Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East

I’m pleased to announce that our awesome new book – Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East – has been published by Routledge and is now available. Edited by Linda Herrera and Rehab Sakr. It includes a chapter (Chapter six) from me and Dina El- Sharnouby, titled Distorting Digital Citizenship: Khaled Said, Facebook, and Egypt’s Streets, the chapter examine the rise and fall of the the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page and its implications of limiting youth problems to a security dimension.Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East

Wired Citizenship examines the evolving patterns of youth learning and activism in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). In today’s digital age, in which formal schooling often competes with the peer-driven outlets provided by social media, youth all over the globe have forged new models of civic engagement, rewriting the script of what it means to live in a democratic society. As a result, state-society relationships have shifted—never more clearly than in the MENA region, where recent uprisings were spurred by the mobilization of tech-savvy and politicized youth.

Combining original research with a thorough exploration of theories of democracy, communications, and critical pedagogy, this edited collection describes how youth are performing citizenship, innovating systems of learning, and re-imagining the practices of activism in the information age. Recent case studies illustrate the context-specific effects of these revolutionary new forms of learning and social engagement in the MENA region.

Other great chapters include:

Chapter two: Youth and Citizenship in the Digital Age: A View from Egypt – by Linda Herrera

Chapter three: Morocco On-Trial: De-colonial Logic and Transformative Practice in Cyberspace – by Charis Boutieri

Chapter four: Children’s Citizenship: Revolution and the Seeds of an Alternative Future in Egypt – by Chiara Diana

Chapter five: Cyberspace in Turkey: A “youthful” space for expressing powerful discontent and suffering – by Demet Lukuslu

Chapter seven: “Hungry for Freedom” Palestine Youth Activism in the Era of Social Media – by Mira Nabulsi

Chapter eight: Opening Networks, Sealing Borders: Youth and Racist Discourse on the Internet – by Miranda Christou & Elena Ioannidou

Chapter 9: Computer Intimacy: Digitally-Mediated Democratization of Arab Youth Culture – by Catherine Cornet

Chapter eleven: The Power of Online Networks: Citizenship among Muslim Brotherhood Cyber Youth – by Rehab Sakr

and more…

Further information: http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415853941/



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Depending on the season: Unlike Noah film ban, Ten Commandments was banned in Egypt for different reasons


Nasser with film director Cecil B. DeMille

Nasser with film director Cecil B. DeMille







Al-Azhar has called for the banning of the Noah film due to the religious violation of showing a Prophet. So far the screening will go ahead “despite religious concerns.”

Yet there was a time when such films were banned for different reasons. Film titan Cecil DeMille opened up negotiations with King Farouk for permission to film in Egypt the epic story of Moses in The Ten Commandments. The King agreed but was then deposed in July 1952. DeMille had to engage in furious renegotiation’s with the new rulers as the filming was set to start in the Autumn of 1954.

A few months before that deadline, Demille and his colleagues were taken in a state car to a military encampment where Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser himself “strode in, filling the tent with a blinding charisma that was all dark burning eyes, flashing white teeth, and impeccable English.”

Demille was telling Nasser and Hakim Amer (Minister for War) why the film will be good, and they started to laugh uncontrollably. Nasser got hold of himself, and then burst out laughing again. To the incredulous look of Demille.

“You tell them what you are laughing about!” Nasser ordered Amer.

After Amer caught his breath, he began: “Mr DeMille…We grew up on your film The Crusades, and we saw how you treated us and our religion. Our country is your country.”

The slightly longer version of what Amer said:  ”the Crusades was immensely popular here in Egypt. It ran for three years in the same theater in Cairo, and Col. Nasser and I saw it no less than twenty times. It was our favourite picture when we were attending military school. And Col. Nasser was called ‘Henry Wilcoxon’ by the other students because he would grow up to be a great military leader someday, just like Coeur-de-Lion.”

With that the deal was sealed, and Nasser’s army even acted as Pharaoh’s soldiers in the film.
However, by the time the Ten Commandments was released in 1956, so much had changed on the political scene and it was the year of the Suez War and Arab nationalism was in overdrive mode.

The film was banned in Egypt because Nasser felt it favored “the Jews over the Egyptians”

Clearly, Nasser should have realised the obvious that Egyptian national interests don’t do quite well in the Bible and the Quran.


Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille
By Scott Eyman

Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic The Ten Commandments
By Katherine Orrison

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The insecurity of a security state: What can Hannah Arendt tell us about Egypt?

