A Journey Through the New Egypt

Time has come to reflect on my 4-month online exploration through the new Egypt.

When America and the world grew captivated by the unforeseen Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, I followed for the same reasons, plus some.

As I shared in the postThe Fragrance of Revolutions: From Carnation to Jasmine, I lived through the experience of a revolution at an early age in Portugal. But I also lived most of my childhood in Mozambique where I had friends from around the globe, including Muslim children, and slept in a bedroom with a balcony overlooking the arched courtyard of a mosque.

That early exposure to a variety of cultures and countries began to shape my worldview and imprinted a particular interest in Arab culture. Later in my teens, as a history student at a Portuguese university, I became fascinated by the profound Arab influences in Portugal, left behind by five centuries of occupation, from the 8th to the mid-13th century.

My interest in the Arab Awakening deepened from the surprising observation that average Americans and the American media were suddenly spellbound by events that qualified as world news but were not natural or man-made disasters. As a European in the U.S., one of my first realizations about American culture was a certain degree of isolationism and a lack of interest in the world beyond borders.

Americans’ fascination with the political and social events of the Arab movements first led me to question the role of social media and the growing user-driven news culture during a Pace University course in Communications Research. My resulting research paper— “The Arab Spring and American’s Interest in Foreign Affairs: The Social Media Factor” — would lead to peripheral readings and excite further interest in the evolution of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. As my graduate work neared thesis time, my topic began to shape itself.

Writing was the focus of my graduate work, and I developed a taste for blogging through the course “Blogging a Better Planet,” taught by Andrew Revkin of The New York Times. Pace’s Media and Communication Arts program offered me the opportunity to replace a conventional thesis with a blogged thesis project. Prof. Revkin would become my thesis sponsor and instructor, and this blog is the result.

I was particularly interested in following the voices of the under-represented: from the youth who used social media to mobilize the uprisings to the women who had long been engaged in revolution-precursor labor movements to Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

There were some roadblocks and detours on this journey, as I expected, starting with the language barrier that made it impossible to follow related tweets and Facebook posts by everyday Arabs—rather than media and established blog outlets–as I had hoped. But with every new turn there was something else to be learned, new questions and complexities were added, and every loss returned a gain.

Here, I review the insights, experiences and occasional epiphanies I had along this journey.

Tahrir Square: Whose Revolution?
My first post (January 28) reviewed the mood and the media-talk—in the U.S.and in Egypt–around the first-year anniversary of Egypt’s January 25th revolution. It surprised me that the anniversary became mostly about deep feelings of uncertainty and growing party rivalries. At Tahrir Square, different groups gathered separately to observe the anniversary, and there were disagreements as to what mood was appropriate, and what groups had a right to be there. But the unforeseen, monumental accomplishment of the revolution itself was not only overshadowed, it was beginning to be questioned by many–from foreign policy experts abroad, to average Egyptians.

Reflecting on the years of turmoil that followed Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in April of 1974, I decided to stick with the words of Wael Ghonim, the young Internet activist who led the Facebook mobilization of the January 25th protests: “revolutions, they are processes, not events, and it will take time.”

An edited version of this post was also published at The Huffington Post.

Egypt: The Revolution’s Sense of Humor
While I read through a newly released book about the “invisible” yet persistent activism that preceded the Arab revolutions, I shared some revolution humor from the same book.

Humor, graffiti and song are some of the first creative forms to emerge from revolutions. I have long forgotten Portugal’s revolution jokes, but I still recall graffiti images, and I can sing revolution songs from memory–including one played on national radio the morning of the military coup to signal certain army units that operations were going according to plan.

“The Invisible Arab”: As Not Seen on TV
This was more than a blog post. It was my first book review (published at the Huff Post as well), facilitated by Prof. Revkin who directed a review-request by Nation Books my way. “The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolutions” makes the case for the “invisible” forerunners of the revolution, those who never gave up the idea of a free Egypt: from labor activists, including women, to intellectuals and community organizers. The book was particularly helpful to understanding the commonalities as well as the tense differences between countries across the Arab World—and how those dynamics are played upon by Western interests.

On a personal level, Bishara’s book gave me the opportunity to see the Arab World–and the Arab World’s view of the Western World–from the perspective of an Egyptian journalist, with very strong political insights, as well as bold opinions. The misunderstandings between the two worlds run deep–and both ways.

