Catching Up Again With Nora Younis, Human Rights Activist and Journalist From Egypt

Nora Younis is an Egyptian human rights activist, journalist, and blogger, who is the website Chief Editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm, one of the best-known newspapers in Egypt.

In this interview, Ms. Younis describes the evolution of a vibrant protest movement and an Egypt that has come to look like San Francisco but still has a military regime where women are “not at the table” and where attacks on women still occur. She recounts what it was like in 2011 to cover a demonstration in Egypt and then suddenly find herself in the middle of a revolution. Ms. Younis believes a transition to a new representative government is possible. “It is very inspiring, what Egypt looks like today,” she says.

In 2008, Ms. Younis won the Human Rights First (HRF) thirtieth anniversary award for her work using new media tools to expose human rights violations and police brutality.

The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser for External Relations at the International Peace Institute, on March 12, 2012.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript

Warren Hoge (WH): I am happy to say today that Nora Younis becomes the first person to have appeared on the Global Observatory for the second time. She was here in September at a conference we did on the Arab Spring.

Nora, welcome back.

I want to ask you, first of all, the protests and the activism in which you played a role had its original purpose getting a one ruler and one government out. And now of course, those same people are working towards creating in Egypt a more representative society. Can I ask you how that is going? And how are the tactics and talents that you learned in overthrowing the existing government working to replace it with something more representative?

Nora Younis (NY): Thank you. It is my pleasure to be here again.

Well, actually, we managed to get rid of the ruler but not the regime because we think we are still run by military rule from President Nasser’s time, passing by Sadat, and Mubarak and now Tantawi. So we have not gotten rid of the regime yet. And also the regime is trying to reinvent and reinstate itself.

It is also very shocking to us how even now the Islamic power is also getting to look very much like the Mubarak regime. I mean, you watch the Parliament sessions on TV in Egypt, and you look at the head of the Parliament, who is a Muslim Brotherhood man, and he just reminds you of Fathi Sorour, former head of the Parliament, who was Mubarak’s man. Many figures within the Muslim Brotherhood are coming more and more to look like the old regime, to speak like the old regime, and to act like the old regime.

From one side the military is trying to control the scene, and from another side the ruling power now, the Islamists—not really ruling, but at least they control the Parliament so far, they are heading for the government next—are also not giving us the feeling that we have reached where we want. But I am sure this is not going to last for long, because also the people have been pushing, and they are still pushing, and will continue to push. It is very inspiring what Egypt looks like today.

If I can just improvise and share with you some images I have seen. In Egypt, at the heart of Cairo, in Tahrir Square, the AUC walls look like San Francisco with all the graffiti and the murals. And one would think that because this is Cairo, this is the capital, but couple of months ago I was in Luxor, Upper Egypt, and I saw marvelous anti-military graffiti on the walls of the military school in Luxor.

So I can tell you about homemade music, pop music that is homemade and uploaded to YouTube, and then three days later—protest songs I am talking about—and very inspiring protest songs that actually manage to convince people of why the revolution has to continue, and this particular song was actually made by a Twitter activist and put on YouTube. Then suddenly, three days later, it had hundreds of thousands of views, and it was transferred from the Internet to the buses, the micro-bus drivers, the taxis, you can hear it everywhere. I don’t know how it moved from YouTube to micro-buses, but it was amazing, and it really had a lot of logic and was very convincing, and was the work of one young man.

So, the Egyptian protest movement is very, very vibrant. What makes me very confident that it is going to continue is generations, people that are much younger than me, the reference now is January 2011. This is the reference, this is when they think about power, about activism, about will, about the feeling of usness, the reference point is January 2011, they haven’t seen anything else.

Now, the protest movement is very engaging to school students. Needless to speak about how the university movement looks like now. Let’s not forget that sixty percent of the Egyptian population are young people, and all those young people have seen what happened. So I am sure that even if it does not work out fine right now, even if the revolution does not win now, I am sure that those people who have seen, who felt their power, real power, and who felt they are able to overcome those troops of state security forces, who were able to live through this violence and win at the end in a peaceful way, who were able to overthrow Mubarak and all his gang, I am sure that these people will continue and will win.

