Vendors in Tahrir Square have been doing a brisk business selling T-shirts of various colorful designs that usually have “January 25” emblazoned on the front. Certainly the first day of the Egyptian revolution, when tens of thousands initially gathered in Cairo’s central square, was a milestone. Now, with the television cameras largely gone and souvenir stands taking over, the revolution might appear to be over. Egyptians know better, perhaps none more than Hossam El-Hamalawy.
He’s something of a rockstar political activist, thanks partly to his popular blog3arabawy (www.arabawy.org). Since he started blogging in 2006, he’s been in the vanguard of online activists who bravely called the Hosni Mubarak regime to account with reports, photographs and videos exposing political repression in Egypt. His blog posts became more indispensable than ever on January 25, when he quickly—and correctly—predicted that the revolution would succeed because Egyptians were fed up. 3arabawy has become a model for activists in the Internet age, deploying the digital journalist’s full arsenal, including Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, Scribd, Bambuzer, and, of course, Twitter (he has more than thirty thousand followers). The 3arabawy site derives its sophisticated look in part from a haunting portrait of El-Hamalawy painted by Magda Aboul Fotouh, the blogger’s mother (3arabawy, El-Hamalawy has explained, “means bedouin, but it’s also a name of an old funny song I like. There is no significance whatsoever behind the name.”)
El-Hamalawy, who is thirty-three years old, has been in demand around the world lately as a speaker on the role of social media in politics. He participated in the conference “From Tahrir: Revolution or Democratic Transition?” held in June at the American University in Cairo, his alma mater. He shrugged off the accolades when he met up with the Cairo Review at a coffee shop in the Cairo suburb of Nasr City. He insisted that “the revolution was never just Tahrir,” but is the result of more than a decade of activism.
His part in it dates back to 1998, when as an undergraduate he joined the Revolutionary Socialists, a clandestine movement that has supported Palestinian and Lebanese resistance against Israel. He said that despite the ouster of Mubarak on February 11, the revolution continues in the factories, in the universities, in many areas of Egyptian life. He has been mobilizing workers in hopes of establishing an independent federation of trade unions and starting a worker’s political party. “Trade unions are always the silver bullet for any dictatorship,” El-Hamalawy argued. “If you shut down factories and workplaces, game over.”
There’s no trace of complacency in El-Hamalawy’s outlook. His blogging remains a critical source of information about regime abuses—past and present. In April, he was one of a group of activists who stormed the offices of the state security police. Afterward, he posted photographs and other material raided from the offices in an online feature he calls Piggipedia to expose the identities and activities of security policemen who served in Mubarak’s regime. The journalistic gambit won El-Hamalawy further international attention, including a profile in the Washington Post, headlined “Egypt’s Activists Turn Tables on Tormenters.”
In May, El-Hamalawy was summoned for questioning after he spoke out during an appearance on a popular TV program, criticizing the military police for torturing activists and blaming the head of the military police. He has been held in detention three times for his activities, in 2000, 2002 and 2003. “My main concern is who’s administering this period,” El-Hamalawy explained to the Cairo Review. “Yes, change takes time, but who is running the show? Mubarak’s generals are. Whatever regime will come during this transition period will not be a regime that threatens the military’s power and privileges. You’ll have a civilian government in suits and T-shirts who will get elected, but at the same time they know their red lines. Our job at the moment is to push further. We cannot trust the military and trust [Prime Minister] Essam Sharaf with the transition.”