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''I'm Getting Arrested,'' Therefore I Exist!

[Photo from the German University in Cairo protest in mid-March following the Port Said massacre. Image by Rana Khazbak/Egypt Independent] [Photo from the German University in Cairo protest in mid-March following the Port Said massacre. Image by Rana Khazbak/Egypt Independent]

It was in the early morning hours of 13 March 2012 that Egyptians on Twitter were alerted by a message sent from fellow tweep Mostafa Sheshtawy’s phone. He had been picketing at the German University in Cairo’s (GUC) strike. In the SMS, the activist said he was being arrested. Startled by the news, fellow activists passed the message around. It was received and re-tweeted by many fellow tweeps, most of whom do not even know him as Mostafa, identifying his location and expressing concern about his fate. 

For an hour, the message was distributed widely, with everyone participating in spreading the news; identifying when and who spotted him last; wondering where he might be taken (National Security in Downtown, or the Military Prosecution in Nasr City), based on the SMS sent from his phone; and arranging to contact lawyers who would set the legal wheels in motion. The message had gone viral. In a short time period, with Mostafa seemingly in trouble, the online activist community was in distress, turning to every communication instrument at their disposal. Yet their actions were not haphazard. It was not the first time this scenario took place. There seemed to be a typical and logical procedure followed in such circumstances. It starts with alerting key tweeps with a high number of followers whose messages are often re-tweeted. Simultaneously, info is collected about the missing tweep and why his/her activism might put him/her in danger. Tweeps who are proximate to the incident, offer their accounts on where and with whom the missing activist was seen last. In the meantime, legal aid is readied once concern reaches a serious point, such as not hearing from someone for a protracted period of time. 

All this happens with the missing activist “mentioned,” which serves to alert him in case the disappearance is a technical mistake or alert those around him or in touch with him or send a message to his abductor that the “world is watching”. Although this did not happen in Sheshtawy’s incident, but a “hashtag” is the next step in the case of prolonged disappearance or if an arrest or abduction was confirmed. Hashtags consolidate all messages on the same topic and can funnel ideas of solidarity, popularizing anything in a short time period.

Eventually, the disappeared activist, Mostafa, responded to the numerous “mentions” on Twitter which had turned him into the center of concern for much of Egypt’s online community. His fellow activists and concerned Twitterati were relieved to learn that he had not been arrested but rather had fallen asleep at the GUC sit-in and hadn’t used his phone. Instead, it was his Android phone’s ”I’m Getting Arrested” mass texting application that kick-started the frenzy! “I’m Getting Arrested” is like “S.O.S iEmergency” for iPhones and other applications, and is widely used by Egyptian activists. The application can be triggered to send alert messages to respective pre-recorded emergency numbers, thereby saving valuable time in the rescue efforts. The “I’m Getting Arrested” application is relevant to the Egyptian context for being developed, according to TIME magazine, with the Occupy Wall Street protesters in mind. It was inspired by a similar arrest incident.

Despite this activist’s incident being a false alarm, the episode nevertheless highlights the extent to which telecommunication and information technology have given Egypt’s youth revolutionaries a significant and perhaps irreversible edge over and against their adversaries. This is a generation that has successfully mastered the art and science of association and solidarity; adapted to their environment; mastered the technological tools available to them; perfected the ability to mobilize; and learned to utilize time effectively. More importantly, they have successfully and repeatedly challenged the state’s classical ban on/over the right of assembly, what Asef Bayat in Life as Politics calls “the art of presence.”

Another critical component unique to the revolutionary impulse in Egypt is the ability to transcend ideological barriers between different opposition groups. This was the turning point in the fight against the oppressive state, which was accustomed to gaining power in the zero-sum game against the opposition through inducing divides. Here, despite the ideological differences, the leading member of the left-leaning “Revolutionary Socialists,” Hossam El-Hamalawy, known on Twitter as 3arabawi, sought the help of the more pragmatic founder of the “No Military Trials,” Mona Seif, known on Twitter as Monasosh, to start mobilizing legal aid for the thought-to-be arrested Sheshtawy. 3arabawi has about 67,000 followers on Twitter, whereas Monasosh has 71,000. Between the followers of the two leading Twitter activists, and the 10,000 followers of the missing activist, around 150,000 fellow tweeps were notified instantly about developments pertaining to Sheshtawy’s situation, and hence triggered their participation in the aforementioned process. Re-tweeting a single message by this figure would multiply and amplify the number of people receiving it and the level of awareness of the incident would skyrocket. 

With this capacity for mobilization, solidarity and assembly, this generation has proven more advanced than the regime it has been dismantling. It is an aging/ailing regime that has always been reactive and on the defensive. It has always used conventional tactics of control, which rendered it obsolete. It hasn’t been able to keep up with the technological innovations mustered by the young generation of activists who have revolutionized the dynamics of activism. 

