A crusade through Arab eyes

Cover story Eight Egyptian bloggers went to America to cover the race for the White House. Rhonda Roumani reports from democracy's front lines.

Loud new world: "To be a blogger, you have more freedom to write. They curse, they say what they would say at a coffeehouse with their friends."
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Eight Egyptian bloggers went to America to cover the race for the White House. Rhonda Roumani reports from democracy's front lines.
Ahmed Naje looks over his shoulder periodically at the neat and quiet row of mostly college students that has formed behind him, just outside the co-op at the University of Texas at Austin. Naje, 23, is slim and wears a black button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled just past his elbows. Next to him a large barrel of a man who goes by the nom de blog Sandmonkey is preparing a videocamera to shoot an election day stand-up. The two are among eight Egyptian bloggers who have come the United States to cover the presidential election, which they are chronicling in online dispatches and in a documentary that will air on al Jazeera.

"There's a long line and they're waiting to go in to vote," Naje explains in Arabic, looking back at the line, whose members are patiently waiting their turn. "But I don't know why it's moving so slowly when it's so obvious that there's no bread inside" - a sly reference to the bread lines that have become common in Egypt this year. Sandmonkey gives up a slight chuckle. "And the weird thing is that they're lining up to vote inside some supermarket," Naje continues. "Subhanallah," Naje says, raising his voice evangelically. "And they don't have judicial oversight."

"No, they don't have that," Sandmonkey says. "They have machines." "What are these machines?" Naje asks sardonically. The two play with the idea of "voting machines" for a while before Naje delivers the wrap-up. "What we see here are victims of American democracy," Naje finally says to the camera, barely cracking a smile. "The elections - it's clear they're rigged, right? These kids are dressed in shorts, waiting in line... I mean, waiting to go inside and literally play games on some machines and there's no police checkpoint and no judge inside. It's very strange. These people must be joking. And there's no one fighting. I mean, they must be kidding."

Sandmonkey chuckles as he puts down the camera. "Yes, yes, these poor Americans," he says.

For the past three months Naje, Sandmonkey and six other young bloggers have dedicated their energy to watching and commenting on the US presidential election, the American political system, American culture and anything and everything along the way on their blog Donkeys, Elephants & Crocs: Egypt Blogs the American Elections. The programme, sponsored by the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research at the American University of Cairo, is funded by USAID, and will continue through the inauguration of Barack Obama in January. The bloggers took courses on the American electoral system before heading first to Washington, DC, where they spent a week at the National Press Foundation. They visited Congress on September 11, heard from an array of speakers on issues ranging from campaign finance reform to the demographics of the American electorate and took part in internships at The Washington Post, The Huffington Post and Time magazine online. The bloggers split into four teams to cover the elections from journalism schools across the country, heading to Nebraska, North Carolina, New York and Texas. They witnessed the collapse of the American economy, the debates over the bailout plan, the presidential debates and conventions. They spoke to bus boys in a New York deli and a contractor working on a wind farm and living in a trailer park in Iowa. They canvassed for Barack Obama in North Carolina. They debated an evangelical preacher on a street corner in Lincoln, Nebraska and tailgated in Austin, recording their experiences on the web. Their writings speak to their search for democratic ideals as Egyptians - and their deepening understanding of American politics and culture. As observers, they had a keen awareness - especially after the presidency of George W Bush - that the occupant of the Oval Office has a profound effect on their lives in the Middle East. "It was a process of self-discovery for me," says Ahmed el Deriny, 23. Like Ahmed Naje, Deriny had never visited the United States. When he first arrived in Washington, he found himself searching for movie stars. "I came off the plane and I immediately found myself looking for Will Smith. Where's Sharon Stone?" Deriny - whose father, a leader of Egypt's small Shiite minority, has been jailed several times - had only been outside Egypt once before. A reporter for the independent leftist newspaper al Badeel, he left the country for the first time this year when he travelled to Sudan to cover the war crimes indictment of President Omar Hassan el Bashir - and returned with conflicted feelings about his upcoming trip to America. "The occupation of Iraq, the attempt to bomb Sudan - you had the feeling that people were furious at America - and then suddenly I'm going to America," says Deriny. As he drove through Washington on the way to the hotel, Deriny found himself cringing at the sight of the American flag everywhere. "In Egypt, if a guy is driving his car and has an American flag up or has a jacket with a US flag on it, he is heavily criticised," says Deriny, who was rooting for Barack Obama throughout the election. ("McCain is a warrior?he fought in Vietnam and he wants to fight in Iraq, in Afghanistan. I feel like the Republicans are these old, ancient types," he told me in Cairo.) "It's their right to hang these symbols anywhere," he said of the American flags, "but I could tell that their presence bothered me inside. And it was a process of self-discovery for me to realise that I harboured these feelings." Ahmed Naje was also taken aback by the ubiquitous flags. "In Egypt, you don't see the flag of Egypt," he says, "you see the picture of the president." On the subway the next day, Deriny struck up a conversation with a Vietnamese man, and got so engrossed he failed to notice the rest of the group exiting the train. As it pulled away, with his friends on the platform, he panicked, realising he was lost - but found himself surrounded by concerned passengers. "The whole carload of passengers empathised with me in a way that I didn't even understand," he says. "I was surprised." Later that day, Deriny was even more confused when people stopped him on the street to ask for directions, "I was under the impression that it's really obvious that I'm not an American - why would they think I know how to get somewhere." "I realised," he told me, "that diversity is the foundation" of American society. Along the way the bloggers discovered some of the lesser players in American politics, skipping out of a session at the National Press Foundation to attend an event being held next door by Ralph Nader and Ron Paul. "It was like the Egyptian opposition giving a press conference at the journalist's syndicate," says Naje - who had no idea other American political parties existed. "Ron Paul is like the crazy guy who believes in the American values and is refusing what is real - like George Ishak in Cairo, the leader of Kifaya. For these guys, the stakes are a joke. But in Egypt, the stakes are not a joke." The bloggers found the chambers of Congress surprisingly modest for a body of such power. "They made the decision to go to war in that room," Naje says with astonishment. Many of them were baffled by the way Americans commemorate a national tragedy. "We don't commemorate 1967," Naje notes. Miral Brinjy, 24, has just started her own magazine website. She was taken aback by the rhetoric on display. "We heard the opening speech in the Senate and how America had enemies and how it still had to fight its enemies and I thought, exactly what are you talking about?" says Brinjy. "It was frightening and vague, which made it even more frightening. Who are America's enemies? Are they Iraqis because they are at war in Iraq?"

