Monday, February 7, 2011

Like Water

Just after the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square ended in a spray of live fire from government tanks that killed untold numbers of demonstrators, a Chinese journalist colleague of mine advised his fellow writers to "be like water." He was quoting a Chinese proverb commanding persistence in the face of towering obstacles: water, he explained, can seep through and around even the most imposing walls to get to the other side. I have been thinking of him recently, watching events unfold in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Egyptian blogger and pro-democracy activist Mona Seif, when interviewed last week by National Public Radio's On the Media from Tahrir Square, affirmed that it was a challenge to organize anti-Mubarak demonstrators online after the Egyptian government had tried to shut down the Internet. But it wasn't impossible, she said. Seif, a post-graduate student in cancer research at Cairo University and the daughter of renowned human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad, said the Web and social media not only helped to amass protesters but also to humanize them outside of Egypt. Additionally, she said, the government was unable to shut down all communication; information is still able to leak through.

Seif, via cell phone from the Square, told OTM that she and other activists are using a friend's wireless connection and her apartment as an online organizing hub. [Her friend's internet provider was not shut down due to its relationship with the country's financial exchanges, she explained. On the Media Host Bob Garfield quipped later that Seif's use of that wireless account was "like using a government tank to get behind enemy lines." Seif said she has another friend with a satellite connection "if things get worse."]

Here's a short excerpt from that interview:

NPR: When the (Egyptian) government shut off the Internet, did it have a backlash (effect), infuriating people who otherwise would not have mobilized?

SEIF: I think it had a backlash but not because of infuriating people. A lot of the people who would have normally been satisfied with just following the updates (of what was happening in the square) on Facebook and Twitter suddenly did not have this connection and so they found no way of being part of this movement except by going out into the streets. I think that cutting off the Internet actually helped the movement on the ground and in the street to become bigger.

NPR: We get lots of criticism here in the West about about Twitter; can you take this opportunity to explain what Twitter can mean?

SEIF: I understand this criticism because I've been getting it a lot from my friends. I think sometimes there needs to be an experience like the one we are in to really grasp just how powerful such a tool like Twitter is (and can be). The use of Twitter to engage different people in bits of your life is really what it makes it a powerful tool -- when there is a serious event and you want to engage people. If it is only used as a (personal) news feed, then it would be boring and it wouldn’t be as interactive as it should be.

Usually, I use Twitter for really personal things--to share moments from my work, or moments from my love life or I talk about my cats or my family. And it engages lots of different people, so that when these people are following you -- and suddenly you are talking about a torture case (for example) - some of them might not usually be exposed to such cases. But because they are following me and there is an ongoing conversation between us, they will suddenly be engaged in this as well. So it’s a really powerful tool in that sense.

NPR: The movement has coalesced a number of forces of anger at the (Mubarak) regime. There are trade unionists, there are Muslim Brotherhood elements, there are young people who have been facing hopelessness and despair and unemployment. How worried are you that what comes next may be worse than the status quo -- for example, an Islamic revolution?

SEIF: I really am not worried and I know that might sound strange to a lot of people. What I have seen these past nine days is making me really hopeful. I’m in Tahrir Square with thousands of people from completely different backgrounds and for once in my life, all of the big issues that we are usually encountering in the streets of Eygpt and are having to deal with, such as violence and tension and sexual harassment against girls, for example– all of these issues we keep on talking about now do not exist. I’m in Tahrir Square and feeling that I belong with those people and we are everyone -- there are Muslim Brotherhood (and) independent people who don’t belong to a political party. I really, really think this could (end up in) a much, much better scenario than what all of the outside world is expecting or feeling.

Here's hoping it will, long after (and through) the violence of the past few days -- though as of today, government forces have been moving in on protesters in the Square, attempting to minimize their numbers.

For the best ongoing coverage of the upheaval, watch Al-Jazeera's livestream, here.

To hear the OTM interview with Seif from February 3rd, click below:

For alternative views of what is happening on the ground, see this essay by Joshua Stacher, assistant professor of political science at Kent State University, which asserts in Foreign Affairs that "despite the tenacity, optimism, and blood of the protesters massed in Tahrir Square, Egypt's democratic window has probably already closed."

What do you think? Let us hear from you.

(Photo: Courtesy NPR; scene from street protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square February 3rd)

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