This was perhaps the greatest realization of my exploration: it is so easy to form opinions, but based on what? How much knowledge and information–what kind of information?—prepare us to understand another people, another culture? Having lived in three different continents for significant periods of time, including 27 years in the US, I can honestly say I often feel out of touch, whether in the US or in Portugal. In the US, because I arrived here an adult, and missed out on the cultural molding that takes place in the formative years. In Portugal, because I broke my links with the culture and now live in the past. As my own closest family lets me know every summer when I visit, I am like an echo from a lost world: with idiomatic expressions no one has heard in almost three decades; with long-dead assumptions about common values, etc.

Not least of all, it was exciting to see Marwan Bishara tweet my review of his book. I took that as a nod of approval.

Tunisia’s Media: Under Attack and Fighting Back
It truly pained me to acknowledge and write about violence against journalists and intellectuals in Tunisia. The violence was perpetrated not only by religious sects, but also by police. Perhaps this too is a Western assumption, but freedom of expression and freedom of the press seem like a natural first opening after a revolution. These events proved otherwise.

It was a very different time in Portugal, in 1974, but the radio, TV (two part-time channels only), and print media completely unleashed their voices and there was no stopping them! That was then, but just three years ago, a European-style socialist government engaged in tactics of propaganda and intimidation against the media, including wiretapping; blackmailed business leaders; sought to control elements of the justice system; and made veiled attempts to buy a major TV network, forcing out program directors and show hosts in the process. However, because of democratic mechanisms set in place, a parliament inquiry brought all to light. Implicated in this scandal, and others, and without the confidence of the parliament, the prime minister and his government would eventually resign and elections were scheduled before time.

Come Back to Egypt
While I set out to follow events in Egypt and in Tunisia—the two countries that had held elections following their revolution movements—at this point in the project I realized the folly of such ambition. Having written mostly about Egypt to date, I decided to narrow my focus.

The anniversary of the revolution was also time to take economic inventory of the wave of changes. The decline of the tourism industry—the country’s second largest—began in the early days of the revolution, and a year later the losses were at 28.5 percent. This too gave rise to divisions among the people, with youth activists ready for a diet of dates in exchange for their freedom, on one end, and families out of an income questioning the price of the revolution, on the other. But the same crisis has also inspired citizen ownership of national challenges; some Egyptians have turned to social media to promote international and national tourism. Revolutionary spirit?

Gangsters Terrorize Egyptian Village Near Luxor
Just as I finished writing about the positives of visiting Egypt during a time of political and social turmoil, there was this news of a village under siege by renowned criminals, near one of Egypt’s hottest tourist stops.

Egypt: Where are the women?
This post turned into an essay on a variety of women’s issues in Egypt. Considering the dominance of the subject across the project, I should explain that I have been close to issues of violence against women through my 9-year employment with a domestic violence agency.

The essay was prompted by the acquittal of the army doctor accused of performing “virginity-tests” on women activists arrested during a demonstration. This outcome highlights that Egypt’s widespread culture of sexual harassment will be a tough cancer to control. Men feel entitled to the behavior and blame women for it; even secular women will blame themselves for it; moreover, it is a government practice.

I come from a country where, in my teens, sexual harassment was widespread and a common social practice—even more so, after the revolution. And in my line of work, it is clear that violence against women comes in many forms, some more hidden than others. In recent months, some pretty awful things have been said about women in the U.S., by people seen as leaders in their fields. Like freedom of expression, women’s rights are not to be taken for granted.

The article also discusses hard-earned divorce and custody laws that protect the rights of women but are now under attack—at times by women, such as a female Member of Parliament with the Muslim Brotherhood who has decried such laws as Western-based and a violation of Sharia law.

There are many dissonant voices when it comes to women’s issues in Egypt, and much is at stake as the country begins to draw a new constitution. My favorite section of this essay has to do with the meaning of the Arab word for woman, “horma,” versus the Arab word for man, “dakar.” Basically, horma implies subordination; dakar inspires superiority. One Egyptian activist brings up these subtle meanings to question how women are to be defined in the new constitution. I couldn’t help but to make a connection with American history, namely, Susan B. Anthony’s defense before the courts of a woman’s right to vote, using the language of our constitution to make her case: “Are women not persons? […] Being persons, then, women are citizens.”

