Note: An earlier version of this article appears in Horizons magazine here page 50.
By: Mehrunisa Qayyum
“A politician should have the ability to analyze,” says Ms. Esraa Abdel Fattah to me right before receiving the Middle East Institute Visionary Award. Ms. Abdel Fattah is vocal, but remains humble. She has a sharp mind, but struck me with her kindness in a crowded setting where dozens are vying for her attention. Ms. Esraa Abdel Fattah commands a crowd. Perhaps in 2008, that is how she successful organized a group of textile workers to strike for more fair wages in her native Egypt. Her voice, online and off-line, as well as all of the above explain how she has been listed as number 73 of 100 “Most Powerful Arab Women” in Arabian Business Magazine; earned Glamour magazine’s “Woman of the Year”; received leading NGO on freedom and democracy, Freedom House’s New Generation Democratic Activist Award and not to mention: nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize Nominee this year (which, fortuitously, was awarded to another Arab female activist).
If only Senators Boxer and Casey could have heard idealism at work, perhaps their focus on Arab Women’s rights would not conflate cultural challenges with global challenges. Starting any movement–regardless of gender (and sometimes in spite of education)–is challenging anywhere. Earlier on November 2nd, Senators Boxer and Casey held a hearing on the Arab Spring’s impact on women. They wanted to explore how the US may expand and support the role of women in countries of the Arab Spring. Not surprisingly, both optimism and skepticism echoed across the spectrum from government agencies and NGOs. The Department of State, The Women’s Partnership for Learning, and the US Institute for Peace testified. The USIP was represented by prominent Muslim American woman–and frequent ISNA speaker–Manal Omar, who serves as USIP’s Director of Iraq, Iran and North Africa Programs. Online and offline, an activist refused to be broken by a her political jail time. Instead, something else got broken: the thick wall of frustration. In particular, women like Egyptian activist/blogger Esraa Abdel Fattah, who amassed over 74,000 Facebook supporters earned more than just the title of “Facebook Girl”. She also has over 22,000 Twitter followers. This is huge considering that it usually takes people two years to accrue over 1,000 followers. (I barely have 430!)
Just because the first wave of the Egyptian revolution has finished, does not mean that Ms. Abdel Fattah has sought early retirement. Instead, she now serves as the Media Director for the Egyptian Democratic Academy (EDA), a non-profit based in Egypt. “My role is to get participation,” because Egyptians already have the schooling. Door to door campaigning is necessary to reach beyond 18 million Egyptians of the 83 million that have some idea of the complex electoral system and might not access to new media. She continues, “it’s not just developing leadership skills–we can’t have one without the other [citizen participation].” That is why EDA’s mission is to 1) promote democracy and human rights in Egypt; 2) Promote freedom of opinion and expression; 3) Support other Youth Organizations; 4) Promote new media tools for advocacy; and 5) Support women, children, and the disabled. She works beyond leadership development to strengthen mass voter education movements.
“This (Egypt’s revolution) was not simply a Facebook revolution,” emphasizes Ms. Abdel Fattah. True, the regime had control over traditional media, like state newspapers and television. She utilized all public spaces to project the April 6th Movement’s voice. First she developed a Facebook page called “Aprtil 6th”, which represented a group of young people demanding political changed. Coupled with other social media tools, like Twitter, she engaged the Egyptian diaspora. Second, she engaged offline by organizing on Tahrir Square. Third, Abdel Fattah linked back with traditional media. All three trace back to Ms. Abdel Fattah’s activist roots. She describes her “first political school” as participating in the Ghad party and its former presidential candidate: Dr. Emain Noor. Dr. Noor and his wife provided the analytical and practical aspects that Ms. Abdel Fatteh chose to emulate. She explains how she was encouraged by Mrs. Noor’s “strong soul to oppose” when her husband was jailed for 5 years.
She is self taught when it comes to mastering the Facebook options to leverage communication. I was amazed to learn that she learned how to develop a page by searching all “Q & A” pages and searching for tutorials online to develop a page that earned her the title “Facebook Girl.” She looks forward to re-engaging with traditional media in Egypt, a country which houses the most Arab news publications in the world because new media has helped rebuild the bridge to information sharing, and hopefully
Although Egypt’s revolution was a not a Facebook Revolution, Ms. Abdel Fattah sees the social media role as a complementary tool. “New media will continue to impact Muslim society” which is why Ms. Abdel Fattah targets youth and trains them in media production, voter registration and election monitoring. EDA hosts year round seminars and instruction for about 20-30 class registrants who bring their laptops for her class “Art & New Media” where she teaches them how to design a page and how to use other tools to build support because, as she emphasizes, “political parties should have their own pages…the activities of a party should be publicized for its members and non-members.” Other classes include 1) Democracy & Human Rights; 2) Youth Organizations Empowerment; and 3) Election Management.
Her message in both Egypt and abroad, “Participate in political life.” Hence, she continues her activist role in the “Tweet Nadwa” or Twitter symposium that initiated in Egypt by moving onto the next civic engagement message for both Egyptians and expatriates: voter registration and education. As former Algerian Ambassador, Lakhdar Brahimi, noted about Ms. Abdel Fattah in another event commemorating both her activism and analysis, “…[Abdel Fattah] her Visionary Award is a vote of confidence for the future.”