The situation in Egypt is increasingly complex writes Sokari Ekine, where power still lies with the remnants of the state and military, and the old mechanisms of repression are starting to reappear.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide described the process of revolution as an endless one. In many ways the first two stages – planning and overthrow of the state – are the easiest, the most clear-cut. It is in these times that solidarity and revolutionary love are able to flourish. Once the state is overthrown, revolutionary objectives increase in complexity, people drift and become complacent and if, as in the case of Tunisia and Egypt, power remains with remnants of the state or the military, we are left wading through murky waters. Often it is not long before the mechanisms of repression of the old state begin to appear once again.
In a recent documentary ‘Faces of an iRevolution’, CNN profiles some of the citizen journalists who played a key role in the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere. It is important to emphasise the years of protests and planning which took place prior to the relative spontaneity of Tahrir Square and the removal of Hosni Mubarak. Since his removal and replacement by a military government, activists have been faced with a set of new of challenges in building a different Egypt – a new constitution, rights for women and other minorities, Palestine and Israel, secularisation and Islam and probably the most difficult, dismantling a military state of 40 years which continues to detain and torture Egyptians. If this is at all possible, it will be in large part due to the work of a group of committed online and offline activists.
Unpacking the many websites and blogs engaged in documenting past and present human rights abuses by the Egyptian state is just not possible in this small space, but I hope the few sites mentioned below go some way to understanding how activists have used online media in the Egyptian revolution. The sites also provide a model of activism and encouragement for those countries not yet organised, and some of the benefits and security risks of using social media. One point worth noting is that the Egyptian uprising as with others, is not an ‘online’ revolution. It is a revolution on the ground and those involved online and offline are in the majority the same people – but either way they have put their lives at risk in their revolutionary struggle.
In October 2008, blogger and activist, Hossam el-Hamalawy started an online campaign, Piggipedia, to ‘expose security officials suspected of committing crimes against civilians’.
‘In every single event, demonstration or strike we have to snap at least one photo of the police officers, corporals, and plainclothes thugs present. We have to profile them, put their faces on the web and circulate their photos. A police officer cannot show up for a demonstration, beat the hell of out of peaceful protestors, then walk home and go out in his neighborhood with his family to have fun. No! A State Security officer cannot spend the day electrocuting the balls of a detainee and inserting a stick up someone else’s ass and then just simply go out in the weekend with his kids to the park peacefully, or have shisha in a public coffee shop, while those around think of him as a “normal” human being. These are dangerous torturers and rapists whom we do not want as neighbors or friends. They have to be exposed in front of their children, parents, neighbors and peers. Their pictures have to be everywhere, from the internet to the streets. And just like in any respectable country when there’s a dangerous criminal at large statements are broadcast with advisories and warnings to the public, we should also alert the citizens to those dangerous criminals whom we can’t unfortunately report to the police coz they are the police… Their pictures have to reach the widest range possible.
‘We need everyone’s help in that campaign… For a start, click on the banner below and begin uploading ya shabab… I’m sure many of you have tons of pictures on your hard drives of previous demos that may have clear shots of the faces of police agents present in the scene… Don’t leave them lying there… Start uploading whatever you have to the Piggipedia… Try to include in the captions and/or tags the place of the protest/event and whether you have any additional information about those police officers…’
Following the removal of President Mubarak, the website 25 Leaks was set up to expose state security officers by publishing their photos as well as provide an archive of state security documents. Reading through the list of documents which date back to the 1950s, is an insight into the repressive mindset of the Mubarak’s government ranging from plans to investigate Islamist activists including the Muslim Brotherhood, to get rid of a group of lawyers (presumably speaking out against the government), manipulate the actions of the State Assembly and infiltrate and monitor students and university professors and includes the names of Cairo University professors who collaborated with the government.
The Egyptian Blog for Human Rights was created by blogger Ramy Raoof (@ramyraoof) to disseminate information about human rights abuses and highlight issues related to bloggers, online media, security and digital activism. One of the first tents to be set up in Tahrir Square was the media tent, which acted as a hub for the uploading and disseminating of information gathered by protestors. On the importance of citizens media Raoof writes:
‘For me, gathering content from people and making it available online via different means was very important because i believed that making those pictures and videos public will help everyone to really understand whats happening on the ground, follow-up the situation and be able to judge, as well as have an overview of what happened in different cities in Egypt as those people who had pictures or videos were not only from Cairo.
‘Providing this content also helped to prove that the government at that time was just spreading lies, rumors and fake images. The importance of these content is also because of the violations that can be proven through a video (showing a police shooting peaceful demonstrators) or a picture (showing sniper pointing at someone)’.
An article by Rasha Azb (@RashaPress) on Tahrir Diaries leaves us in no doubt that the struggle against repression and human rights abuses is far from over.