Egypt: Compromise or a Second Wave of Revolution 
More dissonant voices…disappointed youth activists are a predicted second wave of revolution. A respected Egyptian scholar and political analyst makes contradictory and questionable statements. He appears to say that civil liberties and human rights are a small compromise in exchange for stability and governance. He ends up blaming Mubarak for little more than his inability to provide for that stability. Never mind Western expectations versus those of Egyptians. Within Egypt alone, expectations couldn’t be more disparate.

The Fragrance of Revolutions: From Carnation to Jasmine
This post came to replace my original “About” page and explains the inspiration and trajectory that brought me to the project, as well as the research questions I planned to pursue.

Egypt: MPs, Writer’s Union Demand Consensus Constitution
Fourteen individuals—MP’s and other secular elements—resigned from the constitutional assembly to protest lack of representation for certain groups—including intellectuals–and demand a consensus-based constitution. I thought this was sort of spectacular— naive of me, as some politicians and analysts were quick to point out. Some worried that a constitution without wide support would make for a coup-prone Egypt in the future. But in the end, when Al-Ahzar University– the revered center of Islamist thought–withdrew their sole representative, urging an inclusive constitution assembly according to the true principles of Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood yielded 10 of their seats at the table to more liberal appointees.

Here we see the determination of some to continue to uphold, not only revolution and secular values, but a more moderate and inclusive kind of Islam.

“Women Making Democracy”: Tahrir Comes to Harvard Square
I came to know about this conference through a friend working at the Aga Kahn Program of the Harvard School of Architecture and Design. The program was a sponsor of the event. My friend, and some of her student-friends, took the pictures of the exhibit included in the post.

From the feedback I received from Prof. Revkin, this was one rare, truly blog-like post. Others tended to turn into columns or essays.

“Raise your head, Samira” And Other “Women Making Democracy” 
The conference,  made public via live-cast, was an absolute thrill, with one inspiring and bold panelist after another. Contrary to rumor, video of the conference is yet to be posted, so I relied heavily on tweets (#RadCon) and some notes to put this piece together.

The panelists made many revealing connections between women’s movements across the globe. Yet, and again, for all the common threads, in each country women are up against very different dynamics of power, and what is making progress in Bangladesh, will not work in Egypt, for instance. Perhaps most striking—more deconstruction of Western assumptions—were the Islamist panelists, all prominent female intellectuals, who do not see women’s rights as excluded by religion.

One Islamist panelist added that progress in men’s views of women is not tied to the secularization of society but around human development. Considering the resilience of certain, patriarchal views of women in Western societies, we may have to agree with her.

Questions for Egypt’s Christian Community 
Throughout the project, I attempted to establish contact with Egyptians via Twitter, Facebook, and even email. For instance, I sent two of the Egyptian panelists at “Women Making Democracy” a few questions after the conference, encouraged by one direct tweet and a few re-tweets—all to no result.

There was one more under-represented minority group I kept an eye on through a couple of blogs and small publications: Coptic Christians. I always found it fascinating that the Copts dominated Egypt for centuries, even after the Arabs took control. What does that mean in terms of retaining an identity as a minority that is often under attack? I had followed the blog of Jayson Casper, an American writer and reporter living in Egypt, who is also a professed Christian and writes often about the concerns of the Christian community. I contacted him about a Q&A, and he was most generous and insightful.

Again, even among a relatively small group—10 percent of Egypt’s population—there are marked differences in aspirations and in vision for the future of Egypt and the Copts.

Closing Thoughts

In recent weeks, news headlines in Egypt have been dominated by the presidential race—with scores of candidates disqualified by the election commission, and accusations of military interference in these decisions.  According to Egypt Daily News, there are now 13 presidential candidates.  With only a month before elections, a headline in the same publication asks, “Is Egypt headed for Islamist rule?” As it turns out, the article was written for CNN by Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. Coleman calls the race “a political roller coaster,” and goes on to point out that the greatest difference between candidates is in their visions for the role of Islam in the new Egypt.

Which leads me to think the bigger question might be, what will Islamist rule look like in Egypt?

The current presidential frontrunner Amr Moussa— whose advantage is helped by ongoing disqualifications of other candidates—is lenient toward and favored by the military, with an openly secularist agenda. The Muslim Brotherhood’s new candidate is a strong proponent of strict Islam and should appeal to Salafists as well. A third, leading candidate, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, is a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, thrown out of the party for rejecting provisions that excluded non-Muslims and women from the presidency. His campaign focuses on justice and economic issues and his support appeared strongest among younger Islamists. But Saturday, to the puzzlement of many—and a slight to the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate—the Salafi Nour Party threw its support around this moderate candidate.

