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“Mubarak is Our Berlin Wall”: Egyptian Columnist Mona Eltahawy on How the Youth Drove the Uprising in Cairo and Implications for Democracy in the Region

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The uprising in Egypt is a popular movement for democracy, but some media outlets are mainly missing the point, according to our guest, Egyptian columnist and commentator Mona Eltahawy. She urges the media to use the terms “uprising” and “revolt” rather than “chaos” and “unrest” when reporting on the events in Egypt. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Seven Nation Army” by White Stripes here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. For more, we’re joined in our Democracy Now! studio here in New York by Mona Eltahawy. She is an Egyptian-born columnist and public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues based here in New York, reported extensively from the Middle East, including as a correspondent in Cairo for the news agency Reuters.

That music is in your ears and head all the time, you said, Mona.

MONA ELTAHAWY: It’s a loop, Amy, because every time I hear the opening lines — “I’m going to fight them off. A seven-nation army couldn’t hold me back” — it just takes me to Egypt, where people — I’ve never seen anything like it. Literally, nothing can hold them back. Mubarak shuts down the internet, shuts down the train system, shuts down almost the entire country, and still they come. It’s beautiful.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of what’s happening in Egypt right now. Did you expect this this week?

MONA ELTAHAWY: You know, in 2005, I went back to Egypt. I moved back to Egypt for four months, and I took part in some street protests there. And the largest number we could get in Tahrir Square, in Liberation Square, was maybe 3,000, and that was it. And people would look at these tiny demonstrations, and they would laugh. So, the idea that thousands upon thousands of people could go out there in the street and stand up to Mubarak and his brutal security forces, no one could ever have imagined that this would happen. And that it has galvanized Egyptians of all walks of life from across the country is just amazing.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Mona Eltahawy, our guest, speaking on CNN earlier this week, urging the news commentators to use the words “revolt” or “uprising” instead of “chaos” and “crisis.”

MONA ELTAHAWY: Believe me when I tell you that every Arab who writes to me, through Twitter and through other social media that you have been highlighting, has been telling me, “Go Egypt! Congratulations, because we want this freedom for the entire region.” This is a historic moment. I urge you to use the word “revolt” and “uprising” and “revolution,” and not “chaos” and not “unrest.” We’re talking about a historic moment in the history of my people.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mona Eltahawy on CNN. Continue that.

MONA ELTAHAWY: I was getting really upset that every time I went on a show, all you would see is “Crisis in Cairo,” “Unrest in Egypt.” And they were totally missing the historical significance of what was happening. My country, you know, my people, these incredibly courageous people in Egypt, were standing up to a tyrant of 30 years, and all they wanted to focus on was this looting, that was clear at the time and now has been proven to be linked to the Mubarak regime. And all they wanted to ask was, “Are American citizens safe? And how are the artifacts in Egypt?” And I said, “Look, everybody is safe. We all care about the artifacts, but can we please talk about Egyptians and what a historic moment this is?”

AMY GOODMAN: Human Rights Watch is talking about government-backed thugs and looters. Talking to Sharif and his family, I know how it’s the families, it’s the neighborhoods, that are setting up neighborhood watch. They’re patrolling their neighborhoods 24 hours a day.

MONA ELTAHAWY: Oh, absolutely. Once Mubarak realized that his brutal security forces could not quash what was happening in Egypt, he pulled back the security forces, and there was no police. He opened the jails and allowed criminals to escape. And so, what happened was Egyptians set up these neighborhood watches, where they were taking care of their own, basically, and not allowing these thugs to come into their neighborhoods. And at that time, the armed forces were sent into the streets of Cairo. And these neighborhood watch committees would catch the looters and the thugs, hand them over to the armed forces, and they would find security identification that connected them directly to the Mubarak regime.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the youth in Egypt right now?

MONA ELTAHAWY: Oh, my god. The youth, I mean, they fill my heart with joy, literally. This is — this was launched by the youth. It’s been driven by the youth. And the future belongs to the youth. Egypt, like many other Arab countries, is — the majority of Egyptians are younger than 30. And everything you see today was started by two groups of youth movements that launched invitations on Facebook. And at first people laughed at them. They said, “You can’t invite people to a revolution. Everyone’s just going to click 'Yes,' you know, 'Like,' you know? And that’s it, you know?” Armchair activists or “slacktivists,” like they say. But people came out. So, they launched this amazing thing. And this group of young people who were convinced that they could take back Egypt from Mubarak inspired the entire country. So, they had thousands who joined them at first, and then more and then more and then more. And now you see everybody on the street.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, though, Mubarak, with the help of Vodafone — right? — just they cut the switch.


AMY GOODMAN: And now Vodafone is trying to defend themselves cutting off the internet and the phones.

