2011 will likely mark the beginning of a massive wave of change in the Middle East. Starting with the upheaval in Tunisia, protests and revolutions have spread across the Arab world to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya, just to name a few.
Anna Therese Day, a freelance journalist, has studied, worked, traveled, and volunteered throughout the Middle East. Since 2008, she has covered the Gaza Strip after Israel's Operation Cast Lead, Lebanon's 2009 post-election violence, and the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. This spring, Anna will continue to travel and cover the democratic upheavals, focusing on gender and youth involvement in the movements.
Today, from 2 to 3 p.m. EST, Anna will be answering your questions about the Middle East, democracy in the Arab world and what it was like to witness the Egyptian revolution in person.If you want to ask Anna a question, leave a comment or tweet your question under the hashtag #egyptchat.
Thank you to everyone who has shown interest in this topic today. If I didn’t get to your question on Twitter, post it in the comments on this page, and I’ll try to get to them in the next few days. Otherwise, tweet me questions at @AnnaOfArabia or on www.TheMidEaster.com ! Thanks again, and maa salema! (Good bye! in Arabic)
What the f*** are you doing in Egypt?
Hi @Chavezzz, why the f*** am I in Egypt? I think this question overlaps with several (@cmpulvino, @davidpdietz, @mosetoes) – in college I studied modern Middle East history, politics, and culture – I’ve studied Islam and Arabic – and I’ve studied America’s role in the region, which has often been destructive and counterproductive to our long-term interests in the region.
While I still face many impediments to painting an accurate picture of “the Arab world” to the West, I think that my background allows me to communicate frustrations with the West in a way that’s accessible and reasonable to an American audience. I flew down from Israel/Palestine the day before protests in Egypt, never expecting a revolution, and, as I met the amazing leaders of these movements and then returned to my flat to watch CNN coverage, I was deeply troubled by much of the commentary that, in my opinion, completely distorted some of the demands of protestors or the flavor of the protests.
The energy of the revolution swept me away, and now the opportunity to cover these protests, to try to communicate these stories to an American audience, is the small role that I can play in this incredible period for these brave individuals who are risking their lives for the betterment of their countries and their region. Too many times in American history in this region and others, we’ve stood on the opposite side of the people – and I hope to help in a small way by communicating these incredible stories with Americans to build a new constructive outlook for the U.S. in its relationship with the Arab world – one that realizes that it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, that democracy is in everyone’s best interest.
Can you speak to the role of women in the recent protests across the Arab world, and if you view that as an important step in the evolution of their place in Arab society? Do you believe their role in society even needs to change?
Hi @RonGolan, you’ve set me up for one of my favorite topics! Women have shocked the world with their involvement! From hunger fasts in Bahrain to women’s only marches in Yemen to the defiant Iman Al-Obeidi in Libya to the frontlines against police tazers in Egypt, women have placed a vital role in the success and popularity of the movements.
Their energy is even beginning to spread to countries that do not have significant protest movements currently – in Saudi, women issued a women’s manifesto and have been vehemently criticizing measures that won’t extend suffrage to all women of the Kingdom of Saud. It’s thrilling to be in the region and see these women forging their own path forward in their own unique way.
From my Western liberal understanding of feminism, I’ve found the status of women in these countries to be alarming in many ways, but I think that their own recognition of their inequality, their own movements and conversations about the proper role of women in their societies, may not result in a Women’s Lib that looked like ours, but I think that it will definitely improve the status of women and at least the openness of society in these countries.
Mona Eltahawy is an excellent person to follow if you’re interested in Arab women’s issues. She’s covered the region for years and has been a voice for women consistently – she very well-connected with other Arab women’s activists and translates Tweets that she re-Tweets into English for her Western audiences.
I'm a young female journalist looking to cover conflict zones - the Laura Logan instance brought up the many issues women face in the profession - what's your advice for other young women's journalists?
Hi @SaraJerving, it’s a tough line to walk. My gender always brings an additional challenge into the situation, but I’ve learned to change my weaknesses into strengths. The Lara Logan instance is a tragedy and represents a reality that women in conflict zones must face with a measured response.
However, I found that during the Revolution, particularly on Anger Friday when I was in the midst of violent clashes between protestors and the police, that in fact being a Western woman with blonde hair and somewhat Western dress, I was able to get closer than any one else to the police who were hesitant to shoot rubber bullets or tear gas canisters point-blank at a Western journalist. I got some incredible shots in those instances and others in which I walked right up to security forces and made friendly small talk with them as I snapped pictures of bleeding detainees. Also, personally, I’m much more comfortable in cities than I am in rural settings, as I’ve found that whenever I’ve been sexually harassed, someone is in yelling distance to help me out.