While the Muslim Brotherhood’s sweep of parliamentary elections has been attributed partly to their superior organization, the presidential election could yet strengthen the political gains of Islamist parties. However, as two Egyptian panelists at “Women Making Democracy” pointed out, there are other strong currents in the country: conservatism is larger and more deeply rooted than Islam (Heba Raouf), and Egyptians are not ultra-religious; they are moderate by nature (Shahira Amin).  Therefore, a rejection of secularism doesn’t necessarily mean the embrace of strict Islamist rule. In fact, all through this exploration, I came across more moderate and conciliatory voices than radical ones, and the revolution still seems to inspire nationalist sentiments.

Still, the picture remains confusing, and as Coleman defends, the consolidation of Islamist rule could result in a constitution less concerned with the rights of women and minorities. But the battle lines are everywhere, even for ascending Islamists, and conflicting visions divide even the smallest groups.

According to Egypt Independent, on Friday, April 27, for the second consecutive week, a number of groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, called for protests at Tahrir Square to demand the handover of power from the armed forces and the exclusion of former regime leaders from future political roles. The theme of this return to Tahrir was “saving the revolution.” But on week two, the Muslim Brotherhood never made it to the square. Present were a modest crowd of Salafists demonstrating for the implementation of Sharia law and a variety of groups and movements with creative names—“revolutionaries without direction” and “elections are a trap”—staking their stages around the square.

According to the same article, an Egyptian man visiting Tahrir for the first time had this impression of Friday’s events:

“Everything is muddled up, it’s very difficult for a clear vision to come from this. I can’t really form an opinion based on today.”

Based on a few months of virtual exploration—nowhere near Tahrir Square—I would not presume to form an opinion either. But confusion, uncertainty, instability—none are strangers to the aftermath of revolutions. And election results notwithstanding, Egyptians cannot dodge monumental economic and social challenges ahead.

The promise amidst the peril is that everyday Egyptians are invested in seeking a new vision for their nation; that, confused, they unite to resist the weight of the past; and that a handful of watchful, newly-elected political leaders are ready to stand their ground on behalf of under-represented Egyptians.

Opinions can wait, but a vote of confidence is now due.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I couldn’t ask for a more motivational and helpful thesis sponsor and instructor than Prof. Andrew Revkinthank you, Prof. A.! Sincere thanks to these additional contributors and collaborators: Jayson Casper, Ed Webb, Edna Van Saun, David McKay Wilson, and Carlos Filipe Roque.

A special thanks to the leadership of the Media & Communication Arts program–Prof. Robert Klaeger, Chair, and Dr. Maria T. Luskay, Program Director–for their openness to this “thesis-as-blog” experiment, reflecting Pace University‘s  commitment to innovation in education and communication.

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ADDITIONAL READING AND SOURCES

In addition to the the blog roll and links on my sidebar, here I list some favorite and recommended links and sources, by subject:

Revolution
The Egyptian Revolution: January 25, 2011 (video)
Egypt Burning
Egypt’s revolution: Interactive map
Egypt One Year On – Interactive

News and Developments
Egypt’s rival protests show divided opinions
Salafis seen as rising power in Egypt (video)
EgyptSource – Atlantic Council
BBC News – Egypt

Women
Women Come Out in Force for Egypt’s Elections (video)
Egypt’s defiant women fear being cast aside
Activist: Verdict has shamed military (video)
TEDxWomen — Shahira Amin (video)
The Sex Issue
Let’s Talk About Sex
Egypt’s women urge MPs not to pass early marriage, sex-after-death laws: report

Media
The Battle for Egypt’s Media: Report on Press Freedom After the Revolution (video)
Under Military Rule, Egypt Falls in Press Freedom Rankings

Youth
After the revolution, Egypt’s youth are still wandering lost
What After Egypt’s Youth Revolution?
The Unfinished Revolution: Youth Mark Anniversary, Call for More Changes
Egypt’s Youth Revolution: Building a New Future

Christians
Beyond the Walls of the Church
Is the Government-Church Alliance a “Coptic Marriage”?
The Heroic Struggle for Muslim-Christian Unity in Egypt (documentary preview)

Revolution Art
Satirist revolutionizes comedy in Egypt
An Emerging Memorial Space? In Praise of Mohammed Mahumd Street,
TEDxUNC – Poetic Portraits of a Revolution – Egypt and Tunisia in Stanza, Still Shot, and Stories (Video)
El Seed
 

“Raise your head, Samira!” And Other “Women Making Democracy”

I am calling it bold, inspiring and a timely summit of brilliant women-minds, but a long list of impressed qualifiers would apply to “Women Making Democracy” at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, Friday, March 30.

