Alaa Abd Al Fattah Discusses New Media In Egypt

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In New York Monday, one of the Arab world's most influential bloggers talked about his experience galvanizing political change through digital media. Egyptian blogger, software developer and democracy activist Alaa Abd Al Fattah is at the Personal Democracy Forum along with some 1,000 political activists, digital technologists and government officials from across the world. Michele Norris speaks to Alaa Abd Al Fattah about his experience nurturing human rights activists and opposition organizers online — and the role the digital media might play in the future of his Egypt.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

As historians look back on the uprisings during the Arab Spring, they will no doubt examine the role of technology and social media, and they may well look at the work of an influential blogger from Egypt. Earlier today, he took center stage in an event called the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City.

Mr. ALAA ABD AL FATTAH (Blogger and Software Developer): So what do you think is the technology I used the most while in Tahrir?

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. AL FATTAH: No. Rocks. Rocks and clubs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AL FATTAH: So, yeah, we had to defend ourselves several times, and we used very ancient technologies. We even built a catapult in Tahrir. Of course, we looked up the design, the plans over the Internet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: That's Alaa Abd Al Fattah talking about the revolt in Cairo's Tahrir Square. He's a software developer, and for years he's been a democracy activist in Egypt. He was imprisoned for several weeks back in 2006. Today, he addressed activists, government officials and experts on social media from around the world, and he spoke with us.

Mr. AL FATTAH: Hello.

NORRIS: And before I go on, I have to ask you about that catapult.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Did it work?

Mr. AL FATTAH: Yeah. No, it didn't work. So we had a - we were being attacked by these paramilitary thugs, and we managed to thwart all of them. But there was a group who were positioned on a high overfly, and so we couldn't throw rocks that would reach there and that's why we built the catapult, but it didn't really work.

NORRIS: Help us understand your role in the uprisings in Egypt.

Mr. AL FATTAH: My role during the uprising itself was I was a foot soldier. I was one person among a big mass. I was in Tahrir. There were similar masses in other cities. And my blog was one of many blogs that were key to building a pro-democracy movement years prior to the uprising. And the online communities then kept growing and growing, and they played a very big role leading up to the revolution in building up to that event but not during.

NORRIS: You're here in this country in part to describe what happened in Egypt. Are there things that happened there that people don't well understand? Here, when there are large uprisings or large news events like this, a popular narrative takes hold and sometimes it's correct and sometimes it's not completely correct.

Mr. AL FATTAH: I think a lot of it is misunderstood and misrepresented in both internationally and even locally from the framing of this as an Internet-led revolution to a framing that it's a youth revolution. All of that is based on the aspects of reality, but it excludes the majority of the people who participated in the revolution.

And by that exclusion, you also exclude a very big aspect of what it is about. And also, there's a lot of focus on Tahrir while you had the majority of the revolution was happening outside of Cairo. And some of its most amazing stories were in - there were six towns that were completely autonomous after the third day of the uprising, and people had to manage the cities and had to organize themselves to keep the cities functioning. And that experience is amazing, and it's not really being discussed.

NORRIS: The Internet is then obviously very useful in creating a critical mass of opposition. But as you move forward, how do you use that to determine what the country wants and needs now and to make sure that the people that were in the streets have a voice in determining the future of the country?

Mr. AL FATTAH: So that's the big question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AL FATTAH: Of course, there is one big problem with it is that not everyone has access, like factory strikes played a key role in toppling the regime, but they're the least represented group online. But online as - so far, the best space where you could forge these positions and these views for the future.

NORRIS: How much time will you be spending in the U.S., and is there anything that you've seen or learned in New York that you'll take back with you to Egypt?

Mr. AL FATTAH: Well, I - and this was a very short time. I'm leaving on Wednesday, so I haven't had much time to get any insight. But I was in New York last month, actually when Osama bin Laden was assassinated. And I got a very deep insight because if I was in Egypt while this was happening and I opened the news, and I saw, you know, Americans dancing, celebrating this death and like this feeling the news all the time, so I would have been really annoyed.

But I was here in New York, and I realized there are these other people who were, you know, hit by the terrorist attack that this guy caused, and they weren't actually celebrating the death. Media was overblowing it completely.

People were going about their lives. And there many that didn't feel it was that significant. They feel that, you know, there's a lost sense of justice, people I talked to in the streets and so on. And so I don't know how to say that the insight was that the Americans are, you know, more human than the image we have of them, or New Yorkers at least.

NORRIS: Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. AL FATTAH: You're welcome. Thank you.

NORRIS: That's Alaa Abd Al Fattah. He's an Egyptian blogger, software developer and democracy activist. He joined us from New York City where he spoke at the Personal Democracy Forum about his experience as an activist in Egypt.

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