Ultimately, I think it’s incredibly important for women to continue to report in conflict zones – but of course, be smart – which I find to be the most annoying and patronizing advice because obviously every woman has an ingrained fear of being kidnapped or assaulted, but I think it’s more of a matter of knowing your weaknesses: are you unfamiliar with your surroundings? Where is your exit?
Tom Wood (@thwood1) asks via Twitter:
Is it fair to attribute Mubarak's fall to Twitter/Facebook?
The advent of social media! This revolution undoubtedly would not have been possible without the advent of new media – from Arab satellite channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, to mobile technology that caught police brutality on tape, to facebook and twitter that allowed mass mobilization and organizing to occur simultaneously and in coordination all over the country.
I’d say we’re in a new era of transparency, as we saw with Wikileaks, and that this will be a test not only to the conscience of the American hegemonic international position but also to all forms of established power. The likelihood of any government or military abuse to be documented on a cell phone or camera is much greater than it has ever been – and thus, that evidence will speak volumes for people fighting for their rights against corrupt systems.
Hi Agam, @healymonster, @steve_horn1022
This is a buzz-topic right now. While I don’t expect that the peace with Israel will be annulled, the relationship will no doubt be altered. Already there have been protests outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo demanding an end to the siege, an end to the Occupation, and an end to perceived preferential treatment in trade between Israel and Egypt on some key commodities. Also commentators have claimed that recent American behavior in support of Israel at the UN has been a result of the absence of Mubarak to do America’s bidding in the Arab world. Furthermore, commentators have been attributing the most recent announcement of the Arab League demanding a no-fly zone over Gaza is a result of “a new emboldened Middle Eastern order.”
Egyptians are fiercely critical of Egypt’s role in the siege on Gaza and were outspoken against Cast Lead – enormous protests erupted in Cairo during the 2008-2009 military operation. However, with Hamas in Gaza, it will be interesting to see how a new government works with the Hamas leadership – will an Egyptian government with the Muslim Brotherhood align itself with Hamas? That’s of the greatest concern to Israel.
To respond to @Steve_Horn1022, Israel did quite well in expansion of settlements as the peace process has stalled with the de facto support of Mubarak and the previous Arab order, and thus, Israel undoubtedly fears fewer allies in the region. While these factors will all come into play, I think it’s important to note that the revolution, however, has always focused on Egyptian issues, and while Egyptian foreign policy will most likely be more responsive to the attitudes of its constituency, rebuilding Egypt will start within Egypt – that’s been the attitude of protestors all along, and that’s why the largest protests in Cairo have been around domestic reform, not about Camp David.
ArdenJoy asks via the comments:
Anna, what's the best way to stay educated about what's happening in the Middle East? These big things happen and then they seem to fall off the American radar.
Get your news from Al Jazeera - their correspondents speak the language, understand the history, the culture, the politics. While some claim that Al Jazeera is anti-establishment or anti-Western, I think that view in and of itself can help Americans and Westerners better understand the Arab or Muslim perspective - as the West has played a very damaging and invasive role in the politics and economy of these countries to this day, and thus, that critique is a necessary piece of the puzzle.
Sean Healy (@HealyMonster) asks via Twitter:
What is the importance of women in the new government of Egypt? What about the youth?
And Christa Pulvino (@cmpulvino) asks via Twitter:
How optimistic are you about Egypt's youth? Do you think they're capable of rebuilding their country?
Hi @HealyMonster and @CMPulvino:
Recently critics have patronized the youth movements in Egypt for what they describe as a "contradiction in demands." This criticism stems from a few things: a few weeks ago there was a national referendum to decide whether or not to host elections in the next 6 months. An unprecedented number of Egyptians participated and overwhelming supported the expedited elections – signaling an excitement to shift out of the military rule to the first fully democratic society that Egypt has seen in more than half a century.
However, leaders from the various youth movements have more time, claiming that an election in 6 months benefits more established parties like The Muslim Brotherhood and the former National Democratic Party of Mubarak, which still has an established political apparatus in peripheral parts of the country. Meanwhile, the youth has called for protests against corruption in the new military rule, like the detainment of activists and other suppressions of freedom. Thus, critics are claiming that the youth “can’t have it both ways” – an extended military rule or political freedom.
This view, however, drastically mischaracterizes the demands and success of the youth movement. While military rule would remain if the elections were postponed to help infant parties, the youth protests have been really successful in bringing major reforms to the forefront already, even under the military leadership. For weeks the youth have been demanding the prosecution of Mubarak’s regime – and without this continued pressure, Egypt’s reform movement could easily lose momentum. I think that the youth is not only capable in rebuilding this country, but that they’re going to play a pragmatic and pivotal role.
Roxanne Krystalli (@rkrystalli) asks via Twitter:
How are women harnessing the momentum they gained during the revolution to organize themselves politically now?