Intent on writing a thoughtful and comprehensive review of this conference, I had hoped to watch and rewind the announced video recordings, but it now appears they will not be available in the short-term. In the meantime, I will reflect on questions raised and lessons learned, by using the tweets of #RadCon participants—including my own—as notes. Given the scope of this blog at present, I will turn a spotlight on panelists who addressed realities and developments in Egypt and Tunisia.

Clearly, some speakers were more optimistic than others about the future of democracy and the role of women—beyond elections and the writing of these countries’ new constitutions. Moreover, different interpretations of Islam informed their visions.

Tunisian scholar, Dalenda Larguèche, Professor of History and Women Studies at the Université de la Manouba, declared that gender parity is already an irreversible gain of the Tunisian Revolution. During a discussion on the political representation of women and the good and bad of quotas, Rima Khalaf—undersecretary General and Executive Secretary, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia—said that “quotas are a temporary measure to address a deficiency in the system,” but to be relevant they must be competitive.

How relevant and competitive are they? According to QuotaProject, in Egypt, women hold two percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly. In Tunisia, women hold 26 percent of the seats in the National Constituent Assembly. While Dr. Larguèche has reason to be more optimistic about Tunisia, quotas and matters of representation are not reduced to gender.  Egyptian panelist, Dr. Heba Raouf Ezzat,

Heba Raouf Ezzat

an Assistant Professor with the Department of Political Science at Cairo University, pointed out that she’s yet to see one young woman represented in these quotas.

In the face of elections results in both countries, with overwhelming majorities achieved by Islamist parties, the issue of religion was in order. On the topic of Sharia law, Dr. Heba Raouf pointed out that conservatism is much more dominant in Egyptian society than Sharia law itself. Earlier in the conference, Egyptian journalist Shahira Amin also defended that Egyptians are not ultra-religious but moderate by nature—and, she added, the Muslim Brotherhood swept the elections based on their superior organization.

Egypt-born Dalia Mogahed—Executive Director and Senior Analyst for the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, and co-author of Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think­—shared seemingly corroborating data on Tunisia: a Gallup poll found that 10 percent of Tunisians want no legislative role for Sharia, while the majority wants Sharia to play some role in informing the country’s laws. According to Mohaged, while there are very different views of the role of religion in society, there is greater agreement about the role of women. To Mohaged, it is important that women’s rights not be seen as excluded by religion, and she defended that progress in men’s views of women are not tied to the secularization of society but around human development. One speaker cited Bangladesh as an example of a predominantly Islamist country with a strong women’s movement. Rima Khalaf distinguished “ruling by Sharia” from “drafting laws by Sharia,” and emphasized the danger of the former: it is no law at all as it relies on interpretation, she argued.

Shahira Amin, Egyptian journalist.

Journalist Shahira Amin, one of the hopefuls, said she’s not worried about the Islamists. Moreover, she’s optimistic for the women of Egypt. Consider this: 10 million Egyptian women have graduate degrees (population is 81 million)! But there’s optimism for the men as well. Remember Samira Ibrahim, one of the victims of the so-called “virginity tests” who braved the military doctor in court? Amin was there when hundreds protested the acquittal of the defendant. She reported that men and women alike shouted, “Samira, hold your head high!” I must say, long after memories of this conference have faded, I will remember this chant!

Men and women protested outside the High Court of Justice. Photographed by Virginie Nguyen. Published by Egypt Independent.

Reflecting on the meaning of the Arab Spring movements, Amin said they are much more than a unique, unforeseen phenomenon. They represent—and have inspired—a broader category of collective global commitment to “having a voice.” Blogger and Rhode Island University PhD candidate and professor, Jenn Brandt—a remote attendee of the conference– tweeted an even greater commitment:

And how’s this for the role of women?

