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February 19 2014

10 New Documentaries at the Luxor African Film Festival

Tom Devriendt lists 10 documentaries to look out for at the Luxor African Film Festival:

The third edition of the Egyptian Luxor African Film Festival again has a wide-ranging programme scheduled for next month. Selected films will be showing in different competitions: Long Narrative, Short Narratives, Short Documentaries and Long Documentary. Below you’ll find a couple of the selected documentaries’ trailers (set in Togo, Senegal, Ghana, Somalia, South Africa, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Angola) that were recently uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo, plus links to the films’ websites — where available.

February 16 2014

Tourists Killed in Terrorist Attack in Sinai, Egypt

A bomb blast ripped through a bus carrying 30 tourists in Sinai, Egypt, today, killing at least two South Korean tourists and the Egyptian bus driver. According to reports, the tourists had completed touring St Catherine's Monastery and were on their way to Israel, when the bomb exploded.

Netizens were left scrambling for information.

According to journalist Kristen McTighe:

She adds:

Firas Al-Atraqchi says:

ABC News Middle East Correspondent Alexander Marquardt has other information:

And Hamdy Kassem concludes [ar]:

Those of us who are not journalists will not know what happened in the Taba bus blast because of the contradicting information and casualty figures. It is a struggle for journalists to get information in a country which denies all information

And if this is not enough, The Big Pharaoh claims the Muslim Brotherhood Twitter account is spreading more mis-information:

Soon enough, photographs surfaced online.

Fatima Said shares this photograph of the remains of a charred bus:

Egyptian blogger and journalist Muhamed Sabry remarks on the photograph saying:

And Amro Ali shares the photograph of the Egyptian bus driver, said to be killed in the blast:

Zeinobia, on Egyptian Chronicles, is alarmed tourists are being targeted. She blogs:

We are back to the days of the 1990s where tourists were a main target. Actually we are back to the 2000s where South Sinai had its share from several terrorist attacks.
Now the attacks moved to South where tourism industry began to catch up.
I am concerned that after targeting the tourists in Taba in 2000s , the security forces unleashed hell abusing locals there affecting their relationship with the state till this day in addition to whatever happening in the North now from military campaign against the terrorist groups things will go from bad to worse to worst.

Meanwhile, Egyptian netizens are kissing their tourism industry goodbye.

Nasry Esmat bitterly tweets [ar]:

We as a nation are not effected with a number of people killed … all we care about is tourism for economic reasons

Mohamed El Dahshan notes:

Ashraf Khalil adds:

And Mona Eltahawy fumes:

February 11 2014

International Open Data Day Set for February 22

Bloggers, hackers, designers, statisticians and other citizens who are interested in Open Data and Transparency will gather online and offline for the International Open Data Day on February 22, 2014. The event takes place to encourage governmental data openness.

Open Data Day is a gathering of citizens in cities around the world to write applications, liberate data, create visualizations and publish analyses using open public data to show support for and encourage the adoption open data policies by the world's local, regional and national governments.

Anyone can organize a local event in their city as long as the event is open for others to join. The attendees can participate in creating anything related to Open Data, be it with local or global applications, visualizations, scraping data from a government website to make it available for others or even organize a series of workshops with government officials, journalists or other stakeholders affected by open data.

The hashtag that will be used for the even is, #ODD2014. Some Twitter users have already started posting their comments on the hashtag.

Dozens of cities are participating in the hackathon.

International Open Data Hackathon

International Open Data Hackathon

Announcements are also made on Twitter for local events in different places.

The Open Data Day in Egypt, http://t.co/PdqDzokxcP

Add your city to the list if it is not already there, and start planning for a local event there.

February 09 2014

An Info-Activism Tool-Kit on Women's Rights Campaigning

Tacticaal Tech's Info-activism Toolkit on Women's Rights Campaigning

Tactical Tech's Info-activism Toolkit on Women's Rights Campaigning

The Women's Rights Campaigning: Info-Activism Toolkit by Tactical Technology Collective is a new guide for women's rights activists, advocates, NGOs and community based organizations who want to use technology tools and practices in their campaigning. This has been developed in collaboration with advocacy organizations from Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Egypt.

This Toolkit has been customized from an updated version of two earlier toolkits: Message in a Box and Mobiles in a Box. The website will soon be translated into Arabic, Swahili, Bengali, and Hindi.

Reposted bycheg00 cheg00

Campaigning for Women's Rights Made Easy

Women's rights campaigning is the focus of a new info-activism toolkit by Tactical Technology Collective.

The toolkit is particularly useful to women's rights activists, advocates, NGOs and community-based organisations who want to use technology tools and practices in their campaigning.

It includes step-by-step guides from basics like how to launch a campaign to more complex issues such as digital security and privacy.

The Toolkit was developed as part of a project with CREA, along with seven partner organisations
based in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and East Africa. It is now available in English only but will soon be translated into Arabic, Swahili, Bengali and Hindi.

Egyptian Satirist Bassem Youssef is Back On Air

In Egypt, it may take you airing your show on a YouTube channel and three TV channels to keep it going. In October last year, the CBC channel decided to take Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef's show, El Bernameg, off air. The statement issued by the channel back then stated that the content of the first episode of the show “violated what was agreed upon with CBC”. Blogger Zeinobia summarized the climate then after the first episode was aired:

The Islamists are angry from Bassem Youssef as usual. Already they used to hate him during Morsi so there is nothing new about it. The new thing is the reaction of the Pro-military rule/Pro-El Sisi supporters who used to cheer for Bassem . The Pro-Military supporters are extremely angry because the famous satirist dared and spoke about the general !! He did not even mock him directly.

Bassem Youssef and his show were trending on twitter.

Bassem Youssef and his show were trending on twitter.

On Friday [February 7, 2014], the show was back on MBC Masr, a channel owned by Saudi businessman Waleed Al Ibrahim.

