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Mahmoud Salem

Regions : Greater Middle East : Egypt

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Interviewed October 2011

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Mahmoud Salem is a blogger, activist, writer and a business development consultant. His blog is the most prominent English-language Egyptian blog, entitled: "Rantings of a Sandmonkey" it won the best Middle East and Africa blog awards in 2006 and 2007, and Best English Blog in the Deutsche Welle Best of Blogs award in 2011 and has over 6 million unique views and his Twitter account has over 87,000 followers. His human rights activism areas have been in freedom of speech, human rights, religious rights, and women’s' rights.

In 2005, he started the first anti-terrorism demonstration in Cairo, and participated in monitoring the Egyptian parliamentary and presidential elections.

In 2006, he was the principal organizer of the first Egyptian anti-sexual harassment demonstration and marsh after the Eid sexual harassment incidents. Incensed by Police torturing Egyptian people on videos and sparing them, he and friends collected the videos, posted them online and pushed for a public persecution of the police officers who committed those acts, leading to the unprecedented convictions of two police officers.

In 2007, he was a stage speaker at the Atlas Foundation’s 25th anniversary conference, head of the new media panel in the Qatar Foundation democracy conference and started the Tafkir project, an Arabic language blogging website to facilitate and promote ideas and online dialogue.

In 2008, he was an organizer and a team leader of 8 Egyptian bloggers for the "Egypt blogs America" project, which monitored the US elections and created a documentary film about it.

In 2009, he was picked for the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow conference and the US Islamic Forum conference, and started the IRIS social campaign company.

In 2011, he was one of the leading voices of the January 25 revolution that brought down Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, ran for Egyptian Parliament, started the Tweetback initiative which developed two impoverished communities in Egypt with a population over 700,000 and raised millions of pounds for social entrepreneurship projects. He also initiated the "Egyptian Bill of Rights Project,” which was later on sponsored by Mohamed El Baradei.

He co-authored two books - "Tweets from Tahrir" and "18 Days" and founded "7etan," the first Graffiti School in Egypt. His writings have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Guardian and various online websites. 

In 2006, the Danish cartoon crisis, what was referred to as that, started all over the Middle East. It was a completely made-up crisis. It was a bunch of governments and leaders trying to rile up their people against an enemy. And it's something that worked due to that natural frustration of the people who are living under those authoritarian regimes. So they went and told them that there were some cartoons that insulted the prophet. Did not tell them what the cartoons entailed or they actually print the cartoons or whatever. And, actually, the cartoons were printed in an Egyptian newspaper, back in Ramadan, the year before. And I actually had a copy of this newspaper. And the average Muslim walked around, read the newspaper, during Ramadan, shook his shoulders, and left.

But it became so ridiculous to me that people started boycotting butter and cheese. And it makes sense; you know, it's easy to take your frustration out on Denmark. You know, you people have been trying to boycott Israel for years, but, you know, those cheeky Israelis never actually put "Made in Israel" labels on their stuff, so that didn't really work out. And then, they tried to boycott the U.S. And yeah, look around you, McDonald's, Levi jeans everywhere, like globalization, you can't do it. But Denmark, you know, they make cheese and Lego; we can take it out on them. And I thought this was wrong. I thought it wasn't fair. I thought the Danish people actually stood by lots of the Muslim countries in many, many ways. And I thought it was really stupid to collectively punish, you know, an entire country just because you disagree with 11 cartoonists and an editor.

So at first, it was so silly, like-- and it was taking such silly shapes, that me and Roba el Assi, in Jordan, we started talking about this and discussing this. And, at first, we wanted to start the anti-boycott Danish products campaign. So at first, it was the, "Boycott the boycott," or, "Support Danish cows." Because we decided it had to be something that silly. And we were doing, "Support Danish cows," because we thought that Danish cows were good, unlike their British counterparts, who are just mad. So we need to support Danish cows. And somehow, this has turned into the Buy Danish campaign. You know, go and buy Danish products. And why wouldn't you buy Danish products? Lots of American blogs and European blogs who used to follow me were like, "Oh, my God." You know, so they started like, you know, taking the advertiser to that created some of them were silly, and they started really working on it. And then making something bigger and bigger and bigger. And just, it was something-- you'd just sit there and watch the power of the Internet just take over.

There are two stories that sum up the Danish cartoon crisis for me. Those are two favorite stories. Number one was about a Palestinian guy, entrepreneur who lived in Gaza, who actually started my dream job, basically. I had a dream job of opening a U.S. and Israeli flag store in Gaza right next to a gas station. And then, sell Combos. And the guy used to do that. He used to sell U.S. and Israeli flags. And he used to get those U.S. and Israeli flags from an Israeli factory. And the Israelis were like, "Hey, man, constant supply, constant demand. Fine, whatever, just give him our flags.

