Sometimes it’s funny how you end up somewhere in history without knowing it. I was asked to give a small speech at Uppsala University in the spring of 2008 and include my conclusions in a text that was published along with those of the other participants. The theme was how ICTs (information and communication technologies) could be used to strengthen democracy. Nowadays, I guess, “Social Media” is the buzzword.
Not really knowing too much on the topic, and being fairly skeptical of the hype of the blogosphere, I set off to interview those contacts that I had in Egypt back then, or that were referred to me. Nora Younis, Wael Abbas, Bothaina Kamel, Gamal Eid among others. Back the the backlash of George W Bush’s temporary fling with democratisation in the Middle East had already backfired and the social media did not help that much as long as people weren’t willing to take to the streets.
Some were still hopeful. Inflation and with it food prices were really escalating, people were having problems feeding their children and fights were breaking out in the lines were people were quieing for bread. Egypt had it’s first boat refugees, drowning on their way to Italy in a desperate pursuit for a better life. This shocked many, and turned into anger when the religious leaders said that these desperate people were not to be considered martyrs in pursuit of breadwinning.
I spoke to several of the above mentioned on what happened to be the fith of April, and the mood was really tense. Nobody knew what was to come, some even said “The revolution is not coming tomorrow” but Gamal Eid hit the spot: “I see this as the final rehearsal”, he said. Laurence Pintak at the American University of Cairo, on the other hand, pointed out that “‘there still has not been a democratic switch of rulers in any one of the countries.”
On the sixth of April the country stood still. Full of police, but no demonstrators with the exception of the industry town Mahalla. In hindsight I would still say it indeed was a kind of rehearsal, or a step leading up to the uprising of 2011. It was the first time it was a Facebook group that had made the regime this scared and mobilized.
That Facebook group was what later turned into the 6th of April Youth movement.
I presented my conclusions after the interviews, at the not so well-frequented seminar at Uppsala university (most people chose to hear about activism in China instead). Basically what I had learned was that if Sweden was serious about democracy development aid, money would probably come into more use by helping spread uncensored information by for example providing bloggers with internet connections, netbooks, proxies and smartphones. (Or whatever they were called back then).
That did not happen, from what I heard . Instead Sweden’s support was put into the journalism programme at university level, which was under the control of the Ministry of Information. Three years later, during the revolution this year, the Minister of development cooperation, Gunilla Carlsson, however said that she had now realised that more money should be put into things like anonymous surfing.
It was written in a hurry and not cross-read so there are a couple of minor facts wrong. The abbreviation for Gamal Eid’s organisation is ANHRI (Arab Network For Human Rights’ Information), not “Human Rights’ Information Network” and I of course interviewed Mr Pintak in 2008, not 2007.
Press here to download the report (pdf) (in English).