Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Tag: Cairo (page 1 of 2)

On the Anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution…

Descending onto Cairo is surreal.  From afar, looking down, it seems as if the green and sand are broken into tiny farmshares; as you get closer, however, you realize that those are actually buildings, all identical, though of varying heights, and laid out in what is actually a rather orderly formation.  Closer still, and you’re struck by how uniform the buildings are in both width and color, how the city appears to be painted in sand.  And the traffic – you can actually see where the bottlenecks occur from the air (and Anas, Damascus traffic doesn’t hold a candle to Cairo; nor, for that matter, to Beirut or even Casablanca, but I digress).

Only now do I understand why a former colleague in Morocco, upon arriving there from Cairo, felt Moroccan cities to be provincial.  Cairo, on the other hand, is anything but.

I just returned on Sunday from one all-too-short week in Cairo.  I was there for Yahoo!’s Change Your World Summit, an event that brought together women

An ad agency uses revolutionary symbolism to promote Egyptian tourism

from Egypt and around the region, to speak about online safety, but stayed for a few (too few, really) days extra, in order to meet with activists, organizations, and of course, friends.

My interest in Egypt stems from the bloggers and activists I’ve met over the years who come from there.  Prior to and during the revolution, they were my lens into Cairo, and on January 25, 2011, when nearly all of them took to the streets, I did my best to support them from my perch in Cambridge, repeating their words from Twitter and phone calls and redirecting media in their direction whenever possible.  But beyond the story of the Egyptian Internet (about which I have some authority), I am no expert, a fact made all the more apparent by my first visit to the country last week.

First Impressions

If at any point I sound orientalist or naive, allow me to explain: Most of my time in the region has been spent in its less-developed cities and countries.  My point of comparison is not Beirut but Meknés; I therefore live each new experience shadowed by my years in Morocco, my point of comparison for the region as if it were my homeland.

I was utterly impressed everywhere I stepped by the utter vibrancy of Cairo.  The graffiti that graced the walls and buildings of Zamalek and downtown that–as my friends pointed out–didn’t exist before the revolution, has become a multi-layered narrative at points: in one spot, a tank–once just a tank–is now crushing protesters; added to that a crowd of Egyptians waving their flags.  The cafés and bars of the city’s centers vary from old and smoky to fresh, modern (and smoky) but are visited by both men and women, often in fairly equal numbers.

Before traveling, friends–many of whom had been to both Morocco and Egypt–warned me in numbers of Cairo’s street harassment, its untiring vendors, its poverty.  The latter I only witnessed briefly, in drives through the city, and therefore cannot comment.  But as for the rest, I fear Cairo’s reputation is at least somewhat unearned.

I asked an American friend who has lived in Cairo for a few years if the lack of harassment I experienced was a side effect of the revolution. She said that she’d never felt unsafe, had never been sexually harassed on the city’s streets.  Another friend, a native Egyptian who’d spent much of her life abroad said she had, but that it’s not as bad as foreigners are lead to believe.  “And anyway, they’re scared of us now,” she explained, referring to the women’s marches that had taken place throughout the year.

The vendors and faux guides were another story: On Friday, I went to the pyramids alone in the afternoon, knowing that the day of prayer would minimize traffic in Giza.  I hadn’t even arrived when the harassment started.  Men would approach the taxi, lean in, and tell me “The pyramids are closed today, ma’am, but I’ll take you to a shop” or “I work at the pyramids, you can pay me as your guide.”  Some had fake ID cards.  I pity the silly foreigners who don’t read ahead.  After purchasing my ticket and heading inside, I expected things to get better, but in fact, they quickly got worse.  Young men with postcards and trinkets bombarded me with attention, while more “guides” attempted to sell me their services for a “mere 200 pounds.”  Harassed, and exhausted, I quickly made my way behind the first pyramid to stage a photo and snare my prey…

Having lived in Morocco for several years, I’m no newbie, and so whipped out a timeless old strategy.  I cannot, of course, divulge, but let’s just say it involves finding the oldest male guide you can, faking a certain identity, and paying him the most you’re willing to shell out, in exchange for him giving you a decent tour and…most importantly, warding off the rest of the harassment.  It worked – $20 and a small bottle of perfume from his “friend’s” shop later, I was on my way back home complete with a memory card full of photos.

Graffiti in Zamalek depicting Alaa Abd El Fattah (and the "#nomiltrials" symbol)

My guide wasn’t too forthcoming with his political opinions but after a decent amount of conversation, I was able to discern that he was simultaneously happy about the ouster of Mubarak and wary of the continued protests.  I asked him about the old regime; “if you had three horses and three children and had to choose which to feed, what would you do?” he responded, elaborating on the corruption of the Mubaraks.  “But,” he added, “the shabab need to give it time.”

