Hisham El Rouby is the founder and CEO of Youth and Development Consultancy Institute (YDCI), which helps young Egyptians develop technical and leadership skills and provides them with volunteer and job opportunities. Hisham like myself, is also a Synergos Senior Fellow. A few weeks ago, at the Fellows’s annual meeting in New York, Hisham led a discussion about social networks and the Egyptian revolution.
What follows is a recording and transcript of that session, which includes the equally interesting questions and comments by other Fellows from South Africa, Brazil, Tanzania, Jordan, Nepal, Turkey and the U.S.
LISTEN to the Conversation
READ the Transcript:
Hisham: I’m going to talk about the importance of social networking and the technology.
It might feel like a contradiction, but this is what happened during the Egyptian revolution.
I’m sure you all know about how it started — and by the way I think it is the first revolution ever planned before, in public. Everybody knows about the date. The timing. The route. It wasn’t hidden. It was public. On Facebook and everything. “We will start on the 25th.” And we chose the 25th because the 25th of January is the day of the police. It’s the Police Day in Egypt. A vacation. And the anger was very high regarding the police.
But I will talk about January 28th. From January 25 to January 28th we were thousands of people, going out in the street and talking about freedom, dignity, and justice. Only dignity and justice.
January 28th in the morning, the government cut off all communications facilities. Cut mobile phone. Internet. All communication tools. And this is why most Egyptians went out of their homes and joined the revolution.
So not because they have communication, but when they stopped. When they didn’t have any communication — they cannot talk with people. If I am a father or a mother and I want to talk to my son. “How are you? Are you doing good?” I don’t have this tool now.
So most of the Egyptians decided to go out and join.
The peak of the revolution was when we don’t have any mobile phone. We don’t have any internet. And most of us want to be there. To know. And to participate.
So its a contradiction. We have to think that the power comes mainly from people. Not from the tools. Communication remains to be a tool.
Also an observation. Twitter and Facebook allow you to have an account. A fake account. You can use any name if you want. You can use any identity if you want. You can create an email and just create an account. And most of us have fake accounts.
So we have names, we have everything, but its not real.
Because we have a police regime. And its very difficult for them to trace ours. Because we do plan and we do talk about everything and nobody knows who is who.
So there is security in the social networking. You can use it in the way you want. So its also gives us the power to communicate. Some of us know each other, and some of us don’t know. I just communicate with this person about an idea.
So its not a social networking. Its about an ideas networking. We get to work around ideas. Around cause. Around hope. So this is what happened.
I’m very interested to discuss with you what happened during the period of seven days without any communication. The first thing I can tell you is that most people decided to join because of this reason. Also, on January 28th, the police decided to withdraw. Because they started to kill people and they suddenly find that they are facing millions. In every street. In every city. Not only in Cairo. Not only in Tahrir. But we have a lot in Suez, a lot in Alexandria, a lot in (Dacharia). Most of the Egyptians. They felt that they will face all Egyptians. So they decided…They started to kill. They killed 800. And they decided to withdraw because people started to (hit) the police. And they didn’t only withdraw. They opened the prisons. They opened the institutions. To let gangs people go out and to make chaos in Egypt and the security.
We didn’t have any communication tools, but what happened, on every street in Cairo or Alexandria, in any …they just go out from home and talk with each other and formulate a committee in each street. To defend the street. And this happened simultaneously. No communication. No agreement. You cannot walk around in Cairo without people stopping you, “Who are you? What are you going to do?” They see if you have any guns or not. In every street. And this how, a lot, the revolution….
because people in Tahrir Square or in X square, Alexandria or X Urbaine square –– these are not famous squares that exist beyond Cairo –– in Suez. If they feel not good about their families and they fear that their families can be attacked, they will [ ] to defend their family.
But what happened is that they felt their families to be ok. Secure. By others. So this also helped people to continue work in Tahrir Square. And this also happened without any communication.
Do you know about Arab history? We have a messenger. When you have a message, you send a person. With a message. Riding a camel, or….So this is what happened. We had messengers between people and everywhere, in Tahrir. We sent them food. We sent them blankets. We tell them about the situation. And you have to keep [ ] and you have to sleep here and we will take care of your families. And we will take care of your homes. This happened at the peak of the revolution.
We spent seven or eight days without any kind of communication at all. So the question or the discussion I want to… People act without communication. People act very efficiently without communication. I don’t know why. Maybe this is a question also for me.
But what’s happened — I was just talking yesterday about what happened. During the revolution we felt that we are all Egyptians. No difference between Muslims, Christians. Seculars or veiled women. Because of two things. Because we have a common hope. And we have a common fear.