WH: Nora, half the Egyptian population of course, are women. We remember in Tahrir Square how many women there were. We also remember the attacks on women in Tahrir Square. Are women organized themselves now, in the midst of the protest to demand their rights and representation? And are they being represented?

NY: The women that are at the forefront, in the labor movement, the democratic struggle, in the protest movement, everywhere. And we have seen attacks by the military on women—it was caught on camera, television camera—in different ways. There is very famous images of the blue bra woman who is an Islamist, a political activist, she is an Islamist who was veiled and wearing an abaya, and the military beat her, tore off her clothes so that she was naked and stripped to a blue bra. It was a very, very shocking image.

This image, among other cases like the case of Samira Ibrahim, the protestor who was arrested by the Army from the sit-in in Tahrir was subjected to a virginity test while she is in the military prison. Such stories awaken the conscience of Egyptian society, men and women. Both incidents were followed by massive demonstrations and mainly women demonstrations, women protests. The level of vibrance of Egyptian society now is beyond the capacity of any structure to contain it. I cannot tell you “the women will be organized” — the women are too many to be organized. I mean, really, following the images of the blue bra, it was like a million women in the streets. There is no institution that can organize such a number. It was massive. It was impressive.

There are groups, NGOs and groups and coalitions that are women-based, women agendas, and they have coalitions together and they try to organize through statements and lobbying and do action on the ground, and this exists as well. What I am mostly worried about is we have seen in experiences in Eastern Europe and other places in the world, when it is time for action, women are there on the ground. When it is time for government, women are not on the table. This is very shocking really, and this would me feel very sorry if it really happened in Egypt again.

WH: I want to ask you about freedom of the press in Egypt, and I want to ask it in the context of a movie that you made called “Reporting a Revolution,” which is about reporters suddenly being in an activist situation, and I think one of the reporters in the movie is you.

NY: The film is about — it’s a very funny story, this film. It is about six reporters and I’m one of them and the six are in my unit, video unit. We made the film about ourselves, actually, because we all had a story to share, so the film is made by us, and we are in the film, and it is about our job, and it’s about us doing our job, and it’s about what we did. When we were producing the film, it was actually a group therapy. The making of the film was a group therapy because we were taken by accident. We were covering a demonstration, basically, like we do every time.

And suddenly it became a revolution. Suddenly, there was a lot of bloodshed, and snipers, and peaceful protestors being run over by cars, and the journalists found themselves, instead of holding the cameras, they found them yelling at them, like, “What are you doing? Why are you filming? Help me carry this injured man.” What can you do? When you are so angry and when you carry the injured man, when your hands are full of his blood, what do you do next? Do you go stone throwing on the police, or do you go back to holding the camera?

Also, every one of us witnessed points of rise, high points and low points of the revolution. Every day of the eighteen days, there were days when you felt that the Egyptians are very close to overthrowing Mubarak, and there were other days that you felt that it is not going to happen. The low points were the most challenging for reporters, because we are not just covering an event; this determines our future and the future of our children. It involves us in a very personal story, it is our very personal interest.

So, each one asked himself or herself whether they should stay being a journalist or they should join the protest movement. Each one tried to be same, regardless of all what they saw and regardless of their decision about professionalism. It was all very difficult, and the revolution did not end until today, so basically, after eighteen days, we had to keep working and working and covering. There were a lot of clashes afterwards, a lot of bloodshed, and a lot of anti-military movement and violent aggression to the peaceful protestors. Everything continued and the only chance we had is to make this film and talk to each other about it and share things with each other.

This is a very long story, but I just wanted to tell you how I felt doing it, and then it was selected for the Berlin Film Festival. We were very happy and proud, going from personal to international.

WH: Nora, thank you so much for sharing those personal observations with us. Your personal observations are observations of a society at large, and very valuable for us to hear, and I hope that you will come back in another eight months and update us on the revolution in Egypt. Thank you.

Photo credit: Hossam el-Hamalawy