And, as usual, people were wondering whether Youssef would dare mention Egyptian strongman and Defense Minister Field Marshall Abdel Fattah El Sisi, even before the episode was aired.

@A_AHaleem: For sure Bassem Youssef will not mention El Sisi, and will dance on the dead bodies of the Ikhwan more and more.

Dr As'ad AbuKhalil, aka The Angry Arab, was also cynical about Youssef's choice of TV channel to air his famous programme:

After a feverish search for free network, Egyptian satirist, Bassem Youssef, has decided that Saudi MBC TV station is the freest of them all. How cute. I am sure that the new boss of Youssef would let him mock the Saudi King and Sisi.

However, Zeinobia, wrote summarized the episode right after it was aired:

The episode started with funny Sketch where Bassem hinted out to El Sisi/army mania in a funny way then it was the big show. Youssef and his team slammed CBC and its owner Mohamed El Amin. He also mocked other pathetic TV hosts who were attacking him exposing their overreactions. He claimed that he would
avoid the one who won't be named showing a silhouetted photo of El Sisi but man he mentioned names several times.

She added:

In the second segment Bassem continued speaking about the El Sisi-Mania in the Egyptian TV that extended to cooking shows and fashion shows.

The question now is for how long will the show continue on MBC Masr, before we hear the news of Bassem Youssef looking for a new channel for his show.

February 05 2014

Netizen Report: Egypt and Saudi Suppress Speech With Terror Laws

Photographer at a protest in Cairo. Photo by Rowan El Shimi via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Photographer at a protest in Cairo. Photo by Rowan El Shimi via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Hae-in Lim, Lisa Ferguson, Bojan Perkov, Sonia Roubini, Ellery Biddle, and Sarah Myers contributed to this report.

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This week's report begins in Egypt, where 20 journalists employed by Al Jazeera are facing terror-related charges. They stand accused of assisting terrorist efforts to “influence international public opinion” and of presenting “unreal scenes” that suggest Egypt has descended into civil war.

But many observers say these journalists were simply doing their jobs. On independent Egyptian news site Mada Masr, Democracy Now’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous wrote, “the charges would be comical if they weren't so serious.” He continued:

The much-hailed new constitution guarantees freedom of thought and opinion, yet those with dissenting thoughts and opinions are targeted. Freedom of the press is guaranteed, yet journalists are behind bars. Why even refer to rights and legislation when those enforcing the law are its most egregious violators?

Al Jazeera has created a timeline of events surrounding the arrests. A full English translation of the journalists’ charge sheet can be found on the New York Times website. Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and many other human rights groups are demanding the journalists be released.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s government released a draft bill last week that would criminalize the use of online platforms (the bill explicitly mentions Facebook) to “directly or indirectly promote acts of terror” in the country.

And Egypt is not the only country in the Arab region where dissent is being quashed by terror allegations. On Feb. 2, the royal cabinet of Saudi Arabia enacted a new counterterrorism law that will “allow the government to label any Saudi who demands reform or exposes corruption as a terrorist,” according to Human Rights Watch. The new law will codify many of the practices that the Saudi government already uses to target public dissent.

Free Expression: Serbia’s deputy PM saved by the DMCA

In Serbia, a viral video mocking an appearance by Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic on national news was removed from YouTube due to alleged copyright infringement. Administrators of Serbian websites that featured the video found their sites temporarily blocked and social media accounts hacked. Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina and SHARE Foundation published a press release [link in Russian] condemning the use of copyright provisions to impose censorship. Vucic has since claimed that he wasn’t responsible for the removal of the video and later re-posted the satire on his Facebook page.

A Turkish bill that would give the government broad censorship and surveillance powers was submitted to Parliament this week. Learn more about the bill here.

Surveillance: The Sochi spy regime

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) will keep a close watch over foreign visitors during the XXII Winter Olympics in Sochi with its new digital surveillance system. Personal information of organizers, athletes, and journalists will be compiled into a telecommunications database, along with a wide range of metadata, including “connections, traffic, and subscriber payments.” The November 2013 government decree [link in Russian] authorizing this type of surveillance also permits the FSB to retain and analyze the data for three years after the Sochi games. This has ignited fears that the Russian government could use the data against foreign journalists for years to come.

On a related note, Russian opposition blogger Alexey Navalny has launched an interactive website this week outlining the “true costs” of the Olympic preparations in Sochi.

The latest Snowden revelations concern Canada, where the Communications Security Establishment Canada, the country’s cybersecurity agency, allegedly test-ran a technology that enabled it to track any device that connected to the free Wi-Fi offered in a Canadian airport. CSEC head John Forster defended the agency on grounds that the test didn’t run in real-time and wasn’t an actual operation.

Privacy: How did the NSA snatch encryption keys?

An appeal by encrypted email provider Lavabit against the Justice Department may, for the first time, provide insight into how government organizations like the NSA obtain the encrypted SSL keys that enable to it eavesdrop on some web communications. Lavabit shut down in early August 2013 after being asked to provide SSL keys to the FBI.

Industry: Netizens say bye-bye to Weibo

Chinese microblog site Sina Weibo has lost members for the first time since 2010. Possibly because of a government crackdown on online speech, membership in Weibo declined by 9 percent over the past year.

Online education platform Coursera blocked access to its services in Cuba, Iran, Syria, and Sudan—all countries under U.S. economic sanctions—after receiving a warning from the US State Department. Thanks to an exception for educational tools, Coursera has since reinstated access in Syria. No such luck for Cuban, Sudanese, or Iranian students.

New rules from the Justice Department allowed technology companies to provide more detailed information on national security-related data requests they receive from the U.S. government. Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo break down the requests into three categories in their reports released Feb. 3—FISA content requests, FISA non-content requests, and national security letters.

