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Wael Abbas on video and social media in Egypt prior to the revolution

Wael Abbas himself to the crowd at Microsoft’s Social Media Symposium saying, “I’m just a blogger.” Yeah, and Clay Shirky, who introduces him, is just some bald dude. Here’s my attempt to transcribe Wael’s talk.

I want to talk about social media in Egypt from 2004 through the revolution and why we needed to use social media. In our country where we’re told we have freedom of speech, where they’ve convinced us we have independent media, we weren’t being told the whole truth. The media is not covering everything.

In 2004, we started seeing movements calling for change in Egypt like Kefaya calling for Mubarak to be impeached, for Gamal, his son, not to follow his father. They were getting coverage in foreign media – BBC, Al Jazeera – but not in the domestic media. That foreign coverage wasn’t reaching ordinary people.

I was blogging in Arabic slang because I wanted to reach Egyptian youth. I believeed that these guys were the ones who would make a change. So I used language they would understand… including lots of profanity. I avoided the language of journalists and scholars and I was reaching a good audience.

Before 2004, I was anonymous, posting to newsgroups. But with the rise of Kefaya, I picked up my camera and was photographing movements and talking about how big these demonstrations were, beyond the three lines a demonstration would get in domestic media.

Wael shows us pictures of a demonstration against the Gaza war in 2006 to show the size and impact of these movements. “The police were using techniques including plainclothes operators. Foreign media thinks that protesters are clashing with one another, but it’s actually protesters clashing with police.”

One of the biggest movements asking for change in Egypt were the judges, who were calling for judicial independence. Bloggers were great supporters of the judges, as were the Muslim Brotherhood. (We see a video where police use force to control a demonstration.)

(Video footage of the Kefaya movement in 2005 – “At that time, you did not see things like this on TV”.)

It wasn’t only about the activists or politicians – we covered workers’ strikes because we believe strikes and sit ins play a big role for change in Egypt. (Footage of a demonstration by garbage collectors.) In Egypt, no one would care about covering garbage collectors on strike.

Maybe you heard about the Mahana general strike of 2008? (A video that shows the living conditions of a Mahana worker.) Video like this helps people realize why people are protesting and why they have those demands.

Bloggers were part of the movements, starting movements on their on or reporting on movements for change. Here’s a demonstration that was very unexpected – it was a flash mob. The organizers didn’t trust the media to cover it, but alerted the bloggers so they could cover the events.)

When the border opened with Gaza, I was able to get in with a camera and document the living conditions there, including people warming themselves with open fires. When the borders opened, we used social media to document the smuggling of essential goods.

Bloggers even covered the US presidential elections. (A video of a Mexican-American immigrant to Egypt who’s happy about Obama’s candidacy.) This taxi driver was happy because his children would be able to run for president in America.

Bloggers organized demonstrations as well, including one for Christian/Muslim unity in Egypt – no other political groups did this. I guess that’s when they realized bloggers were dangerous: when we started organizing protests instead of drinking Nescafe in our pajamas.

You may think the first Tahrir Square protests were January 25, 2011, but here are photos of the sit in in Tahrir we organized in 2006. They used firehoses to prevent us from sitting on the ground, and turned off the lights, but we slept for the night in the garden. This was a movement organized entirely by the bloggers.

We made fun of them, too. It’s a traditional song, it talks about how sitting on the floor is lovely and sitting on chairs is not healthy. I used it to make fun of President Mubarak, because it was forbidden to talk about Mubarak’s health – journalists were sent to prison for writing about Mubarak’s health. I made the song about Mubarak being unhealthy because he’d been sitting too long.

They used to scare us back then, saying talking about the President’s health was affecting the stock exchange and the economy, and we shouldn’t talk about it.

Using video meant that television stations could take our video and borrow it – here’s video shown on Al Hurra, the American-backed TV station, using video from bloggers. Bloggers became a source of information for international news agencies and television channels. Some borrowed our material and others just stole it. (Video of an Al Jazeera video, retitled “Al Jazeera stole my video.”)

Other people started bringing us video. Here’s footage of a train crash, shot by a bystander – he brought it to me so a wider audience could see it. This happened before CNN iReport, when the network started asking people to contribute their footage.