As the bloggers departed for their respective universities, their American experiences became even more diverse. "At 10pm when I found myself detained at JFK airport," Naje wrote on the blog, "I felt the true feelings of Viktor Navorski" - the stranded main character in The Terminal. "The events were like an extra-long documentary film on the life of a small fly in the New York airport. I arrived at the airport at 3:15 and my next flight to Austin, Texas was leaving at 5:40, so I was in a rush, worried about getting my papers stamped and going through security checks. But I never imagined that such a nightmare could happen to me because I have a bit of luck. That's why I continued smiling when the officer put my passport in a red file folder and asked me to follow him to the interrogation room." The same thing had happened to Naje on his first trip to Washington in September. The name on his passport, Ahmed Salih, is popular among Arabs, and raised a red flag at the airport - but he was waved along after a few questions about height and eye colour. "But this time, as soon as I entered the detention room, my smile disappeared and a true state of fear took hold," Naje wrote. "The place perfectly resembled any Egyptian police station, except for the picture of Mr George Bush hanging on the wall in place of Mubarak's, and that the officers' clothes were blue rather than white. The American officers had the same cold, dumb faces as their Egyptian counterparts. I told the officer at the beginning about my flight leaving in two hours, but he told me to sit waiting until they called my name." While Naje worried about his flight, the room began to fill with other Arabs, a Pakistani woman, an Israeli woman, and "some Latino comrades." After four hours, Naje was free to go. The plane for Austin had already departed. He was told he would have to buy a new ticket. Naje then went outside for a smoke and contemplated getting lost in New York City. He had always dreamed of living in New York. After a few brief minutes in the chilled night air he looked down at his fingers - they were blue from the cold. Maybe some other time, he thought as he decided to head to Austin after what he called "an extended tour of the airport." In Nebraska, both Miral Brinjy and Mahmoud Saber fell in love with mid-Western hospitality. "People are very, very, very, very friendly," Saber says, with a big smile on his face. "There are no foreigners in Nebraska. No taxis. They have four to five crimes a year. Life is easy." On a street corner in "downtown" Lincoln, Saber and Brinjy interviewed an evangelical Christian carrying a cross nearly three metres high. "It said, 'Jesus come back to me,'" Saber explains. "He's there every Saturday telling people to come back to Jesus." Before they finished, a homeless gay man walked up and joined their conversation, and the Egyptians found themselves in the middle of an argument about homosexuality and abortion: the cross-bearer says it's a sin to be gay; the homeless man blurts out that it's not a choice. "He was like the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo," Saber says, putting his arms up in the air. "They're just like the Muslim Brotherhood." Yosra Sultan and a young anonymous blogger who calls herself EgyDiva went to North Carolina, where they were mightily impressed with a small-town newspaper called the Carrboro Citizen, started by two local journalists. "The amount of information that they had about what was going on in their own city and their own town was brilliant," says Sultan, who said she could begin to understand why Americans were less concerned with international affairs since they were so consumed with local politics. "I have no idea what's going on in Maadi," she says, referring to her district of Cairo. "I don't know how Maadi is governed or who's on what council. I came back with this idea: let's get into specifics here. We're talking too much about generalities. I think something good can come out of journalists focusing on small areas. We just don't have this idea of local politics." Sultan dedicated a whole post on the blog to the importance of statistics and research - something she feels is utterly lacking in Egypt. "The availability and dispersion of credible facts in a society can change the way that society functions," she wrote. "I am impressed. I am impressed by the existence of the polls, by the census, by social attitude surveys and by subway maps and street signs and phone directories." EgyDiva, Sultan's companion in Chapel Hill, found herself a little overwhelmed, writing: "Only in America. Its true. You spend enough time in America and you forget about the outside world. I miss reading El Badeel.net every morning. I'm also getting tired of hearing about...um...the American elections. is that a bad sign?"