‘…and we cannot continue to simply call for demands and rights that we earned by blood and spirit – we cannot sell the most precious part of our revolution – our pride – it’s simply not acceptable that we close the prisons of the ministry of the interior only to open up new military prisons – and we cannot allow the Central Military Judiciary Area to become the new Lazoghly (the National Security HQ where torture was common). The activists and the revolutionaries continue their battle against torture and against the military trials of civilians, against the authority of any entity that tries to control the gains that millions of Egyptians achieved for themselves. This is the message that was delivered to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in the recent meeting which was attended by several activists and which ended with three important recommendations that are waiting for a time-table.’
The writer reflects on the early days of Tahrir when the army tanks cruised through the square and surrounding streets to the chants of “The army and people are one”. This he considers, was a ploy to pacify the protestors:
‘…a quintessentially Egyptian way of neutralizing the new actor whose role and alliances were as yet undetermined. So the chant came out to secure the peace and to avoid another battle in what was a very volatile situation.’
On 9 March things began to go wrong, as the relationship between the protestors and army became more confrontational as they attempted to disperse the crowds and ultimately led to the arrest and torture of 20 activists. The publication of a file detailing the torture and abuse particularly relating to female prisoners, which he describes as ‘the mine that blew up the relationship between the revolutionaries and the SCAF during the last period.’ To date there are thousands of protestors imprisoned with no legal rights, harassed and tortured. One particularly nasty form of abuse was forcing women to have virginity tests. Initially the government denied this but later justified it by ‘othering’ the women, and implying that only non-virgins could be raped – and if they were, it wasn't that big a deal anyway – which pretty much sums up the misogyny of the security services and armed forces.
‘…the women “were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters. The general also told CNN that the reason for the ‘tests’ was “[w">e didn't want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren't virgins in the first place.’
This was not the first incidence of state sponsored sexual assault as Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy wrote in the Guardian, once again reinforcing the fact that the present regime is a direct continuation of the past.
‘Almost exactly five years ago, Mubarak unwittingly politicised many previously apolitical Egyptians when his security forces and their hired thugs began to deliberately target for sexual assault female activists and journalists at demonstrations. In conservative Egypt, where most women endured daily street sexual harassment in silence, the regime was determined to fondle and grope women in the hope it would shame them back home. Instead, women held up their skirts torn into pieces for the media to see. It's one thing to be groped and harassed by passers-by, but when the state gropes you, it gives a green light that you are fair game.
‘The next year, mass sexual assaults in downtown Cairo targeted girls and women during a religious festival. The police watched and did nothing. The state denied the assaults took place, but bloggers at the scene exposed that lie; this encouraged women to speak out and forced men to listen. For many Egyptian men, this was the first time they realised what it meant for their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters to navigate the battlefield that Egyptian streets had become. More than 80% of women now say they've been street sexually harassed, and more than 60% of men admit to having done so.’
In June the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF"> announced that a law criminalising protests, public gatherings and strikes would be now enforced. However so far this has not been the case. The high visibility of the Egyptian protests, the high profile internet and social media presence must have some influence on public actions by the SCAF and in some way go towards protecting those high profile activists. Nonetheless people continue to be detained and tortured and in fact in many ways the repression is becoming worse.
And social media sites have not always been supportive of Egyptian and other activists. For example, Egyptian video activist, Wael Abbas (@waelabbas) who has been arrested repeatedly by the Mubarak regime has had both his YouTube (where he posted videos of police torture) and Facebook accounts deleted, though both have since been reinstated.
I end with a blog post by Mona Seif (@monasosh) on ma3t – which she started on 31 January. Like the Egyptian revolution, it is ‘a story that is still in progress, still unfolding and still wonderfully dazzling me with surprises’.
‘When I wrote here a week ago asking people to be part of January 25th protest the reason I gave was that each one of us deserves to live this special moment where you chant in unity with strangers as you are walking down the streets feeling that you own these streets. I had never expected this moment I was urging everyone to seek to extend for 7 continuous days, and I certainly wouldn't have predicted that to be overwhelmingly powerful and warm. I love this country. When I was young I formed several images of it, and over the years my main concern was to keep those images as pure as possible and Unspoilt. It was hard. It was so damn hard. I had dreams for me here that were repeatedly smashed and I was afraid of the day I'd be too exhausted to collect the pieces. That I will just give up, pack and leave. I wanted to work in a country where i do not have to wait several Moths, going through a Rediculous amount of bureaucratic paperwork just to get my salary which is little anyway. I wanted to give birth to kids in a country without fearing I would lose them like said Khaled's mom lost her precious son. I wanted to live in a country where if i got harassed in the street I wouldn't refrain from complaining to the police for fear of more harassment. My brother once told me I have Romanticized my perception of Egypt, I Realise situation in so many that I did. It was my only way of surviving, living Egypt blind to the cruel side of it. But this time, these days, I am really living Egypt and Egypt is really beautiful. The people are great, and every day they present me with new surprise.Jan25th I was Amazed’.
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1"> Note that most of the sites are in Arabic and while Google translator is very good it is not that great!