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[liberationtech] The seeds of change - a movement in the making for year (with cross-border assistance)

Nathan Freitas nathan at
Tue Feb 15 06:26:32 PST 2011

There is another story in the NYTimes today on this topic:

For those of you who attended the LibTech conference at Stanford a few
months ago now, the talk I gave mentioned how the work I do within the
Tibet independence movement and what I teach technology-focused students
at NYU focuses on combining the teaching of non-violent activism with
innovative technology to create effective movement empowering tools and
campaigns. This is not something I came up with, but more a realisation
developed through ten years work deep within a non-violent movement in
need of new approaches. Much credit should be given to Tibetan activists
for their willingness to experiment with new tactics over their long
fifty year occupation.

The gist of the idea is to combine the focused vision of change and
empowerment offered by Gene Sharp with Steve Jobs' strange ability to
mass market that, or the popular potential of OTPOR with Android, or the
dedication to ethics of Tsundue (well known Tibet activist) with Richard
Stallman. These aren't natural marriages by any means, but they are
strands of culture that must be cross-pollinated. I felt like the
concept was well received at the event, but it seemed to be a bit
foreign or a novelty in a room full of people talking about
circumvention, censorship, and mostly online activism. You can view the
full presentation here,, but it
matters less than the opportunity to make a point on this list at this
unique time.

I hope the lessons learned that come out of Egypt show the important of
this combination - that access to information alone is not enough for a
movement to succeed. We all have much to learn and consider about
"liberation technology" from pre-internet revolutionaries, while people
working on the ground have much to benefit from the tools designed and
deployed in the right way through the right organizations. Strategy is
critical to all of this - it just doesn't spring fully formed out of
Twitter and Facebook, as many have said, and little good is done from
tools dropped in from the sky baked up in a vacuum. It also shows that
having only a handful of well-organized bloggers or tweeps can make a
huge difference if they are the right people. None of this approach to
organising should be dismissed as "professional activism", either. It is

If you are interested in some of these topics, a great place to start is
the CANVAS Core Curriculum students guide, which is available in English
(and Farsi!) here, as a PDF. I use this as a teaching tool, and so can
you, but you should also reach out to the creators if you are seriously
interested in applying it to your work:

In addition, Gene Sharp's "From Dictatorship to Democracy" is available
in many languages here, including Tibetan:

Here's the choice part of the NYTimes story, btw, that inspired this rift:

"For their part, Mr. Maher and his colleagues began reading about
nonviolent struggles. They were especially drawn to a Serbian youth
movement called Otpor , which had helped topple the dictator Slobodan
Milosevic by drawing on the ideas of an American political thinker, Gene
Sharp . The hallmark of Mr. Sharp’s work is well-tailored to Mr.
Mubark’s Egypt: He argues that nonviolence is a singularly effective way
to undermine police states that might cite violent resistance to justify
repression in the name of stability.

The April 6 Youth Movement modeled its logo — a vaguely Soviet looking
red and white clenched fist —after Otpor’s, and some of its members
traveled to Serbia to meet with Otpor activists.

Another influence, several said, was a group of Egyptian expatriates in
their 30s who set up an organization in Qatar called the Academy of
Change , which promotes ideas drawn in part on Mr. Sharp’s work. One of
the group’s organizers, Hisham Morsy, was arrested during the Cairo
protests and remained in detention."



February 13, 2011
A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History

CAIRO — As protesters in Tahrir Square faced off against pro-government
forces, they drew a lesson from their counterparts in Tunisia: “Advice
to the youth of Egypt: Put vinegar or onion under your scarf for tear gas.”

The exchange on Facebook was part of a remarkable two-year collaboration
that has given birth to a new force in the Arab world — a pan-Arab youth
movement dedicated to spreading democracy in a region without it. Young
Egyptian and Tunisian activists brainstormed on the use of technology to
evade surveillance, commiserated about torture and traded practical tips
on how to stand up to rubber bullets and organize barricades.

They fused their secular expertise in social networks with a discipline
culled from religious movements and combined the energy of soccer fans
with the sophistication of surgeons. Breaking free from older veterans
of the Arab political opposition, they relied on tactics of nonviolent
resistance channeled from an American scholar through a Serbian youth
brigade — but also on marketing tactics borrowed from Silicon Valley.