Internet Governance: Pick your poison, Bhutan

The Bhutan government has come under criticism for its plans to migrate all internal communications to Google servers hosted outside Bhutan. Officials say the program will help the nation to become more eco-friendly and will help secure government websites, which have been frequently hacked in the past. Critics including the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society have expressed concern that this will leave the country vulnerable to surveillance by the United States.

North Korea unveiled a new, tightly controlled Intranet called Kwangmyong, or “Bright.” The country has rolled out several other information technologies platforms recently, including an OS, the Microsoft-clone known as “Red Star,” and a search engine called “Our Country.”

Internet Insecurity: Data spill proves corruption among Chinese elites

A terabyte leak that occurred in China more than a year ago may now threaten the legitimacy of China’s ruling Communist Party. Amid rising public discontent over official corruption, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has identified 22,000 Chinese elites, many with family ties to political leaders, who concealed their wealth in offshore tax havens. China’s state-run media has called the use of leaked data to sabotage political leaders as “Internet terror.” The database webpage and all reports of the leak have been blocked inside China.

Cool Things

Slovak designer Martin Vargic created what could be the next poster that will hang in every computer geek’s bedroom – a beautiful map of the Internet that combines this famous 2010 xkcd map showing social networks as countries and regions with National Geographic Maps.

Publications and Studies

February 04 2014

“The Square” Director Jehane Noujaim On Filming Egypt's Revolution

Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, director of

Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, director of “The Square”. Image courtesy WITNESS

This article by Matisse Bustos-Hawkes for WITNESS originally appeared on The WITNESS Blog on January 31, 2014 and is republished as part of a content sharing agreement. 

By Matisse Bustos Hawkes, Senior Communications Manager/WITNESS

The Square, an Oscar-nominated documentary by director Jehane Noujaim, follows core activists during the Egyptian Revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarack, and then saw the rise and fall of Mohamed Morsi.

In an interview with WITNESS, Noujaim explains how the documentary was constructed from 1,600 hours of footage, the role of citizen video in the making of it and how collaborative production brought the whole film together.

Q: How did the project originate? When did you know you had material enough for a full-length documentary about the Egyptian revolution?

Jehane Noujaim: I grew up just ten minutes from Tahrir Square, and my family still lives in Cairo. I came to the square with plans to make a film, but I was not sure what the story was. In the first few weeks the entire crew met each other in the square and we began looking for characters to follow and began filming. If I weren’t a filmmaker, I would have been there anyway. I often find myself shooting people and situations that I am drawn to. It’s part of the process. The footage doesn’t always turn into a film. This one did.

By the time we finished shooting, we had over 1600 hours worth of material. We cut a finished film in 2012 and took it to Sundance a year later, where it won the Audience Award. But the story wasn’t over. The situation on the ground had changed again and our characters were once again the in thick of things back in Cairo. We realized we had to continue the story. We had to go back to Tahrir and keep shooting. As a result the film became a deeper, more complex story.

Q: How did you find each of the characters you ended up featuring in the film? Were there others you followed who didn't make it into the film? 

JN: The magic of Tahrir Square is that it drew in people from all walks of life, it was easy to find a diverse cast of characters that any audience could relate to. We started with about six characters in the film; out of that Ahmed, Khalid, and Magdy emerged as the central figures. Their stories fit together in a character arc that was understandable, coherent, and didn’t pull you too far from what was happening in Tahrir Square. They were also characters I fell in love with — Khalid for his fire and eloquence, Magdy for his faithfulness and open-mindedness, and Ahmed for his sheer charisma and magnetism.

One character that didn’t make it into the film was Buthayna Kamel, the first person I called when the rumblings started in 2011. She was in my 2007 BBC documentary Egypt:We Are Watching You, about a group of women in Egypt fighting for political change long before the revolution started. Buthayna used to work as a newscaster, but quit because she said she was no longer going to tell lies on behalf of the government. She decided to run for the presidency, the first woman in Egypt to do so. We followed her during her entire campaign, but painfully had to take her out because she deserved her own story, and we wanted to keep the film about the public space of the square itself and how it was used as a political tool.

Q: What safety measures or precautions were undertaken to keep those in front of and behind the cameras safe while filming?

JN: For one thing, we all shot the film with Canon DSLRs, which made it look like we were just taking photos. Otherwise, our cameras would have been confiscated by the police. One of the characters in the film — Pierre — lived in an apartment just a few minutes away from Tahrir. It became our safety blanket, a place to run to if we needed to get away. Also we began to rent an office a few minutes away from the Square which we would run to, download footage at, and discuss our shooting plans.

But there really wasn’t a set protocol that we went by. At the start, we found ourselves in the middle of a river, one that none of us expected to be in or had even prepared for. Eventually, safety measures organically emerged. We made a point to look out for each other all the time. Like Ahmed says in the film, “We loved each other without really knowing each other.”

It was very important that the crew came from Egypt — that they were protestors and that they wanted to be there anyway — because we didn’t know where the story was going. What you see is not one person’s film, but a collaborative effort between stakeholders in what was taking place, by people who deeply cared about the future of the country.

Video still of Ahmed Hassan in The Square.

Video still of Ahmed Hassan in The Square.

Q: What key lessons did your team learn about the benefits and the challenges of shooting citizen video?

JN: This film could not have been made without utilizing citizen video.

For example, a month after Mubarak stepped down — while Egypt was still in a post revolutionary hangover — Ramy Essam, the singer of the revolution, was arrested and tortured by the army in the Egyptian museum. He was electrocuted, beaten, and hung by his hair. He spent weeks in bed recovering from his injuries. At the time, people refused to believe that the military would torture someone. The military was still widely viewed as heroes of the revolution, and there was no local or international media coverage of some of the things that were happening on the ground. Looking back now, it was a foreshadowing of what was to come.

