A conversation with human rights activist Ramy Raoof, who set up a multimedia tent in Tahrir Square in late January, where people could go to share their video footage, photos, and testimonies from the revolution.
Bidoun: How did people find you?
Ramy Raoof: I just went and hung out in Tahrir Square for long hours. We had big signs in different languages saying our purpose was to gather images. So people just came to us with their memory cards and cellphones with Bluetooth and different cables. We had a team of six or more with five-hundred-gigabyte hard disks. I had a huge bag with laptops and cameras and cables and everything. It was like Radio Shack in a bag. We provided a place for everyone around us to charge their cellphones and cameras. Every few hours, we’d send our friends to an access point where there was internet, and we’d put the data online. Or when the internet was down, we’d transfer it to DVDs.
B: The army didn’t give you any problems?
RR: The problems were not only from the army. I don’t look Egyptian — I was beaten many times in the revolution because I look foreign. Even when they see my passport and my Egyptian ID, they think that it’s fake. So officers would either take my camera away from me or hand me to a military checkpoint. And there, if an officer is wise enough, he would just let me go.
B: So if I go online right now, how do I find this stuff?
RR: We’ve put everything on a torrent — you can find a link on the website of the Egyptian Blog for Human Rights.
B: Do you ever throw anything away?
RR: Never. All content during the revolution is useful. It doesn’t matter how good the quality is; what matters is the content. A seemingly useless video might show you the rank of a police officer, the kind of weapon he’s using, his name tag, a car’s license plate number, the name of a police station. That’s why the people who are investigating what is happening, they call us. We give them thousands of gigs of stuff.
B: Do you know if the investigators learned anything helpful from it?
RR: Yeah they did, especially from the sniper videos. There were very few videos of snipers shooting people — until I met many people who had seen the snipers themselves. One of our friends from the Al Jazeera crew was at the Ramses Hotel, and he filmed a sniper targeting with a green laser. When he first told me, I didn’t believe him. Lasers? Then he showed me the video. I also have bultugaeah (thugs), at least twelve interviews with them. I took the videos myself, in Tahrir Square. We had this kind of prison in Tahrir that we built for people that we catch, and the next morning we hand them in to the military. So of course once we catch someone, people keep beating him like shit, and then at 4am when everything is calm I go inside with my camera and tell him, My name is blah blah, and I do this, and, Can I interview you. If he says yes, I ask him if he wants his face shown or not. If he says yes, I just film him talking, and if he says no, I put the camera on his leg and that’s it.
B: Some thugs said yes to having their faces shown?
RR: Many said yes. Because at some point they felt that the officials cheated them and lied to them and they wanted revenge. So, here is my face, here is my name, here’s what happened to me. There were some people in suits in the neighborhood saying they’re from the NDP, and handing out two hundred pounds. And they told people there are some Americans in Tahrir Square trying to destroy stuff — we need you to go tomorrow morning to beat them up.
B: Did they actually say, “Go beat them up”?
RR: Yeah, just go beat them up. The meeting point was at the Ramses Hotel and they told them that they’d find a truck full of stones. They said, just keep beating people with stones from the bridge. Very simple.
B: Did you talk to any police officers?
RR: I spoke with one ex-army officer and with two police officers. The army officer kept saying he’s not a thug, he was just caught by mistake and people are wrongly accusing him. And the other two, they said, Yes we were using Molotov cocktails, we were paid money to do this. It’s hard to say who is honest and who is not, but it’s good to just get all the information out to everyone. And then, if it makes sense, we put it into a legal case. We have all these documents from this union of doctors who were in Tahrir; they have an initiative to document all cases of violence they saw, how many bullets, the names of victims. They agreed to share it with me and I told them I’d make it available online to everyone, though I would remove any private or personal information.
The only content I lost — I didn’t throw anything away — was from the 26th of February, when protestors were again attacked by the military. They were beating us. I had a live stream of the whole thing. They were beating me and I was live streaming it. And I am tweeting. They were just like, put away that stuff. Just run for your life.
B: You tweeted while you were running?
RR: Yeah, I had the keypad going — it’s not like I need to look. [Laughs] At some point I was running and just put the camera up and pointed it backward. When I got home and saw the video, they were exactly behind me and chasing me with sticks.
