feeling of helplessness was the fact that Mubarak’s son, Gamal, who some see as the heir apparent, visited the White House on May 12, a day after many protesters were beaten and arrested. The visit was not officially announced and included President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley. However, one Democratic lawmaker, David Obey of Wisconsin, did recently threaten to take away U.S. aid money from Egypt because of slowing democratic reforms.
While Egyptian reformers are not counting on the help of the U.S. administration, they are hopeful that the American media and other Western outlets can help spread the word about the worsening situation there.
“You are the only way to send our voice to say we’re upset with Mubarak’s policies,” Ahmed told me. “The Western media is very important to us, and vital to get our message out to the world.”
After all the arrests, I wondered whether the opposition movements in Egypt were feeling discouraged and afraid to speak out on the streets or online. Tarek Atia, who runs the Egyptian news aggregator CairoLive.com, said that ordinary Egyptians are avoiding demonstrations and don’t even understand the importance of supporting the judges — mainly because the government (and the media it controls) hasn’t allowed the judges to make their case to the public. But Atia told me Netizens in Egypt feel a bit more protected to speak out online.
“Most bloggers are not that politically active (in the streets),” he said via email. “Some may have politicized blogs, but it’s done from a distance — and often from abroad. I did not see any change in tone — if anything, political bloggers are getting angrier online. And non-political bloggers are also starting to make a harsh political comment or two. I think that’s because for most bloggers, the distinction is still there between getting in trouble for writing something — highly unlikely — and getting in trouble for actually going out on the street and doing something.”
One female blogger (pictured here), who is a friend of Alaa’s and blogs anonymously at Freedom for Egyptians, told me the reforms of the past year would be hard to turn back.
“On the ground in Egypt, change is on the march,” she told me. “An Egyptian told me a very nice expression when I was there last April: ‘The train of change has left the platform and there is no way that it will go back to where it was.’ There is a strong momentum for change that will happen eventually. There is a point when suffering reaches its highest point, when fear becomes no issue. I do expect lots of violence from the government because it has no will or wish for taking Egypt towards the path of democracy and freedom. It wants to maintain the status quo which means resisting the will of the Egyptian people by all means.”
When I had my email exchange with Alaa last August, he explained how he saw the protest movement making progress toward changing Egypt politically:
I believe we have a chance to build a real movement out of this moment by doing almost daily protests all over the country, by challenging security, by taking protests to poor and popular districts and taking them out of major urban centers, by linking between various topics (land rights, labor rights, unemployment, corruption, democracy, transparency, judicial reform, constitutional reform, independence of the judiciary and universities, the right to organize, etc.), by constantly scoring small victories and by exposing the fallacies and lies of the regime (not to mention its brutality and corruption), we are in many small ways changing things and shaping our future.
What I see is a potential to build a vibrant and powerful political movement spanning many different groups and ideologies and using many different tools, a potential to break ‘the barrier of fear’ and bring ordinary middle class Egyptians into the process (especially youth). But it is a potential; whether it will happen or not really depends on how people act after the elections. Will they give up after Mubarak wins (which is inevitable)? Will the infighting between the various groups return? Will the youth give up again and return to their apathy? Will we remain a movement of a few thousand inside a country of 70 million?”
These are questions that remain unanswered, and hopefully Alaa will be released after his latest 15-day detention term so he can help the movement in a great time of need. Not coincidentally, Alaa will remain in jail this Thursday, May 25, the anniversary of last year’s big clashes, and a day when people around the world will be staging protests in support of the Egyptian judges and to call for the release of the activists in jail.
To read more about the situation in Egypt and keep abreast of the protests and political news, check out these news stories, blogs and sites:
Stamp of Authority — Al-Ahram Weekly on crackdown on street protests
Web community rallies to free Egyptian blogger — Christian Science Monitor looks at Alaa’s situation
Stomping on Democracy in Egypt — Time.com’s report from a brutal crackdown in Cairo, with cameramen from Reuters and Al Jazeera being beaten
The Arabist — blog about pan-Arab issues maintained by journalist Issandr El Amrani
Beheyya: Egypt Analysis and Whimsy — insightful look at Egyptian politics
The Skeptic — blog by journalist and human rights activist Elijah Zarwan
The Story Behind the London Demo — blogger Ahmed Zahran gives details on London protest
UPDATE: Boston software architect and media thinker Jon Garfunkel has a fantastic four-part in-depth report on the Web 2.0 tools of activism used in the Free Alaa campaign. He even went so far as to buy Google search ads to see if that would bring more attention to the situation cheaply. He got 17,000 ad impressions for $53.29, but only a .08% clickthrough rate on the ads.
Garfunkel looks at the Google-bombing campaign and says it failed because it was trying to tie the Free Alaa site with searches for “Egypt” — a word that’s too commonly searched. “The Google-bombing experiment, thought it failed, had at least the right intention — to get people to do a little thing and thus collaboratively construct a new artifact of media, a mashup of traditional pieces,” he wrote.
UPDATE 2: After a largely peaceful demonstration in Cairo marking the May 25 anniversary of another protest, two bloggers were arrested, beaten and sexually abused, according to their lawyers, Reuters reports. Mohammed Sharkawy and Karim El-Shaer were taken from cars after the protest ended, and most international media had left the scene. Reporters Without Borders reports that police also attacked Los Angeles Times reporter Hossam El-Hamalwy, spraying him with pepper spray.
El-Hamalwy wrote a first-person account of what happened on the Arabist blog:
Activist Karim El-Shaer was leaving the [press] syndicate in the private car of Dina Samak, a six-month pregnant journalist with the BBC, and the wife of Ibrahim el-Sahary, a leftist activist who’s currently locked up in Tora prison with other pro-democracy activists.
Dina Samak called me last night, in a state of total shock and trauma, to say her car was followed by a taxi, as soon as she got out the syndicate’s garage. The taxi cut the road in front of her. Plainclothes security came out it, and were joined by others thugs standing by. They started hitting Dina’s car till they smashed the windows, dragged Shaer out of it with a dose of beatings. There were other journalists too in the car, Jihan Shaaban, Ahmad Salah and Dina Gameel. All were assaulted. Samak was taken to the Judges’ Club for medical aid.
“They (security) have reached such a low level, that I feel we are cattle, not human beings,” Dina told me. “The sexual abuse, the torture, the detentions won’t stop us from overthrowing this rotten regime.”
Reporters Without Borders condemned the arrests with a statement: “The international community should react firmly and condemn such practices on the part of a government that claims to be democratic.”
I’ll update this with more details as they come in.
UPDATE: On June 22, after a rough day in an overcrowded holding cell, Alaa was freed from jail and returned home. Elijah Zarwan has the details on his release here. Here’s a photo of Alaa with his wife Manal after his release from prison.