Hannah Arendt
My latest article on understanding the Egyptian political situation through the works of Hannah Arendt. Published in Politics in Spires

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What Would People Say? The Obsession with Public Image in Egypt

Published in the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy 

“Would you allow your unmarried daughters to live alone in their own apartments in Cairo?” This was the question asked by American journalist Milton Viorst to the late Naguib Mahfouz in the 1990s. The legendary Arab novelist replied that such a circumstance would not be acceptable, as it simply would not look right.

Mahfouz did not invoke a financial, safety, or even religious motive to underpin his reasoning—in effect, he made the “what would people say?” argument, which permeates Egyptian society and holds hostage any and all statements and actions to the court of public opinion, consequently warping people’s reasoning.

Read here: http://timep.org/commentary/what-would-people-say

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If the 1977 Egyptian Bread Riots started in Alexandria, then why are there few accounts of it?

(scroll to bottom for NYT article)

This week marks the infamous bread riots that rocked Egypt in 1977, and was arguably a precursor to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. The New York Times ran the story on the riots with this peculiar paragraph:

“The riots started Tuesday in Alexandria, which has a reputation for left-wing militance, when thousands took to the streets to protest a Government announcement increasing the price of many staple foods and other basic consumer goods by 50 to 100 percent while giving an across-the-board wage increase of 22 percent. The riots spread to Cairo and its suburb of Helwan”

What’s unusual about the NYT piece is that it’s one of the few then contemporary accounts, though brief, to accurately name the geographical spark of the riot and label its perceived political profile.

It’s often baffling as to why a city that sparked off the riots and known for its “left-wing militance” could not garner any interest from then reporters – Egyptian or foreign – to investigate further, but basically recycle from their Cairo hotels and stations the same news coming out of Alexandria, such as the burning of the historical Alexandria Stock Exchange. There is a scarcity of interviews or even later research on what made Alexandria a tinderbox on a local level in January 1977. Unfortunately, all of Egypt’s problems, like today, are grouped into a national narrative, rather than seeking out what unique factors existed in each area.

This information vacuum has been one of the casualties of centralisation. The problem of Centralisation is not just about power and resources shifting to the capital, but it also undermines the media presence and research interest in the cities and towns affected. It gutters a large city like Alexandria in reducing the incentive for foreign correspondents to have been present in Alexandria at the time of the riots. As a researcher on Alexandria myself, this forces one to rely on oral interviews, which is a credible approach no doubt, but one would expect that a large event such as this to leave better accounts than what is available today.

Furthermore, 1977 also signposts that not much has changed today, besides the obvious political and socio-economic dimension; For a city of over four million, Alexandria is yet to acquire locally robust media organisations and a publishing industry. There is Egypt, and then there is “Egypts”, all fighting their unique yet complementary battles.

NYT 1977 Bread Riots Alexandria Egypt



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Save Alexandria, and free Sherif Farag

Published in Mada Masr
For the Arabic translation, see انقذوا الأسكندرية.. وأفرجوا عن شريف فرج

Sherif Farag

Sherif Farag

Sherif Farag is “one of the greatest persons you can meet” tweeted prominent Alexandrian activist Mahienour al-Masry. Sherif is a Master’s student and assistant lecturer at Alexandria University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. He is also one of the most underrated activists you will ever meet in the coastal city. Following his vocal opposition to the protest law, his life took a turn for the worse when the infamous late-night police raid occurred.

At 2.30 am on Sunday, November 24, a large security force of over 20 heavily armed men entered Sherif’s family apartment in Sidi Bishr, Alexandria. Masked security forces occupied the staircase of the building. Security convoys blocked the street. And all this deployment was to arrest a rising academic and advocate for the rights of teaching assistants, for architectural standards and heritage preservation.

The travesty did not end there, however. Taken to the security directorate in Smouha, in the presence of his lawyers, the charges leveled at Sherif were “joining a banned group” — presumably the Muslim Brotherhood, which Sherif is not a member of, nor affiliated with in any way.

Realizing that such a charge could prove difficult to stick on Sherif, still more trumped-up charges were thrown at him. At 10 pm that same night he was charged with campaigning to promote chaos, mobilizing crowds, and using violence.

The next day he was charged with planning and killing peaceful demonstrators, breaking cars and — just to make sure that the ludicrousness of the whole case was sealed — robbing a bank.