Aida El Kashef, had a camera and she shot a video documenting the results of Ramy’s torture so there would be no doubt what had happened. It was then that Mosireen — a media activism collective founded by Khalid and Aida — was formed, with the goal of putting cameras into locations that would normally never have cameras. Mosireen set up a headquarters downtown where they began training people on how to shoot video and edit and upload pieces. Some of what they shot made its way into the finished film.

In fact, about a quarter of this film, including some of the most of the incredible footage from the frontline of the protests, where you literally feel like you’re being fired at, was shot by Ahmed, the film’s lead subject. Ahmed actually studied journalism, but like many young Egyptians, he had to do whatever job he could find to make a living. He had no real training in filmmaking. Our Director of Photography, Muhammed Hamdy, taught Ahmed how to properly use a camera, and over the course of shooting this film, he used that camera as a weapon to fight back and expose human rights abuses and oppression that he saw.

Many times when he was on the front line, Ahmed was the only one there with a camera. The other protesters would form a circle around him and make sure he was protected. They would say to him, “Record, Ahmed! Record!” because it was so important for them that there was a witness, that what was happening was documented. Otherwise their stories wouldn’t get reported. That’s how it was.

Some of the footage shot for this film has been used as evidence in legal cases, a lot of it was uploaded to YouTube to try to show the world what was happening in Egypt after the media had stopped covering it. Footage has even been used in reportage by major news organizations.

Q: The visual arts and music are huge forces in the revolutionary period. You document the work of muralist Ammar Akbo Bakr throughout the film and singer Ramy Essam figures prominently. Although some works such as Akbo Bakr’s murals were intended to be temporary and shifting, did you set out to create an archive of sorts in the film of the cultural and artistic activity that was taking place along side the protests?

The role of art in the Egyptian revolution cannot be exaggerated. That’s why it’s such an essential through-line in the film, because artists were at the forefront of the changes taking place in Egypt. From the start, culture and freedom of expression were at the heart of the movement. I think that the Cultural Revolution — the explosion of art, painting, writing, and poetry — continues to be something that inspires Egyptians. There are so many initiatives and collectives now for people to express themselves, to express the revolution, to claim ownership of their country. We ourselves were making a film or documenting events as they unfolded through our characters. What you see in the final film and the rest of the other 1599 hours of footage not in the film is, I guess, a form of an archive.

Q: Although you have not been able to officially screen the film in Egypt, have the main characters been able to see it? What have reactions been from Egyptians in the diaspora who have been able to see the film?

The main characters have all seen the film and they are, of course, following all the stories about the film on social media. You have to keep in mind that for them the revolution is still going on. They are very much still in the thick of it. In fact, as Egypt marked the third anniversary of the January 25 uprising, it was quite tense for them.

As for Egyptians in the diaspora, they typically approach the film with a degree of apprehension. Given the ever shifting and increasingly unstable situation in Egypt, this is understandable. We frankly didn’t know what to expect from them. Now that we have been doing screening after screening all over North America and in the UK, we have been seeing Egyptians from across the spectrum of Egyptian society respond differently to the film.

Look, it’s a really dark and divided time for Egyptians – not just those in the country, but in the diasporas as well. Egyptians are torn apart by what's happening in their country. Some have said that Egypt is descending into civil war. Watching the film, however, and especially the relationship between Ahmed and Magdy, the Muslim Brotherhood member, has given them a completely different perspective. Their story personalized the commonality of the human struggle in Egypt despite the deep political divides. Even though Ahmed and Magdy have different political perspectives, the caring and the love, the loyalty and friendship they display to each other at the end of the film has given a lot of the Egyptians who’ve seen the film hope that Egypt can still be united.

Q: What message do you think The Square will convey to worldwide audiences about Egypt's post revolutionary period?

JN: The Square is not the seminal film on the Egyptian revolution. I don't think that anybody can claim to do that. It’s not a piece of journalism, and it doesn’t pretend to tell the entire story of the revolution. And it certainly is not a “one-sided,” “naïve,” or “dangerous” depiction of Egyptian politics, as some have suggested.

This is a vérité documentary about the journey of a handful of characters in Tahrir Square; how they come from different walks of life, but are completely united in their unwillingness to compromise on their principles. Ultimately it’s about greatness emerging out of chaos. My responsibility as the director was to be truthful to these characters and to take the audience deep into their stories. In the end, this is not a film about the Egyptian revolution. It is a film about the Egyptians who are living through it.

Like Ahmed says in the film, “only we can tell our stories, only we can write our stories. It's our time to bring back the narrative, to show the power of our communities to be our own storytellers.” This film is a direct product of this phenomenon.

Official Trailer

The Square is now streaming on Netflix. Reach Matisse and WITNESS on Twitter at @matissebh and @witnessorg.

February 03 2014

Human Rights Video: 2013 Year in Review

A video by WITNESS on the Human Rights Channel of YouTube wrapped up some of the most significant protests and human rights abuses of 2013. Dozens of clips shot by citizens worldwide are edited together to show efforts to withstand injustice and oppression, from Sudan to Saudi Arabia, Cambodia to Brazil.

A post on the WITNESS blog by Madeleine Bair from December 2013, celebrates the power of citizen activism using new technologies including video, while readers are reminded that the difficulty of verification and establishing authenticity remains a big obstacle.

“Citizen footage can and is throwing a spotlight on otherwise inaccessible places such as prisons, war zones, and homes,” says Bair. “But given the uncertainties inherent in such footage, reporters and investigators must use it with caution.”

Reposted byiranelection iranelection

January 31 2014

Egypt's Anti-Terrorism Law to Target Internet

Facebook, among other sites, will come under new scrutiny in Egypt, when a draft “anti-terrorism” law comes into effect.