Sandmonkey lies down on the couch in his bachelor-pad in Cairo's affluent neighborhood of Zamalek. Ashtrays are strewn on the table and bags of potato chips litter the ground, along with Dave Chapelle DVDs. Sandmonkey, who zealously guards his anonymity, is one of Egypt's most popular bloggers, and every bit as he portrays himself online: "an extremely cynical, snarky, pro-US, secular, libertarian, disgruntled Sandmonkey." A stout 27-year-old with a wry sense of humor and a sarcastic bent, he started blogging in December 2004, a few months after the bombings at Taba. He had returned from studying at Northeastern University in Boston, where he had finished an undergraduate degree in business, finance and psychology and a masters in business administration. "It could have killed me," he says drily. He had just left the hotel a few minutes before the explosions. "When I got back to Cairo, people were blaming the Jews and spouting conspiracy theories. There's a refusal to think. So blogging became a venting space in a society that I felt disenfranchised and alienated from and a good way to provoke people to think about things. A lot of times I take positions that I don't fully agree with just so that I can get people to consider different points of views And that's fun to do." He has become one of the most outspoken critics of Mubarak in the Egyptian blogosphere, but he says that was never his intention at the start. "I was an observer up until July 2005," he says. "I would observe the elections from afar and make fun of them." But a second round of terrorist attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh in July turned him into a full-fledged member of the opposition. "We tried to do an impromptu demonstration against it," explains Sandmonkey. "So we went and got a permit. But the day before we were going to do it, they threatened to throw us in jail if we did a demonstration against the attacks because they were afraid it might turn into an anti-Mubarak demonstration." "I decided that a government that is too stupid to differentiate between an anti-terrorism demonstration and an anti-Mubarak demonstration should not be allowed to rule." Bloggers in Egypt have been at the forefront of a movement demanding democratic change since 2004, when the Kifaya movement - meaning "enough" in Arabic -  brought together a broad coalition of Islamists, leftists, socialists and marxists who demanded an end to oppression, corruption and the decades-long rule of Mubarak. The demand for "enough" would soon translate into the country's first multi-candidate presidential elections and parliamentary elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood won 20 per cent of the seats. Throughout the election process, using only handheld cameras and the anonymity of the web, bloggers covered events and issues that other journalists avoided - women harassed by mobs while protesting or trying to vote, the beatings (or outright torture) of dissidents and activists. The mainstream press began to feed them information so that they could write about it themselves. "To be a blogger, you have more freedom to write what you see, with your own style, without censorship," says Gamal Eid, a lawyer and the executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information. "Even civil society, we have to calculate and think about how we write something. The bloggers?they curse, they say what they would say at a coffeehouse with their friends." Wael Abbas, one of the bloggers who covered the American election, is among Egypt's most famous bloggers - and probably its bravest. His blog, called Egyptian Awareness, has included videos of mobs molesting women in downtown Cairo and footage of a police officer who bound and sodomized an Egyptian bus driver - which led to the officer's conviction in November 2007. Since the beginning, says Eid, Egyptian authorities have tried to set up traps for Abbas and others like him. "They defame him on official television and curse and insult him," says Eid in his downtown office in Cairo. He is chain smoking behind a large desk, two packs of cigarettes stacked on top of each other. "They use laws that are not so straightforward in the courts or they use the emergency law. Of the prisoners of conscience being held in Egyptian jails, two are bloggers. Wael Abbas - the government will not leave him alone."