Since November 28, Sherif has been in Hadara Prison pending investigations. On December 8 his incarceration was renewed for another 15 days, despite the fact that there is no evidence or witnesses to incriminate him. Throughout this period, there have been daily protests and petitions demanding his release.

Sherif’s academic activism was in many ways a success story of the January 25 revolution. As his friend Ahmed Hassan noted: “Sherif’s positive attitude, motivation and inspirational effect on people guaranteed him a fixed place in the emerging academic and cultural groups in Alexandria. His campaigning for the rights of teaching assistants was integral to the collective effort that helped champion the cause of teaching assistants throughout Egyptian universities. This was also followed by his rise to sit on the advisory committee of the Ministry of Higher Education in order to deliver our demands to the decision makers.”

But it was Sherif’s presence on the street that made him familiar to the public, and Alexandrians in particular. He led peaceful demonstrations to protest against Alexandria’s real-estate mafia and its destruction of the city’s heritage. He spoke against the dangerous proliferation of tens of thousands of buildings that violate basic safety standards and consequently lead to the frequent tragedy of the city’s collapsing buildings.

Sherif was part of a growing swathe of Alexandrian activists who increasingly shared the view that Cairo’s centralized decision-making was the main source of Alexandria’s problems — a situation that must be rectified.

It was tacitly understood among Alexandria’s civil society scene that heritage and building issues were critical concerns shared by all groups. Facebook groups and pages such as Alexandria Scholars, Alex Agenda and Radio Tram united behind the Save Alexandria initiative. This initiative, co-founded by Sherif, was primarily aimed at the preservation of the city’s architectural heritage. But it has become a political platform for activism in Alexandria.

The initiative presents itself as a pressure group that works at ensuring Alexandrians’ “right to their city” — often through organizing protests. “Save Alexandria’s” Facebook page has been used to publicize protests and mobilize people to take part. Naturally, the prominence of this initiative, along with Sherif’s university activism, put him on state security’s radar.

Sherif took a sophisticated and multi-faceted approach to his activism that ranged from protest vigils, media interviews, to sitting down with officials to try to work out a solution to the city’s problems.

When Sherif spoke of the city’s problems, it was articulated with such eloquence and succinctness that it was bound to disturb those in power. I recall one scene last year in which Sherif, myself, and his friend Ahmed were invited to speak with the governor at a roundtable meeting at the engineers’ club overlooking the Mediterranean. We were the youngest ones in a room full of sycophantic public officials and aging, self-obsessed “call-me-doctor” academics. They seemed to have trouble accepting our presence at such a high profile meeting. Nevertheless, Sherif spoke loudly and eloquently of the city and the people’s problems.

“You are standing on Fouad Street, one of the oldest [continually used] streets in history,” Sheirf told me once during a protest. Passionate about saving Alexandria’s heritage, he laments today’s building culture, and how nobody teaches or learns architecture properly: “Every building that rises looks like the other,” he told me.

Noha Mansour, who  got engaged to Sherif in August, told me, “Sherif is the type of person who values freedom of speech and action deeply. He never feels ashamed to speak his mind and express his opinions. I feel it was his outspoken opposition to the recent protest law that finally made the authorities arrest him.”

Sherif is due to submit his Master’s thesis this month. He sent this note from prison to be added to the opening page of his dissertation:

This letter was written from my cell, where injustice and aggression abounds, I write these points in the hope that higher education in Egypt will someday be in a better position — though it never will be as long as universities are not liberated from the security [regime’s] iron fist and power. I have worked over two years and a half in an attempt to improve the situation of Egyptian universities after the great 25 January 2011 Revolution. I have played a part in contributing to the increase of salaries of faculty members and have been at the forefront as a member of the Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Higher Education to focus on reforming how universities are regulated. Yet people so retarded [in the security sector] have continued to hamper our progress [in the cause of higher education]. If my imprisonment is a result of my suffering to better education, then no fault can be found with that. God Alone is sufficient for me, as He is the best disposer of affairs for me.

The Researcher

Sherif, locked up in a prison cell, has come to represent the “two Egypts” in conflict. One is bland, unimaginative, archaic, and brutal. And then there is Sherif Farag, along with many others now under arrest, who epitomize a passion, fearlessness, and hope to build a better tomorrow.

Imprisoning Sherif Farag is akin to imprisoning the dream of a better Egypt. His freedom is a necessity.