So nobody thinks about individual needs or nobody thinks about religion. Nobody thinks about background. Class. You can find people in Tahrir coming from different class. Different kinds of education. Different religion. Different cultural backgrounds. And they worked together. And they helped each other. And they sing together. A lot. They clean the street during this period. They help each other to eat. If perhaps I have some food, I give to you and you give to me. It was an amazing moment.
Maybe when I talk it sounds like a romantic moment in our history and I think difficult to be the same in the future. But you have to learn from this moment. People can be united if they have a common hope and a common fear. I don’t talk about a common goal. I don’t talk about a common objective. It’s not a goal. It’s not an objective. It’s not a need. It’s a hope. And its a fear.
Gilda Haas (U.S.): Can I ask a question? It’s because I don’t know a lot about Egypt. Before this — I was wondering about the objective atmosphere of fear. What kind of surveillance or targeting that the police had of activists? What was that like? What would drive you to have an anonymous Facebook account? What was the construct of fear that people had to overcome? What was the environment? Even if you said that it was a police state, what did that mean to an individual like yourself, an organizer, an intellectual?
Hisham: We have a law –– emergency law. The emergency law allows the police to attack you any time and catch you any time without any permission. Without any judgement. You can at any time be arrested under the emergency law. And the emergency law it’s not a temporary law. From my birth until now, I’ve lived under the emergency law. And every five years, they take the approval from the Council to remain the emergency law. And this puts you in a position –– you don’t have the right to even go to the judge –– if you are only suspected, you can be arrested.
So we became a police country. In the beginning, the police slogan was, “The police in the service of the people.” Ten years ago they changed the slogan to be, “The police and the people in service of the country.” Who is the country? Simply, the country was the regime. So we are all in the service of the regime. Or the police become in the service of the regime. To defend the regime.
What’s good also about the structure in Egypt is the army. The army in Egypt is coming from people. And the faith of the army is to defend people and to defend the country. Not the regime. And this is why the army –– when the police withdrew –– the army went to the street to help. To help us with security. And they remained, defending the people. Until now.
Our army is also unique. We don’t have a professional army. Most of the army in Egypt comes from us. Comes from people. Every one, when we graduate from college or school, we have to go to the army for one, two years. It depends upon your level of education. But you have to be part of the army. Your time is obligatory. So 95% of the army is from the people. They are not professionals. This is not your job. So this also put our army in a very good position with the people. We love the army. And the army is not corrupt as are the others. Maybe the corruption is on high, but in the main body of the army is coming from us.
Neville Gabriel (South Africa): What is the relationship between the education level and the number of years you have to be in the army?
Hisham: When you first graduate, you have two options. You can stay for one year. Or, to be an officer, for three years. But the majority only for one year. If you graduate from high school, and don’t want to go to university, you spend two years. If you are not educated at all, you spend three years. These are the conditions.
Neville: There’s a number of people commenting on the situation. Interpreting and such. There are two things that I want to test. One –– let me put it as a question: Who in your view was behind or initiated the revolution? I’m particularly interested to understand –– you say it wasn’t class or religion or whatever. Is it true to say that the educated, probably unemployed, middle class, younger male was the instigator of the revolution –– and the others joined in afterwards? And the other question is: A few people have said, not only in Egypt, but in a number of other countries where similar things happened, that there’s a great anger and resentment against Mubarak and other leaders’ association with the West. To what extent is it true that that resentment and anger amongst people contributed to this uprising? In the sense that the people feel alienated from the kind of leadership decisions being taken.
Hisham: The first question: Who initiated? Most of the people who initiated, they are employed and in very good positions. And they are, yes, upper middle class or middle class. And they are not male. Females –– there are a lot of females in the initiation. And this is also surprising. For us. We had a lot of females who slept in the street in Tahrir Square for 18 days. Young girls. And they are protected by Islamic or non –– it was an amazing situation. Its not about male economics. It was about dignity. We felt, yes, part of it, its Mubarak regime, we felt that everyone in the Middle Eastern Arab world asked, “Do you think that Mubarak’s son will be the next president?” We keep saying, “No, this is not…We are not a small country.” But inside, we felt this is will happen. And this put a lot of pressure on all Egyptians. We don’t want to be this kind of country. We are a big country. We have a lot of talent. Why the son? It’s not a kingdom.
Also for the last five years, the government says, “We have a very good economic rate. We reached like 6 or 7 percent of…”
And people did not feel anything. They feel more poor. We have more poor every year. We have more poverty among Egyptians every year. So we felt, “This is not true. They lie.” Or that all the money goes to 1% of the whole population.
The leadership, what made the revolution succeed was that there was no leadership. If we have a leader…It is easy for the regime, if they know the leader, to just control the leader. Also the leadership concept corrupted in Egypt. Nobody trusts any leader. Any party leader, any political leader. We cannot accept a leader. We don’t want a face to talk now. Every Egyptian doesn’t want a face coming and talking. This is not acceptable at all. So what makes the revolution go? It is not for the benefit of a person or a party. Because they are very corrupted parties and persons. And everyone is trying during the revolution, trying to drive all of us to just help him or follow him. No. We don’t want you.
