From Here to Democracy

With elections coming to Egypt, three UM alumni discuss their place in the Arab Awakening.

Tahrir Square, 2011: “There was magic in the air,” Rasha Abdulla, Ph.D. ’03, middle, told School of Communication students via Skype. “It was the smell of freedom.”
The photos on Rasha Abdulla’s website,, offer a vivid tour of her varied life. In one, Abdulla, Ph.D. ’03, stands smiling under a giant palm tree by Lake Osceola, hands in her jeans pockets and a sweater draped over her black turtleneck. In others she holds a microphone, her gaze distracted and dreamy, or sits bare-shouldered on a beach, strumming her guitar. In yet another, her brows are knitted in determination, her raven curls barely tamed by a lilac-colored headband as her tennis racket swings expertly toward its target.

World traveler, singer, musician, national tennis champion. Abdulla, unlike some 40 percent of Egypt’s population of 83 million, did not grow up in poverty but in a typical middle class family. Starting college at 15, she attended the American University of Cairo on merit and sports scholarships, earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, along with numerous academic honors. Arriving at the University of Miami in 2000, she received the School of Communication’s first doctoral degree, doing her dissertation on Internet use in the Arab world, before returning to her Cairo alma mater, where she’s now an award-winning associate professor of journalism and mass communication.

Abdulla’s latest book, 2009’s Policing the Internet in the Arab World, introduced her to many of the region’s digital and social media activists. When their virtual connections erupted in an enormous demonstration in Cairo on January 25, 2011, her decade of scholarship transformed into action. “This was the first revolution ever in the world that was placed as an event on Facebook,” marvels Abdulla, who live-tweets the revolution at @RashaAbdulla.

Walking for half an hour each morning from her home to Tahrir Square, she stood shoulder to shoulder with strangers, wrapped in her Egyptian flag—the same one she’d hung in her Miami apartment—shouting for the removal of Hosni Mubarak.

“I was always a proponent for freedom of expression. I’ve spoken about that, written about that, and advocated that at international conferences and venues. But I never went on a demonstration before January 25. That’s the point of the revolution—stirring the Egyptian people. Most of us have turned into political activists, whether by going to demonstrations, advocating something, or avoiding buying army products, because most people now have been affected or know somebody who has been affected. You can’t go back to living life as if you’re not part of this; like it or not, you are.

“It’s been a very emotionally loaded year,” she notes. “I’ve lost a few friends for ideological reasons. I’ve also lost friends to live bullets. One of our friends was hospitalized last week with 118 birdshot pellets in her body. All the while the minister of the interior goes on television and says, ‘We were not using birdshot; we were using only tear gas.’” Not only has the military been using tear gas to devastating effect at demonstrations, she says, she was shocked to read U.S. Senate hearing transcripts noting that Egypt has used U.S.-made gas paid for by U.S. military aid money.

“Turns out we did not topple the regime; we toppled only Mubarak,” Abdulla says. “And then you have a life, a family, work to do, students to answer to. You have to maintain some kind of normalcy.

“I’ve received indirect messages of pressure almost daily to not be as outspoken,” she adds. “But I can’t go back. I would die if I stopped talking about it.”

American Joe Raedle, B.S.C. ’87, saw the Arab Spring from a radically different perspective. In March 2011, as rebellion spread across the region, the conflict photojournalist for Getty Images flew into Cairo, then made his way across the border into Libya, where rebels were fighting Muammar el-Qaddafi’s military.

After his release from captivity in Libya, where he’d been covering the uprising in March 2011, Getty Images photographer Joe Raedle, B.S.C. ’87, hugs his mother in a New York airport as his wife, Nancy San Martin, watches.
On Saturday morning, March 19, Raedle was with fellow UM alumnus Roberto Schmidt, B.S.C. ’89, who is a photojournalist for Agence France Presse, and AFP reporter Dave Clark, traveling east across the desert to Ajdabiya, when the Kia they were in was stopped by AK-47 fire from el-Qaddafi loyalists. Unable to run, the trio was forced to kneel on the side of the road with guns pointed at their heads. Secreted off to prison, they were blindfolded, abused, and interrogated for four days. Raedle recalls being told he’d go home in a box just 20 minutes before the three were unceremoniously dropped off at a luxury hotel in Tripoli with the casually sinister farewell: “Sorry for the inconvenience.”

Raedle and his wife, Nancy San Martin, a Miami Herald editor, discussed their ordeal last year during a program hosted by the School of Communication. Raedle said he didn’t want to give too many details about his captors because it might endanger other journalists still being detained. Despite his close call, Raedle has no plans of taking a desk job. “As journalists we’re all passionate about telling stories,” he said. “This is not a job, but a lifestyle.”