As their swelling protests shook the Egyptian state, they were locked in
a virtual tug of war with a leader with a very different vision — Gamal
Mubarak, the son of President Hosni Mubarak , a wealthy investment
banker and ruling-party power broker. Considered the heir apparent to
his father until the youth revolt eliminated any thought of dynastic
succession, the younger Mubarak pushed his father to hold on to power
even after his top generals and the prime minister were urging an exit,
according to American officials who tracked Hosni Mubarak’s final days.

The defiant tone of the president’s speech on Thursday, the officials
said, was largely his son’s work.

“He was probably more strident than his father was,” said one American
official, who characterized Gamal’s role as “sugarcoating what was for
Mubarak a disastrous situation.” But the speech backfired, prompting
Egypt’s military to force the president out and assert control of what
they promise will be a transition to civilian government.

Now the young leaders are looking beyond Egypt. “Tunis is the force that
pushed Egypt, but what Egypt did will be the force that will push the
world,” said Walid Rachid, one of the members of the April 6 Youth
Movement, which helped organize the Jan. 25 protests that set off the
uprising. He spoke at a meeting on Sunday night where the members
discussed sharing their experiences with similar youth movements in
Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Iran.

“If a small group of people in every Arab country went out and
persevered as we did, then that would be the end of all the regimes,” he
said, joking that the next Arab summit might be “a coming-out party” for
all the ascendant youth leaders.

Bloggers Lead the Way

The Egyptian revolt was years in the making. Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old
civil engineer and a leading organizer of the April 6 Youth Movement,
first became engaged in a political movement known as Kefaya , or
Enough, in about 2005. Mr. Maher and others organized their own brigade,
Youth for Change. But they could not muster enough followers; arrests
decimated their leadership ranks, and many of those left became mired in
the timid, legally recognized opposition parties. “What destroyed the
movement was the old parties,” said Mr. Maher, who has since been
arrested four times.

By 2008, many of the young organizers had retreated to their computer
keyboards and turned into bloggers, attempting to raise support for a
wave of isolated labor strikes set off by government privatizations and
runaway inflation.

After a strike that March in the city of Malhalla, Egypt, Mr. Maher and
his friends called for a nationwide general strike for April 6. To
promote it, they set up a Facebook group that became the nexus of their
movement, which they were determined to keep independent from any of the
established political groups. Bad weather turned the strike into a
nonevent in most places, but in Malhalla a demonstration by the workers’
families led to a violent police crackdown — the first major labor
confrontation in years.

Just a few months later, after a strike in the Tunisian city of Hawd
el-Mongamy, a group of young online organizers followed the same model,
setting up what became the Progressive Youth of Tunisia. The organizers
in both countries began exchanging their experiences over Facebook. The
Tunisians faced a more pervasive police state than the Egyptians, with
less latitude for blogging or press freedom, but their trade unions were
stronger and more independent. “We shared our experience with strikes
and blogging,” Mr. Maher recalled.

For their part, Mr. Maher and his colleagues began reading about
nonviolent struggles. They were especially drawn to a Serbian youth
movement called Otpor , which had helped topple the dictator Slobodan
Milosevic by drawing on the ideas of an American political thinker, Gene
Sharp . The hallmark of Mr. Sharp’s work is well-tailored to Mr.
Mubark’s Egypt: He argues that nonviolence is a singularly effective way
to undermine police states that might cite violent resistance to justify
repression in the name of stability.

The April 6 Youth Movement modeled its logo — a vaguely Soviet looking
red and white clenched fist —after Otpor’s, and some of its members
traveled to Serbia to meet with Otpor activists.

Another influence, several said, was a group of Egyptian expatriates in
their 30s who set up an organization in Qatar called the Academy of
Change , which promotes ideas drawn in part on Mr. Sharp’s work. One of
the group’s organizers, Hisham Morsy, was arrested during the Cairo
protests and remained in detention.

“The Academy of Change is sort of like Karl Marx , and we are like
Lenin,” said Basem Fathy, another organizer who sometimes works with the
April 6 Youth Movement and is also the project director at the Egyptian
Democratic Academy, which receives grants from the United States and
focuses on human rights and election-monitoring. During the protesters’
occupation of Tahrir Square, he said, he used his connections to raise
about $5,100 from Egyptian businessmen to buy blankets and tents.

