Witnessing Tahir’s Moment

February 11, 2011 – after 18 days of continuous protest, Egypt is free. Free from the reigns of Hosni Mubarak, a US backed dictator ruling the country for the last 30 years. The protestors of Tahrir Square, the Suez, Ismailia and Alexandria have achieved their first demand – to remove Mubarak as head of the regime. And at the forefront of this revolution have been those who have known no other ruler – those born under his thumb now seeing him depart the country they have worked so hard to reclaim. This is being called “the revolution of the youth”, deploying social media networks in creative and unifying ways. This may not be an entirely representative view of every man, woman and child mobilizing against Mubarak’s rule, but for most of the world, it characterizes the changing world order and the incredible power of collective action in a digital age.
We speak to Ahmed Zidan, the editor of MidEast Youth, a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of free speech and expression for youth in the Arab world. Ahmed is a twenty-three year old medical student turned activist based in Cairo and he speaks to us about the atmosphere in Egypt right now – and the changing political dialogue among Arab youth around the region.

This Is WorldTown (TIWT): Hi Ahmed, How are you feeling right now?

Ahmed Zidan (AZ): Of course it’s a historic day and historic moment for Egypt. But I’m worried, actually. I have my worries towards this moment. We can’t exaggerate it because we still don’t know what will happen in the future. I’m worried about two things. I’m worried about the peace treaty with Israel, because Egypt you know is a very sensitive position to the Middle East and the world. The peace treaty actually was a very important factor for our stability in this region, for the last thirty years. I’m worried too about the Muslim Brotherhood. They are losing for decades and decades. This group can actually do a lot of harm to what the people gained, what the protestors gained.

Of course I’m worried about the looting and vandalism that might start afresh at this point. But I hope that it will go smoothly, and I hope too that we could revise the constitution in the next month so we can have a fair, general election that can lead to a real democratic reform. So I’m worried. Of course I’m happy, but I still have my worries.
TIWT: Ahmed, can you describe some the work that your organisation MidEast Youth has been doing I guess over the last 18 days but even before that in terms of mobilizing youth and spreading freedom of expression and trying to get people active, at least, in the digital sense – can you describe some of that?
AZ: MEYouth is a digital space for youth in the region, to write, to create things that they can’t do in their reality. Here the political arena was limited to the ruling parties, not only in Egypt but in many other states. But this will not be the future in Egypt I guess. The political arena, actually, as I’ve told you, was very limited. It is still very limited in some other states to the ruling parties. So, the internet is a source of inspiration for these frustrated young youth, to go and describe themselves, to speak out. We depend on this idea, and capitalize on this idea. We have youth from all over the region. We have more than 300 writers. Our platform has 3 languages – The main website is in English. We have also Arabic and Persian versions. We have more than 15 projects. All based on, as I have told you, on the participation of youth, a group blogging idea dedicated to the freedom of speech. We have actually two main issues – Freedom of speech, and supporting religious minorities. We have many projects. You can log onto Mideast.com/projects. We have crowd voice – this is our latest project actually. It’s based on crowd sourcing. The people can post their material on the website. We have MidEast Tunes– dedicated to discovering the musical talents from the region. All of these projects are part of our main portals, our main websites which anyone in the region can just participate and write what they want without any censorship, without any blockage. We have never blocked a single word or single comment from appearing on the website. So this freedom, this freedom of the virtual world – we hope this freedom can be transferred to the real world, when these youth will be counted by the leaders in their countries. This is our investment by the youth of the region. I think, what happened in Egypt, what happened in Tunisia one month ago – I think it’s the fruits of the internet age. The attention age, the post-information age. These are the fruits of this age. The words are very hard. While I was recording the podcast for Mideast Youth, Some average Egyptian who is from the mainstream has told me, “okay, I agree on anyone who would come instead of Mubarak, but if he is democratically elected. Even if he is Christian, Muslim or whatsoever.” I felt happy. I felt the awareness of the protestors is very high, you want a secular state – not a religious, not a military one. The internet revolution, we’re gonna call it, is based actually on our efforts. We did not make the revolution, no one has made it. The “Tahririans” – if we can name it that – have made it. It is a Twitter revolution. It’s the first twitter revolution. And Twitter to the internet, I think, is like Tahrir to Egypt. It’s the heart of the internet now, it’s a very important tool. So, yes, MidEast youth was helping this aspect, to grow this sense of liberty and freedom of speech. Through written blogs, through podcasts, through printing materials we have. A lot of video materials available on our website, comics, pictures, comments. All kinds of social media we use, and we have been using all the sources of social media in order to mobilize youth to a better future. Our slogan at Mideast Youth is thinking ahead. Yes, we think ahead to the future. And I think this is one of the fruits of the digital age.
TIWT: Ahmed, outside of Egypt, this is really being described – as you’ve mentioned as well, as a twitter revolution and that it’s really a revolution of the youth because, obviously, youth are more active on Twitter and Facebook and so on. Inside Egypt, of course, the regime cut off internet and phone access for many days and I’m just wondering how that information was generated and exchanged among people in Tahrir and in Egypt. And also if it’s really accurate to call it a revolution of the youth. The activists that you met on the streets – how would you say – who represented them?
AZ: Okay, first of all – the Internet. First of all, this is the first organized revolution in history. Organized but leaderless – if this makes sense. It’s very organized, you know. Some youth have called for this revolution on a Facebook page – calling for revolution on the 25th of Jan. That was very weird to me, to just set a date for revolution, but it succeeded, it succeeded at the end. So they’ve called for this revolution from the Internet in the end. You know, where the borderline was – I want to just shift back a little bit. Even before the Tunisian model, from the last year – since the come back of Mahomed ElBaradei. He was very vocal against the regime, He was a dissident towards the regime. And then the brutal muder of Khaled Said in Alexandria. He was a protestor in Alexandria in June 2010. He was killed brutally by the SSI or the police forces in Alexandria and then the Tunisian revolution. I think the Tunisian model has broken the borderline of fear in all the Arab population, from the regimes and from the ruling parties. So when this order of fear was broken, the Egyptian model has adopted the Tunisian way, in their famous slogan – ‘degage’. The youth have saved ‘degage’. Egypt, as you know is not a Francophone country, but this magical word has helped it a lot. So about your question, this revolution was called for on the Internet. And then when the government has made it’s last defensive mechanism by blocking the Internet, I think it backfired against them. All the nascents marched into the streets. I was one of them. I’ve been working for Mid East Youth for one and a half years now; I’m still working for them. When the Internet was blocked, I’ve gone into the streets; I had nothing to do at home now. I’ve gone into the streets, and I held a sign, and I’ve written on it: “Egypt, disconnected””. That was a complete blackout. The first in the history, I think. It did not even happen in Cuba, or North Korea. It did not happen anywhere. It backfired against them because all the nascent have marched into the streets on the 28th of Jan. But when the Internet was blocked, it did not make a difference. Because the people and the protestors have known their way, they’ve known their route into Tahrir square. So when the Internet was blocked, it did not [create an] obstacle against the movement, but as I’ve told you it backfired against the government. Because this firing point has been broken. It was broken on the 25th of Jan, and it continued for 18 days until the regime was completely sacked.
TIWT If you can just give me a sense – in your talks with activists in Tahrir and being on the ground, what do you think, in your opinion was the real moment that got them out to protest and revolt? What was the defining moment in this revolution, if you think there is one?
AZ: There was a lot of corruption and kleptocracy, Egypt was under a kleptocracy. The ruling party and ruling regime was only limited to some group of people around the regime. The Egyptian population was always against this, but it was silent. But the Tunisian model, in specific, has broken this moment, this fear. The people did not fear the regime after what happened in Tunisia. The Egyptian dissidents, the cyber dissidents have adopted this model – the Tunisian model is the firing point of this revolution.

