I got to see Alaa Abd El Fateh for the first time since his release from prison at this conference. He looks different – great, but different – his long hair was shorn in prison, and he’s sporting a head full of short curls and a stubbly beard these days. And he’s roughly as provocative, outspoken, funny and wise as ever.
One of the themes of Alaa’s talks is that the world takes the Egyptian blogosphere too seriously. A satirical blogpost from Manal and Alaa on their website encouraged women to start carrying sharp sticks so they could castrate men who sexually harrassed them. It was pretty clearly a joke, but this didn’t stop Al Jazeera and the BBC from running stories stating that Kifaya was now using blogs to encourage women to take up arms against men.
But it’s clear from Alaa’s talk that blogs have, in fact, been very powerful for young Egyptians, especially Egyptian activists. Alaa suggests that it’s a mistake to think of individuals as citizen journalists or as activists – “we perform acts of citizen journalism, acts of activism.” One act of both was a recent campaign called “We are all Laila” – 200 women bloggers organized a day of simultaneous blogposts, where they all talked about the difficulties of being female in Egypt – discrimination and harrasment. Another blogger campaign was designed to combat ads created by the department of tourism which showed bikini-clad women on beaches and belly-dancing. The theme of the blog campaign was “Egypt is not like this.” Alaa says he didn’t agree with the campaign – belly dancing is part of our culture – but was interested to see bloggers confront a government department and force them to pull an ad.
The blogosphere is highly organized in Egypt. Roughly 1500 bloggers (more than half of which are in Arabic) are part of the aggregator that Manal and Alaa run – Alaa believes there are only about 300 blogs in Egypt that aren’t part of their site. “But there should be more,” he says, noting that roughly 10% of Egyptians have sufficient connectivity that they could blog if they wished. Reacting to an observation I made earlier – that some repressive nations where press freedom is at a premium have seen blogs flower as an alternative space for speech – he speculates that the opposite is true in Egypt. Satellite television like Al Jazeera has made Egyptian youth far more willing to speak aloud, and blogging is part of this openness.
One remarkable aspect of the Egyptian blogosphere is its inclusiveness. The aggregator doesn’t discriminate, he says, including bloggers who would otherwise be on the fringe of Egyptian society: lesbians, Bahai, and Christian fundamentalists. (“There are, like, five Christian fundamentalists in all of Egypt. And they’ve all got blogs.”) He’s especially proud that the aggregator includes the blog of an Egyptian/Tunisian who is seeking asylum in Europe – the blog was too controversial for the Tunisian aggregator, he says, but is included in the Egyptian one.
All of this can be seen as a backdrop to the role of blogs in the Kifaya movement. Kifaya means “enough”, and is intended to be a reaction to 25 years of rule by Mubarak. (The Tunisian movement, Yezzi Fock, uses a different colloquialism to express “enough” with their leader, Ben Ali.) Specifically, Kifaya is opposed to the idea that Mubarak might be suceeded by his son.
The movement has brought together a wide range of opposition parties – Nasserist, pan-Arab, youth, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s always had an online component, beginning as a manifesto authored on the Internet and much of the organizing is done via mailing lists and Yahoo groups. Bloggers have been critical to the movement’s success as well – initially, it wasn’t well covered by the press, but bloggers have helped take up the slack and provided press coverage that domestic and international media initially didn’t.
A critical date for the movement was in May, 2005, when a constitutional ammendment was offered to allow multi-candidate elections. The amendment was broken in a critical way – voting for the amendment would basically have continued Mubarak’s one party rule, while voting against was a vote against multiparty elections. Kifaya decided to boycott, and held a small public protest, with less than 100 activists showing up. They were met by “several thousand hired thugs” and by anti-riot police. The clash between the groups was violent, and included sexual assaults and harrasment of women who’d participated. Alaa, who was beaten during the protests, was one of many bloggers to report online.
The event was so pivotal, because it revealed police brutality against women and against middle class activists. Egyptians knew that brutal techniques were sometimes used against extreme islamists, but it was a huge surprise that this violence affected “ordinary kids”.
The bloggers broke the story four days before the Egyptian press took it on. Reuters had some photos of the incident, but not a full story, and Al Jazeera wasn’t present, so blogger accounts were critical to spreading information. Eventually, enough bloggers wrote about their experiences that Alaa helped compile accounts into a 52 page book, titled “Never Forget”. The book sold so well, it financed two political conferences.
Kifaya began a series of weekly protests, held in different parts of the city, organized via mailing lists, blogs and SMS. They crossed protest with street theatre and documented the events online for the wider world.
Heading into parliamentary elections, a major complication in Egyptian election law loomed. The government called for elections to be held all on the same day. Egyptian law requires judges to monitor the polling places, and there wouldn’t be sufficient judges to monitor more than 10% of polling places. Civil society organizations trained sufficient workers to cover another 10% of polls. But 50% of polls ended up being monitored by citizen monitors, recruited and trained by blogs. The bloggers posted about their monitoring experiences, and these rich accounts were used alongside judges’ accounts to build comprehensive reports. “It was a way of finding a positive role in elections that are otherwise a complete joke.”
Another major blogger event occured on New Years’ Eve, 2006. Thousands of Sudanese refugees had been staging a sit-in outside the UN offices in Cairo. With the end of the North/South war in Sudan, the refugees were to be resettled in Sudan. But many feared repercussions and retribution and weren’t willing to return. They were camped out in a park in a wealthy part of Cairo, near the UN, and had been experiencing racist harrasment. Alaa and others had received information that the police were to clear the park, and on New Years Eve, resulting clashes killed 50 refugees. As I noted on this blog, the event was barely a blip in global media attention. But Egyptian bloggers covered it closely, reporting via SMS to a virtual newsroom set up around Alaa’s server. And support from the blogosphere continued after the protests, raising money to support the refugees.
The event that launched Alaa into the global spotlight started with a protest about an independent judiciary. Feeling that the executive exerted too much control over the judiciary, 80% of Egyptian judges joined in a call for increased judicial independence. Kefaya joined the movement, distributing leaflets to explain the issue and organizing sit-ins at the Judges’ Club. One of these sit-ins attracted a massive police crackdown, leading to 700 activists being arrested. (Alaa tells me that the 700 were cherry-picked from a crowd of over 10,000, selecting the activists who’d been most effective and vocal on and offline…)
The 700 arrested were held for anywhere from a month to three – Alaa was held for 45 days. Writing notes on pieces of paper and passing them to his wife and friends, Alaa was able to blog in prison, trying to turn his personal experience of detention into a larger discussion of the issues Kifaya was supporting, as well as reporting on the torture long-time political prisoners experienced.
Alaa is clearly bemused by the “Free Alaa” campaign some of my friends helped organize. “The other 700 weren’t important – you see, I’m cool.” He notes that the campaign didn’t get him out – if anything, it kept him in longer than many of his compatriots. But it raised his profile and probably prevented him from being tortured, as well as drawing more attention to the larger situation and issues.
Talking with Alaa later, he expresses some frustration with the blogosphere’s focus with him over the issues. But he acknowledges that his raised profile has given him a number of new platforms – the Indaba included – to talk about his experiences in opposition activism in Egypt and the freedoms Egyptians are fighting for.