‘This Is Your Country’

Then, about a year ago, the growing Egyptian youth movement acquired a
strategic ally, Wael Ghonim , a 31-year-old Google marketing executive.
Like many others, he was introduced into the informal network of young
organizers by the movement that came together around Mohamed ElBaradei ,
the Nobel Prize -winning diplomat who returned to Egypt a year ago to
try to jump-start its moribund political opposition.

Mr. Ghonim had little experience in politics but an intense dislike for
the abusive Egyptian police, the mainstay of the government’s power. He
offered his business savvy to the cause. “I worked in marketing, and I
knew that if you build a brand you can get people to trust the brand,”
he said.

The result was a Facebook group Mr. Ghonim set up: We Are All Khalid
Said , after a young Egyptian who was beaten to death by police. Mr.
Ghonim — unknown to the public, but working closely with Mr. Maher of
the April 6 Youth Movement and a contact from Mr. ElBaradei’s group —
said that he used Mr. Said’s killing to educate Egyptians about
democracy movements.

He filled the site with video clips and newspaper articles about police
violence. He repeatedly hammered home a simple message: “This is your
country; a government official is your employee who gets his salary from
your tax money, and you have your rights.” He took special aim at the
distortions of the official media, because when the people “distrust the
media then you know you are not going to lose them,” he said.

He eventually attracted hundreds of thousands of users, building their
allegiance through exercises in online democratic participation. When
organizers planned a “day of silence” in the Cairo streets, for example,
he polled users on what color shirts they should all wear — black or
white. (When the revolt exploded, the Mubarak government detained him
for 12 days in blindfolded isolation in a belated attempt to stop his work.)

After the Tunisian revolution on Jan. 14, the April 6 Youth Movement saw
an opportunity to turn its little-noticed annual protest on Police Day —
the Jan. 25 holiday that celebrates a police revolt that was suppressed
by the British — into a much bigger event. Mr. Ghonim used the Facebook
site to mobilize support. If at least 50,000 people committed to turn
out that day, the site suggested, the protest could be held. More than
100,000 signed up.

“I have never seen a revolution that was preannounced before,” Mr.
Ghonim said.

By then, the April 6 movement had teamed up with Mr. ElBaradei’s
supporters, some liberal and leftist parties, and the youth wing of the
Muslim Brotherhood to plaster Cairo with eye-catching modernist posters
advertising their Tunisia-inspired Police Day protest. But their elders
— even members of the Brotherhood who had long been portrayed as
extremists by Mr. Mubarak and the West — shied away from taking to the

Explaining that Police Day was supposed to honor the fight against
British colonialism, Essem Erian, a Brotherhood leader, said, “On that
day we should all be celebrating together.

“All these people are on Facebook, but do we know who they are?” he
asked. “We cannot tie our parties and entities to a virtual world.”

‘This Was It’

When the 25th came, the coalition of young activists, almost all of them
affluent, wanted to tap into the widespread frustration with the
country’s autocracy, and also with the grinding poverty of Egyptian
life. They started their day trying to rally poor people with complaints
about pocketbook issues: “They are eating pigeon and chicken, but we eat
beans every day.”

By the end of the day, when tens of thousands had marched to Tahrir
Square, their chants had become more sweeping. “The people want to bring
down the regime,” they shouted, a slogan that the organizers said they
had read in signs and on Facebook pages from Tunisia. Mr. Maher of the
April 6 Youth Movement said the organizers even debated storming
Parliament and the state television building — classic revolutionary moves.

“When I looked around me and I saw all these unfamiliar faces in the
protests, and they were more brave than us — I knew that this was it for
the regime,” Mr. Maher said.

It was then that they began to rely on advice from Tunisia, Serbia and
the Academy of Change, which had sent staff members to Cairo a week
before to train the protest organizers. After the police used tear gas
to break up the protest that Tuesday, the organizers came back better
prepared for their next march on Friday, the 28th, the “Day of Rage.”

This time, they brought lemons, onions and vinegar to sniff for relief
from the tear gas, and soda or milk to pour into their eyes. Some had
fashioned cardboard or plastic bottles into makeshift armor worn under
their clothes to protect against riot police bullets. They brought spray
paint to cover the windshields of police cars, and they were ready to
stuff the exhaust pipes and jam the wheels to render them useless. By
the early afternoon, a few thousand protesters faced off against well
over a thousand heavily armed riot police officers on the four-lane Kasr
al-Nile Bridge in perhaps the most pivotal battle of the revolution .