The draft law, submitted by the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry, which in turn would go to the Cabinet for ratification, states that internet sites which instigate terrorism could be censored. This includes popular sites such as Facebook, which have increasingly become a channel among Egyptians to voice dissent.

According to Al Sherooq [ar] Arabic daily:

تضمن مشروع قانون «مكافحة الإرهاب» المرسل من وزارة الداخلية للعدل، قبل إرساله إلى مجلس الوزراء، لإقراره، ولأول مرة موادَّ جديدة لضمان فرض السيطرة على الجرائم «الإرهابية» بشكل أكثر شمولًا من مواد قانون العقوبات، بداية من فرض الرقابة اللازمة على مواقع فيسبوك والإنترنت؛ لمنع استخدامها في الأغراض «الإرهابية» المنصوص عليها

The anti-terrorism law, sent by the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Justice, before sending it to the Cabinet, for approval, for the first time includes new laws which guarantee control over “terrorism” crimes in a comprehensive manner, starting with the monitoring of Facebook and the Internet, in order of them not to be used for terrorism purposes

Egyptian blogger Ramy Yaacoub notes:

And adds:

Novelist Ezzedine Choukri Fishere says that the new bill will impact more than just terrorism:

Congratulations Egypt! Protecting the environment has now become an act of terrorism

And Mai El-Sadany concludes:

Australian Journalist Peter Greste Caught in Egypt's Media Crackdown

Writing in Working Life, Andrew Casey highlights the risks to media freedom in Egypt as international journalists and other media workers face terrorism charges. Among them is Australian Peter Greste, an Al Jazeera journalist.

AB14: “We Must Stop Thinking That Technology Will Solve All of Our Problems”

This article originally appeared on El Diario, in Spanish. Translation by Ellery Roberts Biddle.

Empty seats for those who were absent from #AB14. Photo by Hisham Almiraat via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Empty seats for those who were absent from #AB14. Photo by Hisham Almiraat via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“Those who live in western societies do not understand the importance of being able to criticize the actions of their government. This is a right we do not have in our countries.”

It was with this that Walid Al-Saqaf, founder of Portal Yemen, began a panel on censorship and digital surveillance at the Arab Bloggers Meeting #AB14 that took place from the 20-23 of January in Amman.

Banner calling for the release of Alaa Abd El Fattah and Bassel Safadi, former participants at the Arab Bloggers Meeting.

Banner calling for the release of Alaa Abd El Fattah and Bassel Safadi, former participants at the Arab Bloggers Meeting.

The political context for this event has changed dramatically since the last meeting in September of 2011, when bloggers and activists from every Arab country came together in Tunis, meeting under a banner that read: “Welcome to a Free Tunis.” Since this time, censorship and repression have continued. The ardent, palpable feeling of hope at the last meeting, fueled by uprisings against dictatorships in the region, has given way to difficult transitions in some cases and armed conflict in others, all struggles that we see plainly in the online realm.

“We must stop thinking that technology will solve all of our problems,” Al-Saqaf pleaded. “Censorship is here to stay, regardless of the tools, so we must stop being obsessed with them and begin to think in the long term.”

The meeting focused on the strategic pursuit of protection against censorship and surveillance, and the preservation of common bonds in a milieu that feels more and more fragmented each day. An on-site photo project featured a message from each of the participants.

“We watch the government, not the other way around,” message from Moroccan blogger Zineb Belmkaddem during the Arab Bloggers Meeting in Amman. Photo by Amer Sweidan, used with permission.

“We watch the government, not the other way around,” message from Moroccan blogger Zineb Belmkaddem during the Arab Bloggers Meeting in Amman. Photo by Amer Sweidan, used with permission.

This year, the absence of two participants from past meetings was especially palpable: Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah and Syrian web developer Bassel Safadi. The meeting was dedicated to them, journalists and activists detained in the region. A statementcalling for freedom for Razan Zaitouneh, co-founder of Syria’s Center for Violations Documentation, a group that documents human rights abuses, who was kidnapped in December in Damascus.

As a community, we have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with activists promoting freedom and exposing human rights violations in service of our shared humanity. We at AB14 demand that the UN and all countries involved in the Geneva II Middle East Peace Conference establish verifiable mechanisms to protect and secure the release of opinion detainees and kidnappees in Syria.

These were not the only people absent. A Syrian member of the Enab Baladi project, a local independent media project created at the start of the March 2011 uprising, was sent back to Turkey after several hours of interrogation at the Amman airport. Two Iraqi participants were denied entry visas altogether. Restrictions for citizen travel between countries in the region remains a constant (at the last meeting, Palestinian participants were not able to get into Tunisia) a reality that contradicts the illusion of regional unity.

“I have no words, only shame, to describe how Arab regimes treat citizens in other Arab countries, while a person with a Western passport can move freely without a visa through practically the entire region,” wrote Abir Kopty. She added: “We will keep fighting until we are separated neither by borders nor by authoritarian regimes.”

January 27 2014

Egypt: Is Sissi's Promotion a Step Closer to the Presidency?

Interim president Adly Mansour issued a presidential decree promoting General Abdel Fattah El-Sissi, minister of defence, to the rank of field marshal. It is the highest rank in the Egyptian military.

The promotion has created a buzz online, with many wondering whether it paves the way for Sissi to run for presidency in elections penciled in for the end of April.

Adam Makary tweets:

Louisa Loveluck notes:

And Ahmed Abrass explains what the title Field Marshal means [ar]:

“Field Marshal in English means someone who has led troops on the field battle and have obtained scintillating victories”

This isn't the case for El Sissi. However, it seems that this is not a prerequisite in the Egyptian army and that the former general had all the necessary qualifications to become a Field Marshal.

Nervana Mahmoud explains:

Bel Trew confirms:

And Egyptian Streets says:

Many netizens seem puzzled and clearly annoyed by the news.