Closing words by a conference rapporteur:

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MEN MAKING DEMOCRACY:

There were two equally brilliant men on the conference dais: Architect Dr. Hashim Sarkis, Aga Khan Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism in Muslim Societies, Department of Urban Planning and Design, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University. Representing the link between space/architecture and democratization movements, Dr. Sarkis moderated a panel on “Public Places, Alternative Spaces.” 

Presenters on the fluidity of, and between, the political and the public spheres, included Dr. Philip N. Howard, a communications professor with Washington University. Dr. Howard elaborated on the role of digital space–how it exposes the status of women and gender relations worldwide, and how it is changing family dynamics. “Women have aggressively invaded the new public space of digital media,” Dr. Howard said.

“Women Making Democracy”: Tahrir Comes to Harvard Square

Cambridge, MA, Friday, March 30, 2012– Activists, journalists, and a variety of academics are gathered today at The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University to examine and discuss the role of women in the uprisings and democratization efforts that have dominated the Arab world for over a year. “Women Making Democracy” will examine and analyze women’s experiences of the Arab revolutions—and compare them to those of women in similar moments in history, from Eastern Europe to South Africa and Latin American.

Live Streaming begins at 8:45 a.m. You can follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #RadCon.

On Monday, Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies hosted a Live Demonstration of Calligraffiti with Tunisian Street Artist eL Seed, integrating Arabic calligraphic traditions and themes of political change.

Throughout the week, and still on exhibit through 5:00 p.m. today is Roaming Revolution: Unfolding the Narratives of a Square, depicting the transformation of Tahrir Square into a civic space for political expression, resistance and organization, and artistic endeavors. The iconic symbol of the revolution is represented by a model of Tahrir. Read more here, and enjoy these images from the exhibit’s walls:

The Fragrance of Revolutions: From Carnation to Jasmine

On the morning of April 25, 1974, as I sat in one of my 5th grade classrooms in Caldas da Rainha, Portugal, my teacher’s nervous look out the window called my attention to a long chain of military vehicles driving down a nearby road. Our provincial town had a large military base, so I made nothing of it. But within a few hours my country and people’s forbidden secret would be revealed to hundreds of thousands of children like me: we had been living under something called “a fascist dictatorship” for nearly 50 years.

A bloodless military coup put an end to it that day, with what came to be known as the Carnation Revolution of April 25. The endless military parade around the city’s square–”Praca da Fruta”–that afternoon, the cheers and cries of the people, the carnations flying in the air and adorning gun barrels remain vivid memories—and I have relived them often since the unfolding of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia.

A 1970's image of the city square--Praca da Fruta (Fruit Plaza), where a large farmers' market takes place everyday--shared by a blogger who retells events of his adolescence in Caldas around that time.

The excitement of those early weeks, months—with political prisoners being freed, ex-patriots returning home, the songs of the revolution, political parties organizing for free elections, colonies being handed back to the African people—was followed by tumultuous, at times violent years. At the age of 12, I joined a demonstration of the social democratic party at Commerce Square–Praca do Comercio–in Lisbon to protest a relentless wave of government takeovers, and I had my first taste of tear gas–a precocious “coming-of-age,” “run-of-the-country” event!

The economic situation would worsen for years to come, but all through my teens, living in Lisbon, I would sit at cafés after school to discuss politics, ideology, philosophy–the past and future of the country. That personal awakening and investment alone was life-changing. The glory of the revolution was about having a voice. Throughout my adult life in the United States, I have often been labeled “opinionated” (mostly by men), and “challenging” (mostly by women). I smile, knowing where it all comes from: when you wake up one morning to realize your parents and grandparents lived the better part of their lives without a voice, how can you ever let go? For one, unlike too many of my American acquaintances, I could never pass on my right to vote.

In early 2011 when the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions were all the news, my passion for writing notwithstanding, the idea of blogging was the furthest from my mind. But the Arab uprisings and America’s sudden fascination with foreign affairs stirred old, favorite subjects of mine:  revolutions, the Middle East, and American’s seeming lack of interest in world news. [Read more here or see a modified version at The Huffington Post.]

Tunisia’s Media: Under Attack and Fighting Back

The Friends of Syria Conference in Tunis turned many eyes to Tunisia in recent days, but less attention has been paid to the intense internal strife and incidents of violence that dominated the months of January and February.