“We pulled out all the tricks of the game — the Pepsi, the onion, the
vinegar,” said Mr. Maher, who wore cardboard and plastic bottles under
his sweater, a bike helmet on his head and a barrel-top shield on his
arm. “The strategy was the people who were injured would go to the back
and other people would replace them,” he said. “We just kept rotating.”
After more than five hours of battle, they had finally won — and burned
down the empty headquarters of the ruling party on their way to occupy
Tahrir Square.

Pressuring Mubarak

In Washington that day, President Obama turned up, unexpectedly, at a
3:30 p.m. Situation Room meeting of his “principals,” the key members of
the national security team, where he displaced Thomas E. Donilon , the
national security adviser, from his seat at the head of the table.

The White House had been debating the likelihood of a domino effect
since youth-driven revolts had toppled President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali
in Tunisia, even though the American intelligence community and Israel’s
intelligence services had estimated that the risk to President Mubarak
was low — less than 20 percent, some officials said.

According to senior officials who participated in Mr. Obama’s policy
debates, the president took a different view. He made the point early
on, a senior official said, that “this was a trend” that could spread to
other authoritarian governments in the region, including in Iran. By the
end of the 18-day uprising, by a White House count, there were 38
meetings with the president about Egypt. Mr. Obama said that this was a
chance to create an alternative to “the Al Qaeda narrative” of Western

American officials had seen no evidence of overtly anti-American or
anti-Western sentiment. “When we saw people bringing their children to
Tahrir Square, wanting to see history being made, we knew this was
something different,” one official said.

On Jan. 28, the debate quickly turned to how to pressure Mr. Mubarak in
private and in public — and whether Mr. Obama should appear on
television urging change. Mr. Obama decided to call Mr. Mubarak, and
several aides listened in on the line. Mr. Obama did not suggest that
the 82-year-old leader step aside or transfer power. At this point, “the
argument was that he really needed to do the reforms, and do them fast,”
a senior official said. Mr. Mubarak resisted, saying the protests were
about outside interference.

According to the official, Mr. Obama told him, “You have a large portion
of your people who are not satisfied, and they won’t be until you make
concrete political, social and economic reforms.”

The next day, the decision was made to send former Ambassador Frank G.
Wisner to Cairo as an envoy. Mr. Obama began placing calls to Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan of Turkey and other regional leaders.

The most difficult calls, officials said, were with King Abdullah of
Saudi Arabia and Mr. Netanyahu, who feared regional instability and
urged the United States to stick with Mr. Mubarak. According to American
officials, senior members of the government in Saudi Arabia argued that
the United States should back Mr. Mubarak even if he used force against
the demonstrators. By Feb. 1, when Mr. Mubarak broadcast a speech
pledging that he would not run again and that elections would be held in
September, Mr. Obama concluded that the Egyptian president still had not
gotten the message.

Within an hour, Mr. Obama called Mr. Mubarak again in the toughest, and
last, of their conversations. “He said if this transition process drags
out for months, the protests will, too,” one of Mr. Obama’s aides said.

Mr. Mubarak told Mr. Obama that the protests would be over in a few days.

Mr. Obama ended the call, the official said, with these words: “I
respect my elders. And you have been in politics for a very long time,
Mr. President. But there are moments in history when just because things
were the same way in the past doesn’t mean they will be that way in the

The next day, heedless of Mr. Obama’s admonitions, Mr. Mubarak launched
another attack against the protesters, many of whom had by then spent
five nights camped out in Tahrir Square. By about 2:30 p.m., thousands
of burly men loyal to Mr. Mubarak and armed with rocks, clubs and,
eventually, improvised explosives had come crashing into the square.

The protesters — trying to stay true to the lessons they had learned
from Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gene Sharp — tried
for a time to avoid retaliating. A row of men stood silent as rocks
rained down on them. An older man told a younger one to put down his stick.

But by 3:30 p.m., the battle was joined. A rhythmic din of stones on
metal rang out as the protesters beat street lamps and fences to rally
their troops.