TIWT Okay, but after January 25th in Egypt itself – to see more and more people come out everyday, what do you think really resonated with them.
AZ: They found that it’s possible. That it’s a possibility of overthrowing the regime. This possibility, I think it attracted a lot of people who did not plan to go first hand. Then the regime along the past 18 days presented a lot of concessions. First of all, there was a list of concessions – I can revise them with you if you want to – but the regime has presented a lot of concessions since the beginning. The biggest one of them is appointing Omar Suleiman in a step that never happened before. Like a known resignation of the General of the ruling party. As you know, yesterday Mubarak has abdicated all his power to Omar Suleiman and then promising amendments to the constitution and investigating the appeals or results of the parliamentary elections in 2010, calling for negotiations with the demonstrating youth and the opposition parties and investigating some of the ex-ministers and the ruling NDP members, wealth – all these historic concessions offered by the regime, according to the demonstrators pressures, have convinced the people at home that there is a possibility for more concessions to come. That’s why, I think, it has driven a lot of momentum along the 18 days.
TIWT: At any point, were the people inside Tahrir Square, were they aware of just how much of an impact this was making around the world and how people have been watching and supporting for the last 18 days at least. Was that awareness there?
AZ: Yes, of course. They were seeing some of the biggest TV satellite stations here in the region, which dedicated all their broadcasts for 24 hours to Egypt. Some of the biggest newspapers in the world were covering bit by bit of things happening here. Thanks to the Internet, we knew everything actually happening.
TIWT: Finally, how do you think this has changed the political dialogue among Arab youth, and Egyptian youth of course, but also among Arab youth all over? What do you feel will be the lasting impact of this.
AZ: I’m betting actually, I’m betting on a new trend of revolutions. If we’re going to call them “Hashtag Revolutions of 2011” that are sweeping across the region. I think they resemble the 1989 revolutions, which resulted in the dissolution of the Totalitarian Communist Soviet regime. Today, places like Tunisia, Egypt, and many other countries are viewing – Yemen, Jordan, Qatar, maybe Iran – I think that these revolutions, I think and I hope that these revolutions will not reproduce Lenin-Soviet Union, or a Khomeini Iran – which are the most famous revolutions of the last century, which have produced more corrupt and totalitarian regimes than pre-revolution. I think that these revolutions are different, because the youth that have called for them are very aware of the risks that may involve the birth of a new Islamist state, which they have called against. I have met many youth here in Egypt, which are against an Islamic state here in the region. They know the risks of an Islamic state, on the individual liberties and minorities on the one side and on the region and the world as another. Here comes, I think – our great point as intellectuals, to analyse, debate, with a stream whether in Egypt, Tunisia, or any other country in the region about the hazards of Political Islam in specific. I think it’s our chance to increase awareness more and more. Because every word counts now, like every vote will count in our next elections – this is a very historic moment and a very critical moment for all of us to share in with people, to write, to be more active, to participate. For participation that was absent. Only on the internet was there participation – the participation on political process in the country, I think this is a very critical, very historic moment for Egypt. It has never witnessed anything like that, including 1952 – it was a coup. It was not a people’s revolution like what’s happened in the past 18 days.

TIWT: Thank you Ahmed. I just want to congratulate you again and the people of Egypt and thank you and all the tireless activists in Egypt right now.
AZ: Thank you and you’re very welcome.
TIWT: We’ll continue watching you.
AZ: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s our pleasure, thank you very much.