MONA ELTAHAWY: Yeah, mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: Twitter, of course, Facebook.

MONA ELTAHAWY: Yeah. Well, you know, you can only compare this really to the Burmese junta, when they shut down the internet when the monks staged their uprising in 2007. And at first Mubarak shut down most of the internet. There was one ISDN line that they were using, which he shut down yesterday, and cell phones coming down and everything. And I’ve been seeing tweets where Egyptians, who were really disappointed with their fellow Egyptians who worked for these mobile phone providers, were saying, “You’re traitors. How can you do this?” And then, I know people who worked in these providers, and they would say, “These are government orders.”

So, you know, just as Sharif was saying, Egyptians are learning. We’ve had civil society in Egypt for a long time, but Mubarak successfully, at every step, strangled it. But what we’re seeing in Egypt now is this amazing national dialogue where people are saying, “Look, this is the time to take a stand.” People are discussing actors, for example, those who have gone on state television and said, “We’re with Mubarak,” and people on Twitter are like, “Shame on you!” and those who have gone out on the street and resigned. You know, we’ve had some really well-known anchors and news people who have just resigned jobs with state-run television and said, “This is shameful. I cannot work with this regime anymore.” This is a turning point for Egypt.

AMY GOODMAN: Mona Eltahawy, you are the first Egyptian journalist to live and work for a Western news agency in Israel.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how Israel is viewing this now.

MONA ELTAHAWY: Well, you know, as an Egyptian, I know my country has had a very conflicted history with Israel. Egypt and Israel had four wars until Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Menachem Begin at the White House in 1979. To be quite honest with you, Amy, no one is thinking right now in Egypt of Israel or America or anywhere else but Egypt. But I know that the Israeli government is looking at Egypt. And what I’ve heard from Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is that he’s urging the world to support Mubarak, which is unconscionable, because one of the points — Israel always reminds the world, and the United States reminds the world, that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Well, here is a country that wants to be a democracy. Here is a mass uprising that wants to be democratic.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [translated] What could develop, and which has developed already in several countries, including Iran itself, repressive of regimes of radical Islam, which certainly repress human rights and totally crush them, don’t permit any democracy, any freedom, any rights. They also pose a terrible threat to the peace and stability to the interests of all civilized people. That is the fear, the fear of all of us, my fear, and I think that is a fear that unites many others.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Netanyahu. Mona Eltahawy?

MONA ELTAHAWY: Well, I’ve got to say, I’ve had several run-ins with Benjamin Netanyahu at various points in his administration. Several things come to mind, Amy. First of all, there is a significant group of ultra-conservative, right-wing Jews in his government who pose their own threat to people around the world, especially in the Middle East. Second of all, he speaks of repressive regimes. What is the Mubarak regime but repressive? And third, if you truly care about democracy and you constantly boast about being the only democracy in the Middle East, then surely you would understand that stability and good neighborly relations comes from other countries around you also being democratic. Egypt is sick and tired of wars. This is — we had four wars in our past with Israel. Egyptians want to build their country; Egyptians don’t want to destroy their country. And Egyptians are not interested in anyone else’s country right now. We want a better Egypt. And we thought that the democracies around the world, like the U.S., like Israel, would actually say, “We salute you.” Now, I have Jewish friends who I see on Twitter, who are left-wing and who want Egypt to be democratic, and they’ve held protests in Tel Aviv and other cities, saying, “We support democracy in Egypt.” This is the real democratic stand, not to be democratically elected and then tell Egyptians to put up with repression.

AMY GOODMAN: You have called Mubarak the Berlin Wall.

MONA ELTAHAWY: Absolutely, because, as you remember, in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, you saw revolution — revolutions and freedom movements across Eastern Europe. Mubarak is our Berlin Wall. When Tunisia had its revolution and toppled Ben Ali, everyone thought, “Beautiful little Tunisia, you’re so brave. But it’s never going to happen anywhere else.” Now it’s happening in the traditional leader of the Arab world. Egypt is a country of 80 million people. Once Mubarak falls — and he will fall; I mean, he’s crumbled. Several days ago, as far as I was concerned, he was done. Once Mubarak falls once and for all, you will see what will happen in the Arab world. This is going to — every Arab leader is watching right now in terror, and every Arab citizen is elated and cheering Egypt on, because they know the significance of this.

AMY GOODMAN: Mona Eltahawy, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Egyptian-born columnist and speaker on Arab issues, based here in New York. Al Jazeera English, by the way, is now reporting up to two million people in and around Tahrir Square. And, of course, there are protests all over Egypt.

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Media Blackout in Egypt and the U.S.: Al Jazeera Forced Off the Air by Mubarak, Telecommunications Companies Block Its Expansion in the United States

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