National identity debates, religious divisions, and tension between the religious and the secular appear to drive much of the unrest that has followed the first anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution. Today I will related events pertaining to one area of great concern: freedom of expression and the media.

January 23: Attacks on Journalists
–Journalists, activists and intellectuals have been the target of verbal and physical attacks since the fall of Ben Ali’s regime, but recent months registered an escalation of this violence. On 23, journalist Zied Krichen, and university professor Hamadi Redissi–along with lawyers and other protesters–joined the growing list of victims; they were publicly assaulted outside the court where TV executive Nabil Karoui was on trial accused of blasphemy and disturbing public order.

Krichen and Redissi filed a complaint against their attackers, a group of Salafists who rallied at the court to protest Karoui’s choice to air Persepolis; the French-Iranian film’s depiction of God as an old bearded man is seen as blasphemous by religious extremists.

“If the physical safety of journalists is jeopardized, we cannot start talking about freedom of the press,” Krichen said. Redissi, who suffered a violent beating, expressed fears that the secular revolution might be hijacked by a religious one. Sofiene Ben Hamida, another journalist victimized by an earlier assault, accused the ruling party, Ennahda, of using religious extremists as weapon to terrorize journalists and activistsbased on the government’s refusal to put an end to the violence.

But according to Tunisia Live there’s more to these attacks than religious radicalization, and they point to several beatings of journalists by police agents–including those of two female journalists covering a protest of university professors.

In response to the events outside the court, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali addressed the Constituent Assembly to condemn the assaults and vowed to pursue offenders. The Ennahda party issued a similar statement, calling for dialogue between diverging ideologies, but also reiterated that accusations against party members lacked proof and government action would only deepen the divide.

The Tunisian League of Human Rights condemned the violence and promised to pressure the government to investigate.

February 1: Media Strike
—Tunisian newspapers declared a nation-wide media strike and printed a banner (image below) in support of “independence of the press, freedom of expression and justice for all those who trample on the rights of journalists and communicators.”

As expressed by Arbi Chouikha–renowned journalist,  professor at the Institute of Press and Information Sciences (IPSI) and  member of the National Committee of Information and Communication Reform, (INRIC)–“Tunisian journalists realized that freedom of press is jeopardized in Tunisia and felt the necessity to come together and unify their efforts.” The strike had the backing of several major media unions, and a committee of union leaders met with Mustapha Ben Jaafar, president of the Constituent Assembly, now drafting Tunisia’s new constitution. Their demands included constitutional guarantees on freedom of expression, the enforcement of the Press Code and the creation of the High Independent Authority of Audiovisual Communication (HAICA), an independent body to protect journalists and penalize those who violate their rights.

February 13: The Journalism Foundation Launches in Tunisia—On the upside, The Journalism Foundation launched the Tunisian project with a series of workshops and a closing lecture by The Independent’s Middle East correspondent, Robert Frisk. Present at the lecture was Evgeny Lebedev, Chairman of the Trustees of the foundation and proprietor of The Independent and The Evening Standard. He earlier met with Tunisia’s Prime Minister to discuss the role of free media in a democratic society.

February 15: Censorship and Arrests
—Following the publication of a partly-nude photograph, the publisher and two editors of the post-revolution Attounissia newspaper were arrested on charges of immoral publication and disrupting public order. While charges were dropped against the editors, publisher Nassridine Ben Said remained detained and on hunger strike until February 23. His trial is schedule for March 8.

Egypt’s Elections: Owning the Revolution

Egyptians young and old, educated or illiterate—and unprecedented numbers of women—were early to rise and quick to line outside polling stations to participate in the first free elections in 30 years, nine months after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak.

Women voters outside a polling station in Alexandria. Photo by Evan Hill/AlJazeera

News and analysis of Egypt’s elections have been largely about looming dangers and uncertainties facing the country, the violence and divisions of recent weeks, and the worries and skepticism of the International Community.

But for Egyptians, Tunisians, and anyone who has ever experienced life under a dictatorship, the site of people lining up to vote is cause for jubilation and the most reassuring sign that the revolution is working.