According to the Guardian, Mubarak’s State Security Investigations service (SSI) had been in business with British Software House, Finfisher, until June 2010, to purchase a program that “experts say could infect computers, hack into web-based email and communications tools such as Skype and even take control of other groups' systems remotely.” This was revealed by the Guardian, and other supporting documents were discovered by activists amid hundreds of batons and torture equipment when they broke into the headquarters of the SSI in June 2011. 

The documents discovered highlight the state’s continued attempts to obtain a trial version of the aforementioned software, and accordingly was still haggling about the price and the accompanying training packages. In addition, such negotiations and cooperation reflect a mindset not aware of the latest technologies on the market, and thus will always lag behind vis-à-vis their target activists/opposition. This mindset reveals backwardness manifested in jeopardizing security and technological edge at a time when a generation of youth was increasingly transforming into a tech-savvy community, liberating itself, and transcending state control. In doing so, they were able to revolt and break the state’s monopoly on information. Time here is the most important asset that such states waste easily in the never-ending quest for knowledge and information. Alternatively, the young activists, have had plenty of time at their disposal, and acted responsibly in accumulating knowledge that helped them break the usual monopoly of the oppressive state.

Until mid-2010, the regime tried to infiltrate/hack emails and Skype accounts, while the April 6 movement, two years earlier, had been strides ahead and used Facebook to communicate and campaign for a labor strike. By mid-2010, activists were still able to circumvent the regime, such as the “We are all Khaled Saeed” Facebook group which was using the same medium to campaign for protests against torture by the police. These were the same groups who, without interruption, used the same new media to call for the 25 January 2011 protests, eventually bringing down Mubarak. In fact, the regime has not started a single campaign or new media initiative with even the most modest modicum of success to control or react to these moves. Even after the downfall of Mubarak, SCAF's Facebook page is notoriously old-fashioned and out of touch. It is still reactive and on the defensive, and when it decided to take the lead, it could not but employ poorly-conceived and executed defamation campaigns against activists, which were contradictory, inconsistent, redundant and unfounded. It is also incapable of responding to criticism because it is very hierarchical compared to all the revolutionaries whose activities are horizontal. 

For instance, the revolutionaries’ campaigns were more progressive/daring, colorful, and unexpected. They were simultaneous and both online and off-line, including Emsek Flol [1], Mosireen [2], Askar Kazeboon [3] not to mention the football Ultras activities and the graffiti wars. Online, the regime has been losing in a humiliating manner. Alternatively, the off-line war against the Ultras had to be conventionally brutal, yielding more martyrs and disgruntlement against SCAF. On graffiti, the online and off-line wars between the activists on one side and SCAF and its affiliates on the other intensified during the month of January 2012. SCAF’s input lacked any artistic sense, and affirmed that even its supporters, such as in this incident by a group self-titled “Badr Battalion 1,” are lagging behind artistically and aesthetically as well. The iconic murals everywhere documenting the revolutionaries’ artistic capabilities and creativity were defaced and desecrated by pro-SCAF’s groups. They wiped out and replaced the art and graffiti with artistically-inferior work and messages such as “the army and the people…one hand”, “April 6 are traitors,” “Long Live Free and Independent Egypt” and their tag “Badr 1.” This campaign was complimented by video footage on YouTube, with emotional nationalist music in the background, depicting the process of vandalizing the murals (see video below).

 


This revolutionary generation has winning character, energy, and creativity, and thus a formula for activism that cannot be easily subjugated, especially in its battle against an oppressor who has tried to utilize technology against them. So far, it doesn’t seem likely that the state will be able to narrow the technological, intellectual or artistic divides that separate it from the youth dissidents. This is largely because the divide is not only digital, but cognitive. It pertains to the production and consumption of knowledge. The “Political Process Perspective,” described by such political scientists as McAdam, McCarthy and Zald (1996), acknowledge the critical catalytic effect of new ideas as a spur to collective action. It emphasizes the necessity for “cognitive liberation” as a pre-requisite for mobilization.  This was very clear in the Badr Battalion 1 video, which highlights the stark difference between the artistic liberated generation compared to one which was reared in and upholds a culture of censorship. This is a generation that shares collective strategic efforts towards consciousness and seamlessly fashions collective understanding of the world in a way that legitimates and motivates action. This is a winning formula that cannot be easily undermined especially given the state’s archaic attempts to utilize technology against the intuition and creativity of Egypt’s cyber dissidents. Not only is the regime lagging behind, it has effectively lost the war of innovations. This is the new edge that the oppressive state will likely never match.

