Olfa Tantawi, a former reporter for Egyptian TV who is now finishing her PhD at AUC, was struck by the differences between what she saw on television and the events she witnessed in Tahrir Square.
“Everybody is there right now including my 70 years old aunt. Despite the attacks and the fear we all feel safe and happy,” she wrote in a Facebook note mid-way into the protests.
But when she glimpsed the revolt through the prism of the very media that was the focus of her career, that euphoria dissipated. “Behind the safe doors of my house, suddenly it was a vacuum of fear. We had to watch the Egyptian media’s false propaganda,” while on the international satellite channels, “the intense focus is on the fights, the bloodshed and the terror. Suddenly in my safe warm home, I am worried, afraid and unsure.”
Links between Adham graduates and some of the international journalists who taught there proved vital when the story first broke. It was for Craig Duff, director of multimedia at Time and a former Knight International Journalism Fellow at the Adham Center, that Abdallah Hassan was shooting in Tahrir Square; former faculty member Yasir Khan, now at Al Jazeera English, quickly linked several former students with Jazeera’s teams in Cairo when the protests began; and others of us connected former students with Canadian TV, Spanish news organizations, and the Australian media.
Much has been written about the role of social media in the Egyptian revolution. No one was more amazed than those of us who watched its early inroads in Egypt. Duff recalls a workshop he led in 2007. “I told the journalists that day that text and mobile service were likely to be a much more practical method of news dissemination than fancy web graphics and robust flash pages (even web video) which would reach only a small fraction of the population who had access to broadband,” he says. “But I could never have envisioned how true that was. And how I would greatly benefit, sitting in my office in midtown Manhattan, from the many mobile devices in all those hands in Tahrir Square.”
Several of the digital activists who would emerge as leading online voices of the protest were part of a group of influential bloggers we sent to the U.S. to cover the 2008 elections under a USAID-funded project called “Egypt Blogs America.” Among them was Wael Abbas, famous for sparking a national controversy by posting on YouTube footage of Egyptian police torturing a taxi driver.
Six months after the U.S. elections, we arranged for the bloggers to attend President Obama’s speech in Cairo. “It’s devastating that a man like Obama is coming to Egypt to reinforce the oppressive policies of President Hosni Mubarak,” Abbas wrote afterwards in a post on the project website. “It’s like beating 80 million Egyptians over the head - like saying we believe in democracy but not here.”
When the protests erupted, Abbas became a digital crossroads, providing a minute-by-minute account for his twenty thousand Twitter followers, with those observations spreading virally to countless more.
Bloggers like Abbas, who straddled the line between political activism and journalism, were well aware of the dangers they faced.
“I have been battling fatigue for not sleeping properly for the past 10 days, moving from one’s friend house to another friend’s house, almost never spending a night in my home, facing a very well funded and well organized ruthless regime that views me as nothing but an annoying bug that its time to squash will come,” the blogger Sandmonkey, another participant in the U.S. elections project, said in a posting as the violence by pro-Mubarak forces reached a crescendo.