11 Apr 2011
On Saturday March 26th, Meedan and the Arab Resource and Organizing Center co-hosted an "Voices from the Arab Meedan." For those who aren't familiar with the word, 'meedan' is an Arabic word that means town square or gathering place. With this event we created a small gathering place, enabled by technology, where activists in the Middle East North Africa region could have a conversation with Bay Area community members.
The core questions we posed to speakers were the following:
When and how did you get involved in protesting authoritarianism in your country?
What have been your experiences in the recent protests? Tell us a story that has stayed with you.
What are the current challenges that activist movements are facing in your country?
What, if anything, can people outside (Arab or non-Arab) do to help?
Here are some of their answers:
"If you are asking about when I became seriously involved, it was when Khaled Said was killed. Khaled’s incident was the thing that moved lots of people all over Egypt. It was the first time that they all formed large protests to the extent that police forces were running away from us... It was then when we all knew that the phrase “power to the people” was all true all the time, but we didn’t notice.
I was defending two websites: the National Association for Change and the National Campaign to Support Doctor ElBaradei. The first site was of strategic importance, because it included the database of everyone who signed the Demands of Change [petition], which clearly was against the interests of the former regime. This database included the full name and national ID number. Just for the record it was more than 500,000 activists’ records there... Actually what happened is that I could mitigate the malicious traffic and I could led the server while being attacked for more than 9 months, online and operational.
Apart from the technology side, I joined the protests from day one...During these protests I saw some scenes that I cannot forget...I saw protests of hundreds of thousands stop cause a woman lost her child inside the protest, and after getting her child back to his mother we continued the protest. By the way, the mother and child were protesting with us... I saw everybody cares for the other more than he cares for himself, which actually I didn’t think I could see in this world."
"The story I shall never forget was on the 28th of January at night, when I was watching TV and all of a sudden I heard people saying that the Egyptian Museum is beginning to be burned... I did not fear bombs and bullets as much as I feared this moment, that the day would come when we would find our heritage burned with our hands. But then the moment when I saw, or heard, on television that youths are protecting the museum with their own bodies after the famous police escape that night it was the first moment for myself to say, I am a proud Egyptian, and really feel it, mean it.
For the challenges activist movements are facing, I second Ahmed again, that it’s awareness, awareness and again, awareness. Ignorance is the enemy of the coming era and one of the major things and the worst things that Mubarak has left us.
And how you can help us, again I second Ahmed that either you come and visit us in Egypt and we would welcome you very much, or you would invest in our county. We have real great minds here to help and share in any of your project."
"When they called for a million march, I felt that they need me as a part of the mass, that if I didn’t go to attend the demonstration to be part of the demonstration I would be betraying myself and my fellow Egyptians. So I went, after a brutal fight in my family, my family is a very conservative religious family and they see women in a certain way which I denounce. But I just went.
The story I took with me from Tahrir was after the camel battle... I was working as a translator with the Front of Defending Egyptian Protests and we went as a group to see how are the morales of the people in Tahrir Square. I was really really astonished and stunned and speechless because the people were very powerful. Although everybody have a bandage or injured or so...they were saying it very clear that we’re not going, we’re not moving anywhere, you have to go: mish hanimshi, howa yimshi.
And the moment I felt very honored when I saw the Nubian demonstrations. I saw - Nubians have two languages in Egypt, Badik and Kannous, and they were chanting in both languages in Midan al-Tahrir and they were having the translation of it in Arabic as a sign. And it was really inspiring that the Christians are chanting, the Nubians are chanting and everybody is chanting and this is the real, full citizenship of Egyptians.
Just in a very straight way, any financial help will be rejected... it’s easy to be accused of treason or that you are a traitor. So it’s very very delicate, and we can’t afford to accept any financial support. But however I think the thing you can easily support us with is information and knowledge."
"Tonight there was a concert that was in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution and there was all sorts of people there, but I’d say half of them were Egyptian, and singing revolutionary songs and Arab nationalist songs.
These types of events have been really inspiring. That’s effected everybody’s lives I think in the Arab world whether we’re in a country where revolution has happened or is, either on the cusp of a revolution or there’s been major revolts. Obviously some of those stories of revolts are also sad, but on the average people are happy and optimistic. I feel in my daily life that I’m optimistic about my life here, and my daughter’s life in the Arab world and her future, and I think that’s what keeps me wanting to be involved and active."
"Now we can meet in a Skype Meedan and a Google street, in our home country the Internet. To some guys who never lived in a country ruled by dinosaur dictatorships, the Internet perhaps has different purposes, but believe me, to us (the formerly oppressed) Internet is heaven’s best gift.