On Facebook, Mina Labib asks [ar]:

يتكافؤه على ايه ؟؟ علي إنفجارات ؟؟!!

What is he being honoured for? The explosions?

Egypt woke up on January 24 to a series of four explosions, which left six dead and over 70 wounded in Cairo.

Some suggest that this promotion is a fast-track to Sissi's presidential bid. Nervana Mahmoud writes:

Egyptian Streets adds:

And journalist Patrick Kingsley explains:

It seems that the presidential bid isn't the only reason for this promotion. Tarik Salama tweets:

And Basil Al Dabh adds:

In time of great unrest and crackdown on personal freedoms, some people see this as another step towards the deification and cult of personality that Egyptian leaders were used to enforce.

Zack Gold explains:

While Gr33ndata shares this cartoon:

Congrats Tunisia on the New Constitution!

Bloggers from across the region paid tribute to Tunisia for adopting a new constitution, three years after the ousting of dictator Zeine el Abidin Ben Ali.

The country, the first to join the so-called Arab Spring, is on the right path, they say.

Yemeni blogger Noon Arabia congratulates Tunisians:

Algerian Megari Larbi follows suit:

From Egypt, Mohamed El Dahshan laments the situation in his own country:

The comparisons with Egypt continue.

Borzou Daragahi tweets:

And Israeli Elizabeth Tsurkov chimes in:

Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt adds:

January 24 2014

Breaking: Huge Explosion Rocks Downtown Cairo

Egyptians just woke up to the sound of a huge explosion, that rocked downtown Cairo. Photographs posted online show a plume of smoke rising above the horizon. Some report the sound of gunshot. Initial reports claim that the explosion happened around the Cairo Police Directorate.

Journalist Rawya Rageh is glued to her TV screen reporting:

The information so far is sketchy. Online, Cairo residents are scrambling for information.

Mohamed Abdelfattah asks:

Rania Hafez reports:

Cairo Live 24/7 shares this photograph:

And this photograph is also making the rounds:

And Mahmoud Saber says it could only be from the Cairo Police Directorate:

I am looking at the smoke from outside my window. The smoke is coming from the direction of the Cairo Police Directorate. There isn't anything in that direction except the police directorate

January 18 2014

Lebanese blogger spoofs Study on Middle Eastern Women Dressing

The question “How should Middle Eastern Women Dress in Public” posed by the University of Michigan is attracting hilarious spoofs online. The content is so rich that an additional post to our first one was necessary.

When Washington Post Max Fisher shared the original image on Twitter, he wasn't expecting this response by WSJ blogger Tom Gara:

But the spoof that got the most attention was undoubtedly Karl Sharro's of KarlreMarks:

Interviewed on PRI, he explained his motivation:

“It's almost like putting Muslim women on a scale from 1 to 6, from being fully covered to not being covered at all, which I think is pretty absurd.”

Egyptian Blogger Nawara Negm Calls it Quits

Outspoken Egyptian blogger Nawara Negm is taking a break from blogging politics.

On her blog, Tahyyes, she writes a long post explaining her position [ar]:

انا مش لاقية طرف مش متعاص كاكا… حتى اللي عاملين ثوار واصحاب مبادئ… طبعا مش لانهم عملا وجواسيس، بس لانهم متلخبطين، والواحد لما يتلخبط يعتزل… زي ما انا قررت اعتزل كده، لان فعلا المشهد مربك

I don't see a single faction not covered with shit… even those who pretend they are revolutionaries and people with principles … of course not because they are agents and spies but because they are confused and when a person is this confused, he needs to retire, just as I have decided to retire and this scene is really confusing

Negm, daughter of revolutionary poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, is a journalist and activist in her own right and was a spokesperson for the revolutionaries at Tahrir Square. On Twitter, she commands 629,000 followers.

January 12 2014

Hockey, Diving for Crosses and Other Christmas-in-January Traditions

For Christians of the Western hemisphere, Christmas comes a little earlier than for their counterparts in Eastern Europe, North Africa and other countries. According to the Gregorian calendar, one of many man-made concepts to measure time and the calendar the globe uses today, Christ was born during the night between December 24 and December 25 just a little over 2,000 years ago. According to the Julian calendar, still used by many religious organizations in the world, those dates correspond to January 6 and January 7.

Among those who celebrate Christmas on those January dates are most Orthodox and Coptic Christians, from Eastern Europe to Egypt and Ethiopia. We called on the wonderfully diverse team of over 700 Global Voices authors to share their favorite local Orthodox and Coptic Christmas traditions and learned that the world is indeed a festive place, long after the Western world has taken down their Christmas stockings and stripped their Christmas trees.

Markos Lemma from Ethiopia explains how a game of hockey is the centerpiece in this North African country's Christmas celebrations:

Christmas falls on December 29 of the Ethiopian calendar (January 7 according to the Gregorian calendar). Ledet (Christmas), it is celebrated seriously by a church service that goes on throughout the night after 43 days fasting known as Tsome Gahad (Advent), with a spectacular procession, which begins at 6 a.m. and lasts until 9 a.m. After the mass service, people go home to break the fast with the meat of chicken or lamb or beef accompanied with injera and the traditional drinks (i.e. tella or tej). Traditionally, young men played a game similar to hockey called genna on this day and now Christmas has also come to be known by that name.

