by Dennis Bernstein
Editor’s note: In Egypt and Tunisia, a young generation of political activists has used the new media of the Internet and older methods of organizing to galvanize a mass movement around the economic suffering and political repression that have been facts of life in those countries for decades.
The protests, especially in Egypt, have captivated the world and created curiosity about these young activists at the center of a revolution, people like the blogger known as Sandmonkey, who was interviewed by Dennis Bernstein:
In both countries, the time was ripe for revolution and social upheaval. Poverty, repression and hopelessness were enforced by greedy U.S.-supported despots who were deaf to the needs of their people.
But there is little doubt that the recent street-protest revolts in Tunis and Cairo were assisted by new social media: Facebookers, tweeters and a new generation of Internet bloggers.
In Egypt, the blogosphere has been on fire with young activists planning meetings, sharing information, planning actions and sending emergency messages about government attacks.
Mahmoud Salem, known in the blogosphere as “Sandmonkey,” is among the most famous and savvy young Egyptian bloggers, now working at the edges of Liberation Square.
Sandmonkey, who describes himself as “a pro-democracy, free-speech, women’s rights activist,” has been blogging since 2004. His blog is now read around the world and has become part of an alternative information flow, carrying the message from the street to the 24-hour-a-day rush hour on the information super-highway.
What Sandmonkey’s blogging had helped bring about was brought home to him this week when he moved from the blogosphere to Liberation Square, where hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have been demanding that longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak resign.
To counter the protests, pro-government forces launched a series of brutal attacks, some on horse- and camel-back. Pro-democracy demonstrators were beaten and assaulted by rocks, makeshift knives and other primitive weapons. More than 10 were apparently shot dead by snipers, stabbed or stoned to death.
In an interview on Friday, Sandmonkey told me that he was on his way to the square with medical supplies, when he was confronted by pro-Mubarak goons and secret police.
According to Sandmonkey, he and several of his colleagues were arrested and beaten mercilessly for over a half hour. They were also threatened with hanging and decapitation.
But soon he was headed back to the square, concerned that many of his friends and other protesters were seriously wounded and needed help.
“I was frightened for people who were tear-gassed,” he said. “And my friend got shot … [The authorities] were shooting six tear gas canisters every few seconds, and I was one of the few people who were able to tweet while a black-out was happening.”
When Sandmonkey tried to reenter Liberation Square the next day, he was captured by security forces who told him and those with him that they would be executed as Israeli spies.
“The police basically ambushed me and my car, and had me and my friends beaten up and arrested. My car was completely smashed and destroyed. It’s been a very surreal experience.”
According to the blogger, Mubarak’s thugs accused Sandmonkey and his friends of being traitors to Egypt.
“They were accusing us of being spies,” he said. “They were accusing us of selling out Egypt and destroying it. They told us they were going to hang us – and lynch us.
“It was basically very much like a zombie movie; you know the scene where there are hundreds of zombies trying to grab you and kill you.”
Sandmonkey said he and his friends were driven to a police station, but nothing was done to set anything right. He said:
“We were taken to a police station and they had us sit at the police station for two hours. They wouldn’t even file a police report. My car got destroyed, I never saw my phone again and then they released us.”
Despite the continuing attacks and widespread arrests, Sandmonkey said his resolve is to stay put, stay strong and fight the dictatorship until the protesters’ demands are met.
The pro-democracy activist agreed that social media has played a role in the people’s revolt, but he added that the organizing continued even after cell phones, the Internet and Facebook were shut down.
“Basically, social media was very useful at first and letting people know that there is a protest and what the demands are,” he said. “Then there was the shutdown, and we were still able to organize and go to protests without” the help of social media.
Sandmonkey blogged Thursday night that while some Egyptians are weary and frightened – and others are satisfied by Mubarak’s promise not to run again and to accept democratic elections – he and many others say the concessions are way too little and way too late.
“Despite it all,” Sandmonkey blogged, “we braved it. We believed we are doing what’s right and were encouraged by all those around us who couldn’t believe what was happening to their country.
“What we did galvanized the people, and on Tuesday, despite shutting down all major roads leading into Cairo, we managed to get over 2 million protesters in Cairo alone and 3 million all over Egypt to come out and demand Mubarak’s departure.
“Those are people who stood up to the regime’s ruthlessness and anger and declared that they were free, and were refusing to live in the Mubarak dictatorship for one more day.”
Dennis Bernstein is the host of Flashpoints on the Pacifica radio network. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net. You can get in touch with the author at email@example.com. This story first appeared at ConsortiumNews.com. The note that introduces it was written by the editor of Consortium News.
The way forward
by Mahmoud Salem, aka Sandmonkey
Editor’s note: This is Sandmonkey’s most recent blog post.
