This is my second blog post on the U-Shahid project in Egypt. The first one analyzed 2,000+ reports mapped on the Ushahidi platform during the country’s recent Parliamentary Elections. Egypt is one of my dissertation case studies and in this blog post I summarize some initial findings based on a series of interviews I had several Egyptian activists who were part of the U-Shahid project.
The Egyptian government began asking questions about U-Shahid well before the project was even launched. They found out about the project by tapping phone lines and emails. Once the project was launched, the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior continued to shadow the project in several ways. They requested copies of all meeting agendas and a list of names for everyone who was trained on the Ushahidi platform, for example.
In order to remain operational, the Egyptian activists spearheading the U-Shahid project said that they “stressed the technical aspect of the project, and remained fully open and transparent about our work. We gave Egyptian National Security a dedicated username and password [to access the Ushahidi platform], one that we could control and monitor [their actions]. This gave them a false sense of control, we could restore anything they deleted.” That said, one activist recounted how “there were attempts by the government to overload our website with many fake reports […] but we were on it and we were able to delete them. This happened a minute or two every three hours or so, attacks, overload, but eventually they gave up.”
When asked why the regime had not shut down the platform given the potential threat that U-Shahid represented, one blogger explained that “many of the activists who began using Ushahidi had many followers on Facebook and Twitter, they also had the attention of the international media, which could create unwanted attention on the regime’s actions.” This same blogger also noted that many of the activists who collaborated on the U-Shahid project were “connected with people in the US Congress, directors of international human rights NGOs, and so on.” Perhaps the Mubarak Regime was concerned that cracking down on the U-Shahid project would backfire.
In any case, the activists “did a lot of scenario building, considered many ‘what if’ situations. The fact that we were so well prepared is why they [the regime] could not touch us. We tried to connect all the data on Facebook and Twitter so that if they closed our Ushahidi map, we would move to a new domain name and let all our followers know. We also had a large database of SMS numbers, which would allow us to text our followers with information on the new website. Finally, we had a fully trained team in Lebanon ready to take over the project if we were completely shut down.”
“We were well prepared,” added another blogger, “we knew they could not arrest all of us on the day of the election, and just in case, we trained a group in Lebanon who could take over all operations if we were stopped.” According to one activist, “using this mapping technology provided a way to collect and recruit a lot of activists, and not just any activists, but more effective ones. This actually created a headache for the regime because a growing number of digital activists became interested in using the Ushahidi platform.” Another interviewee added that the technology acted as a “magnet” for activists. One activist also remarked that “they [the government] don’t understand how we work; we can learn very fast but the government has many rules and processes, they have to write up reports, submit them for approval, and allocate funding to acquire technology. But for us, we don’t need permission. If we want to use Tor, we simply use Tor.”
Another explained that their project’s credibility came from the realization by many that they were simply focused on “getting the facts out without agenda. We were both transparent and moderate, with no political or party affiliation, and we emphasized that our goal was to try and make the election process transparent.” In sum, said another activist, “we let people decide for themselves whether the content mapped on Ushahidi was good or not.” Another activist argued that the use of the Ushahidi platform “created more transparency around the elections, allowing easier access than in any previous election.” More specifically, “in previous elections and before the existence of Ushahidi, many NGOs made reports of election irregularities, but these were rarely shared publicly with policy maker or even with other NGOs. And even after the elections had taken place, it was very difficult to access these repots. But the Ushahidi [platform] is open and online, allowing anyone to access any of the information mapped in near real-time.”
Still it is really challenging to fully assess the potential political impact (if any) the U-Shahid project had–something the activists are very aware of. One can only investigate so much for so long. One activist noted that “next time we use the Ushahidi platform, this year for the presidential elections, we will be sure to track the reports submitted to the judicial courts and compare them with those we collect. We also plan to better advertise our project with lawyers and political candidates so that they can use our reports including videos and photos in court and for trials.”
What I’m particularly pleased about in addition all the learning that has taken place is the fact that the U-Shahid project spawned off a number of *copy cats during the elections and new maps are being launched almost every other month in Egypt now. The project also increased the number of Egyptian who participated in directly monitoring their own elections. Lastly, I’m excited that the Egyptians who spearheaded the U-Shahid project are now training activists in Tunisia and other Arab countries. They have acquired a wealth of practical knowledge and experience in using the platform in authoritarian environments, and now they’re sharing all this hard-won expertise.
There’s a lot more to share from the interviews, and I hope to do so in future posts. I also plan to blog about the findings from my case study of the Sudan.