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Legitimate charges, illegitimate trial: Morsi in the dock


Published in ABC’s The Drum

It is an irony that former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s trial – which highlighted the deep divisions in Egyptian society – was held on the country’s Valentine’s Day.

The only thing Morsi and his 14 co-defendants from the Muslim Brotherhood had in common with the military-backed interim government was the desire by both sides to use the trial as a theatre to address the Egyptian public by pushing their own agendas and accusations.

Morsi and the Brotherhood wasted no time in seeking to embolden their domestic base and tell the rest of the nation that the Brotherhood was not going away.

To undercut Morsi’s predictable grandstanding, state TV muted the sound. “I am here by force and against my will. The coup is a crime and treason” shouted Morsi, who set the tone for the non-cooperative atmosphere.

For the prosecutors, the goal was to send a signal to the wider Egyptian public about who is in control and to parade Morsi and his colleagues before the court as a form of political emasculation.

The charges against Morsi are in fact legitimate – they were filed on 5 December 2012 by human rights activists after the Brotherhood stormed a sit-in outside the presidential palace.

The actions of the Brotherhood sparked clashes that resulted in the deaths of ten protestors.

Even the case on its own skews the course of justice when there is a lack of enquiry into the security debacle and the Brotherhood chain of command on that day.

But legitimate charges do not necessarily lead to a legitimate trial.

Nor has the state all of a sudden developed a desire to see justice take its place for Egypt’s innumerable victims.

As the veteran blogger The Big Pharaoh tweeted “Irony = Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood cadets tortured people at the presidential palace gates. Police regularly torture people yet they’re securing Morsi’s Trial today!”.

Continue reading

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Perspective on the current situation in Egypt (forum)

Today (Tuesday) at the University of Sydney, a forum will be held titled: “Perspective on the current situation in Egypt.”
It will feature:

- Anthony Bubalo (Research Director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy
- Mohamed El Orabi (former Egyptian foreign minister and president of the Congress party)
- Prof. Margot Badran (Historian and specialist in women’s studies at the American University in Cairo)

Date and time: Tuesday, 8 October 4:30pm – 7:00pm
Venue: University of Sydney; The Professorial Boardroom Quadrangle Building A14

For booking and info please contact:
Professor Rifaat Ebied rifaat.ebied@sydney.edu.au

Co-organised by the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, School of Languages & Cultures, and the Australian Egyptian Council Forum.

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Not My Brotherhood’s Keeper: The Fallacy of Crushing Egypt’s Chief Islamist Group

Published in the Atlantic Council



By the time philosopher Hannah Arendt penned the words in her 1970 work On Violence: “The means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals,” a generation of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood transitioning into the Anwar Sadat era were reeling from the “means” of imprisonment and torture. For sixteen years, under the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the ideological foundations of radical Islamism were largely nurtured in Egypt’s prison system, and exported to the rest of the world. It became painfully clear with time, the Brotherhood and Islamists had to be co-opted into the political process, rather than rewind the clock back to 1954.

Over the past three months, security services have arrested key Brotherhood figures, in effect decapitating the organization’s first and second tier leadership, shutting down media outlets, seizing its assets, demonizing the group, arresting and killing countless supporters. Now the latest court ruling to ban the eighty-five year old organization is on the table. It is becoming obvious that Egypt’s political and security elites envision an Egyptian future in which the Brotherhood and its support networks are completely destroyed or incapacitated. Such a short-sighted move overlooks the group’s proven survival mechanisms.

In the tightly-controlled public sphere and information space of Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, Brotherhood inmates, intentionally dispersed across the country’s prisons in order to cripple the apparatus, were largely survived by the (little-known) Muslim Sisterhood. The latter acted as an informal prison support network, carrying ideas and messages from prison to prison to sustain the Brotherhood, and were vital to their rebirth.

Today, there is no need for prison support networks when that network now has a stronger international reach. No longer limited to the Gulf and London, the Brotherhood is opening offices as far flung as Australia. These groups are geared towards revising the Brotherhood strategy and wait for another political opening in Egypt. They are also making efforts to disturb diplomatic relations, skewing the Muslim world view of Egypt, splintering an already splintered diaspora, and pushing a clear-cut anti-coup narrative as opposed to the pro-army’s ill-defined ‘war on terrorism’ battle cry that has come to encompass Sinai’s violent extremism and Pro-Brotherhood protestors throughout Egypt

Recent events have enabled the Brotherhood to take the high moral ground, when addressing both their domestic constituencies and foreign audiences, depicting an Egypt engaged in a secular or religious sacred drama, nicely divided into digestible binaries. To the West, the Brotherhood argues that they are the torchbearers of democracy that are fighting the return of an authoritarian state that overthrew Morsi. To the Muslim world, the Brotherhood has effectively portrayed itself as the defender of Islam, battling godless secularism in the heart of the Sunni intellectual nerve centre.

