Mar 1, 2011

Remarks of Amira Maaty

NED Program Officer for Middle East and North Africa

Center for International Media Assistance
"Democracy, Dissent, and Digital Media in the Arab World"
Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I will focus my remarks on the new generation driving the technology, and more specifically the emerging youth-led NGOs in Egypt who have pioneered the use of new technologies in civil society activism.    

As new technologies become readily available, youth are generally among the first to embrace and experiment with them, mostly for social or recreational purposes.

And as the Internet, mobile phones with built in cameras, and social networking sites became widely accessible in Egypt, young activists realized early on the utility of these tools for both independent information and activism. Average citizens could now document and expose topics that traditional media outlets would not or could not discuss. They also realized that they could reach out to more people faster, and organize them around specific causes, campaigns and actions.

By now, I’m sure that you’re all familiar with how Facebook was used to organize a general strike on April 6, 2008 when a group of young Egyptians created a group calling for a general strike in solidarity with textile workers. Even the page creators were surprised when the group reached over 60,000 members. The state media responded by warning citizens not to participate in the strike or protests and many Egyptians ended up staying home  - some in support of the strike and many out of fear that violence may erupt. This is probably the first, well-known account of how Facebook was used for civic organizing in Egypt.

But even before this strike and the creation of the April 6 Youth Movement, since around 2005, youth from the civil society sector pioneered the integration of new technologies in civic and political activism. Young activists who had not been taken seriously within Egypt’s patriarchal institutions found a niche that encouraged several young innovators to establish their own youth-led NGOs. They are not many but they are growing and bringing along with them fresh ideas and tech-savvy skills.

Who are these youth and what was their background?

Some had limited experience working with other human rights organizations, or political parties which like many Egyptian institutions tended to be resistant to truly empowering youth and giving them the space to be innovative and take initiative. Others were independent student activists, or “digital activists” who had experience organizing online campaigns, or using the relative space available via the internet to express themselves through blogs.

Though many of the more established NGOs in Egypt targeted youth, the youth-led groups have introduced new tools ranging from online radios, filmmaking and social advertisements, online advocacy and action campaigns through Facebook and Twitter, and SMS for community mobilizing and disseminating information.

As a point of comparison, one common traditional approach to civic education is to lead a training-of-trainers course for a group of youth who would then train other youth. As part of this approach there would be limits on quantity of people who could be reached, timing of activities, and cost. There are only so many people you can reach physically with limited resources. Today, youth-led NGOs are training other youth to create civic education materials using new technologies such as film, music videos, animations, blogs, or even Facebook pages – once posted on line and distributed from one Facebook friend’s list to another (and an average young Egyptian activist tends to have thousands of Facebook friends), these products reach thousands in a matter of seconds and there is no additional cost based on the breadth of distribution. Youth can access these products any time of day and view them as many times as they like. Furthermore these types of media tend to have greater appeal among young people than the traditional instructor-centered training approaches that are common in the region. This model of course does not replace, nor is it necessarily better than the traditional model, but it is yet another effective tool for civic and political activists, and one that has contributed to the dissemination of democratic ideas and values to youth, not just in Egypt, but also wherever activists have online connections. This brings me to my next point.

Who exactly are these youth-led NGOs connected to and is their contribution to the online world merely a random drop in the ocean?

As the Washington Post reported recently, in the last two weeks of January alone over 32,000 Facebook groups and 14,000 pages were created in Egypt. In the haystack of online sites, groups, pages, videos, etc… what makes these particular NGOs and their online activities significant?

One factor is the strong personal and/or professional connections between many of these groups and other activists and leaders in social movements, political parties, and well-known independent bloggers. Many of these figures had limited, if any, access to state or even private broadcast media. At the same time, one of the primary goals of many youth-led NGOs is to expand the base of young activists by exposing average youth to civic and political ideas, concepts, and activities. Young NGOs have often provided a platform for these leaders to communicate their ideas directly to youth who normally would not have access to them. For example, Carl mentioned the Andalus Institute and Radio Horytna, though much of their programming is of a social nature in order to attract its young audience, they regularly insert doses of civic and political content including an interview with opposition leader Ayman Nour soon after he was released from prison. Another youth-led NGO, the Egyptian Democratic Academy, runs online radio El Mahrousa which featured an interview with blogger Musaad Abu Fagr, soon after he was released from prison. Other youth organizations have included various civic and political leaders as trainers or presenters in their training workshops and have sometimes recorded those sessions on video cameras and posted their websites.    

