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Click. Post. Revolution.
Joshua St. Clair, NYU Florence student
La Pietra Dialogues
October 25, 2014


If you had been standing during her entrance, you might not have seen her. It was 6:00 pm and the start of the week’s second dialogue was minutes away. The audience anxiously canvassed the room, waiting for their guest who had unbeknownst to them already arrived. Her small frame made its way confidently through the throng of students to the front of the room, taking a seat facing the excited gathering. She was handed a microphone and took it instinctively, turning the device over in her hands with the poise of an orator taking the podium—Esraa Abdel Fattah was no stranger to technology, nor to the presence of a crowd.

She has been called the “Facebook Girl.” But the small, young Egyptian woman sitting before the audience, sprightly shifting around in her seat, attempting to find its most comfortable position—all while emanating a powerful energetic charisma—she—was no American daughter of generation Facebook. She had not used the site to poke friends. She had used the site to topple governments.

As the audience quieted, Esraa began. I was asked to speak about women’s role in the Revolution, she began, her words springing forth in rapid succession as though the activist hoped to convey a lifetime of ideas to an audience of ninety minutes. But then “I started thinking,” she interrupted herself mid-thought, “Women’s activism was not started by the Revolution”—nor for that matter was the human rights movement that culminated in the events of the infamous January 25 march. Their seeds had been planted long before .

___________

Esraa’s activist life began in the streets, seven years before the Revolution. The movement she joined was simply called “Enough.” Enough of Mubarak. Enough of injustice. Four years later, in April 2008, Esraa founded her own movement, “The April 6 Youth Movement.” It began as an attempt to support the workers of an industrial town, planning to strike on April 6; it would become a force of over 300,000 members and one of the many catalysts of the 2011 revolutionary protests. The aim of the movement was to promote human rights. Its platform: social media. From the streets to the web and from the web back to the streets has been the cycle that has dominated Esraa’s political activism. It is a pattern that began several years before the Revolution and has continued long after.

It thus came as no surprise that one of the first questions asked of the young Egyptian activist concerned the very platform of her dissent. How does one positively use social media? one of the students asked. “I strongly believe in the power of social media for change,” Esraa quickly replied, “especially in our country. In our country we do not use social media to communicate, or find people and say ‘hello’ and ‘good morning.’” The audience embarrassedly laughed. “We don’t use social media like this,” Esraa continued. “We always make use of social media for campaigns,” and for organization.

Though it has been explicitly acknowledged time and time again, the organizational and informative power of social media really cannot be overstated in regard to the Egyptian Revolution. Social media not only facilitated the physical assembly of protestors, but it was also, in many ways, the first march’s very instigation. At the time, recently uploaded photos of beaten prisoners at the hands of Egyptian police had incited widespread outrage and came to epitomize years of governmental abuse and injustice. The “Day of Revolt” had been coordinated for the 25th of January to coincide with “National Police Day.” It was a day that would become the first domino in a series of progressively violent demonstrations, originating outside the Ministry of Interior and culminating in a newly-liberated Tahrir Square.

“Before the Revolution, we used social media for two things: mobilizing and organizing,” Esraa explained, but “during the days of the Revolution, the situation changed.” Social media became a vector for knowledge; it became the voice for a truth muffled by the din of media manipulation. “We covered what happened in the city for international media, because our traditional media didn’t say what happened in the square. They ignored it as if there was no Revolution. They ignored it as if there were no people sleeping in the street!” Esraa vigorously recounted. “We covered what really happened.”

The country, of course, was not completely politically stabilized following the ousting of Mubarak. A very real threat of long-term military governance soon took precedence in the months following the Revolution. Later in the evening, an audience member asked Esraa about the military’s role during the months of revolt and reform. “Without them, the Revolution would not have been a success,” Esraa conceded. But the military’s presence in the Revolution should not have translated into presence in the subsequent political structure. “We need a civic leader; we don’t want the president to come again from the military,” she asserted explicitly. The military assisted in the overthrow of Mubarak, but, according to Esraa, that is precisely where their influence should have stopped. The rise of military control immediately following the Revolution was “bad for the civic power.” In Egypt today, “there is no room for the military in political life,” Esraa defiantly declared.

Though the situation in Egypt has improved politically since the early days preceding the Revolution, violations of human rights and constitutional freedoms mark continual challenges to the country’s progress. “We have now in Egypt a new law,” Esraa began. “After almost three years of demonstrations, we have a demonstration law—which is unconstitutional.” Egyptians now find themselves protesting for the right to protest. “We make two Revolutions, we [lead] many demonstrations, [and] for what? So we have to ask for permission to go to the street!?” The need for activism has far from subsided.

____________

Esraa soon returned to the role of women, a topic that seemed ubiquitous during the night’s discussion—literally, the words “Women for Rights” (the dialogue’s title) were projected on a screen behind the young activist. But Esraa seemed disinterested in the purely gender-based distinction. For her, the dynamic of female activism was not somehow separate from any other form of dissent circulating prior to the Revolution. “I am always asked: ‘What was the role of women in the Revolution?’ I cannot find an answer to this question because I cannot see that there is a specific role.” Esraa paused. “Women were hand in hand with men. They did everything the men did: they joined the marches in the street, they slept in the square for eighteen days, they protected the square.” And they continued to care for their children, cook, and run their households. “So what we should ask is the question what is the role of men in the Revolution?” The room filled with laughter. The aim of the women’s movement was not separate from that of all Egyptians . They were not somehow outside of the Revolutionary effort; they, and all other Egyptians who marched in those streets and gathered in those squares, effectively were the Revolution. They were one.