Apart from the details the whole world saw, I had my own on that day. After we swarmed the Tahrir square, I saw an old friend from college. Back then he used to mock my interest in politics and my participating in protests. I saw him that day taking interest too and chanting “the people want to bring down the regime” I asked him about his reason to join the protests as we sat in the round green area in the middle of the square, and he said it was what his conscience dictated."
In addition to these stories, one of the greatest parts of the event was the discussion between our international speakers and attendees in the room. Just one example was the debate on the best way forward for the women's rights movement in Egypt, and the larger question of the role of minority issues within larger movements.
In response to a question about the status of the women's movement, Eman said:
'Right now I don’t encourage any movement that isn’t related to the whole nation, like segregating women for example, or calling for women’s rights while we are still facing major problems in the country. At this moment, frankly speaking, I’m not sharing in any because I feel like all of our efforts should be dedicated to building up the country again."
Miriam Zouzounis, a representative from the AROC who helped organize the event, asked Eman:
"Following up on the issue of gender and how that plays into the liberation of the Egyptian people and the formation of a new society, a lot of people would say that it is one and the same and that to create a new society that differs from the old one that women’s liberation is the same as the liberation of the entire people."
"We just have to agree that you cannot suddenly shift from a corrupted society to a utopia in a few weeks. I think that this is practically impossible. Though it was really great, the feeling that was shared in Tahrir Square in the 18 days, not a single harrassment issue was reported and also Muslims and Christians. This is how we want Egypt to be of course, but still I would be highly dreaming if I thought this could happen in a few weeks."
Later on Fatma added her perspective:
"I want to reply back for what Eman said about the women’s rights issues in Egypt. Actually I disagree with what she said about the issue of women and that it is sectorial and I hope she is hearing me, that it is sectorial and it is un-unifying the system, this words we hear the Egyptian feminists hear this words in the revolution of 1919, and we heard in the revolution, the coup d’etat of 1952. Every time when the women struggle and fight and sacrifice to reach full citizenship after having the victory they return women back to their houses and we are not returning back.
The citizenship of women is again is citizenship of the Egyptian nation. The Egyptian citizen is a Sunni Muslim man, any other body is not a full citizen, not the Christian, not the Nubian, not the Amazighi, not the Christian, not the Baha’i, they are all not full citizen and we have to fight for everybody. "
During question and answer for her segment, audience member Mohammad Talat commented:
"You said you disagreed with Eman, but I’m not really finding a huge disagreement there. I think that there are two ways to go about demanding women’s rights and any other rights within a bigger movement. What is unwise is for instance going, having 300 women protesting one day where every Egyptian was protesting against sectarianism and Shafiq’s government in the other place...But there’s another way, which is join the bigger movement, being there, speaking your mind, what you’re doing right now, underscoring your issues, while not taking away momentum... I think the second way is a lot more responsible and in agreement with the principles than pushing a side issue all the way to the front. I think both of you can reconcile on that."
"I agree with you that sittings, the celebration [for International Women’s Day] to a certain extent wasn’t right....but you can’t judge a whole complete political movement for a mistake for one day. The Egyptian feminist movement didn’t make the right mathematics for the day of the 18th of March, but also it is very degrading when you find very high profile bloggers in Egypt very happy to a certain extent and defaming feminists, and saying ‘see what happened to you? Enjoy the beating and harassment you suffered from? And that’s because you didn’t follow our instructions.’
This thread continued to come up throughout the discussion, in a respectful but substantive way. We also had some great response from the audience about the relationship of social media to activism. One audience member remarked,
"I think the first important thing for the Bay Area is to wake up, that all the tools that we develop and create and innovate here have certain implications for other people’s lives outside the Bay Area...I think many organizations choose to ignore what people actually use...[People] think that Twitter, Facebook, maybe has an evil side perhaps, or weren’t not sure, let’s not do that, let’s innovate something completely new that’s better than what’s out there, but when you look at it, people are using what they have, whatever it is...I think for organizations it’s important to observe what people are using and leveraging what’s already there."
These are just a couple examples, there was also conversation about pan-Arabism, pan-Africanism and Gaddafi, refugees, the role of religion in public life, among others. You can listen to the full discussion in the recording posted on our liveblog:
Recording Part 1:
Recording Part 2:
Recording part 3:
I also have written up a transcript of the event.
From Meedan's perspective, our ideas for holding this event grew out of out of our organizational principle of using technology to facilitate communication between language communities, as well as our feeling that narratives and perspectives from those who are participating in these events are incredibly important.
As a language learner and translator myself, I think it's important to recognize that while our speakers did not leave their countries physically, they traveled a great distance in order to communicate with us in San Francisco in English, and the work behind that is worthy of appreciation. Ahmed Ragab's contribution by the way actually came to us through translation - he wrote his response in Arabic and one of our Egyptian Meedan translators wrote an English version for us, which is posted in full on the liveblog.