Nora Younis is a human rights activist, journalist and blogger who is now working as the website managing editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm Daily Independent, one of the best known newspapers in Egypt.
As a human rights activist, Ms. Younis won the Human Rights First (HRF) thirtieth anniversary award in 2008 for her work using new media tools to expose human rights violations and police brutality.
When she started blogging in 2005 she focused on addressing the information vacuum on protest movements in Egypt. Before Twitter came into being, she was continually sending mass text messages to human rights activists, political groups, and journalists, informing them of rallies, arrests, state violence and police brutality.
After Twitter became established among Egyptians, she moved into visual documentation. Most recognized is her video of the textile workers’ strike in Mahalla in September 2007 that soon grew into a nationwide movement known as the April 6th strike. One of her most famous blog posts includes her testimonial about the brutal police raid on a Sudanese refugee protest camp in Cairo in 2005 where at least 27 men, women and children were killed. Her testimonial was translated by fellow bloggers and activists across the world into more than seven languages. It was used in law suits and human rights reports condemning the Egyptian government.
During the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, Ms. Younis played a major role in documenting and reporting events. Using improvised communications methods, she filmed and disseminated to global audiences the demonstrations and crackdowns in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Before she took up her position as website managing editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm Daily Independent, Ms. Younis covered the Middle East for The Washington Post (2008) and for other international newspapers.
On January 25th , I was in Tunisia, covering the Tunisian revolution. And I felt very lucky, because I came to see a revolution in my lifetime. But I was missing out on my own revolution, because it was starting in Egypt. So I took the first flight back. It was on the 27th. I woke up on the 28th, and I had been promoted to be the website managing editor, not just the multimedia editor. So I was now responsible for the whole website of Al-masry Al-youm. And I woke up on the 28th, and the Internet was cut off Egypt. And I had a crew you know, who had assignments. And we had made plans. And we were completely stalled.
So we kept looking for a spot that has Internet, until we found one in the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel. It was the only place that had Internet in Egypt at this time, at least the only public place. So after a lot of negotiations, we rent a room in the hotel, and we put in some of our reporters inside. They refused to give us a room overlooking Tahrir because it was banned by the state security. So they gave us a room overlooking the river, the other side. And we said fine.
So we started updating the website. All the telephone calls were down. Just the landlines were working. The mobiles were completely off. So we inform the newsroom of our lines. And we were communicating with them, we were communicating with the reporters, and we were updating the website. And then we hear the bombs. We hear a lot of bombs. And then we see white smoke coming out from across the river, the other side. I go out to the balcony, and it's banned to go out to-- they said if they see someone with a camera in the balcony, they will arrest him.
I go to the balcony, and I start filming. And then the bombs are more, and the smoke is more. And then the protests are approaching, approaching, approaching and then-- until they come close to Qasr al-Nil, the bridge just beside the Semiramis Hotel And it's my pure luck that I got to film the most iconic battle, the most iconic scene of the Egyptian revolution. I shot it with my camera. And I could not believe it. It was amazing. It was amazing. There were tens of thousands of people. And there were, like, thousands of thousands of the police. And they were killing people with their armored cars. They ran over people.
They shot people who were praying right in their chest with the water cannons, just like directly-- like from a space, like, just between you and me, like this very close. They were just putting the water cannons at people's chests when they were praying on the bridge. They shot people with their rifles just two meters away, in their chest, directly in their chest. They bombarded the people with tear gas, bombarded them with tear gas. And the people were just picking the tear gas bombs, throwing it into the river. And they were carrying the injured, putting them backwards, and keep going forward, keep going forward.
So I shot two hours of footage of this battle. And it was very interesting. We had Internet, so we edited the video very quickly to eight minutes, and we put it on our website. But nobody in Egypt could see our website because the Internet was down. But the world could see it. So somebody took the video from the website, they put it on You Tube. And then half an hour later, I was watching television, and I found this video on al-Jazeera and BBC and CNN and France 24. It was everywhere. I was very proud.
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.