Interview With Nora Younis, Human Rights Activist and Journalist From Egypt

Nora Younis is a human rights activist, journalist, and blogger, and the website managing editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm, one of the most well-known newspapers in Egypt. As a human rights activist, Ms. Younis won the Human Rights First (HRF) thirtieth anniversary award in 2008 for her work using new media tools to expose human rights violations and police brutality.

Ms. Younis spoke with Pim Valdre, IPI Director of External Relations, on September 21st, after a panel discussion at the International Peace Institute on social media and democracy.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript:

Pim Valdre (PV): The recent popular uprisings that we have seen in the Middle East and North Africa have focused the world’s attention to the role of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, in coordinating political movements and in driving social and political change. From your perspective in Egypt, what role did social media actually have in the revolution?

Nora Younis (NY): It’s important to understand that social media did not invent the revolution. I believe they merely expedited what was predestined to happen. The revolution was the result of decades of work by human rights activists, defenders, political activists, opposition figures, and many people who spent years in jail, and they had a hard time, and had to give up their personal security, and live an unpleasant life just for going to a demonstration or writing or publishing something or voicing an opinion. We can fairly say that social media helped organize and spread the reach to places outside of Cairo and expedited what was predestined to happen.

We also can not ignore the role of the labor movement in the Egyptian revolution. It was not just pro-democracy activists, upper middle class people. It is not just a democratic bourgeois movement. It has more roots coming from the labor movement and the workers.

PV: A critical component of these new technologies is the ability to capture, through videos and photos, human rights violations in real time. What do you think this means for the ability of civil society to monitor human rights abuses?

NY: Of course civil society is now more able to monitor human rights abuses, but there is also growing interest. It is two things—the ability and the interest. And the interest has never been more or larger than what we have now. And it is not just human rights violations—it is also the press, the mainstream media, people are monitoring the state television, recording parts of it, making clips of how state television is trying to manipulate public opinion. I think the Egyptian’s average person is much more interested, is much more engaged, and is much more involved and is using social networks to satisfy his own goals.

PV: Many have said that minorities, including women, have had a better opportunity to get engaged and to get these political movements going. Would you say that there is a gender component in these technologies?

NY: The statistics suggest that more women than men are using the Internet in Egypt, because the majority of Egyptians are using PCs and telephone line dial-up connections at home. And the social composition in Egypt suggests that women stay home more than men so they end up using the Internet more than men. So, yes, I think there is a gender aspect to the democratic movement online at the moment.

And even offline, not just online. You can see in the streets, there are women all of the time despite the fact that the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) has done something that violates and threatens women participation in the political life—when they arrested some women who were camping in the Tahrir Square sit-in, and they did virginity tests to them which drove a lot of criticism by rights organizations and international media. This exact incident, we believe, was targeting women participation. But women were there, they continued to be there, and they will continue to be there. Women are online and offline in the Egyptian movement.

PV: If we look at traditional media, what role and what kind of synergies do you see between social media and the traditional forms of media?

NY: Now I am a journalist and I run an online news portal and we cannot work without social media. A lot of times, the way we plan our daily operations is just by checking what is happening now and listening to all the tweeps, the Facebook updates, and following up on what is happening in Egypt through the social networks. And then we can verify the news, send in our reporters, and many times we contact the online blogger and the citizen journalists to verify something or get more information. I think in the beginning when citizen journalism rose there was a competition in Egypt – not just in Egypt, but worldwide, there was this sort of competition. Now I think it is more a comprehensive approach. We know that we complement each other. No one can work alone. And when I was an activist I knew that the target of any campaign—I was a human rights activist—was to reach out to the mainstream media, because this is really the point of success. This is where many people, the mass numbers, listen to your call. Now I am in a better position, I think, to work towards this complementing each other.

PV:It has been said that social media is a double-edged sword and that it could also be used to spread hate speech and other forms of sentiments that could undermine the democratic process. How do you see this and what do you have to say about that?

NY: I don’t want to comment on social media being used to spread hate speech. I want to comment on the authorities, the old regimes’ attempts to use social media to re-organize themselves. I don’t think we should address the Internet issue and underline the security of the regime or the security of the nation – this is not the time to talk about this. This is not the right time to try to secure the regimes over the internet. For example, Omar Suleiman, the former head of the Egyptian al-Mukhabarat [Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate], there was an online militia paid to make an online campaign for him to run for president. My newspaper made an investigative report with videos, with a hidden camera, about this group and how they are getting paid to run this campaign for Omar Suleiman. This is dangerous, I would say, but still we do not want any control over it. We don’t want any control over the internet, because such initiatives get exposed. The internet, however organized as a group you are, when you address the internet, you become an individual. And then you engage more with other individuals. And the individualistic nature of the Internet helps and the voices of freedom are the ones that succeed in the end. I do not want to panic about security and hate speech. So far it is not a threat. The cost of controlling hate speech over the Internet will violate and will harm the free voices of the Internet. We should be careful with the way we are addressing this. 

PV: Are you optimistic towards the future in terms of the new government that will one day come to Egypt. Are you optimistic that we have learned from our mistakes and that we can use these social media in a more progressive way?

NY: I am optimistic about the ways the Egyptians are using social media. I think they will continue to use it even more creatively and I am hoping for more localization and Arabization of social networks in the future. We need an Arabic Twitter hashtag to be able to decentralize and mobilize the rest of the country. We are very concerned about the general situation in Egypt, because we have a puppet government that is a puppet to the SCAF. And we will probably witness a puppet president in the upcoming elections if we continue on with the military control over the country. I am personally a bit concerned about the future, but I trust the people that have carried the process so far, the average Egyptians, and I am sure they will make good choices.

PV: Thank you.