The Muslim Brotherhood, after sitting out the first day, had reversed
itself, issuing an order for all able-bodied men to join the occupation
of Tahrir Square. They now took the lead. As a secret, illegal
organization, the Brotherhood was accustomed to operating in a
disciplined hierarchy. The group’s members helped the protesters divide
into teams to organize their defense, several organizers said. One team
broke the pavement into rocks, while another ferried the rocks to
makeshift barricades along their perimeter and the third defended the front.

“The youth of the Muslim Brotherhood played a really big role,” Mr.
Maher said. “But actually so did the soccer fans” of Egypt’s two leading
teams. “These are always used to having confrontations with police at
the stadiums,” he said.

Soldiers of the Egyptian military, evidently under orders to stay
neutral, stood watching from behind the iron gates of the Egyptian
Museum as the war of stone missiles and improvised bombs continued for
14 hours until about four in the morning.

Then, unable to break the protesters’ discipline or determination, the
Mubarak forces resorted to guns, shooting 45 and killing 2, according to
witnesses and doctors interviewed early that morning. The soldiers —
perhaps following orders to prevent excessive bloodshed, perhaps acting
on their own — finally intervened. They fired their machine guns into
the ground and into the air, several witnesses said, scattering the
Mubarak forces and leaving the protesters in unmolested control of the
square, and by extension, the streets.

Once the military demonstrated it was unwilling to fire on its own
citizens, the balance of power shifted. American officials urged the
army to preserve its bond with the Egyptian people by sending top
officers into the square to reassure the protesters, a step that further
isolated Mr. Mubarak. But the Obama administration faltered in
delivering its own message: Two days after the worst of the violence,
Mr. Wisner publicly suggested that Mr. Mubarak had to be at the center
of any change, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned that
any transition would take time. Other American officials suggested Mr.
Mubarak might formally stay in office until his term ended next
September. Then a four-day-long stalemate ensued, in which Mr. Mubarak
refused to budge, and the protesters regained momentum.

On Thursday, Mr. Mubarak’s vice president, Omar Suleiman , was on the
phone with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. at 2 p.m. in Washington,
the third time they had spoken in a week. The airwaves were filled with
rumors that Mr. Mubarak was stepping down, and Mr. Suleiman told Mr.
Biden that he was preparing to assume Mr. Mubarak’s powers. But as he
spoke to Mr. Biden and other officials, Mr. Suleiman said that “certain
powers” would remain with Mr. Mubarak, including the power to dissolve
the Parliament and fire the cabinet. “The message from Suleiman was that
he would be the de facto president,” one person involved in the call said.

But while Mr. Mubarak huddled with his son Gamal, the Obama
administration was in the dark about how events would unfold, reduced to
watching cable television to see what Mr. Mubarak would decide. What
they heard on Thursday night was a drastically rewritten speech,
delivered in the unbowed tone of the father of the country, with
scarcely any mention of a presumably temporary “delegation” of his power.

It was that rambling, convoluted address that proved the final straw for
the Egyptian military, now fairly certain that it would have
Washington’s backing if it moved against Mr. Mubarak, American officials
said. Mr. Mubarak’s generals ramped up the pressure that led him at
last, without further comment, to relinquish his power.

“Eighty-five million people live in Egypt, and less than 1,000 people
died in this revolution — most of them killed by the police,” said Mr.
Ghonim, the Google executive. “It shows how civilized the Egyptian
people are.” He added, “Now our nightmare is over. Now it is time to dream.”

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo, and David E. Sanger from
Washington. Kareem Fahim and Mona El-Naggar contributed reporting from
Cairo, and Mark Mazzetti from Washington.

On 02/14/2011 11:00 AM, Katrin Verclas wrote:
> There has been a lot of talk about the spontaneous uprising in Egypt, thanks to Facebook and Twitter.  As usual, there is more to the story and a history of some years of planning and strategizing, cross-border collaboration, as well as smart use of tactics and tools.  A little bit of history of the April 6th movement in Egypt is in this Al Jazeera video (aired prior to Mubarak's ouster), and in this NYT article that picks up on the reporting of Al Jazeera:  Will be interesting to see whether Egyptian activists will now helping movements in other countries plan non-violent resistance, activist leadership, and the long road towards democratic change. 
> Best,
> Katrin  
> Katrin Verclas
> katrin at
> skype/twitter: katrinskaya
> (347) 281-7191
> A global network of people using mobile technology for social impact
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