Last Thursday I woke to the news that Egyptian security forces had detained and beaten the journalist Mona Eltahawy. She was released hours later, with a broken left arm and broken right wrist. In the interim, a vocal campaign had arisen on Twitter, #FreeMona.
Later, I watched Zeynap Tufekci engaged in debate about activism, social movements, and the Internet with Evgeny Morozov, who repeated his standard line that claims of activism's effect via the Web are usually shallow and misguided.
Invoking both analysis and specific cases --- Morozov's general claims often cover up a lack of knowledge or even interest in the reality of events --- Tufekci effectively, if politely, took Morozov apart while putting out a thoughtful examination of what Web-based activism might achieve.
Among the cases that Tufekci considered was the fresh episode of Mona Eltahawy, and by Friday, she was posting a reflection and examination on her blog Technosociology.
One more thought --- after Eltahawy's release but before I read Tufekci's article, I posted the story from Bahrain, "How Activist Zainab Alkhawaja Defied the Police...And Escaped Arrest". In her Twitter narrative, Alkhawaja paid tribute to the power of social media, "I have to thank loads of people, many of them on Twitter. It seems the news got out fast & thats why the orders of arrest were changed".
But she also added this important caveat, "I also feel sad, that my brothers & sisters, the other protesters, who I would die for, are not protected the way I am".
It was a calm, quite night, almost nine o’clock, on the eve of Thanksgiving holiday when, out of the corner of my eye, a tweet shook me:
Egyptian-American writer and my friend Mona El Tahawy, who had cut her trip in North Africa short to join the exploding Tahrir protests in her native country, had just sent that out. Short, uncapitalized, clearly written in a hurry. And with that, she went silent.
As a scholar and a concerned citizen, I had been following Egypt’s revolt closely. I knew that the security apparatus in Egypt had, in some ways, grown even more arbitrary since the ouster of long-term autocrat Hosni Mubarak after 18 days of intense protests in Tahrir. About 12,000 civilians had been detained and were subject to “military trials”. Since the eruption of new protests, at least 35 protestors had been killed and thousands injured. A few weeks ago, a prisoner, Essam Atta, had been tortured to death in prison.
At worst, Mona’s life was in danger. At best, she would likely be subject to beatings, sexual abuse.
As I stared at the tweet as my mind raced back to my conversations with Mona about her days in the American University of Cairo and her lifelong, outspoken opposition to Egypt’s autocracy. Because she was a Guardian columnist, a prolific tweeterer and a public speaker, she was identifed with the Egyptian uprising by many. She would certainly be in trouble with her country’s military rulers.
Her tweet stream indicated that she was near Mohammed Mahmoud street, where clashes had been going on for days between protestors and CSF [Central Security Forces], the paramilitary police. Most likely, I thought, she was apprehended by people who did not know of her global standing, but saw her as a woman out in the street late at night involved in protests --- and I knew this too would be a big danger to her. Soon, though, mid-level higher-ups would discover that she was relatively well-known–and her treatment from then on would likely depend on public reaction to her arrest–both in Egypt and globally. Prominent Egyptian activist and my friend Alaa Abd-el Fattah, who is now in prison under the military trials regime, was also arrested in 2006 and spent six months in Mubarak’s jails. Alaa later stated that the global campaign to free him probably caused him to spend more time in prison, as the regime realized they had a valuable target, but also spared him from torture.
When activists are arrested, in some cases, it is best to keep it quiet. In some cases it is best to kick up a big storm. Worst option, however, is to kick up a small storm which irritates the powerful, but without enough strength to nudge them to action. Considering the options, I thought Mona needs the latter, and probably cannot be quietly freed anyway. As a woman, she’s in danger from the low-level police who now have her at their mercy. She needs to be plucked out of there, and that requires high-level intervention. As a prominent dissident, she is in danger from those higher-ups who might want to make an example of her the way they are currently doing with Alaa. Mona needed a huge campaign which made it costlier to keep her than to release her.
A few decades ago, contemplating launching a global campaign like this would require that I own, say, a television station or two. I hadn’t even unpacked my television set when I moved to Chapel Hill to take up a position as an assistant professor in University of North Carolina. Heck, I dodn’t even have a landline phone. But, “I” wasn’t just an “I.” Due to my academic and personal interests, I was connected to a global network of people ranging from grassroots activists in Egypt to journalists and politicians, from ordinary people around the world to programmers and techies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. My options weren’t just cursing at a television set –if her arrest had even made the news in the next few days. I could at least try to see what *we* could do, and do quickly.
Concise, fast, global, public and connected was what we needed, and, for that, there is nothing better than Twitter.
I immediately reached out to Andy Carvin, NPR journalist extraordinaire who’s been covering the Middle East uprisings, and a friend of many years going back digital divide efforts, a topic which I’ve long studied as a scholar. I was very happy to see he was online and, of course, similarly aghast at Mona’s situation.
One challenge of new media environments is that they scatter attention and consequently tools and channels which can unite and focus attention are key to harnessing their power. Hashtags and trending topics are one way in which people can focus among the billions of tweets floating in cyberspace. In fact, a key dynamic in “social media” is that it works best when coordinated with “focusers”: trending topics, Al Jazeera, Andy Carvin (whose stream is widely followed) are all focusers, albeit very different ones (Well, one is a satellite TV channel, one is a cool guy with a very cute, huge dog, and the last one is an algorithm). Hence, the “Occupy” movement was deeply disappointed when Andy Carvin did not cover them, as his beat was Middle East, and as he already works about seven days a week. Occupy activists knew that without Carvin, they had lost a potential focuser. (Police brutality and overreaction solved that problem for Occupy movement by garnering traditional media coverage which served as a crucial focuser).
So, first, I knew we needed a hasthag. A focuser.
Wanting a short one due to Twitter’s character limits, I proposed “#Mona”. Andy quickly checked and realized that it was already in use and suggested “#freemona.” I tweeted out an agreement and opened a column in my Tweetdeck to check only tweets tagged “#freemona”. In about a minute, the column started flowing too quickly for me to read everything.
Twenty minutes later, #freemona was trending worldwide.
Ok, that’s the global campaign, I thought as I marveled at how quickly it had taked off with barely a nudge. In the pre-social media world, it might have taken weeks and a lot of luck to achieve even a sliver of such awareness globally.
But that wasn’t the only leg of our frantic, crowdsourced efforts. @Cairowire, curated by@sarahbadr, contacted the US Embassy — and informed us of this fact on Twitter so we could avoid flooding them with calls. She live-tweeted her call so we could provide as accurate information as we knew in response to questions from the Embassy. Was she a US citizen? I knew she was, and others chimed in. Where was she seen last? What was her birthday? I looked it up and answered. Who was she with? People chimed in with what they knew. @Cairowire told us the embassy had taken down the information.
Many times, the most dangerous moment for a dissident or an activist is the police station where low-level functionaries can have impunity to do the worst. The combination of her gender, personality, citizenship and her role as a media person was a very dangerous mix for that “police station” phase. We needed to try for very high-level intevention to pluck her out–and it was almost 4am in Cairo and a holiday in the United States.
With very similar thoughts –and we were constantly conversing–, Andy Carvin and I both reached out to Anne-Marie Slaughter, prominent Princeton professor and former advisor to Hillary Clinton. She’s probably better known to most people as Twitterer extraordinaire, @SlaughterAM where she can be regularly found mixing it up with high-level politicians, activists, ordinary people around the world. To my relief, she was online. She jumped to action. Soon, she reported that she had reached out to her contacts at the State Department, and that this was being dealt with at the highest levels as the urgent situation it was: