On March 30th, the frontline club and in association with BBC Arabic hosted a special panel titled: Protest, Technology and the End of Fear. The event hosted Alaa Abdul Fattah, famous Egyptian blogger and political activist, Manal Hassan, activist and co-founder of the Egyptian GNU/Linux Users group, Sam Farah, Presenter of BBC Arabic Nuqtat Hiwar (Talking Point) and Louise Lewarne, who lives in Egypt and is the founder of occupiedcairo.org
The second panel hosted Khalid Abdalla, Actor and political activist (you might know him from the Kite Runner), Dr. Omar Ashour, lecturer in ME Politics and the director of the MA in the Middle East Programme in the University of Exeter, Omar Robert Hamilton, British-Egyptian (hyphenated identity) film-maker and the founder of the Palestine Festival of Literature, and Salma Said, an Egyptian activist, and a member of the Kifaya political movement in Egypt.
The event started with the first panel discussing the so-called role that technology played in what is now called the #25Jan revolution that led to the ousting of President Mubarak. The event was organised in a way that invited the audience to actively participate in the conversation, which was interesting and did add a certain edge to the dynamics of the panel discussion. The speakers were first asked to say several words about what they thought of, or would like to discuss, and the audience then led the steer of the conversation. The moderator I argue was very excited at the notion that facebook and twitter played a vital role in mobilising the masses in Tahrir square, and even directed a question at Manal about how she saw technology playing out in Tahrir. Manal disregarded the notion immediately and assured the moderator that technology had no presence in the spirits of the people standing and chanting in Tahrir square. She did not disregard the importance of sharing information about what was happening, but refused even the slightest hint that social media did play a vital role in the success of this revolution. Alaa agreed with her, and explained that Egyptians used their voices (and clubs and rocks whenever they needed to defend themselves against the aggression of the police) more than they used technology. Indeed, in the panel that was aimed at discussing technology and revolution the speakers did not want to discuss facebook and twitter.
This was supported by a member of the audience, who shared my views when he stated that the western excitement about the technology being part of this revolution was indeed their way of wanting to be a part of a democratic uprising that needed no intervention. I shared his sentiment when I compared how the theorizing of social media and democracy nowadays mirrors the US excitement about the Samizdats being responsible for the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of Communism. I mean who could forget Hilary Clinton’s infamous speech on the 21st January 2009 when she compared the internet to the Samizdats and declared it the tool for the oppressed against authoritarian regimes. Of course I must note that my comment/question about the political ramification of the fall of Baghdad during the American and British led war on Iraq in 2003 on the Egyptian revolution was met with enthusiasm from the panellists, and rolled-up eyes from the moderator. I guess the fact that the conversation with the audience did shift to the political impact of the revolution did interfere with the already set-agenda to link technology and the Egyptian revolution together.
Alaa actually made an interesting comment following my intervention, and discussed how the protests that went out on the streets of Cairo ( opposing the war on Iraq) in 2003, and were harshly oppressed and stopped by the police, led eventually to the formation of several dissident political parties. Alaa intelligently realised that the potential of the question was important, since Egypt’s democracy was established bottom-up, and not like Iraq, which saw its so-called democracy brought on American tanks, and British jet-fighters.
One of the most fascinating comments was made by Sam Farah, who took the liberty on behalf of the whole Arab population in the world to declare Arab nationalism dead. Alaa interrupted and asserted that during the whole time in Tahrir square, the chants were: Cairo first, then Jerusalem. As soon as the panel ended, Alaa tweeted:
The siege of Gaza will fall, gas will stop flowing, camp David will be renegotiated so Egyptian army can be deployed in Sinai, promise.
The second panel was more involved in discussing the future of Egypt and the political development post the revolution. All of the speakers shed the light on the possibilities of change and development in Egypt now. Omar Hamilton was very precise when he rightly assured that the democratic developments in Egypt must not be linked to neo-liberal economic policies, that link he considered to be ‘dangerous and wrong’. Khalid Abdalla stated that the best support Egyptians can give to other uprisings in the world is by succeeding in their efforts now, and that what is happening now will determine the real success of this revolution. The discussion of course led to the Muslim Brotherhood involvement in politics, which triggered a question from an audience member to Salma Said about the involvement of women in the revolution in Egypt. Of course, anyone who knows anything about the West’s fetishism about burdening the national discourse with feminist theory can predict the moderator’s then interrogation to Salma about who the women were that participated in the revolution, at some point he asked her: who are they? What are their names? Can you name them? Salma was obviously shocked and just simply answered, of course there were. And indeed, there were many, and the way that the moderator went about questioning Salma was heavily orientalist to say the least.
The event ended with a rather strong sentiment and question by an audience member that we later on find out that he is Khalid Abdalla’s father, who asserted the importance of having a leader to challenge the already existing powerful parties that are seeking to take power from the revolutionaries.
The event was successful in reframing the Egyptian revolution in terms of social mobilization and economic reform, and disregarding the utopian fantasy that silicon valley in California had anything to do with the millions that marched all over Egypt asking for change.