Last week, I attended a small gathering of DC based bloggers for a discussion with Egyptian activist and blogger Nora Younis, sponsored by the Project for Middle East Diplomacy. Nora was there to discuss the efforts of activists in Egypt to reform the government in the face of very sharp pressures, and to explain how new media (blogs, text messaging, Facebook etc.) are aiding in their efforts.
Nora first rose to prominence as one of the female activists who were sexually assaulted during a Kefaya protest in 2005, as police stood by and did nothing. Using her camera, she captured the incident, posted her photos, and later mobilized a movement against sexual harassment. Later that year, she spent a night taking notes and shooting photos as Egyptian soldiers kicked Sudanese refugees out of a Cairo public square with water cannons and nightsticks. For months, the refugees had been protesting the poor welcome they had received in Egypt. Posting her photos and observations on her blog in an entry she titled, “Disgraced to be Egyptian: A Testimony,” Younis called attention to a topic largely ignored by the mainstream press.
Nora explained to us how activists in Egypt have taken advantage of new media tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and text messaging to expose corruption and force government to address gross human rights violations that otherwise were swept under the rug. She particularly bemoaned Twitter closing its Egypt operations. She did make a point of mentioning that the company made the decision to close for financial reasons, and not because of government pressures.
Despite the advances made by the blogger community in Egypt, they still face incredible pressures from the government to shut down. It is not uncommon for activists to be snatched off the street, blindfolded, taken to police stations or other remote locations and be beaten, tortured, and coerced to cease their work. Mainstream media faces similar pressures, with journalists being heavily fined or jailed for criticizing the government, and newspapers and TV studios being forced to close.
Nora thought that United States could be doing more to promote human and civil rights in Egypt, instead of simply just promoting the Mubarak regime as a “moderate” ruler. The next administration will have to actively engage the Egyptian government, not just simply promote the (relatively) “moderate” regime, but to hold them accountable for human rights violations, and create stable and democratic institutions. As part of the Secure America Challenge, PSA has been calling for bipartisan action to help promote human rights around the world. The work being done by Nora and other activists like her, at great personal risk no less, should inspire America to work with Egypt, and other countries around the world to create free and open societies.