Today started with two very important facts: 1) The mass resignation of important Mubarak regime figures from their posts in the ruling National Democratic Party, including his longtime crony, Safwat ElSherif, and his own son, Gamal Mubarak; 2) The number of people who called me asking what the next move for the Tahrir protesters will be and were disappointed by the lack of a clear way forward to the movement. They feared the protests would lose momentum and this historic moment would slowly dwindle and die.
Now, I am not a leader of this movement, and god knows I would be loathe to name myself as a spokesperson for the 5 million individuals nationwide who have joined these protests. If anything, I am simply a promoter and a participant who is way too proud of the fact that this is a movement with no leaders or representatives. In many ways, this has helped the cohesion and unity of those protests: People agreed on a set of demands that promote general democracy, accountability and freedom. Demands that promote self-governing and personal rights no matter what your ideological leanings may be. We thought that was enough, and now we are thinking it might not be after all.
I am … proud of the fact that this is a movement with no leaders or representatives. In many ways, this has helped the cohesion and unity of those protests: People agreed on a set of demands that promote general democracy, accountability and freedom. Demands that promote self-governing and personal rights no matter what your ideological leanings may be.
If we are to assess the successes of the movement so far, there have been a few key victories, but not any truly major ones. Mubarak says he won’t run again, but he won’t step down. Mubarak will change the constitution but will use the same parliament that has election fraud indictments tarring over 85 percent of its members.
Even with today’s news, what the NDP did so far has been more cosmetic than actual change. We shouldn’t be appeased by it. Mubarak is still president, emergency law is still in effect, the parliament hasn’t been dissolved, new elections haven’t been called for and the constitution is still that flexible document that the ruling party can change whenever they see fit. Even though we appear to be winning, we are not by a long shot.
Now, regarding the way forward, so far we seem to have two options on the table: 1) For the Jan. 25 protests to remain as is: anarchic yet goal-oriented; and 2) the Wisemen’s Council, which is currently being promoted as the third option between the government’s stubbornness and the protesters’ unyielding persistence. They are gaining traction amongst those who do need leaders to represent their views and negotiate with the government, and their proposal is worth considering.
The problem with the Wisemen’s Council as a third option is this: While it is respectable and contains prominent Egyptian leaders and businessmen, I am not sure what leverage they’ve got on either side or if either side would accept it as a mediating force.
That being said, the status quo just won’t due. This lack of action and organization will be used against us (the protesters) in every way possible. The participants will start complaining about the lack of direction or movement leaders. The government will start complaining that the protesters haven’t offered a single person to represent them and negotiate with the government for them and that the protesters don’t know what they want.
Mind you, this is utter rubbish: It’s not that the protesters don’t know what they want – you can read about their demands everywhere – it’s that their demands are so nonnegotiable for them that it makes no sense for them to engage in negotiations until a number of those demands get realized. Thus, gridlock!
So here are my two cents: Next time when you head to Tahrir, alongside blankets and food and medicine, please get some foldable tables, chairs, papers, pens, a laptop and a USB connection. Set up a bunch of tables and start registering the protesters. Get their names, ages, addresses and districts. Based on location, start organizing them into committees, and then have those committees elect leaders or representatives. Do the same in Alex[andria], in Mansoura, in Suez, in every major Egyptian city in which the protesters braved police suppression and came out in the thousands.
Protect the data with your life. Get encryption programs to ensure the security of the data. Use web-based tools like Google documents to input the data in, thus ensuring that even if your laptops get confiscated by state security goons, they won’t find anything on your hard drives. Have people outside of Egypt back up your data daily on secure servers. Then, start building the structure.
You see, with such proper citizen organization and segmentation, we’ll have the contact information and location of all the protesters that showed up, and that could be transformed into voting blocks in parliamentary districts; i.e., a foundation for an Egyptian unity party. That Egyptian Unity Party will be an umbrella party that promotes equality, democracy and accountability, without any ideological slants. It should be centrist, because we don’t want any boring Left vs. Right squabbling at that stage. Once you institute the structure, start educating the members on their rights and their obligations as citizens. Convince them to bring their friends and relatives into meeting. Establish voters’ critical mass, all under that party.
The Egyptian Unity Party, however, will not be a permanent structure but rather a transitional entity with a clear and direct purpose: create the grassroots organization to take back the parliament and presidency in the next elections. Once sufficient votes and seats have been obtained, the party will amend the constitution to promote civil liberties, plurality and truly democratic elections. Once that constitution is in place, the party can disband and its elected members can start forming their own parties and collations, based on their personal beliefs and ideologies, or they can join any of the existing parties and breathe some life into their decaying carcasses.
We will end up with an actual political process and representative political parties that will actually discuss policy and have to represent those who voted for them so that they can get re-elected. Democracy in action. An old but brilliant concept. A way to ensure that no matter what, we will have a huge influence on who becomes the next Egyptian president come election day in September.
I am extremely hopeful we can do this. So far we have proved all the critics and the haters wrong. It’s time to do that again!
NBC’s Ron Allen speaks with Mahmoud Salem, the Egyptian digital media businessman and blogger known as Sandmonkey.