This unity, however, far from downplays the role Egyptian women played in their country’s reconstruction. It was not just the protests and demonstrations on the street during the Revolution where the influence of Egypt´s female activists were most felt. The days of the election witnessed first hand the liberal spirit of the movement. Sixty-four percent of the votes of the first election were cast by women, Esraa proudly declared. But despite such political engagement on the part of Egyptian women, their voice remained consigned to the voter’s box. “On one hand, you find women who participated strongly in the Revolution, in the election, in the referendum, in all the political life. But on the other hand, you cannot find women in leadership positions,” Esraa questioningly retorted. If they had done everything the men had done, why were they still politically subjugated?

Participation in political life remains the most important obstacle for the women’s rights movement in Egypt. “We have very few women ministers” and “we have no women governors.” The common people, the “people in the street” find it difficult to accept female governors of their city, Esraa explained. “This is a problem.” It is an ideological problem in “the way they think.” “If we want to change the situation of women in Egypt, we need to change the education system, we need to change media tradition.” Reform must come in changing not only the way children are raised, but the way in which citizens are conditioned to think. “It’s very difficult to convince a citizen in Egypt that they can elect women to a leadership position. [...] They can see women in specific places—doctors, teachers—but they cannot see women as political leaders.”

One student inquired about the nature of the gender divide, asking whether such social antagonisms could be resolved and complete gender equity achieved. Esraa once again refused to see a uniqueness in the female human rights struggle. “I think the main problem in Egypt is rights in general,” she clarified. “If all the citizens have their rights, we will find that women have their rights. The problem in Egypt regarding rights and regarding freedom of expression [...] is regarding the laws of equality. [...] That is the main problem in Egypt. If we can change this system to chose according to qualifications,” Esraa argued, issues of inequality can be solved.

The problem of rights in Egypt is not gender-specific. To challenge human rights violations from purely a gender-based position misses the point. Violations to human liberties impacts all Egyptians and its solution must likewise be approached from all sides and under all banners.

____________

The most prominent distinction in Egypt today, however, may not even be one of gender—but age. As the dialogue progressed, Esraa began to elaborate on this increasingly apparent social schism. Though the Revolution had been carried out by all sides of the gender and sociopolitical divide, its age demographic remained decidedly homogenous. This observation is not only indicative of the main sources of social dissent in Egypt, but also of the country’s population distribution. The CIA World Factbook reports over fifty percent of Egypt’s population to be under the age of twenty-five—making Egypt one of the world’s youngest countries by age distribution.

This distinction manifests itself in both the social and political spheres of Egyptian life. Esraa was quick to point out the age-divide’s prevalence in civil society. Though the movements in the street had been—and continue to be—carried out by the youth, the governing structure of Egyptian society is dominated by the generational minority. For Esraa, this dichotomy excludes perhaps the most important political demographic: the middle generations. “You have young leaders working in the streets and the movements, and you have very old leaders talking about elections and talking about the political situation,” but the middle generations are absent. This is a problem. “We need to push them to be the intellectuals,” Esraa exclaimed, to be the new leaders. Egypt needs to “renew their elites, political elites, people who represent the democratic and civic power.”

The age divide has also created a kind-of antagonism of social interests, a dynamic that has become emblematic of the country’s changing sociopolitical ideologies. There’s a joke among the older generation, Esraa informed the audience smiling. “They say: ‘It’s not the time to talk about human rights, about democracy, about election—we don’t need parliament. We are better than Syria and Iraq, and this is enough.’” The youth, however, could not disagree more: “‘Why do you compare us to Syria and Iraq?’ they ask. ‘We need to compare ourselves with America. Why compare ourselves with the worst? We can compare with the most modern.”’ Egypt should be able to hold itself to the standard of first world superpowers, exclaimed Esraa. They should be able to point to progressive nations and declare, “We need parliament like this country, we need human rights like [that] country.”

The reaction of the youth to the older generation’s conservatism is indicative not only of the age divide, but also of the passion and determination of the younger generations—the generations who had marched from universities and felled governments. There is a “domestic fear,” Esraa explained; the majority of Egyptian households do not want demonstrations taking place in the streets. They have condoned the recent protest laws, hoping that the revolutionary vigor of the youth will be quelled. There thus exists a large “gap between generations,” where the progressive liberal interests of one are coming increasingly into conflict with the conservative orthodoxy of the other.

But change will have to occur. The revolutionary dynamic of internet dissemination and political reformation in Egypt has been historically underlined—and historically repeated. The leaders of these campaigns have, however, remained in the virtual world, unable to translate that influence into political authority. “The social media activists are activists online [only]. They are activists of their own movements, their movements on the ground, on the street, but they are not political leaders.”

Esraa’s growing political influence may represent an exception. Or perhaps it represents something much more; perhaps it is a sign. As the dialogue ended and the audience began to clap, Esraa stood and joined in the applause. For a moment, the room became a single body. And—at that very moment—if you had taken a step back to gaze at the multitude of students, you might have seen something telling: the small, young activist’s presence now towered over the crowd.

 
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