Aside from the guide, a few cab drivers, and my hotel staff, however, my interactions were limited to the Twitterati.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course: I was fascinated to hear, over beers, the intricacies in differing opinions between this and that group.  And aside from that, of course, it was wonderful to finally meet so many of the people I’ve interacted with – some since January 25, and some long before.

I only wish I’d had more time: time enough to observe the protests, time enough to see if my friends’ predictions were to come true…but alas, work calls, and I’m grateful for the bit of time I did get to spend in um al-dunya.

The Revolution Continues

There were plenty of other elements to my trip, and not all are fit for print.  Those that are–namely, those pertaining to the days leading up to today, the anniversary of the revolution–I have been unable to fit into the above narrative and will therefore lay out in bullet points; forgive me.

  • Kazeboun, or “liars,” is a campaign whereby activists, armed with a projector and a screen, take up public spaces to show videos made for and about the revolution.  Many of my friends and acquaintances (several of whom do not, contrary to my own pre-formed beliefs, know each other) spoke highly of these efforts, and had taken part in them.  The Daily News Egypt has a short descriptive piece about Kazeboun here, noting how the project “implicitly highlights the importance of public space and its usage to voice political dissent.”
  • Journalism: As an observer for the past year, I’ve been very curious as to how Egyptians have perceived the foreign media’s coverage of the revolution.  And while this subject, frankly, deserves its own blog post, I was surprised to learn that aside from the old establishment (Friedman and his outlet in particular), the American media seems to have done a fair job in representing public opinion–contrast that with Syria, for example.  Of course, there are plenty of instances deserving of criticism, but I was a bit surprised that the American media wasn’t the butt of more jokes.
  • The Mosireen collective, which I had the pleasure of visiting, has a great space that’s open most days from noon until 10pm.  Though I dropped by when it was empty, the collective offers training, technical support, film screenings, and even lends out equipment to would-be filmmakers.  Their YouTube channel, I was reminded repeatedly during my visit, is among the top 5 of Egyptian NGOs and has received more than 2 million hits since its inception.
  • The release of blogger Maikel Nabil, which happened today, was an interesting point of discussion.  I was with a number of people on Saturday night

    A mural memorializing January 25

    when it was first announced, and their views were largely skeptical–as in, “the military is only doing this to look good.”  This sentiment is what I’ve seen echoed all day on Twitter.  Throughout the past ten months of Nabil’s detention, I’ve had a number of private conversations about how the blogger has received little support compared to others because of his pro-Israel views; though that is apparently true, there are a number of people who’ve been fighting hard for his release, as well as the release of others subject to military trials this past year.

  • The question of protest.  I arrived on a Tuesday and spent Wednesday asking people what they thought was going to happen on Friday.  Most said nothing, or that they were not personally going to Tahrir until the 23rd, but nevertheless, Friday actually had considerable turnout.  I spent the 23rd on a plane, and so was unable to follow along with tweets as I usually do, but am keeping my friends–the vast majority of whom planned to hit the streets tomorrow–close in my mind today.

Critique of media coverage of Egypt is a strong case for Twitter

In the summer of 2009, I watched, like the rest of the world, as Iranians rose up against their government, protesting rigged elections. Not speaking Persian or knowing anyone on the ground, I was limited in context and understanding of the core issues, and reliant on Western media–skewed hostile toward Ahmadinejad–for news. Though mainstream media sources were, at the time, relying heavily on Twitter for sources, it was unclear to me (and, frankly, lots of people) whether most tweets were actually coming from within Iran or not. And as solidarity activists the world around changed their locations to Tehran (in retrospect, kind of a terrible idea), it became more and more difficult to tell who was reporting from the ground and who was just sympathetic. In other words, it was not a Twitter revolution, but a Twitter clusterf&*%.

By the time Tunisians were demonstrating, the media was clearly wary of using social media as sources; that, coupled with Tunisia’s low Twitter penetration rate, meant that there weren’t many tweets being flashed across CNN; rather, media relied on traditional sourcing (as well as Facebook and other social media) for reporting.

Enter Egypt. I, for one, followed a large number of Egyptians on Twitter prior to January 25, so was able to watch as protests were planned and hashtags decided upon. As the day neared, I began following more and more Egyptians, and by January 25, had a pretty decent (private) list to watch. And then Twitter was blocked, and the Internet mostly down, but a few remaining sources (often people I’d met in person or had a mutual “real life” friend with) continued to tweet from the Noor ISP or other methods. And once Internet was turned back on completely a few days ago, Egyptian Twitter users were back in droves, tweeting not only from their homes but from Tahrir Square and other public spaces across Cairo and the country.

