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Technology and Revolutions

Reactions to a conversation with the leaders of Egypt’s “April 6” movement.

On April 6, I moderated an event, hosted by MIT’s Center for International Studies, where I interviewed Ahmed Maher, the founder of Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement, as well as its principal spokesman, Waleed Rashed.

The event was intended to explore how the young people of April 6 had used social and telecommunications technologies to stir up a revolution that overthrew the government of Hosni Mubarak. That was, mostly, what we talked about (the entire video can be seen here); but at the event itself, and afterward in letters, a vocal minority told me that the conversation should not have been about the narrow, parochial subject of enabling technologies, but instead should have revolved around the experience of Egypt’s Coptic minority since the uprising of last January, and the possible future relationship of a democratic Egypt with the state of Israel.

Some writers were more dismissive. I was a patsy, ignorant of Arabic, who was not “up to the task” of confronting the hard ethnic and political realities of the region. In a post titled “Extremists Can Tweet, Too, Jason,” “dvz” wrote:

“With his obsession on how activists used Facebook and Twitter to achieve Mubarak’s ouster, Pontin failed to ask some of the most basic questions about where the revolution is headed.

For example, Pontin failed to ask how Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood are using the technologies that the April 6 Youth Movement used to achieve Mubarak’s ouster … Have the pro-democracy activists who initiated the campaign leading to Mubarak’s ouster lost control of the events they set into motion? Regular and accelerating attacks on Coptic Christians seem to suggest they have.”

The letter below, submitted by an Egyptian Coptic activist, was the most intelligent and thoughtful of those I received. Given its charges, we invited Ahmed Maher and Waleed Rashed to respond.

Dear Sir:

On April 29, I attended a conference hosted by MIT’s Center for International Studies, “Egypt’s Revolution,” moderated by Jason Pontin, the editor in chief of Technology Review. The conference featured two leaders of the April 6 Youth Movement, Ahmed Maher and Waleed Rashed. I was delighted to meet these young heroes.

As a Coptic (Egyptian) Christian who left Egypt in 1979, I was happy to shake their hands and thank them for risking their lives to get rid of a very corrupt regime that was bad for all Egyptians. One of these two leaders, Ahmed Maher, was arrested and beaten multiple times by the former regime’s police forces.

I expected to learn about their hopes for the future of my homeland.

It was interesting to hear these two young men speak about their admiration of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Mahatma Gandhi, and how they used nonviolence to achieve the freedom of their communities and countries. It was good to hear how the Movement was committed to change Egypt in a peaceful way.

I was pleased to hear the two leaders describe how they used the technology and the stupidity of a corrupt regime to remove President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of governing Egypt. They described how they foiled Mubarak’s effort to place his son in power. I was also waiting to hear their plans for rebuilding Egypt and the role of technology in the rebuilding process.

However, some of the phrases they used on and off the camera were very frightening. When I asked Mr. Maher about protests outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo, he claimed on video that there are things that cannot be ignored, such as the “genocide” of the entire (Palestinian) population. This phrase was not translated for the audience, but I heard the word (الابادة ) in Arabic, loud and clear. It’s on the video, (1:14:29).

Is there a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? Of course! Is there genocide in Gaza or the West Bank? Absolutely not.

In 1948, there were approximately 540,000 Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Today there are approximately 4 million living in the same areas. They are not being eliminated. When he used the word “genocide,” what was Maher trying to do? Was he trying to solve Egypt’s problems?

Later, when I asked Mr. Rashed (off camera) about the attacks on churches in Egypt that afternoon by the extremists, he told me the attacks were justified because “Pope Shenouda” III, the head of the Coptic Church, “kills girls.” I was shocked to hear this from someone who a few minutes earlier spoke to the audience about a harmonious relationship with Copts.

There was no substance to their plans to fix Egypt. I left the conference very concerned about the future of my homeland.

After three months, the revolution is being stolen by fundamentalists, and Egypt is nearly bankrupt. It seems that no one is in control of anything in the country. How did the April 6 Youth Movement lose control of such a great revolution?

You can’t talk about the Egyptian revolution without talking about technology, but we also need to talk about who is using the technology and what they hope to achieve.

Sheikh Gamal Qutb, a prominent cleric from Al Azhar University, recently stated on Egyptian television that if it were not for modern communications technology, there would have been no way to gather that many people in a very short time. He was talking about a gathering of 8,000 who attacked the Virgin Mary Church in Imbaba, a suburb of Cairo, on May 7.

It wasn’t always like this.

In 1954, there was an Egyptian movie titled Hassan, Marcus and Cohen. It was based on a stage play written by Naguib Al-Rihani and Badi’ Khayri. The movie told the story of three businessmen—one Muslim, one Christian, and one Jew—who were able to work together despite their religious differences.

In 2009, there was a remake of Hassan, Marcus and Cohen, but this time it was called Hassan and Marcus. The name was changed because, in Egypt, Hassan had driven off Cohen. Sadly, Hassan is in the process of driving off Marcus, and he is using technology to achieve this goal.

Even though this movie was written in 1954, Hassan, Marcus and Cohen remains a beautiful invitation for Egyptians to rethink the world that the extremists are creating for them.

Can technology save the revolution? Yes, if it is used to promote tolerance and not hate.

Michael Armanious is the founder of Egypt Forward, which works to educate the American people about current events in Egyptian society.

Here is the response from Ahmed Maher and Waleed Rashed:

During our visit to the U.S., while lecturing at MIT, we were asked our opinion on several issues related to Egypt, including Christians, secularism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our responses accurately conveyed how our movement values human life and seeks a better, more peaceful society, and that we seek to achieve these goals through nonviolent means. Our movement is not about war, but rather about respect for every human life. We believe in the rights of all individuals.

However, in the specific instance of this writer, we feel there has been misinterpretation regarding our views and what was said on and off camera. We absolutely stand by the translation as an accurate reflection of our views on this issue.

Regarding the attacks on Christian churches—we absolutely do not endorse the attacks. Violence has never been a solution we’ve endorsed. Further, we absolutely deny the comments you attribute to Waleed Rashed. We are working peacefully alongside Christians in the April 6 movement. In fact, we have organized and protected Christian churches both before and after the uprising. We are all together in this revolution, Muslim and Christian alike.

With regard to the future of Egypt, we spoke in great detail about the status of the revolution, which is still in progress, and our current and future initiatives to create an Egypt with opportunities for everyone. To claim that anyone “controls” the revolution is to deny the collective power of the people behind it.

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