It does not seem to matter that Morsi and the Brotherhood took a destructive course while in power, that a majority of Egyptians, including Al-Azhar and religious Muslims, have a highly unfavourable view of the Brotherhood or that the organization’s polarizing discourse of incitement and victimhood provides the cover for the killing and destruction of property. A sophisticated and nuanced reading into why Morsi and the Brotherhood collapsed and are largely unpopular is lost in translation.

And why should it not be? The rise in strains of liberal tyranny to rival the strains in religious tyranny gutted the moral clout of anti-Brotherhood arguments, let alone the argument to shut them down. Egypt has been transformed into a bear pit that is locked in an existential battle for survival, with each side going as far as targeting the perceived allied minorities of the other camp: non-Islamists target Syrian and Palestinian refugees, and more violently, the Islamists target Christians and their churches.

Given that the power cards are heavily stacked in favor of the military and security forces, and by extension, the interim government; they need to seriously address the imagination crisis that deal with security issues. It should be noted, no matter how ‘well-intentioned,’ the sight of a military machine carrying out killings in Cairo’s squares for the benefit of ‘your side’ does not score points with the rest of the world. More so when state media is fanning the flames of xenophobia and the arrest of foreign nationals occur in a country in dire need of tourists.

Yet no questions are being asked, how the child who lost his pro-Brotherhood parents in the Raba’a massacre will grow up in a society that largely cheered on the violent dispersals. Or how Islamists will ever trust the democratic process when they are continually being marginalized. Or the Coptic child who lost a father because the security forces did not turn up – some would argue strategically delayed to tarnish the Brotherhood – to protect Christian communities and churches when the threat of an Islamist mob was imminent in the usual rural flashpoints. These are the seeds of bitterness that will matter more to the future Egypt than the current intended myopic goals.

There is little doubt that laws need to be passed to prevent the misuse of mosques for political campaigning and sectarian incitement. The Brotherhood needs to be legally obliged to become transparent with its activities, and importantly, pushed into a state of self-reflection. Banning the organization pushes its members further back into their traditional comfort zone in which they thrive – victimhood and opposition.

As highly problematic as the organization is, the Brotherhood is not the by-product of a foreign plot, rather it is a by-product of Egypt’s social forces and needs to be reintegrated into a system of transitional justice and national reconciliation. Targeting the Brotherhood’s social support networks – healthcare, education, and welfare services – will have a crippling effect on the rural poor. The state is too incompetent to fill the void. Former regime loyalists and revolutionary forces struggle to run an effective political campaign in these areas, let alone service their basic needs. 

The late poet Mahmoud Darwish sounded a warning: “Those who spend an era breastfeeding from the milk of cruel despotism can only perceive destruction and evil in freedom.” In this lays the grim inheritance bestowed upon Egypt following decades of authoritarian rule, the public not only perceives destruction and evil in its own freedom, but in the freedom of others and, consequently, any notion of political co-existence. A third route is needed to save it. Instead of crushing the Brotherhood, there needs to be a national inclusive dialogue on the role of religion and politics, a focus on strengthening institutional checks and balances, and the enforcement of rule of law to protect Egypt from political and security violations and excesses, whether by Islamists or otherwise.

Egypt deserves better.

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Whither Democracy in Egypt? (lecture)

If you are in Sydney, then please feel free to come to a talk this FridA handcuffed protester sits on the ground at a huge camp in Cairo's Al-Nahdaay 27 Sept 2013 that me and Macquarie University lecturer  Noah Bassil will be presenting on the topic: “Whither Democracy in Egypt?” Noah will be discussing the role and relationships between the Brotherhood, the Egyptian state and the US. My talk will discuss the political trajectory of Egypt’s hindered democratic development and the challenges of reforming the brutal security forces.
Time: 6pm to 7.45pm
Date: 27th September 2013
Location: The Gaelic Club, 64 Devonshire Street, Surry Hills

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