A lot of traditional leaders went to Tahrir Square and tried to talk. “Shut up. Don’t talk.”
Also, the reverse. Sometimes during the revolution some people from Islamic groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, tried to make Islamic slogans. All these people said, “No!” It’s not –– it’s about Egyptians. All Egyptians. And this what makes –– we feel unity and the understanding coming from different groups. We felt at that time that we are all Egyptians. We are not Christians, we are not Muslims, we are not…Everyone has the right to be a Muslim or a Christian or whatever he or she wants. But finally, we are Egyptians.
And also, we felt very…Egypt is…for us…We all love Egypt. I don’t know if you know Egyptians. Maybe Deema…she knows more about Egypt. Every Egyptian loves Egypt very much. We have a very, very strong sense of loyalty. We love our country. We think its very big and ancient. We are gifted by being an Egyptian.
But for the last thirty years, we felt….We felt guilty. When we travel anywhere, “Oh, you’re Egyptian?” “Ah, so…” We felt that we are almost dead. The only thing we can be proud of is our history. We have nothing to say now, in our present or our future.
I was having a talk with Deema. We were walking in one of the Cairo streets and Deema tells me, “Why is Egypt so dirty. My father told me and my mother told me that Egypt in the forties and fifties was very clean, nice, and it was like Paris.” A lot of Arabs from the Gulf area got educated in Cairo. So Egypt… We felt it was gone. So this also put a lot of pressure inside us.
Deema W. Bibi (Jordan): I just wanted to add one thing, referring to your second question. Just to give you an example, I’m part of….I’m an Aspen Fellow. And our class is a group of Arabs from all over the Arab countries. And after the revolution, when we got together, the feeling that everyone expressed –– going back to what Hisham was saying, about Egypt –– that we feel –– and we were all Arabs. We didn’t have Egyptians with us, as a matter of fact, because they couldn’t…The Egyptian person couldn’t leave at that time. Couldn’t leave Egypt.
Everyone was saying that it feels like a child that’s lost his mother, and finally found her again.
So to us, Egypt is like a mother. Its a big country. It has always embraced all arabs. You know there’s a special feeling for arabs towards Egypt. And the feeling that everyone had was, finally, a child getting back to his mom. Which is very true and deep in us. I’m not sure that anyone else will understand the way we feel, but there is something unique about Egypt in our hearts in the region.
But going back to your question, in regards to what some people are saying, and yet, many people are saying that we fought regimes like Mubarak or we are fighting regimes like Mubarak because they are very attached to the West. The thing is, it is not being attached to the West. It is agreeing and embracing injustice on the people. Whether coming from the West or coming from wherever. Coming from Mars or Venus.
Just to give you one example, of what happened a couple of years back in Gaza, when Palestinians were shot dead like they were mice. The Mubarak regime closed all the gates…People were dying. Dying and dying and families…They just wanted to escape out of Gaza. And Gaza is the most highly populated city on the planet earth, in terms of census. And he just closed everything and let them die inside.
So such regimes are really…definitely…we have so much anger.
But it is not really about the West.
Now, the West has a certain stance. Tomorrow it will be different. Yesterday it was different. Its not about West or East. Its about injustice. Its constantly about injustice in the region. Whether from our own people or wherever it stems.
John Ulanga (Tanzania): Technology. You gave us an interesting account of how things were happening without technology. You also gave us examples of how people were using fake Facebook accounts. So it was a public planning exercise, although the identification was not public. So that the authorities were not able to identify….My question is, do you think you would have been [ effective ] in planning without technology?
Hisham: I’m not sure, but the technology helped a lot. Because you can be anonymous. You feel free. To say… It gives you a power. You just sit behind the keyboard and talk and nobody sees you. This is also a power. You can say whatever you want.
I have to admit, it’s not all fake accounts. We have a lot people, a lot of people were arrested. Even if you have a fake account, they can reach you, in a way. It takes a longer time to reach you.
But technology helps a lot to be unified around an idea. Around a hope. So it helps us a lot. Also the mobile. The mobile is more effective than the internet. Because the internet –– you have to be in a place, and you have to have an access. But everybody has a mobile. So the mobile phone was extremely…so we have a plan when go to a [ place ] , we have to have what to wear, where to meet, what to use when you have this bomb –– I don’t know –– that smokes [tear gas].
So its a learning process. It was all about technology. It is very difficult to know how to deal with these kinds of weapons without reading or having information. So, maybe if we don’t have the technology –– to answer your question, John –– maybe we would have needed ten more years.