But while some journalists have been banned, attacked, and even killed while trying to report on the Arab Awakening, Egyptian-American Omar Shoeb, M.A. ’07, says revolution has opened new vistas for Egypt’s Fourth Estate. Former producer of Baladna Bel-Masry (Our Country), an Egyptian news talk show on a private network, Shoeb says his goal is to help raise public awareness about life in the aftermath of the revolution. “I’ve produced over 400 segments since the start of the revolution, and let me tell you, every single one we couldn’t have done before,” he says over a crackling connection. “Doing my master’s degree at UM was the best decision I’ve ever made, just an eye-opening experience. Professor Sam Roberts [UM’s former Frances L. Wolfson Chair in Broadcast Journalism] taught me about media ethics and being a good producer.”

As life-altering events from Tunisia to Syria continued to unfold, the UM community engaged in discussions about their meaning and impact. This February, soon after deadly riots erupted at an Egyptian soccer match, Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s Ambassador to the United States, spoke at UM on “Egypt’s Democracy and Arab Spring.”

“It has been a tumultuous year, full of promise, full of apprehension, full of drama, and it continues to be,” Shoukry told the standing-room-only audience inside UM’s Cosford Cinema. “The main slogans of the revolution were justice, equality, and economic prosperity for Egyptian people, but how that should be achieved has been an ongoing debate.”

The selection of a 100-member constitutional committee to rewrite Egypt’s constitution, a critical precursor to June’s anticipated presidential election, will highlight, said Shoukry, “the competing ideas of how Egypt is to transform politically, socially, and economically; how it will be able to instill the type of government that was the objective of the revolution; and how the constitution will guarantee freedoms, human rights, and the separation of powers that will guarantee that no future autocrat will be able to wield excessive power and influence and restrict again the dignity of the Egyptian people.”

“People who wanted real change were ecstatic for the revolution, and they took to the streets—and we took to the media.” —Omar Shoeb, M.A. ’07
A product of UM’s international studies program, Bradford McGuinn, Ph.D. ’07, senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science, followed Shoukry’s lecture with an interview. A military and counter-terrorism expert who specializes in civil-military relations, McGuinn covered everything from nuclear concerns to Israel to U.S.-Egypt relations. He told Shoukry that the “impulse toward democracy” seen in the streets throughout the Arab world “mesmerized” his students who “saw themselves in very real ways in these young people and their social media and all those technologies that break down barriers.”

UM Islam expert Amanullah De Sondy, an assistant professor of religious studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, says his students—many from the Arab Muslim world and its diaspora—also saw “a real hope for Arab Spring. The students saw that the floodgates were being opened for a variety of voices.” But now, he says, the optimism and hope displayed in places such as Egypt’s Tahrir Square “has been brought back down to earth by state politics.” With uncertainty about where future elections will take Egypt, De Sondy shares at least one concern: “Egyptians need to take hold of their own narrative, but those who want to build bridges to progress are finding it very difficult because authoritarian and conservative establishments are not only stronger but better organized.”

De Sondy—whose courses range from introductions to Islam and religions of Asia to his particular interest and expertise, Islam and gender—was born and raised in Scotland to Pakistani parents of the Muslim faith. He studied Arabic and Islamic Studies in France, Jordan, and Syria and continues to work internationally, serving as a contributor for BBC Radio Scotland and promoting interfaith dialogue around the world. “If religion is not going to be a force of good,” he says, “it shouldn’t be a force at all.”

Building bridges is vital to academic progress as well, adds De Sondy, who makes a point of delving into the cross-cultural currents that surface in his classes at a university where the student body represents more than 110 nations. “They are learning and living side by side—and being challenged by diversity,” he says. “I have a lot of Arab students who are open to discussion and debate. Some Saudi students in my Islam and Gender class are very resistant to opening up, but at least I’ve sown the seed for them to think in a different way. It’s not about making everybody a bleeding-heart liberal; it’s about being able to manifest a variety of voices.

“We’re at a stage in the 21st century where our approach to three critical issues—race and ethnicity, gender, and pluralism—is going to make or break the Arab Muslim world, and probably other societies and cultures as well. These three issues are the issues of today.”

For Shoeb’s part, as he continues to push for freedom of the press, he’s glad to have a front-row seat to Egypt’s future. “It’s a constant adrenaline rush,” he admits. “You have this anticipation. You want to see how things are going to turn out.”

