It is impossible not to get excited about the technical innovation of Egyptian activists. “Techies take out an entrenched, autocratic regime” makes for an interesting conference talk. At the Tahrir Data Project we are just finishing up our interviews with the wired youth that comprise the international face of the revolution. Not one has failed to impress. The ingenuity, flexibility, and resilience are inspiring; and it is easy to get starry eyed.
But, reality checks can come out of nowhere.
Yesterday we met with someone from the Tahrir media tent – a wired initiative mobilized during the uprising to collect, archive, and selectively disseminate content documenting the demonstrations. When asked if he used any important communication technologies during the protests that he had not used before he said, “Absolutely…walking!”
Some reality checks are more painful.
Despite recent assertions to the contrary, the Egyptian military continues to prosecute individuals using heavy-handed legislation. On Wednesday, respected law professor Amr Shalakany got into a verbal fight with a military officer in Sharm el Sheikh. During the argument, Shalakany made the mistake of criticizing the military. The mistake led to his arrest and transfer to a military facility 400 kilometers away in Suez. The initial charges included “insulting the supreme military council”, causing riots, and setting fire to a police station carried a 15-year prison sentence. The fact that there were no riots or police stations set alight in Sharm el Sheikh while he was there on vacation is a nonstarter. It is unclear if Shalakany’s publications during the uprising or subsequent work to secure the gains made in the past few months is related to the military’s outlandish charges.
But the military’s rationale (be it an escalating argument or a targeted arrest) is far less important than the implications: since the takeover of the military, citizens have been prosecuted – and persecuted – for acts of speech.
Forceful and unapologetic tribunals have resulted in the arrest and imprisonment (see our post here)of those criticizing the military for a litany of reasons. From the military’s violent attacks on peaceful demonstrators to its refusal to repeal the emergency law that leaves citizens at the legal whim of government, to the foundation of the military’s legitimacy as caretaker government: the heralded revolution didn’t remove the red lines of censorship, it just relocated them.
Throughout the process of the Tahrir Data Initiative, we have been impressed, exhilarated, and exceedingly excited by the ingenuity of Egyptian activists. It is easy to get swept up in this narrative as an epitome of success. However, the use of digital platforms, strategic outreach, and successful documentation of the uprising are overshadowed – or should be overshadowed – by a darker side. All of this cannot gloss over the on-the-ground political reality for Egyptians. Want to speak out? Watch out.
UPDATE: According to reports on Twitter, Amr Shalakany has been released from custody.