Back in Austin, outside of the polling place, Naje describes the stakes for his own family in Egypt. A few years earlier, in 2005, on the day of the first free parliamentary elections, Naje's father, a prominent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and a well-known doctor, woke him up to go and vote. "On the day of the elections, I found that my father got up early, shaved his beard, wore his nice blue suit," Naje says, imitating his father fixing his tie. "He was smiling and happy. The routine that normally took him half an hour took him an hour and a half. He got dressed and prayed and put on some perfume. Then, he came to wake me up. 'Yalla, let's go,' he told me. 'Where are we going?' 'We're going to vote.' 'But I don't want to vote," I told him. There was nobody in my district that I was interested in voting for - there was only the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party and I didn't even have my voting card." A few hours later, Naje and his mother heard reports that security officers were lined up at the polls, prohibiting voters from entering. Naje's mother urged him to go see what was happening. "My mom told me, "Be a man - go check on your father," says Naje, quietly. "I tried to explain to her that we differed ideologically. But, after a while, I knew I had no choice. I went down. When I got there, I saw a line of officers and then I saw a group of women who have been brought by the government to start fights with the women who were present. And, there, I saw my father standing in line, smiling. I went to my father and asked him, 'what are you doing?' He told me, 'they're not allowing anybody in.' So, I asked him, 'then what are you going to do?' He told me we had to wait a bit. I said, "for what?" He said they had called human rights groups and the satellite channels so that they can come and take pictures. And, then, I asked, What? We'll wait for them to come and take pictures and then we'll figure out how we'll enter." After the media and human rights groups left, Naje's father entered the voting precinct and spoke to the person in charge. "My father came out and said, 'OK, everybody, form a straight line, they're going to let everyone enter one-by-one,' 'Well, why didn't you do that from the morning? I asked. 'No, first they had to take pictures,' he replied." Then, as they stood in line, a group of young men, presumably dispatched by the ruling party, arrived to threaten the voters. Naje's father sent a young man to find out how much the toughs had been paid to start fights with the people in line, and ordered the young man to pay them triple the price. He did so and they left. Then, neighborhood thugs came by to ask why Naje's father had paid off a group of outsiders. By the end of the day, more than 1,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested, police blocked Brotherhood supporters from entering the polls in various districts and Brotherhood leaders accused the government of manipulating the final count. At the University of Texas, Naje points to the orderly line behind him. "But, here," he says, "maskhara" - what a joke - laughing at the functioning democratic process taking place just behind him. "Maskhara. Machines. Maskhara." "Ya, just so that you know," Sandmonkey says, also laughing. "Our democracy has a price."

But back home, the eight bloggers know that many challenges and questions await, questions to which they have very different answers. They stare into the political void created by the 28-year-old Mubarak administration and the ongoing struggle for democracy while an apparent heir, Mubarak's son Gamal, seems poised to take the helm. They must figure out what to do about religious groups, like the Brotherhood, angling for a piece of the political pie. They know there are no easy answers - and that Obama's victory is unlikely to bring about any change in Egypt. Yosra Sultan, like the other bloggers, says she's not waiting for Obama to bring change to the Middle East - but she does feel Obama can't be worse than Bush. Many of them wonder if the US will exert pressure for democratic reforms in Egypt; some hope for the right kind of pressure, others want the US to stay out of their business altogether. For the most part, the bloggers are holding their breath, wondering how the new Obama administration will affect their world. Some, like Mahmoud Saber, are optimistic?even if hesitantly so. On the day of the election, Saber, 21, wrote, "change is possible... yes... America chose the change." Maybe, he writes, an Obama administration will support dictatorial regimes. "But Obama elected...means change is possible...and now it's our time to do it in Egypt." "I think the key difference that allows this to happen [in America] is the fact that people think things can change," Sultan says of the Obama victory. "In Egypt and the Middle East, people don't think that things can change. The reason things don't catch on as much is the fact that no one has faith in the future." Back in Austin, Sandmonkey and Naje attend a pizza party hosted by local Democrats. As the room erupts with the announcements that Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida have gone to Obama, they walk around, unfazed. They return to their hotel to continue watching the returns, first in their room, then downstairs, at the hotel's bar and restaurant, where they watch Obama's speech at Grant Park. They roll their eyes and tell jokes in Arabic when Obama mentions the 106-year-old woman who lived through the civil rights movement and had the opportunity to vote for Obama - and at the puppy Obama promises his children. A man at the bar glares repeatedly in their direction before asking them to be quiet; they're not respecting the weight of this historic moment. As the speech winds down and Sandmonkey and Naje walk outside to have a smoke. They understand the enormity of what has just happened - that the U.S. has elected its first black president. But, still, they're slightly cynical. "It's not like things have changed for me," says Naje, taking a puff of his cigarette. "I still have Mubarak." "And Gamal," he adds after a slight pause. "Nothing has changed for me."
Rhonda Roumani, a fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation, is at work on a series of articles about youth in the Middle East.