Web Extra
Rasha A. Abdulla, Ph.D. ’03, is an associate professor in the Journalism and Mass Communication department at the American University in Cairo. She is the recipient of journalism and teaching awards as well as AUC’s 2011 Excellence in Research and Creative Endeavors Award. As the UM School of Communication’s first Ph.D. student, she did her dissertation on Internet use in the Arab world and has published three books on the topic. In researching her most recent, Policing the Internet in the Arab World (2009), she learned of and connected with the Arab digital activist community, which put her in a unique position during the Arab Spring of 2011. Abdulla's words below were excerpted from two conversations—the first a Skype interview held by the School of Communication in April 2011, the other a phone interview Miami magazine conducted in February 2012.

Rasha Abdulla: Blogging was introduced to Egypt in 2003. It was really the start of a space where people felt they could finally have a say. Social media increased that force exponentially because everybody had a page of their own, had a place of their own, like MySpace, and they learned they were not alone. They were not the only people who didn’t like Mubarak and didn’t like repression.

We were all very proudly watching television on January 14, the night [Tunisian president] Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali left the country. A day later there was an event on Facebook. This is the first revolution ever in the world that was placed as an event on Facebook. The places and times of every Egyptian city were listed on Facebook for people to join. And people did join. And then when they went out on the streets, they started calling out to others to join them. The hundreds became thousands, the thousands eventually became hundreds of thousands and millions.

Although the idea of revolution started years before, the organization of the January 25 event started on Facebook, and it started online with the young generation but within a few days everybody was down in Tahrir Square and all main squares in Egypt—young, old, rich, poor, Christians, Muslims, men, women. There was this feeling that we all want one thing: for Mubarak to step down and that just united everybody and all differences evaporated and it was great. It was really a rare moment in history. I’m very happy I got a chance to live it, let alone live it down in Tahrir Square. While the event took place on January 25, the revolution as an idea started years before that.

We’d stay there all day just shouting our lungs out for Mubarak to step down. I wrote op-eds as much as I could, I spoke to people, I tweeted, I facebooked. I did whatever I could.

As I told NPR, it was the smell of freedom. Freedom has a smell. It’s like your best mojito with your best key lime pie in your best Key West place.

Incidentally, the Egyptian flag I was wrapped in in Tahrir Square for the better part of 18 days is the same flag that was hanging on my wall in my apartment in Miami for the three and a half years or so that I was there, so it’s a very special flag to me.

In 2009, I wrote an article for the Egyptian journal Democracy called “The Federal Democratic Republic of Facebook," about how online social networking systems create virtual political entities. I argued that Facebook has a lot more democracy than any of the Arab countries and that was why the Arabs were so attracted to Facebook and hopefully we will learn a few things about democracy. On your Facebook page you’re the king or queen. You’re the one allowing your friends to post their comments. You can remove any friends at any moment if you don’t like them. You’re basically a dictator on your own web page, but the moment you click on a friend’s page, you become just one of the people and there’s somebody else in charge. Eventually you have to learn to listen and to talk with respect on your own page, otherwise people are going to become dictators against you on their pages and so there is this interdisciplinary horizontal level of communication that in the Arab world we were just not used to. We were used to a vertical, very parental type of talk. Very patriarchal. It wasn’t actually conversation; it was somebody talking at you. Now social media is teaching us how to talk to each other horizontally. That’s a very important thing. And the other thing that is very important is that it lets you know you’re not alone.

Now every month there is like one major battle where people die. But we are still very hopeful. If anything I think we’re more resistant and more resilient that this has to happen because we have even more victims, more martyrs, and more injured. If anything, we’re more determined to have the Egypt we dream of.

On January 27 2012 we had humongous demonstrations all over Egypt. Marches would spring from every area of Egypt and head toward Tahrir Square. I joined the march that started in an area called Mohandeseen. We walked for four and a half hours until we got to Tahrir Square. It was great, and by the time we got to Tahrir I couldn’t get to the center of the square because it was packed. Then the surrounding areas become a natural extension of Tahrir Square.

The most important role now for social media is as a place for discussions. Twitter, for example, is a very heated place for discussions and a lot of very good ideas come out of Twitter. One brilliant initiative is called Kazeboon, a classical Arabic word that means liars. The full name is Askar Kazeboon (the military generals are liars). There’s a lot of footage on YouTube of what’s been happening over the last year. The argument was if the army has state television, we have the streets. So citizen journalists have uploaded an incredible amount of video and they have called out to people to upload it on that website where they’re all free to download. You download an hour’s worth of video and organize a show in your neighborhood. On any given day now there are anywhere from 20 to 30 different Kazeboon shows taking place all over Egypt, and we have no idea who’s doing them—that’s the beauty of it— anybody can do it. In the poorer quarters of Egypt they get a white bed sheet and that becomes their screen. It has forced the army to acknowledge some of the atrocities they have committed that they were trying to hide because now more and more people are seeing the images that are not shown on state television.