Aside from their local contacts, many of Egypt’s young NGO leaders have participated in numerous regional and global training and networking programs, such as the internship program that Carl referred to as well as initiatives lead by U.S. groups that include the National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, and Freedom House. Young Egyptian NGO leaders have also been incredibly active in the World Youth Movement for Democracy, a global network of youth activists. These programs have fostered in-person and online linkages between activists in Egypt and others around the world allowing them to exchange information, ideas and best practices. Just the other day I received an email from a colleague in Yemen seeking online resources in Arabic on circumvention tools, proxies, and other tips for youth organizing which I forwarded to some of our young contacts in Egypt and within an hour she was linked to several different websites and tools. 

In addition, many of these young NGO leaders are directly engaging with policymakers from around the world. Understanding the importance of international diplomatic pressures on their leaders, they have proactively reached out to policymakers, particularly in America. I believe that a few have even spoken at various briefings here on the Hill. This is also a change from the more traditional thinking of many NGOs in the region who have been more sensitive about what could be perceived as foreign intervention in domestic affairs.

What impact have these groups had so far?

Not only has the work of these groups multiplied the types of tools available for civic and political activists and expanded the reach of civil society to non-active youth, but it has also challenged the more established institutions – specifically media and civil society and to a certain extent political opposition groups.

I would categorize the work of these NGOs into two main areas that may sometimes overlap – digital journalism and digital activism.

The traditional media is challenged when digital journalists are covering stories and speaking to figures who are absent from mainstream media. State media is exposed and held accountable for falsifying information by young web activists such as those who pointed out that leading state daily, Al Ahram, doctored a picture of former president Hosni Mubarak from this fall’s Mideast peace talks. Though discovery was released by independent activists, it was circulated widely by youth led NGOs.

Now most Egyptian civil society activists and organizations have Facebook pages and groups, regardless of their generation. Civil society organizations are being challenged to modernize their approaches and methods, and have their work be felt on the streets.

Political parties and groups are also engaging in social media, mainly through their young members. Many political parties and leaders have very active Facebook pages to announce activities, statements, and positions. The National Association for Change also used online and social media in its campaign to collect a million signatures for constitutional and electoral reforms.

I would also add that many of these youth-led NGOs were very much present in the uprising. I actually arrived in Egypt on January 25 and the following Friday I visited one youth-led organization whose staff had camped out in the office which was located in downtown Cairo the night before and were up early to prepare face masks with vinegar to protect against tear gas and experiment with various home-made eye protection gear. This same group had been training youth to create various artistic or media products to engage other youth in civic activism. One group of youth that they trained wrote, composed and recorded a song encouraging youth to participate in the January 25 protests. It was viewed over 6,000 times on YouTube.  

Challenges/Opportunities

In the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution and the uprisings that have taken place around the region, we can expect more youth groups to organize. They are already starting to do so. Existing civic and state institutions should be prepared to both, include and empower young people from inside their organizations as well as engage with new groups that may form. A successful democratic transition will require a dynamic, independent and pluralistic civil society and one that includes and empowers the young catalysts for change.

Given the level and quality of activism demonstrated during the protests, in cities across Egypt, there is a lot to work with. It is essential that these youth, as well as the youth who protected their homes and neighborhoods through the popular committees that were established in the absence of security, remain engaged in civic and political processes.

Egyptian civil society has been used to decades of work within restricted space, so one challenge will be redefining the parameters of civic work to accommodate new players and boundaries. Under the previous system, civil society had little access to decision-makers, now it is time for them to pursue that access. Over the course of the transition process civil society will be an essential player in setting the agenda, monitoring the process, and pushing to expand open space in key sectors that had been greatly controlled by the state such as student unions, media, professional association and trade unions, and others.

What does this mean for U.S. Institutions

Egyptians are seeking a system that ensures that Pharaohs remain in their ancient history and that allows them to choose, challenge, and change their leaders. It is important to support them in developing the institutions and structures that are needed for that to happen.

U.S. Institutions should also engage directly with the Egyptian people through social networking sites as well as civil society organization. At this juncture, it is critical to listen to the needs and aspirations of the region’s youth.

In terms of assistance, there is a great deal of interest and attention to new technologies and media, rightfully so. But it’s important to realize that it is only a tool. There is no doubt that it is an extremely powerful tool, but that is the case today. Technologies and new methods for engagement evolve, and in this day and age they evolve at a rapid speed. Though it is important to support the technology, it is more important to support the activists that drive it - the innovators who first thought of using it for social change. There will be more innovators who emerge and who perhaps will bring with them new ideas and mechanisms that could even be more powerful than Facebook, if we can imagine that…

It is important that we support those innovators, approach assistance with an open mind to new ideas that may be outside of our comfort zone because we don’t understand exactly how they work, and support institutions that give those innovators the space and platform they need to make a difference.