Women are using their participation in the revolution to leverage their participation in political parties and to bring issues that women face to the forefront. I’m more in tune with women in the youth movement, and thus far, they’ve incorporated women’s demands into the youth movement and are working for women’s rights under that umbrella.
However, there are a vast range of local and internationally NGO’s working furiously to ensure that women are guaranteed a space in the new political climate. Naomi Watt’s wrote an Op-Ed where she talks about how Women’s Lib in the U.S. stemmed from a disillusionment after being marginalized or left behind in the Civil Rights movements and how a separate, exclusively women’s movement could emerge in the Arab world following these upheavals. I think that these women’s NGOs are working tirelessly to make sure that these changes come to fruition now, not later.
I’m anxious to see how dramatic the reforms for women will be. In other countries where women have been disenfranchised on many fronts, new governments have instituted radical reforms, like quota systems ensuring women’s participation in government (Rwanda) or sexual assault tribunals and women’s security forces (Liberia). I’m anxious to see what route Egyptian women will take as they’ve faced similar disenfranchisement for decades.
Jesus Ayala Jr. (@JesusAyalaJr) asks via Twitter:
Who do you aspire to be? Thomas Friedman? Naomi Klein?
In short, a combination of Katie Couric and Naomi Klein – Klein’s passion and investigative skills combined with Couric’s accessibility and mass appeal.
Molly Day (@mollyday) asks via Twitter:
How do you think the Egyptian people view the other revolutions in the region? Are they helping or hurting their cause?
The momentum of the democratic upheavals throughout the Arab world is contagious and tangible. The Egyptians don't feel like the Libyans or Yemenis are "stealing their thunder" if that’s what you mean! In just this week alone, there were solidarity protests outside the Yemeni, Libyan, and Syrian embassies.
Though obviously I can't speak for all Egyptians, I get the sense that Egyptian activists feel that there was a sort of "good ol' boys club" among all of these Arab dictators, so the ousting of one is a victory for all.
Christa Pulvino (@cmpulvino) asks via Twitter:
It sounds like women played an important role in the revolution. Are they still involved in the protests around Cairo these days?
I'm glad you brought this up! Not only are women still involved in the protests, but they’re in fact leading some of the protests these days! Since the opening up of Egyptian society with the Revolution, there’s been an eruption of civil society involvement for every cause that you can imagine – and, in a very impoverished and increasingly conservative society over the past 30 years, one of the country’s biggest issues is undoubtedly the status of women.
Though few women reported significant harassment during the Revolution, the tragic story of Lara Logan brought the issue of sexual harassment and assault into the eyes of international media. While a number of Arab women’s organizations have been working on these issues for years – from increasing women’s political participation to creating economic opportunities for liberation – the conversation within Egypt has finally broken the taboo that suffocated conversations on all human rights violations under the regime.
Young women are shaking the blogosphere, breaking the silence on harassment through public shaming and conversation – for example, after women were arrested and sexually abused by the Army with invasive “virginity tests” weeks ago, the blogosphere exploded and the week’s protests included criticism of the sexual violence and abuse of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).
Though Egyptian women have a long way to go – not a single woman was included in initial government transitional negotiations and poverty and lack of access to education among women are frighteningly high – the ingenuity and perseverance of these women activists has already managed to maneuver women’s issues to the front of several protests – something that would have been unimaginable in Egypt 3 months ago. And thus, I’m very hopeful and excited to be covering these kinds of stories in such a dynamic time.
Lindy Ehemann (@Lindemon) asks via Twitter:
What do you find to be the most shocking, surprising, or unexpected things about working in Egypt?
The dramatic awakening in civil society over the past three months is what’s been most surprising to me. I lived in Cairo in 2009, and while political activists were fighting the regime back then, most people were too scared to participate.
Now there’s this exciting new space for organizing – there are political parties being formed for every issue imaginable – though I should add that nothing should shock me about the Egyptians any more after this unprecedented revolution. The pace and ingenuity of the organizing is really remarkable. It’s a fascinating time to report in Egypt.
Michelle Benham (@michelleann86) asks via Twitter:
What is your feeling about an American woman traveling alone to Cairo for business in the next few months? Is it perfectly safe?
While of course women should always take precautions when traveling in an unfamiliar country, you should be perfectly fine. I'd even encourage trying to get out to the pyramids and see the sights while you're here.
If you're a Western woman, you're going to get a lot of attention as you look exotic to not only the men, but also the women here, so don't be alarmed and try to focus on the fascinating history and politics if you have any free time.
Hello everyone and welcome to the live blog Q&A! I will try to get to as many questions as I can in the next hour or so. I see there's already lots of activity on Twitter! Here we go....