Last week, the New York Times asked me if I would be interested in writing for the newspaper about the Obama visit. Of course I was. Today, NYT publishes my article as part of seven views from the Middle East about what Obama should say in his much anticipated speech in Cairo tomorrow. Check it out. Here’s a picture of the voting paper that I mention in the last paragraph:
When I boarded the plane for Cairo, my first impression was that Egypt Air seriously needs to consider a rebranding. The brand is tired and outdated, and it does not live up to the country’s reputation as a tourist destination that attracts millions of visitors every year.
But speaking of first impressions, I have to say I was taken aback when the customs officer checking my passport upon arrival shamelessly asked for a bribe with a big smile on his face. I decided to act as if I had no clue what he was talking about; a tactic that I’ve had come to use several times during the trip to avoid situations like this. The officer repeated his plea a few times more but finally relented and gave me my passport.
The 2-day workshop was interesting and informative. I have already read a lot about the experience of bloggers in Egypt, but listening to the bloggers themselves speak about it was refreshing and inspiring. My favourite speaker was Alaa Abdelfattah of manalaa.net, who impressed me with his presentation and comments, not to mention his dark sense of humor. Alaa said that we must focus on the social effect of technology and not the technical effect, which means it is not enough to say that blogging made it easier for people to publish online but the real question is what kind of effect this technology have on people’s lives.
Another interesting idea was that sometimes it is necessary to break the laws, especially repressive ones, in order to change them. This idea was underscored by the words of attorney Hamdi El Assuoti who applauded bloggers and activists. “By defying some of these laws, you have given lawyers a bigger margin to move and challenge these laws at courts and change the way some judges look at laws which limit freedom of expression,” he said.
The session I took part in focused on activism in the GCC countries. I could have talked about my blogging experience, but I preferred to talk about other examples of using the internet to support human rights issues in Saudi Arabia. Most of my talk was based on the work of my friend Khaled Al Nassir who was supposed to speak at the event but had to cancel his trip at the last minute. The other two speakers, from Oman and UAE, also talked about similar issues and personal experiences. The public discourse and the struggle for human rights and freedom of expression in the Gulf is probably still in its early stages compared to the rest of the Arab World, but I think that activists here are making good strides in that field.
In addition to exposure to good ideas and sharing personal experiences, events like this one is always a good occasion to meet amazing people like Mina, Rawdha, Amr, Anas, , Nora, and Abdullah; and I want to thank all of them and everyone else for the great time in Cairo.
Outside the workshop room, my Egyptian friends have been nice enough to hang out and show me the city. Ahmed and Courtney took me to Zamalek where we met the one and only Sandmonkey. Later on we went to Wist Al Balad, which is the area where activists do their activism.
At the end of the 2nd day, HRinfo.net invited all participants for a lovely dinner at the Greek Club. The service there was not exactly great, but having all those great people on one table was absolutely more than great. After the dinner, I went with some friends to Khan Al Khalili where I have to say that I was haunted by seeing poverty manifested in that “in your face” manner, something that I’m not used to. I don’t mean that we don’t have poverty in our country, but in order to see it you need to visit certain areas and neighborhoods and it is not something that you encounter on the streets on daily basis. It is a pity that a country which used to play a leading role in the enlightenment and progress of the region and have many great resources is languishing because of poor leadership and corrupt politics.
On my third day I went to see the Giza Pyramids, but I didn’t have much fun there because I had to go by myself as everyone else has either left or was busy with work. Later I went with a friend to Sequoia where we had lunch and enjoyed cool breeze of the Nile. My departure was not all that different from my arrival: the last custom officer checking my passport before boarding the plane to Riyadh also shamelessly asked for a bribe with a big smile on his face. I played my “no clue” card again. The officer asked what was wrong with me, to which I said: “yes, it’s you!”
I’m flying to Cairo this Tuesday to participate at a workshop organized by the Arab Network for Human Rights Information aka HRinfo.net, which is blocked in Saudi Arabia btw. The two-day workshop will focus on human rights and the internet — how activists can use the net to promote human rights and how the net can help the activists to do a better job.
I will be meeting some friends like fellow blogger Khaled Al Nassir and Wael Abbas, the Egyptian A-list blogger whom I’ve met in Beirut last year. I will also be looking forward to meet Gamal Eid, Ahmed Gharbia and Abdelmenim Mahmoud as well as the famous couple Manal and Alaa.
As I have to be back right away for school, I won’t have much free time to spend in Cairo, but any pointers on what I should do and what I should see are highly appreciated. I’m thinking about having a meet up with bloggers so if you are interested please let me know.