In this context, an update that proves the notion of “power of the people is stronger than the people in power,” (the subtitle of Wael Ghonim’s recently published book, Revolution 2.0) arrived after 18 days of the GUC Strike. On 15 March 2012, the picketing students yielded enough pressure; GUC Vice President confirmed that the expelled students would be reinstated. The sit-in, the daily media updates that informed and gathered support, the widely followed Twitter hashtags (#GUC and #GUCStrike), and even the cartoons circulating in cyberspace re-ignited hope and invited support from other effective groups, including solidarity from other universities’ student groups, the almighty Ultras Football fans, and three leading presidential hopefuls, Bothaina Kamel, Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh and Khaled Ali.

The GUC Strike was an interesting and unique protest movement. It was a direct confrontation with Board of Trustee member, head of the university’s disciplinary committee and ex-minister of Transportation, Ibrahim El-Demiry, who was famous for a tragic and scandalous train blaze, which happened during his tenure, and cost 370 lives in February, 2002. Considered a member of the “Folool” by the revolutionary generation at the university, (comprised of up to 8000 undergraduates, mostly of the upper-middle class), they have adopted their confrontation against El-Demiry as an extension of their generation’s uprising. The Port Said massacre of the Ultras was a turning point on February 1st. Karim Kouzam, a GUC undergraduate student, was among the victims. This ignited the students’ anger and dragged them back to revolutionary action. They demanded a mural commemorating their late Khouzam alongside other demands related to uprooting corruption and instating transparency, plus other symbolic demands of removing placards referring to Hosni Mubarak and the stepping down of El-Demiry from the Board of Trustees. The university retaliated by expelling two students and banning three others from classes for their political activities, resulting in a nationwide student uproar.

[Cartoon by Carlos Latuff depicting the GUC protest confronting Ibrahim El-Demiry]

The significance of the uproar relates to the dynamics of the new social movements, a significant development that strengthened the popular demands and protests in Egypt. The realization of the common denominator between/among citizens and their common grievances connected the GUC protesters with the national revolutionary movement, thereby transcending all ideological, religious, class, social and racial divisions/barriers. Combined with the internet and communication technology, the sense of belonging and association between the activists is intensified and amplified. In the GUC context, the late GUC first-year management student Karim Khouzam was a Copt, Ultras member, and eventually gathered his fellow-students around the disdain of SCAF as a symbol of oppression and the continuation of the old and persisting regime. 

Thus the GUC student uprising and sit-in outlived earlier university-based revolutionary action, and outsmarted its oppressor, eventually registering significant success. It could not be demonized or victimized by the usual negative propaganda, and had extra ingredients of success such as the convergence of various revolutionary movements on GUC students’ action as an momentary epicenter of the revolt against SCAF. This is particularly true during a demoralizing time for the January 25th protest groups. Khouzam’s funeral was more attended than the funeral of the 27 Copts massacred in front of the infamous Maspero building on 9 October 2011. This indicated more support because of the aforementioned factors, including the public sympathy for and participation of the Ultras fans (with Al-Ahly being the club with the largest following in Egypt, the Arab world and Africa), against a regime that still persists. But this persistence is still being challenged. With all the turmoil happening in the vicinity of the Ministry of Defense in Abbasseya the last few days, and with calls for an end of SCAF's rule escalating, the power of technology and human will are once again being tested and are proving decisive in rallying people to confront tyranny. In the end, and despite the overwhelming advantage the SCAF and the state have over the protest movement, they are chronically unable to calculate, expect, or keep pace with the quick developments from this new breed of protesters. Against every attempt to quell the youth revolutionaries, this generation has all the tools necessary to at least “exist,” and perhaps even prevail. 


[Ana Mawgood (I Exist)--Song by City Band]

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[1] 
"Emsek Floul" is a Facebook page, with 1
67,000 members, dedicated to exposing Mubarak’s regime’s pillars, affiliates and sympathizers who have been attempting to bandwagon the revolution to re-enter the post-revolution political arena despite their corrupt practices that speeded up the downfall of Mubarak’s regime

[2] Mosireen is a grassroots citizen media initiative that turned into an NGO dedicated to supporting the people's revolution through balancing the truth armed with mobile phones and cameras. The founding filmmakers and citizen journalists aim at empowering the voice of the street and dismantling the mainstream monopoly over media and information. The name translates to "determined."

[3] Askar Kazeboon initiative that took online and off-line activism to a new level. It is a popular alternative media effort to document the massacres by the ruling SCAF and how their media machinery contradicts itself. This happens by producing videos and playing them in the streets across Egypt to inform the people victim to mainstream media about violent realities they are unaware of. The Facebook page of the group has around 95,000 members, and followed by 47,000 on Twitter. Its street shows were effective and widely reported despite resistance by SCAF.

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