The television has learned to use the activists as a source, and that’s the link between traditional media and social media, which is very important because Internet penetration in Egypt right now is still relatively low, about 30-32 percent, and that’s up almost 50 percent from a year ago. As of January 2011, for example, there were 4.2 million Facebook users in Egypt. A year later we’re close to 9 million, so again people are realizing that this is where you find information and they’re talking to each other on these websites. And since 9 million people will know where the march is going to start, state television might as well tell us where that is because it’s not extremely confidential anymore. 
The demonstrations are huge, so a lot of the time I just wait till I hear them chanting and come down because I know they will be passing somewhere close to my house. It’s been very interesting the combination of social media, traditional media, and interpersonal communication. We’re trying to use every medium we have.

The important thing is to be able to take whatever is happening online and take it to the streets because that’s when things really happen.

Omar Shoeb, M.A. ’07, is a lecturer and was recently a news producer for OnTV. He toured the Darfur region extensively in 2005 for a documentary called 1593. Earlier this year he talked with Miami magazine about the yearlong revolution, his role as a media person, how his show was helping raise public awareness, the way people perceive the revolution, and Egyptian American relations.

Omar Shoeb: Doing my master’s degree at UM was the best decision I’ve ever made. After my internship at CNN, my plan was to stay in the United States and work my way up the ladder, but I had familial obligations and that’s why I came back to Egypt in 2008, and things just progressed.

As of January 23, 2011, we still had a segment planned for January 25 with the CEO of our national airline to talk about their new fees and whatnot. Up until January 26 I was telling my wife (my fiancée at the time ) that this was just another demonstration for rights and the protestors would likely be quelled very quickly. Then on January 26, my entire idea about what was going to happen changed completely.

I’ve produced over 400 segments since the revolution, and let me tell you, everysingle segment since the start of the revolution we couldn’t have done before. Every single segment.

Before the revolution we did mostly social topics, poverty, health, whatnot. We had a very small space of freedom, but now it’s different. And you get into a state of panic with this newfound freedom. You don’t know what to do exactly. You don’t know what you can and can’t do.  What sort of media model should you follow? Should you be extremely libertarian? Should you use the social responsibility model? And where do you draw the line? This has been the biggest challenge. Our coverage was a day-to-day decision, and we found ourselves leaning toward the revolution all the way. We had an on-camera confrontation with the last prime minister of Mubarak, which led to him stepping down the next day. As a talk show host you try to hold the middle ground, but at this point in Egyptian history some people consider it a crime if you actually shut up or don’t have a stance. That was the biggest difficulty to maneuver in an unbiased way. We never really did.

Every day we had videos of atrocities being committed by the military toward the people. The military has been in power for the last year and a lot of people in Egypt are disappointed. Things are just getting worse. The military did lots of really, really bad stuff throughout the year. They had forced virginity checks on women who were gathering in the street in Tahrir Square. They killed people during almost five or six different demonstrations.

There are many levels of corruption in Egypt, and what we did with this revolution is we peeled off the first layer. With a successful revolution it takes anywhere from ten to 20 years to figure things out. This was an unsuccessful revolution, so it’s going to take much more than that. There are lots of powers who want things to remain as they are. But people are out in the streets now and they’re going to protest everything they feel unjustly treated about.

Many other Egyptians are pro-stability and believe the military is the only viable power who can get the country to stability. This majority want things over and done with and want their normal lives back. The running joke is that when they watch a video, they say, “This is photoshopped,” disregarding the fact that you can’t really Photoshop video. During the soccer match there was a riot against the police and police were using pellet guns, which cause blindness and many other horrible injuries, and some people saw this footage and said, “This is a Photoshop picture, this is Photoshop video.” As a media outlet, we show people the videos and get people to testify that all these events are real and not staged; it’s not edited. And this is getting the attention of the military.

I’m realistically optimistic at this point …. I want the best for my country but I’m not a political activist — what does that even mean? What I’ve been doing is trying to get my two cents in. I thought about leaving a lot of times. But right now Egypt is a hot plate. There are so many things going on and you can’t really miss all this action. It’s a constant adrenaline rush. You have this anticipation. You want to see how things are going to turn out.

Omar Shoeb's Twitter handle is @OmarShoeb.