Born in Port Said to parents who were both physicians, Eltahawy studied journalism at the American University in Cairo and began her career writing for a dissident English-language Egyptian newspaper that had to smuggle its copy out to Cyprus to be printed and then smuggle it back in. She became a globe-trotting foreign correspondent for Western outlets like Reuters and the Guardian, and gradually made the transition from journalist to journalist-activist. “I used my journalism as much as I could to expose human rights abuses, to expose women’s right abuses,” she says. “I was called into State Security for interrogation several times,” she tells me. “At one point a State Security officer whose nom de guerre was Omar Sharif—though he looked nothing like the actor—showed me my security files, and he said, ‘You see how much trouble you are? These are the files to have you followed, to have your home tapped.’” She married and moved to America in 2000 (she now holds dual citizenship), continued writing but, she says, “9/11 killed objectivity for me.”
“What do you mean, it ‘killed objectivity?’” I ask.
“When 9/11 happened I thought I’m not hearing from Muslims like ourselves,” she says, meaning liberal and moderate types. “I’d only hear from old men and conservative women. So I started writing opinion pieces. I wanted to get another voice out there to show that, look, 9/11 doesn’t represent all Islam.”
Soon afterward, her marriage ended and she flew back to Cairo, where she came into contact with the beginnings of the social media protest movement there. “I went to visit my family in Cairo but also took it as a chance to meet a lot of bloggers—a new thing, bloggers in the Middle East, that I was getting to know about. And in June of ’05, one of them asked me, ‘Do you want to come to a protest?’ And I said I’d love to! And it was the first time in my life that I’ve marched in Cairo and chanted ‘Down! Down! with Hosni Mubarak!’ There were only 100 of us. People were looking at us as if we were insane.”
There has been a major ongoing debate in foreign policy and technology circles over how decisive a role social media played in the Arab Spring uprisings.
“For many years now, social media in the Middle East and North Africa were tools and weapons,” Eltahawy says. “Social media created a space that didn’t exist in the real world because the regime didn’t allow it—the space where people could connect and talk about demonstrations and talk about organizing demonstrations. But they were not the reason the revolution happened. The revolution is people out on the street, not on their computer screens. They took it out into the real world.”
“And it started with bloggers and moved to Facebook?”
“Yeah, and it was also very important the way they used YouTube. Because the police, for some twisted reason, would use their smartphones to film themselves torturing jailed people. And they would send those videos to those who knew the victim—to intimidate and humiliate. And these videos would get out, and bloggers would put them on YouTube to expose the brutality of the Mubarak regime.”
The fact that social media can be a two-way street, with the side in power using it to terrorize, is often a neglected side of the equation. But social media is an explosive force, difficult to control, and this time it backfired.
“Something very interesting happened in the summer of 2010,” Eltahawy continues, “six months before the revolution began. People have died because of police torture in Egypt for many years. But this young man in Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, Khaled Said, was beaten to death by police. And pictures of him before and after began to appear on Facebook. And this man became an icon. Why? Because he represented the background many people on Facebook came from—a comfortable, affluent background, one that had not experienced the brutality of the Mubarak regime and hoped that if they were quiet and didn’t engage politically, they would be OK. So you got all these young people on Facebook who saw him and saw that they could be him. So they began to join protests as well. That was a pivotal moment.”