Some of the videos were of taboo nature, and could not be aired on traditional media. People shared the video because they saw a problem that needed to be solved. (Video of women being sexually harassed.) People shared this video with us because they wanted people to pay attention to this issue and look for solutions.

We had video on rigging of elections. No matter how powerful a blogger is, he can’t be all over the country to watch the polls. But people would send us footage. Here’s a video of someone taking ballots and throwing them out, unaware that someone was taking video of him.

In Egypt, we all talked about torture taking place in police stations. We made fun of it. But you can imagine the shock people felt when they saw video of it. (A video of police torture.) People were very uncomfortable when we started showing videos. It coincided with videos and photos leaked from Iraq of Abu Ghraib. But in these videos, it was Egyptians torturing Egyptians, so people started asking questions. These videos had been available for years, but they were of a taboo nation and no one wanted to get in fights with the authorities.

We started getting videos from other countries – here’s a video of torture from a police station in Kuwait. Here’s an Indian worker in Kuwait being humiliated in a police station. Thank god, we were able to break this taboo in Egypt and were able to put an officer on trial for the first time. Here’s an officer who sodomized a bus driver who’d been taking into a police station and video’d it.

He was only sentenced for three years, but it set a new precedent. Wael started receiving threats via the phone that he would be sodomized like the man in the police station. Egyptian politicians began publicly accusing Abbas of crimes, of converting to Christianity, of being homosexual. I was able to fight back on my blog.

I had a problem with YouTube – YouTube removed some of my torture videos. (CNN report on Wael being silenced by YouTube.) YouTube claimed I was not providing enough context for the videos I was posting, and that the content was not appropriate from the YouTube audience. I got a lot of support from US bloggers, from CNN and from Fox News. People asked, “Why did you post these on YouTube? Why not put them on your own hosting site?” I believe YouTube is a platform where everyone can post everything. According to Ethan’s Cute Cat theory, people go to YouTube to watch funny cats – let’s get their attention and get them to watch something else. On YouTube, these can get a greater audience than on a website specialized about torture. It helps get the attention of people who did not know about these issues.

Anil Dash asks about using titles for videos in English. Wael admits that he used Arabic for some titles, English for others depending on what audience he thought he wanted to reach.

At this point, Clay and Anil begin asking questions about how Wael curated videos – Wael tells us that the videos that received the largest audience were the ones about sexual harassment – Wael speculates that it’s because they were about sex.

The consequence for posting videos was that Wael began to be stopped and searched when he left the country. He was no longer allowed to travel with a laptop, CDs, DVDs or flash drives – he needed to upload presentations and show them online.

It’s clear that Wael could talk for much longer, but the session turns into a Q&A at this point.)

Question: How much did social media matter in the Egyptian revolution.
Wael: Social media is a tool. But revolution is the decision of many people. Once we decided to have a revolution, once people decided to stay in the square, social media was a helpful tool to call for support, ask lawyers for help. I will not give social media all the credit, nor will I take away all the credit from social media.

danah boyd: How will social media help in the elections?
A: We’re not beyond the revolution. We now have a military junta, and people are being shot by armed officers, defending their interests. The army is protecting American, Israeli, Saudi interests in the country. They are protecting their own interests: the military aid from the US. The army is building factories and roads, and they’re not paying taxes, electricity or water. The labor for these projects are soldiers acting as slave labor.
Q: Are there ways to use the technology to increase communications amongst citizens?
A: We’re trying, but now there’s a war in social media itself. Once they realized we were powerful, the authorites took to social media. They are attacking the revolution, asking for stability, security and for the revolution to end. We are also fighting traditional media, which is still central, and in the hands of the regime and pro-regime businessmen. They are all attacking the revolution and our image.

Q: How did you grow an audience for your blog? How did you grow your audience?
A: I never studied the topic – I simply did what I needed to do. I put links in forums, used chat lists on Yahoo, send links to new posts. I began posting on Facebook and Twitter once people started using them.

Gilad Lotan: How dangerous is it for people to support you in Egypt, to connect to your social media or to like your videos?
A: Some people clear their caches, but it’s not really that dangerous – they are after us, not after people watching our material. But they gave orders to cybercafes not to allow people to look at torture videos. But it’s only dangerous when you take to the streets.