The Hopeful Network
Meet the young cyberactivists who've been planning Egypt's uprising for years.
CAIRO — Most of the world got a crash course in the Egyptian opposition movement this month, as mass protests broke out on the streets of Cairo. From all appearances, the movement emerged organically in the wake of the overthrow of the government in nearby Tunisia, as hundreds of thousands of angry citizens turned out to demand President Hosni Mubarak immediately step down. Several days after the marches began, former International Atomic Energy Agency chief and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei arrived on the scene to give the marchers in the streets a nominal leader and media-savvy public face. And shortly after that, Egypt’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, joined in, lending its political heft to the movement.
But the groundwork for the Egyptian uprising was set well before these high-profile figures and organizations became involved. Nearly three years ago, a group of youth activists with a strong sense of Internet organizing and more than a little help from abroad was preparing for a grassroots, high-tech opposition movement.
In early 2008, Ahmed Salah and Ahmed Maher, young members of the Kefaya ("Enough") opposition group that made a strong run against Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election, branched off and formed a group they called the April 6 Youth Movement. The group took its name from the date of the first demonstration it supported — a workers’ strike planned for April 6, 2008, in el-Mahalla el-Kubra, an important town for the Egyptian textile industry. To galvanize the strike effort, April 6 activists used Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other new-media tools to report events, alert participants about security situations, and provide legal assistance to those rounded up by state security forces.
But from the beginning, the group’s founders were anticipating a far more critical date: the Nov. 28, 2010, parliamentary elections. With memories of Iran’s post-election protests still fresh in their minds, the young activists hoped that the vote — sure to be marred by ballot stuffing, bought votes, and thuggery — would spark a mass movement that would bring Mubarak’s nearly 30-year reign to an end.
By early 2009, the group’s membership was 70,000 strong — still small numbers for a country of 82 million, yet it represented something genuinely new in Egypt’s stagnant political environment. The young activists soon took cues from Iran’s Green Movement, which was born out of the June 2009 post-election protests. They built on best practices and addressed the glaring weaknesses of the Iranian grassroots opposition movement. One of their first projects was a manual on protest methods, composed mostly of contributions from the group’s members, which were solicited online. Friends passed it to friends and added ideas on topics ranging from security to graffiti. I became aware of the group in January 2010, when a fellow reporter forwarded me the manual.
In its early experiments with organizational tactics and online safety, the group sometimes reached out to some unlikely partners. Digital media experts in the organization consulted with Italian anarchist party activists for advice on how to use "ghost servers," which bounce Internet searches to nonexistent servers to confuse any online monitoring, allowing users to share information and continue coordinating their activities in heavily monitored digital and telecom environments, such as in Egypt, where email accounts and Facebook are watched closely.
One of the key activists within this movement is 24-year-old Ramy Raoof, the online media expert for Global Voices and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, two organizations devoted to documenting and sharing information on Egypt’s democratic movement.
In September 2010, Raoof shared a digital guide with me that he had created to illustrate how protesters could use mobile phones and Twitter to communicate information about arrested activists, helping lawyers to secure the release of the detainees. Raoof was also well known for the "fixes" he devised for many of the challenges activists were facing, such as using international phone lines to text during government-imposed SMS shutdowns.
His efforts proved wildly successful. In the protests just before the November 2010 parliamentary elections, his team was able to secure the release of dozens of people from jails within hours of their arrest, sometimes by simply having a lawyer show up to dismiss unfounded and unchargeable offenses. In previous demonstrations, arrested protesters regularly disappeared into the prison system for weeks at a time, never having been charged, and emerging with horror stories of torture and significant injuries.
In addition to teaching activists about using technology to find new ways to organize, the election also taught them the power of new-media technologies to get out their message. That’s where Bassem Samir comes in.
Samir is the director of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, an election monitoring group affiliated with the April 6 movement. Although he’s only 28 years old, his personal experiences of detainment and harassment as a human rights officer have given him an air of exhaustion. Samir’s matter-of-fact way of analyzing Egypt’s confusing political realities has made him a go-to source for foreign journalists.
Watching the Iranian protests of 2009, Samir was troubled by the poor quality of the videos taken by activists. Although compelling, the images were often too shaky and confusing to be used by international media outlets, thus limiting their impact. In early 2010, Samir led a small delegation of representatives to the United States for media training, particularly focused on video reporting. A U.S. nongovernmental organization — with funding from the State Department — oversaw training sessions led by digital journalists from magazines like Time and documentary filmmakers affiliated with the human rights organization Witness, in which the Egyptian activists were taught basic camera operation, steady shooting, and how to use audio recording devices. They even studied effective online videos produced for a campaign aimed at installing bike lanes in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
In August 2010, Samir helped organize a collaboration between the Egyptian coalition and the Kenyan NGO Ushahidi, which develops open-source software for information collection and interactive mapping. Ushahidi sent a delegation to build the activists’ online capabilities for securely and credibly capturing raw video and reporting on the ground with mobile phones and building online content around it. The delegation experienced frequent harassment from Egyptian national security forces.