The case in Serbia is far from similar, but followers of the Orthodox faith in Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina celebrate Christmas Eve on January 6, the last day of the same 40-day fast observed in Ethiopia, and then break that fast on Christmas Day, January 7, with a similar family feast abundant with meats of all sorts and special Christmas dishes. Different regions of these countries have somewhat different traditions, but this author chose to share one particular tradition that the vast majority of Orthodox families still uphold in this part of Southeast Europe:

On Christmas Day, January 7 according to the Julian calendar, Orthodox Serb households welcome a young male or male child, called a Položajnik, into the house in the early morning. The young male is usually a younger cousin, grandson or neighbor and he should be the first to enter the house that day. He brings in a wreath or bundle of small well dried oak branch tips, hay and such, called a Badnjak, with him and uses it to light the fire. In urban households, most of which don't have a fireplace, the stove is used to light the Badnjak. As sparks from the dried leaves and branches float around, he chants “As many sparks, that much health; as many sparks, that much wealth; as many sparks, that much love; as many sparks, that much luck…”, in no particular order. Different communities and families have their own versions of this ditty. The položajnik is considered a representation of health, prosperity and all things good. He brings luck, health, and love into the home. He then receives a gift from the family and joins them for Christmas breakfast.

Expat blogger David Bailey, better known as “An Englishman in the Balkans”, posted this video explaining the traditional breaking of the Christmas bread, known as the Česnica, on Christmas day in an Orthodox home in Bosnia. The Česnica, however, takes on different shapes throughout the region and in the Vojvodina region of Serbia, for example, is very sweet, resembling baklava more than bread.

The traditional Christmas greeting in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro is “Christ is born!”, to which the proper response is “Truly He is born”. Coincidentally, Lebanon, a country relatively far from Eastern Europe, now uses the same Christmas greeting. Thalia Rahme explains:

In Lebanon … its becoming more and more trendy to say the formula you just mentioned as in reaction to the secularization of Christmas

While usually we used to say that in Easter – Christ is risen, Indeed he is risen – now we also say [it on] Christmas – Christ is Born, Indeed He is born.

Lebanon seems to be a particularly special case when it comes to calendars and Christmas celebrations, with a plethora of faiths and traditions truly all its own. Thalia managed to unravel some of the marvels of Lebanese Christmas for us:

Lebanese Orthodox celebrate Christmas with Catholics on December 24.

Only Armenians Orthodox do have it on January 6 and, since it happens to be Epiphany for us Catholics [marking the baptism of Jesus], it's a kind of double celebration and an official holiday in Lebanon as part of giving each community its rights.

We have a small Coptic and Orthodox community and [an] Ethiopian one who celebrate it on January 7.

On the other hand, Armenian Orthodox choose to celebrate their Easter with us Catholics, but this is not the case for other Orthodox communities [...] but this year Easter for both Catholics and Orthodox is falling on the same date

At the mention of the marking of the Epiphany, many other Eastern Europeans chimed in with their stories of this frequently forgotten, not-so-minor Christian holiday. Global Voices’ veteran author from Bulgaria Rayna St. wrote in to say this:

For the French, January 6 is Epiphany so people eat Galette des Rois (and yes, it's yummy).

For Bulgarians, January 6 is also Epiphany, also called Yordanovden, when everyone named Yordan/ka, Daniel/a, Bogomil/a, Bojidar/a celebrate. The day's name is also Bogoyavlenie (God's appearance) and it is believed to be the day when Jesus Christ was baptized in the Jordan River. When He came out of the waters, the skies opened and there was a voice saying, “You are my beloved Son, all my good will is in You” or something along these lines.

The most exciting moment of this nowadays is the ritual that accompanies this day: the priest throws a cross in the river and young men jump in to fetch it. As you may imagine, it's quite sporty as temperatures in Bulgaria differ from Jordan… :) So, when a guy catches the cross, he is believed to be blessed, fortunate, and to have iron health for the coming year. The priest also goes through houses and, in my region at least, fills in the rooms with tamyan smoke (a specific kind of wax mixture) so it chases away bad spirits. Bogoyavlenie is actually the last one of the Dirty Days and only meatless dishes are served for dinner.

Interestingly enough, while a common Christmas date may not be something all Eastern European Christians share, swimming for crosses in ice cold waters on Epiphany is. This tradition is also the same as Rayna describes in Russia, Serbia, Montenegro and other countries of the region. The dates of when they mark the Epiphany and break the January ice, however, do differ, with those who follow the Julian calendar coming in 13 days “late” again.

But back to Christmas in that region. Busy with following Ukraine's 2013 Euromaidan protests, which continued throughout the Christmas holidays and into 2014, Tetyana Bohdanova set aside a few moments from these worrying events to fill us in on how Christmas is traditionally celebrated by Orthodox followers in this country when they aren't out in the streets holding anti-government rallies by the hundreds of thousands:

In Ukraine most people celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January, according to the Julian calendar. On Christmas Eve, January 6, we gather for a traditional dinner that consists of 12 meatless dishes honoring the 12 Apostles. The dinner may begin only after the first star appears in the sky indicating that Christ has been born.

Another Christmas tradition is Vertep, which originally included a puppet theater representing Nativity scenes. A contemporary version, however, refers to a group of people acting out the story of Christ’s birth. Vertep also commonly includes folk characters and singing of Christmas carols. This year Ukrainian Vertep has been influenced by the political turmoil in the country. Among dressed up actors one may recognize Biblical and folk figures along with contemporary politicians, who are not necessarily represented by the good characters!

Tetyana Lokot, also from Ukraine, echoed what Tetyana Bohdanova had to say about caroling and added video evidence of this community holiday tradition:

One [tradition] is caroling – going around singing carols and bringing people the good news, for which carolers sometimes get candy and small change. It is typical for carolers to dress up in national costumes and go in groups, and the carols’ tunes and texts have been carried through generations. One of the most popular ones, and certainly my favorite, is Schedryk (known in English as Carol of the Bells), an old Ukrainian song. [The video] is a recent version from 2011 by Oleh Skrypka, a Ukrainian musician. The cartoon that goes along with it is strangely hinting at the Euromaidan spirit of 2013 and 2014, but also reminds us that we are all kids at heart :)

While Orthodox Coptic Christians account for the largest Christian community in Egypt, they form an even larger percentage of the Ethiopian community. Befekadu Hailu from Ethiopia reminds us that many of us may not even be in the same year, much less on the same date:

As you may know, our [Ethiopian] calendar is also different so we didn't start a new year with most of you. We started 2006 in September and this is the 2006th birthday of Jesus. We are just celebrating Christmas tomorrow [January 7] – which is a public holiday. The Orthodox Christians will also complete their 40 days of fasting season tomorrow. So, it will also be a day of eating much meat products. People spend it at home and as usual coffee ceremony, holiday food, family gatherings are the features of the holiday.

