By Susannah Vila and Esra'a Al Shafei
In November of 2006, a critical blog post landed 22-year-old Egyptian law student Kareem Nabeel Suleiman in jail. When he was sentenced to four years, it was the first time in Egyptian history that someone had received an official sentence for the act of blogging.
When Esra’a Al Shafei found out about this, she and her team at Mideast Youth launched the Free Kareem campaign.
The initiative was important, notes Esra'a, not just as a call for freedom of speech in Egypt but also as a demand for all Arabs to be able to express their opinions online without punishment.
Esra’a and her team wanted to focus global attention on Kareem’s incarceration in the hope that this would push the Egyptian government to release him. How would she get jaded international media to pay attention to her campaign? And would the advantages of earning wide media attention be outweighed by the disadvantages?
The Free Kareem campaign is just one of Esra’a’s many initiatives, all of which fall under the umbrella of her organization, Mideast Youth. On what compelled her to begin online organizing in the first place, she says:
"Starting out was a process—there was no particular event that made me do it, but growing up in Bahrain, the amount of injustices that I witnessed or heard about was becoming too overwhelming. I know that I was active as early as 9 specifically toward issues related to the migrant worker community in Bahrain. By 14 I started reading and becoming more interested in ethnic and religious minorities, and then a few years later I started Mideast Youth, which just exploded in terms of growth. All the projects that you see are a result of years of thinking and wondering what I can do to support these causes that I was hearing about and watching throughout my childhood.”
After years of staying up nights after work to devote time to the project, Esra’a has decided in the past few months to quit her job so that she can focus full time on Mideast Youth.
THE TOOLS AND TACTICS
When Esra'a began, she knew nothing about how to make a website. When she came across Wordpress, she saw a button with the words “easy set-up,” which that was enough to make her try it out. It was as easy as she hoped.
Later she would she become a big supporter of Wordpress, not just because of its ease but also because its politics, in taking pains to support bloggers who are vulnerable to censorship, are aligned with her own.
Esra’a harnessed social networks, primarily Twitter and Facebook, to drive people to the website and to the central action: holding a series of global rallies for Kareem.
“We decided to create a Facebook group. This was before Facebook started to limit the amount of messages you could send in one day. So we started messaging students around the world—starting with the people we knew of course—asking them to join the group. Most people did. Why wouldn’t you? We made sure that our messages were really personal. I presented him as my friend, an actual human, and I targeted people who were like him: other students and bloggers. And then they started contacting their networks, and membership grew."
"We used Twitter too, but I have found that Twitter is better for virtual campaigns, and Facebook is better for when you want people on the ground. YouTube and online video in general was really important because it allowed us to share lots of videos of him, which were important calls to action."
They also went analog, launching a ‘Flood the Jail With Mail’ campaign, asking people to send him letters or postcards. This was important, says Esra'a, "to let the prison guards know that people were watching in order to deter them from torturing Kareem. This was also the only way he had to communicate with people and to hear from all of his supporters around the world.”
Everything Mideast Youth-related is built with free tools: Twitter, Facebook, eCards, Google Maps, Wikipedia, etc. Over 350 bloggers have installed the Wordpress plugin, which helps to maintain awareness about Kareem.
Tip: Running more than one cause-oriented website like Esra’a is? Try putting a toolbar in each of them—her toolbar at KurdishRights.org doubled the traffic for each of her other blogs.
THE STUMBLING BLOCKS
The main challenge lay in getting enough media attention. They tried to get news outlets to cover the initial rally in Bahrain, but no one would, saying that it wasn't enough of a story—that there was always someone in Pakistan or Iran or Egypt who was wrongfully imprisoned.
This changed when Esra’a, through online organizing that took place largely on Facebook, got young people in cities around the world to hold simultaneous rallies. Only then was it a story worth covering.
Other stumbling blocks? She and her colleagues weren’t immune to criticisms from other Muslims, who called them infidels for supporting Kareem, since he was imprisoned for a blog post that was critical of Islam. In response to this, they simply repeated that they didn’t agree with what he wrote, just his right to say it.
There's also the weightier challenge of knowing whether or not these efforts have worked in Kareem’s interest or not. As jailed blogger in Egypt, do you want the world to know about you? Did the Egyptian government keep Kareem in jail longer because he had become more well known internationally? Is there a tipping point when it comes to generating international outrage about an unlawful imprisonment like this one - whereby enough attention is likely to get a prisoner released, but anything short of that will increase the chance of him staying in prison?
It’s difficult to tell if all the publicity has transformed the situation to the jailed blogger’s detriment: Kareem may now be too important to release.
In 2007, there were rallies at the Egyptian embassies in 26 cities. With this wave of protests, Esra’a contacted news organizations and told them about it, giving them contact information for whoever was the point person for that location, and this time, journalists actually started showing up. The Free Kareem campaign finally received the international media attention that Esra’a had been hoping for.
She continues to focus attention on the campaign: forming creative campaigns or new events even long after the person is imprisoned is important and keeping the person and the campaign in the news and at the center of the media’s attention, despite what the government in question wants. She is persistent about blogging on the website about any news from jail—for instance, when the security officers in jail broke into Kareem’s cell and stole his writings, she blogged about it.
The Free Kareem campaign offers an example of how to combine creative strategies with new media to gain international attention for a cause, and Kareem has said that knowing people are out there thinking of him changed his life and made his time in prison more bearable. The fact remains, though, that despite Esra’a’s valiant efforts, a blogger remained imprisoned for one post and was not released until his sentence was up (in fact, Egyptian authorities kept him in prison for nearly 3 weeks after this date) -and it is difficult to disentangle the effects of Esra'a's campaign from what would have happened to Kareem with or without her and her colleagues' efforts.