B: What did you do before the revolution?
RR: I worked with human rights NGOs on how they can use cellphones and online platforms in order to spread information and raise people’s awareness, and how human rights defenders can maintain their privacy and security online.
B: What do you think about Facebook?
RR: I hate Facebook. I don’t expect anything good from them. Twitter, they are much better. I also hate Flickr. They removed our pictures. Our friend was working security somewhere and he found two DVDs with all the police officers’ pictures, their names, ID numbers, passport numbers, everything. We put them online and in forty-eight hours, Flickr removed it all, and sent an email saying I’d violated copyrights. They’re public-domain pictures, there are no copyrights, and they’re of people involved in torture and kidnapping. How can you remove them?
B: Is there still a steady stream of media, given the pressure from the military and everything that’s happened in Tahrir since the revolution?
RR: The army is of course putting extreme pressure on all local newspapers. They sent a message from the ministry consul to every newspaper in Egypt telling them not to cover or publish anything unless you have our permission. In the last twenty days there were three human rights reports and five statements about the actions of the army and not a single newspaper or TV channel covered it. If the army could control online platforms, they would put limits on them, too.
B: Do you think what people are saying is true, that state security has been disbanded?
RR: It’s still the same. We have many leaks from state security and we are going to put them online soon. The leaks say they own software worth millions of Egyptian from that company to state security, and state security to them. They were learning how to monitor SMS, how to stop SMS, how to interfere with the content of each SMS, how to block the internet in each street and city. They were training for this.
B: So there’s an official contact for this company?
RR: There is.
B: Do you want to contact him?
RR: No, I don’t want to contact him. I want to fuck him.
B: Having worked with technology and human rights for so long, do you think this revolution was unique in terms of the role played by the internet?
RR: People keep calling it the Facebook revolution. There’s no truth to that. These are just sexy words made up by the American administration and newspapers, but they don’t have real meaning. Define “Facebook revolution.” We didn’t have Facebook from January 25 to February 6. Facebook didn’t mobilize people. Very few people on the streets were on Twitter.
Facebook did help in spreading our ideas. It was the only way we could deliver the facts on the ground, because the government was controlling all state media and kept publishing fake videos and spreading false information. Pick any particular date, and Channel 1, the state media, was showing a video of Tahrir Square nearly empty: a fake picture with the label “LIVE” on it.
B: That was amazing. Al Jazeera actually decided to show what was on state media.
RR: Yeah! It was very rude of them. [Laughs]
B: Just to clarify: you don’t think the ability to create and share content via the internet is a part of why now — rather than five, ten years ago?
RR: People, for the first time, agreed on something. They didn’t agree before. For example, in Tunisia, with Mohamed Bouazizi — it wasn’t the first time someone set himself on fire. In Egypt, we had torture all the time, but people didn’t speak about it.
B: But you would agree that something shifted, with those first videos of torture?
RR: The difference was the content.
B: It’s interesting to meet someone whose work is all about propagating information on the internet yet who doesn’t believe the internet is an essential part…
RR: Because it’s not!
B: So why do you work so hard?
RR: It would still happen without the internet! It helps but it’s not a basic tool. That’s the point.
B: What’s a basic tool?
RR: Demonstrations. Offline tools are the best. If you want to fight, go on the ground and then use the tools around you. Use newspapers, use colors, use graffiti, use cellphones with internet, use your camera, use dancing. But the basic tool is peaceful assembly on the ground. That’s what made us successful, even after the internet was shut down.
Though there were a few of us who still had access after they shut it down — forty or fifty of us. It was nice actually: I’m online in Egypt! [Laughing]
RR: We had one company who said no, we won’t shut down the internet. They were attacked for it. The others could have refused as well. The mobile companies could have said, no, we won’t kill people. Many people are dead because there were no cellphones.
B: So how do you approach this as something real and not just a collection of images and facts and narratives?
RR: Whenever there is a question raised in the media nowadays, I find a picture about it. People are saying there were no girls with hijab in Tahrir Square, and I have hundreds of pictures of girls with hijab. People were saying that there were no small kids playing around in Tahrir Square, and I have pictures of many kids — like, a small school — playing in Tahrir. Whatever people say and discuss, there is multimedia content that can prove or disprove it. There is too much content.