Thus, we end this quick journey through what may be a belated Christmas to some, where we began – in North Africa, with a traditional Christmas song performed by an Ethiopian choir. May your Christmases be as plentiful, warm, and well-rehearsed as theirs, wherever and whenever you choose to celebrate them. In the meantime, some of us are off to prepare for Orthodox New Year's Eve, coming up on January 13 – and you're all invited!

January 10 2014

Award-Winning Egyptian Activists Receive One-Year Suspended Sentence

Prominent Egyptian activists Alaa Abd El Fattah, his sister Mona Seif, and ten others on January 5 received a one-year suspended sentence in a case in which they were accused of torching the headquarters of ex-Presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq’s campaign. This is one of many cases that has Egyptian and international activist communities worried about the government’s apparent backlash at those active in fueling the January 25 revolution in Egypt in 2011.

Tweet showing Mona Seif coming out of the court hall where she was just handed a one-year suspended sentence.

Alaa did not attend the court session. He has been detained since November 28, after being accused of organizing a protest in front of The Shura Council (the upper house of Egypt's Parliament) without obtaining legal permission. Two days prior to the protest, legislators passed a law requiring all protest organizers to submit logistical information about planned protests to the Ministry of the Interior. Under the new policy, the Ministry reserves the right to (indefinitely) require a change of logistics. Practically speaking, this enables the Ministry to prevent protests from taking place, if it so chooses.

The protest in question was organized by the No to Military Trials for Civilians group, a campaign initiated by Mona Seif but of which her brother Alaa is not a member. The group has issued a press statement claiming responsibility for the organization of the protest. Members of the group have also filed a report with the public prosecutor claiming responsibility for the event. The protest, which took place on November 26, called for the abolishing of military trials for civilians in the new constitution which Egypt is to vote on later this month.

The protest was violently dispersed by the police roughly half an hour after it began. Police detained 11 women, most of them members of the No to Military Trials group, and 24 men. The women, all of whom were beaten and some of whom were sexually harassed while being detained, remained in custody for a few hours. They were then forced to ride a police car and thrown in the desert sometime after midnight. The men were detained for a week and are now released (except for one, Ahmed Abdel Rahman) pending investigation. Alaa was detained after police stormed his house two days later and accused him of organizing the protest. This allegation came despite the fact that Alaa waited outside the police station where his sister was detained on November 26 all evening until she was picked up by friends after police threw her and her colleagues in the desert. Although both Alaa and Ahmed Abdel Rahman have been detained for over a month pending investigation, no court date has been assigned yet for the case.

The suspended sentence should allow the activists to serve a period of probation, rather than jail time, on the condition that they abide by the law during this period.

These are not the only two cases currently in progress against prominent activists in Egypt. Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma, and Mohamed Adel have all recently been given a hefty 3-year-sentence with hard labor in another case, in which they were also accused of organizing a protest without permit. Maher is the founder of the April 6 Youth group, and Adel is the group’s spokesperson. The three activists have also been each fined EGP 50,000 ($7,000) each, and would be put on probation for another three years if found guilty. The activists have appealed the sentence, but they currently remain in prison.

In Alexandria, long-time activists Mahinour El Masri and Hassan Mostafa, along with four others, were convicted of organizing a protest without permit, and were given two-year prison sentences and a fine of EGP 50,000 ($7,000) each. Hassan Mostafa had just been released from jail in November after the public prosecutor suspended a one-year-sentence he received for slapping a prosecutor while filing a complaint for torturing detainees.

Activists in Egypt believe these cases and others are merely political in nature, and meant to keep prominent activists behind bars while intimidating others to keep them away from the political process. The government passed the Protest Law in November claiming it was necessary to control the chaos created mostly by Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers in clashes with security forces that often turned violent. Since it has been put in effect however, the law has been used to crack down on all kinds of opposition, including peaceful protesters, and individuals and groups that have been closely associated with the January 25 revolution and its aftermath.

January 09 2014

How Should Middle Eastern Women Dress in Public?

How should Middle Eastern women dress? The way they want

How should Middle Eastern women dress? The way they want

This question, posed by a University of Michigan study, is drawing laughs – and criticism online. Most reactions came after this report on the Huffington Post.

The survey, conducted in seven “Muslim majority countries”, details what people think is an acceptable dress code for women in public in their countries. According to the poll, the majority of people in those countries, “do not think a woman should fully cover her face.” In Saudi Arabia, for example, 63 per cent of those polled said a woman should wear the veil which covers the face, but reveals the eyes – a common dress code for women in the conservative kingdom. Respondents from Lebanon and Turkey preferred women not to cover their faces – or hair.

On the Washington Post blog, Max Fisher notes:

Veiling is such a sensitive issue in much of the Middle East because, in many ways, it's about much more than just clothing. It's about religious vs. secular identity, about the degree to which women are or are not afforded equality and about embracing or rejecting social norms that are seen as distinctly Islamic.

On Twitter, the reactions are more fierce.

Palestinian Lena Jarrar asks:

M Ibrahim adds:

Hend, from Libya, takes several jabs at the poll. She tweets:

And Egyptian Mohamed El Dahshan joins the fray, saying:

And Siddhartha Chatterje wonders:

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