Photo by Hossam Hamalawy (@3arabawy)

Admittedly, I’ve watched little television coverage throughout, though without Al Jazeera here in the US (sidebar: Demand Al Jazeera!) it often doesn’t seem worthwhile, as many of the major news channels focus all their time on the Muslim Brotherhood or Americans trapped in Cairo. Today, Sheila Carapico, professor at the American University of Cairo, has an interesting piece on Foreign Policy that contends that the media coverage of the uprising in Cairo–including Al Jazeera’s–is skewed toward Tahrir Square, often ignoring what’s happening across the rest of the city and elsewhere.

Being here in Cambridge, I obviously can’t vouch for the article’s accuracy. I’m not on the ground, so I’m wary of making proclamations about the piece. For the sake of argument, however, I’d like to assume it’s true, as it presents an extremely interesting case for Twitter.

We already know that Twitter is unparalleled for sourcing opinions from Egyptians (note: I’m going to use “Egyptians” throughout the piece for the sake of clarity, but we should also assume that this argument could apply to similar situations elsewhere). Lots of people tend toward “uncensored” on Twitter anyway, so it seeks to reason that in discussing thoughts on live events, those in the thick of it might be compelled to spill out what’s on the top of their mind.

Photo by Tarek Amr (@gr33ndata)

But beyond opinion, I believe there’s a strong case to be made for Twitter reporting, not necessarily as standalone media but as a complement to the major news networks. Two nights ago, as violence broke out between pro-Mubarak hired thugs and anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahrir Square after curfew, journalists–both local and foreign–were relegated to the sidelines, reporting from balconies and hotel rooms, some ducking low to the ground with the lights off to report their stories. Meanwhile, young Egyptians (like Mona Seif, whom I’ve mentioned in previous posts) were in the thick of things, mobile phones at the ready, often live-tweeting as skirmishes broke out. Others in various parts of the city uploaded photographs and pictures from the day’s events, not just from Tahrir Square but from side streets as well, documenting graffiti, ordinary life, and those now-famous leagues of neighborhood protection committees. Still others tweeted from more remote locations, and from cities without the benefit of dispatched reporters.

It also strikes me that, this time around (compared to, let’s say, Iran of 2009), the media and the public have a better grasp on who to follow on Twitter. I think there are a number of reasons for this–the Arabic-speaking world encompasses 20+ countries, while Iran is a single country with a solitary diaspora, which means there’s a far greater network of Arabs and experts on the region’s social media to discern which tweets to follow. We’re also two years out from Iran and 5 years after the creation of Twitter, meaning Egypt has a far more established Twitter community than did Iran in 2009. And the fact that no one has changed their avatars green and their locations to Cairo certainly helps as well.

Of course, just with any form of citizen journalism, there’s always a risk of false or incorrect information, but I would posit that similar risks exist within traditional, mainstream media, despite more stringent fact-checking. The advantage of citizen journalism in this case, of course, might outweigh the risk: Egyptians know their country better than CNN, MSNBC, or even Al Jazeera possibly could.

Words from Tahrir Square

I was just listening to Al Jazeera and heard a familiar voice: @monasosh aka Mona Seif, sister of my friend Alaa Abd El Fattah; though I’ve never met her, I know her voice from a @Speak2Tweet message sent just two days ago, in which she sounded optimistic.  Now, on Al Jazeera, you can hear the tears and desperation through her voice.  

(Note: the interview was recently put up on YouTube, I’ve added it below):

I only managed to jot down a few pieces of what she said, but here it is:

If everyone is so concerned, why is Mubarak still there and we’re losing people every minute?

When asked, “What would you like to say to the world?”

We are not leaving this place. There are only two options for the world: Either they stick to mubarak and his regime and we lose thousands of people in this square and it goes from Liberation Square to Massacre Square. Or, they say no to mubarak’s regime and give people here a chance at a real life.

She was then asked who was in the crowds. Her response:

A lot of them are teenage kids, very few of them are older than 25. It’s astonishing but it really is sad because we know this can be avoided and they don’t have to waste their lives.

The presenter then asked if she was reassured by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s earlier words that the violence from the pro-Mubarak side was shocking. Mona responded:

Not really, this is the same hilary clinton who a week ago said mubarak’s country is stable. What would be assuring is for me to hear that Mubarak is about to give an urgent speech and say he is leaving.

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