In September 2010, a group of journalists organized by a U.S. NGO traveled to Egypt to provide media-skills training to members of the April 6 movement in courses overseen by Samir. The goal was to prepare the movement’s media wing to operate under intense pressure from national security forces during planned protests leading up to the November election. The trainers fanned out to cities across the country, such as opposition strongholds Port Said, Aswan, and Alexandria. Sessions lasted four days in each city, with nearly 30 trainees at a time grilling the journalists for advice. Session dates and locations were often changed up to the very last minute as the group struggled to avoid government scrutiny and monitoring.
The young April 6 activists wanted to ensure that the protests surrounding the parliamentary elections would be conducted differently (no more burning tires or charging police barricades) and meet with different results (no more floggings by the police). This time, they would be asymmetric and digital. At the end of a session on personal security practices, Samir turned to me and said, "They need to stop thinking of revolution as martyrdom. They are so used to thinking that if they don’t get arrested or beaten up they aren’t committed enough."
In one session, they learned about mapping tools, using open-source maps like Google Maps and UMapper to document protest events online and choose locations for potential demonstrations. Trainees examined their local streets and plotted good locations for photography. In another exercise, they closed their eyes and imagined the streets at night, crowded with protesters, with barricades, with noise, with gunfire. The sooner they got accustomed to the chaos of their environment, they were instructed, the faster they would be on their feet to avoid national security and police.
Photographers in the group drilled extensively, choosing critical shooting locations in a mock site and moving between them quickly and safely. Videographers were made to walk backward on uneven roads with the help of a "Man #2," another activist who would be a security lookout and human tripod when needed. They memorized streets in their respective cities so as not to get pinned by security forces. They were trained on how to convey their content out of the event site safely: running exercises where photographers would hand off small memory flash cards at frequent intervals, switch cameras with activists who would pose as innocent bystanders, and send in camera teams in waves instead of all at once. Another novel tactic was carrying a decoy memory card with photos of tourist sites on it to hand over to police.
One trainer showed them the iconic image of a Sandinista throwing a Molotov cocktail; then he showed them an image of a crowd in Tehran standing over dying gasps of Neda Agha-Soltan with camera phones. The trainer said, "Your camera phone is now your Molotov cocktail."
By the time the November 2010 elections rolled around, a new mechanism was in place. I traveled to one of the Egyptian Democratic Academy’s reporting centers on election night and observed an army of young people at computers watching information flicker across computer-generated maps. Their cell phones buzzed with incoming tweets.
The election itself proceeded as expected. The government successfully eliminated the Muslim Brotherhood from parliament, bringing the opposition’s total representation down to just 3 percent. Some videos that were captured showed men frantically filling out stacks of ballots in rows and stuffing them into boxes to be counted. But as it turned out, the post-election upheaval was not the final battle against the Mubarak regime the activists had hoped for. Demonstrations were small and scattered. Although the activists’ methods for safely coordinating and documenting the post-election events worked, the popular support wasn’t there for a large-scale mobilization, so there really wasn’t much to document in the end. Unlike in Iran, an election wouldn’t be the cause of Egypt’s uprising.
Instead, it took something entirely unexpected to turn the Arab world on its head. And in fact, it wasn’t even in Egypt. On Dec. 17, 2010, an unemployed young man named Mohamed Bouazizi walked to the front gate of the provincial headquarters in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, with nothing left to lose but his life. He sat down and lit himself on fire.
The spark he lit sent his country into the streets; Tunisia — one of the most entrenched and stable administrations in the region — tumbled in less than a month. Within days, dozens of other people had self-immolated; within weeks, Algeria and Yemen were quaking; and today, Jordan’s government watches its streets precariously.
Not surprisingly, it was another Facebook page set up by the April 6 youth — this one devoted to the memory of Khaled Said, a man brutally killed in police custody — that sparked the beginning of the current uprising in Egypt. Thanks largely to the legwork done by the April 6 movement and the Egyptian Democratic Academy months earlier, Egypt’s opposition had been integrated into a closely knit online community. The movement showed up in force on Jan. 25, when the protests began.
But their years of preparation were almost immediately undermined. Just after midnight on Jan. 28, Mubarak — in an unprecedented move — shut off Internet and SMS services across the country for nearly a week.
The activists acted quickly during the blackout to create workaround solutions. Within days, clandestine FTP accounts were set up to move videos out to international news outlets. While accredited members of the media struggled to communicate and coordinate, street protesters were using land lines to call supporters, who translated and published their accounts on Twitter for an international audience hungry for news of the unfolding events.
Raoof, in particular, emerged as an invaluable source of information for the international media as they were chased off the streets during a crackdown by pro-Mubarak demonstrators on Feb. 2 and 3. He moved quickly throughout the chaotic scene to distribute emergency contact numbers to protesters facing detainment, replacing them with new numbers as soon as they were shut down by the government. Samir was on the scene as well, working to connect reports from the activists on the ground to international human rights monitors from his office across the river from Tahrir Square, and feeding images taken by activists to the international media.
With his heavy-handed attempt to shut off all communication, Mubarak in many ways paid online activists like Raoof and Samir the ultimate compliment. The Egyptian state has recognized that the new-media tools and methods they pioneered were crucial in fanning the flames of the wave of protest that threatens to bring to an end 30 years of authoritarian rule. Unfortunately for Mubarak, the realization came too late. The movement these activists began has moved offline and into the streets, composed primarily of people who have never updated a Facebook page or sent out a tweet in their lives. And now, it may be far too late to contain it.