Marcos Kisil (Brazil): Why…in the streets? What started the political unrest and all the process in bringing people to the streets? What kind of discussions start to happen, for instance, in your family? How does the family, in the context of something that is happening outside them –– what is the level of conversation that took place, for instance, in your family?
Hisham: In the first three days –– on the 25th, 26th, and 27th –– most of the family –– because we are living for a very long time without any participation –– most of the family said, “Don’t go.” Say to their sons and…, “Don’t go. Stay with us.”
On the 28th, when they cut the communication, most of the family go. And will come with you.
So they felt, “We can help.” As long as we have communication. So we can help. If they need food. If they need anything. We can help them. But most of the family felt, when all the communication was cut, most of them go.
Even my mother. I have a very old mother. She insists on going to Tahrir Square. “Why mommy, you are very old.” “I want to go. I want to see.” And I took her. And we went to Tahrir Square. And she sat and talked with some people for like two hours.
Most of the people. Starting from the 28th. It was all Egyptians. All classes. Women. People, very sick and people, very old.
Sharmila Karki (Nepal): Hisham, while you were talking about all the women….In the past four years we have done the same thing. Thrown over a dictator. I was involved all the nineteen days. It was a nineteen day revolution. We called it “People’s Movement Second.” Also we had tried once before, nine or ten years ago, but we could not stop…And this time, we all –– old people, women, children, whoever, the bureaucrats, everything… None of them were inside the home. Everybody went against the king. And all the nineteen days I was there, many times it happens to…dying…people dying, we were always in front of the blue coats, always in front of the army….So when you were telling, I was just reminding myself.
But now, today, after three years, it is very hard to…how to establish the people’s government. Although it is very short, you are still celebrating, maybe, the things. But do you think now [it is established] the democratic….
Hisham: No. We all now feel very worried. We feel that we did the easiest part. And the hardest part is still….We feel hope and we feel worried…
Ayla Göksel (Turkey): it is very similar to Nepal. Everybody’s been so taken in by the events in Egypt and we’re all very proud, etc. I, myself –– even though I’m not Egyptian –– I know the region. I’m feeing a little bit of trepidation now. Because you can’t sustain a revolution. The revolution, everybody in the square for 19 days, 50 days, whatever. People at some point just want to get on with their lives. They just want things to go back to normal.
So when I asked you this morning about the continuing process…at some point this can actually act as a disadvantage. Because people are thinking, “Enough. Just sit down.”
So how are you going to balance that? And where is the….The topic is around social networks. What role do these social networks play in that?
Hisham: The first part is –– We all see that we cannot now rest. Because it is incomplete. And we agree that we have to keep putting pressure on the army, to make it faster. And for the stability, as you said, we agree that we only have off Friday. Friday in Egypt is a holiday. It is not a working day. So we only exist in Tahrir Square –– for example today we have more than a million in Tahrir Square. To keep pressure on the army. Because we feel that the army can be….Sometimes they want to be the government. Or somehow related to the old regime.
So we agree that we will keep putting on pressure.
For social networking or for the civil society, actually we are very confused. Are we going to be part of the politics? Or are we going to be part of the policies? We feel we have to do something now for the politics. And most of us, groups like me, we have a very big outreach. A lot of people put a lot of pressure on us to formulate a policy.
But if we formulate a policy, this is completely politics. We will have an ideology…
So this is a confusion now. We are trying to be very clear with ourselves as a civil society organization. My view –– we have to keep working on the policy and to support the politics. But not to be part of the politics.
But now we are confused, worried, we don’t know what to do. We have a lot of just meetings. Talking, talking, talking. And we do nothing. We are just talking now. We are trying to understand.
We are very worried. But we have a lot of power and a lot of hope.
Fernanda Bornhausen Sá (Brazil): Your network has 200,000 volunteers? Are they waiting for something?
Hashim: They’re not waiting. During the revolution they work in everything…
Fernanda: But now…
Hashim: Now, most of them are working –– we have a very big political awareness campaign. In Egypt, we have half of the population are illiterate. So we are trying to work with people, not to make them aware of a specific party or a specific person. We just talk with them about what is meant by Parliament country, Presidential country, what is the People Council’s job, how can you choose a candidate, what is the constitution, what is meant by constitution.
We have now a volunteer political awareness campaign, all over Egypt. They are volunteers. A lot of them are volunteers to clean Egypt’s streets, to do environmental…So they are working. But not directly with politics. Not directly with a specific ideology.
And we are trying to work with all people, to not do that. Because we felt that Islamic groups want to do something regarding their benefits. Or other groups want to do something regarding their benefit.
We are trying to make a balance. We work with people all to be…to participate in the public life and politics, but without any ideology. We don’t have any ideology.
Thank you, I’ve taken more than my time.