So happy. They'll burn a flag somewhere or other, so we'll just give it to them." And, when the Danish thing started happening, he called the factory, and he was like, "Listen, I know my people. They're going to want to burn the Danish flag." So they're like, "We don't have any Danish flags. We have a Swiss flag." So he's like, "Uh why a Swiss flag?" They're like, "It looks like a Danish one. It's red; it has a white cross; it could work." He's like, "Fine, fine. Send me the Swiss flag."

Then, the next day, there was international news everywhere that Gaza protesters burned the Swiss flag, which was-- the average Swiss person must have thought this was actually kind of strange. "Someone's really mad at us, and they burned our flag. What have we done?" And my second favorite story was six months later, after this whole thing calmed down, after the crisis has been averted from the evil cartoons, there was a big discussion in Egyptian Parliament whether or not to take money from Denmark, you know, Danish aid. And people were so mad, like, "Should we take the money? Should we not take the money?" And then, they reached a decision. They're going to take the Danish money, but they're not going to be happy about it. Which is kind of like U.S. aid money, when you think about it. 

With a history dating back to the 10th millennium B.C., Egypt has long played a central role in the Middle East. Egypt is the largest Arab nation and has an influential voice in Arabic and Middle Eastern culture. Egypt has a diverse economy, but has struggled to create sustained economic growth and opportunities for its population of 84 million people.

The country has little experience with representative democracy. From 1956 to 1970, President Gamal Abdel Nasser ruled Egypt with a strong hand, nationalizing the Suez Canal and taking the country into conflict with the new state of Israel. Upon his death, Anwar al-Sadat became president. Together with other Arab nations, Sadat launched the October War against Israel in 1973. In 1979, Sadat signed a groundbreaking peace treaty with Israel.

From Sadat’s assassination in 1981 until the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, Egypt was governed by President Hosni Mubarak. For all of Mubarak’s time in office, and for much of the time since his resignation, Egypt has been under “Emergency Law,” which allows the government to suspend constitutional rights, including limiting political activity and restricting free speech. Emergency Law also allows the government to use summary arrests against political opponents.

For four successive terms, Mubarak was reelected in referenda without an opponent. In 2005, under domestic and international pressure, Mubarak proposed a constitutional amendment to allow Egypt’s first multicandidate presidential elections. Because the amendment would have imposed severe restrictions on the eligibility of opposition candidates, opposition groups boycotted the vote. Mubarak claimed to have won the September 2005 presidential election with an official 88 percent of the vote, amid widespread allegations of fraud and vote rigging. The main opposition leader, Ayman Nour, was subsequently prosecuted by the government for forging signatures on petitions and was sentenced to five years in prison, provoking protests from the United States and other democratic countries.

Following the example of the Tunisian Revolution, large protests swept Egypt in early 2011. The military, led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), withdrew its support of Mubarak. On February 11, 2011, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak had resigned. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) headed by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi then assumed power in Egypt. SCAF dissolved the parliament and suspended the constitution.

In November 2011, Egypt held parliamentary elections that were reportedly fair and democratic. In June 2012, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was elected President, in part because liberal and secular forces failed to coalesce around a single candidate. Morsi’s popularity declined as he declared his orders immune from challenge, removed judicial review processes, and was accused of taking steps towards the implementation of Islamist policies. Conflict arose between those supporting Islamist policies and those seeking a more liberal and secular government. Protests occurred throughout his presidency until Morsi was ousted by the military in July 2013. Muslim Brotherhood leaders were arrested and their camps and offices raided. Until new elections are held, a SCAF-installed provisional government led by acting President Adly Mansour is in control.

In its most recent report, the independent watchdog group Freedom House classifies Egypt as “partly free.” On its scale where 1 is the most free and 7is the least free, Egypt earned scores of 5 in both the civil liberties and political rights categories.

More from Mahmoud Salem

Mahmoud Salem: The Danish Cartoon Crisis “The Danish cartoon crisis was completely made up.” Mahmoud Salem: Egypt Gets a Blogosphere “We soon realized that not only were we a source of information, but also a fantastic place to provide organizational information.” Mahmoud Salem: Tahrir Square “You continue fighting because you realize that they've already done everything that they could to strike fear in you.” More + Mahmoud Salem: State Security Target “Nobody shared their files. It was a really efficient police state.” Mahmoud Salem: The Rise of Social Media “Facebook and Twitter made it a lot easier for people.” Mahmoud Salem: Vision for Egypt “I would like to live in a country that has the concerns of the people at heart.” Mahmoud Salem: Exposing Police Brutality “The police liked to use their phones to video their torturing.” Mahmoud Salem: Background “I decided those people are too stupid to continue ruling us.” Mahmoud Salem: Anti Harassment Campaign “I decided that something needs to be done.” Mahmoud Salem: Role of the Military “Having the military oversee the democratic transition is just ridiculous.” Mahmoud Salem: Blogging in Secret “My mother actually never knew any of this.” Mahmoud Salem: Becoming a Blogger “The Rantings of a Sandmonkey”