Some Egyptian activists chose to boycott the election, partly because they feel the same old guard is in charge of the process—“a circus,” one Egyptian blogger and activist called it (Al Jazeera). A complicated and staggered election system (Reuters), hundreds of parliamentary seats to fill, thousands of unknown candidates, and even the predictability of results (CFR), are all less than ideal circumstances. But Egyptian voters deserve their day of pride and jubilation. Considering voter turnout, and the remarkable engagement of youth and women voters, they also deserve to be hopeful and be trusted with their future.

The New Arab Revolt, an e-book published by the Council of Foreign Relations in May of this year, begins with a reference toPortugal’s 1974 “carnation revolution,” a bloodless military coup that ended 48 years of fascist ruling. I remember walking to the market after school that day in April and wondering about the cheers in the distance. Soldiers stood on armored cars circling the market, while vendors and shoppers clapped, cheered, and threw flowers. In those days, the country had but two state-run TV channels which aired only in the afternoon and evening. It was mostly word-of-mouth that spread news of the revolution, and with such limited means of speech, it’s hard to imagine how the people, instead of the military, could have overthrown the regime. Tumultuous years of political and social upheaval would follow, but the democratic process was nonetheless established.

Nearly a year ago, one young Tunisian man—Mohamed Bouazizi—could not have imagined the revolutions his tragic protest would spark across the Middle East(see this interactive timeline at The Guardian). The human cost of these movements must be present to individual countries and the International Community, as they choose their place in this new world order. But youth, their aspirations and demands, have been at heart and helm of these bold revolutions. Media and technology have played a powerful role in mobilizing protesters and exposing authoritarian rulers and regimes. Political consciousness and solidarity have given shape and strength to civil societies, making it increasingly difficult for recalcitrant establishments to go unchallenged.

And that’s enough to feel hopeful for Egyptians as they go to the polls.

[Note: This post appeared in the Huffington Post]

Tumblr Leads Push to Stop Web Piracy Act

Tumblr users who logged in to their accounts today, were given the experience of a censored Internet. All images and text were blacked out, and this announcement appeared at the top of the page:

Filling out the form below with a phone number and zip code, and selecting, “Call My Representative,” would prompt an immediate call from Tumblr founder, David Karp. He encouraged users to stay on the phone to be connected to their US Congress Representative. “Be polite,” he urged, but tell your representative how important it is to keep “an open and uncensored Internet.”

As Karp explained, the US congress held a hearing today on the proposed “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA). The bill has bipartisan and bicameral backing and is a seemingly well-intended piece of legislation: “to protect American intellectual property from counterfeiting and piracy.” However, SOPA would give broad new powers to copyright owners, other private entities and law enforcement officials to demand that Websites block access to copyright infringers, and to hold Web companies liable for pirated content.

You need only to Goolge “stop online piracy act” or “protect ip act” to get the nervous-to-angry pulse of the tech community on the subject. The Tumblr announcement links to a letter to the Judiciary Committee signed by AOL, eBay, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Twitter, Yahoo!, and the Zynga Game Network–yes, gamers, this could affect you as well! You can follow the debate at Twitter’s #SOPA. According to a Tweet by EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation),  “@Tumblr is generating 3.6 calls per second to Congress opposing #SOPA!”

SOME RELEVANT LINKS:
US Congress:
 The House Hearing
Huffington Post: SOPA, Stop Online Piracy Act, Stirs Controversy
The Washington Post: Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) sparks backlash from Facebook, Google
The New York Times:  Stop the Great Firewall of America (opinion)
Reuters: Google Argues Against U.S. Online Piracy Bill
ars technica: Revised ‘Net censorship bill requires search engines to block sites, too
EFF: SOPA: Hollywood Finally Gets A Chance to Break the Internet

 

Tunisians in Charge

Democratic nations ought to commend Tunisians for holding free and fair elections–just 9 months after street demonstrations ushered in a contagious revolution and the ousting of the authoritarian and corrupt regime of Ben Ali.

The reverberations of Tunisia’s civil resistance continue to be felt across the Middle East. For a visual sense of events set in motion in Tunisia in December of 2010, play with this interactive timeline of the events of the Arab Spring kept by The Guardian (last updated on October 20).

While foreign affairs’ experts analyze and debate the meaning of Tunisia’s election results, we can draw reassurance and inspiration from this video depicting Tunisians’ reactions to a clever voter-mobilization initiative. Watch the changes in the reactions of unsuspected citizens to the hanging of a giant portrait of their former dictator on the side of a building, before and after they realize that it’s meant as an important reminder.