Egyptian activists and scholars connect in digital townhall

On April 4, the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law in collaboration with the Cloud to Street project held a digital townhall meeting connecting three Egyptian  pro-democracy activists with scholars at Stanford, Harvard, and the University of British Columbia. The web-based platform allowed virtual participants to see and hear from activists broadcast live from Tahrir Lounge in the epicenter of the January 25 movement, which shook Mubarak from three decades of rule. The Egyptian activists, Sabah Hamomou, Mona Shahien, and Adbel Rahman Faris, provided personal testimony to how political action and technology combined to produce such explosive results.

The Cloud to Street project includes CDDRL visiting scholar Ben Rowswell and a team of experienced diplomats and academics from the University of British Columbia and Harvard. The Cloud to Street team deployed to Egypt two weeks ago on a fact-finding mission to connect with activists, listen to their stories, and assess their needs as they begin to construct the foundations of a democratic state. Rowswell moderated the 90-minute virtual session that included 35 virtual participants who posed questions and provided comments through a live chat tool, sparking a conversation amongst the online community.

The session began with Rowswell asking the activists about how they became involved in the events leading up to the revolution. Shahien, a founder of the Revolutionary Youth Union and a shadow minister for the Reform and Development party, confided that she had never intended to join the movement originally but was "downloaded" as an activist after responding to an advertisement on Facebook.

Hamamou an acclaimed media journalist and blogger, joined the protests when she witnessed wave after wave of activists pass by her office. She set up a camera in Tahrir Square posting a live stream of footage on her blog, documenting the protests as they unfolded. Faris, a blogger and member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, used Facebook to coordinate and mobilize protests initiated by this citizen-based movement.

Hamamou responded to questions about the future of state-run media, discussing how she lobbied for the transition of al-Ahram's (Egypt's largest newspaper) overnight transition from pro-regime to pro-revolution and its attempt to make media more representative of the new Egypt. While, traditional media has played a role in the revolution, particularly when the Internet was blocked, Shahien claimed that papers have lost credibility as more people turn to online sources for accurate and uncensored reporting.

What was clear from all three leaders was the transformation of Egypt's youth from a state of political apathy to activism. "Many youth didn't want to be part of political life, it's a dirty job they don't want to be part of.  Now this is changing since January 25," said Shahien. Similarly, she added that the Revolutionary Youth Union is reaching out to women and empowering them through civic education.

The virtual chat was ablaze with questions about what is next and how academics and outsiders can be helpful (if at all) to their efforts. Faris explained, "Mubarak may have left but the regime still remains with all its corruption." He emphasized the importance of this period of transition for street-based initiatives, which should not be compromised by the rush to form political parties.

Shahien added "getting rid of Mubarak's regime will take years, we can't just exclude them, they will come back. Our role is to change the rules-journalists and political activists."

All three activists emphasized the importance of letting Egyptians shape a future democratic state for themselves, free from foreign government interference, but they welcomed exchanges with NGOs and international civil society to lend their expertise.

Hamamou described the revolution as a collective enterprise driven by secularists and Islamists alike, who worked together towards the common goal of overthrowing the regime. Looking forward, she envisioned Egypt in the same light as a "civil" (secular) country ruled by the people and separating religion from the political space. 

While, social media was successful in catalyzing this youth-led movement, it is clear that there is significant work that still needs to be done on the ground to reach the general public. In response to this challenge, Shahien launched the Tahrir Lounge project to train activists and equip them with the offline tools necessary to conduct civic education events across Egypt, particularly in rural communities. She even proposed creating a mobile application that will educate the public on their rights, civil liberties, and build awareness during the democratic transition.

Going forward, the Cloud to Street initiative and its academic partners will be working with Egyptian partners on the ground to identify ways to harness their expertise in service of Egyptian democracy activists.

For detailed information on the Cloud to Street Initiative and to read blogs, watch videos, and learn more about the activists featured in the townhall, please visit or follow us on Twitter@cloudtostreet.