Activists in Egypt are enjoying a new arsenal of revolutionary tools. Bel Trew reports from Cairo ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
After decades of careful PR, Egypt's mask has slipped. The events since January 25th, when the Egyptian people first called for President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, have highlighted some ugly truths about the self-serving fortitude of this 30 year-old regime. Yet the Egyptian catalysts of this change are bucking Western stereotypes of the Middle East. They are young, educated, international and liberal, and they are wielding Facebook and Twitter as weapons. Welcome to a 21st-century revolution.
The story of Egypt's anti-government movement begins with the death of a 28-year-old businessman, Khaled Said, outside an internet café in Alexandria in June. Police officers brutally beat him in broad daylight, and horrific pictures of his mangled face had circulated online. Yet Egypt's government claimed Said had fatally choked on a bag of drugs, and prosecutors rested their case on January 22nd. Soon after, a Facebook page named "We are all Khaled Said" called for Egyptians to rise up against the government. On the front line are many of the friends I made when I studied Arabic in Egypt. I have returned to Cairo to witness their protests.
“The spirit changed dramatically," explained Mona, a 24-year-old cancer researcher and blogger in Cairo. "Suddenly there were mass protests." Her parents are both activists and her brother, Alaa, is a famously outspoken blogger. But despite such dissident surrounds, she was clearly surprised by the national shift in mood. Her father, a human-rights lawyer, was in jail for protesting against Mubarak when she was first born. He was arrested again on Friday.
"It was very organic," said Mona of the "Khaled Said" Facebook page, which became a hub within the activist community. The page's anonymous administrator called for a series of synchronised protests on January 25th. (It has since emerged that the page was created by Wael Ghonim, the head of Google's marketing operations in the Middle East. He had been missing since January 27th, but was released on February 7th and has since become a prominent spokesperson for the cause.) Inspired by the success in Tunisia, Egyptian protestors planned to address their economic grievances, given the high rate of unemployment. But few expected that they would soon be demanding the ouster of their president. A new confidence emerged from the fact that this spontaneous assembly drew hundreds of thousands of people.
"We realised our strength, we formed the statement—'Mubarak must go'," said Mona. She then described taking on the police and marching through tear gas, rubber bullets and sound bombs before taking over the auspiciously named Tahrir (Liberation) Square on January 28th.
Since the beginning, the internet has been crackling with Twitter updates, Facebook support pages, blogs and Flickr albums documenting the 'revolution'. Given the way the Egyptian government has been targeting and threatening journalists, such digital fly-by-night titbits have come to seem very valuable.
Yet Egyptian activists seem reluctant to have this uprising classified as a 'social media' revolution. The internet is a useful tool, many say, but the protesting is about the people. The French Revolution went ahead "without the hashtag," many say.
On January 28th Egypt’s government shut down all mobile networks and the internet. My sister, whose Egyptian boyfriend was protesting in the square, decided to go to Cairo and I planned to join her. We booked our flights and found ourselves on a near-empty plane, accompanied by a handful of weathered male journalists and butch ‘security consultants’. The flight attendants seemed politely confused by our presence.
In Cairo, when the networks were down, we received only pro-Mubarak texts from the army. To evade such blockades, activists have been communicating their updates via phone to Tweeters and bloggers abroad, and Twitter has offered some techie loopholes to get people back online. Google also pitched in, creating 'Speak2Tweet', a service for people to call in and record a message to be tweeted to the world.
"We spread information about the peaceful assembly against the regime," explained Ramy, a 23-year old worker for Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, whom I meet through Twitter. A Twitter-based community has developed to advise activists about internet platforms and security. "The main obstacle that the government has forced on us is shutting down communication," Ramy said. "But despite this crackdown, we have still been able to mobilise." Ramy told me of a 'media centre' tent in Tahrir Square, in which activists had collected footage from the protests to be disseminated online. He also said the lamp-posts in the square had been rewired in order to charge mobile phones.
But the protests have taken a turn. A pro-Mubarak mob—paid thugs intended to look like spontaneous protesters—turned up on camels and horses on February 2nd. They charged at anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square armed with whips, machetes and rocks, which later became Molotov cocktails and machine guns. "The scenes were apocalyptic," said Khalid Abdalla, a 30 year-old British-Egyptian actor ("The Green Zone", "Kite Runner") whose father was an activist in the 1970s. Khalid, my sister's boyfriend, spoke to us over the phone during a machine-gun attack in Tahrir Square. He described how someone had just been shot dead next to him: "His brain was coming out of his forehead," he said. We posted this news on Facebook.
Pro-Mubarak forces havestarted to target specific groups, such as foreigners and the media. Journalists have been beaten, stabbed, arrested and kidnapped. Brutes on motorcycles cruise around the streets of Cairo looking for anyone who doesn't appear to be Egyptian. I went into hiding for a few days, terrified to be seen out of a window.
Certain tweeters have reached cult status, such as @Dancefromiraq, a Westerner based in Cairo whose activist wife was allegedly kidnapped by police during the first wave of demonstrations. He tweets updates from her, including what he can see and hear in his area. He has since changed his Twitter name to retain anonymity following the crackdown on foreigners.
CNN has picked up the reports of @Sandmonkey, a prominent blogger and tweeter, particularly after their own reporter, Anderson Cooper, decided to return to the states after coming under attack by pro-government supporters. Occasionally a prolific tweeter, such as @waelabbas, goes silent, and reports confirm that they have been arrested. Another regular presence on Twitter, 'BloggerSeif', was forced to leave the country. Journalists have started to ask the Twitter community for news about missing colleagues. As violence against foreigners escalated, I decided to deactivate my Facebook page.
At night, the Twitter community has become an impromptu neighbourhood watch for Egypt's protesters. Well-wishers from around the world are offering tips and delivering warnings. Tonight, the protesters are camped outside the Cairo parliament buildings, tweeting for blankets. I don't bother following the news, as I'll get the information quicker online. The French Revolution took ten years, the Tunisian one a month and Egypt, who knows?
Bel Trew is a writer based in London. Picture credit: Ramy Raoof, Omar Robbie Hamilton