Haddad discusses the grassroots project that’s getting Egyptians’ voices out to the world, the role of social media in the uprising, and his hopes for the region’s future.
Habib Haddad is a Middle East entrepreneur and youth leader. He is the founder of Arabic search engine Yamli and a co-creator of Alive in Egypt, a website for transcribing voicemail messages from Egypt and translating them from Arabic into English, Spanish, German, and French.
He spoke with journalist Salimah Yvette Ebrahim.
SE: Habib, thanks so much for taking the time to join us given how quickly things are unfolding in Egypt.
HH: No problem.
SE: I know you’ve been at the frontlines of getting voices heard in Egypt – and we’ll get to that in a moment – but I want to get your thoughts on the shifting mood in Egypt, which we’ve seen over the last 48 hours as it has moved from a peaceful protest to what now seems to be, in effect, a gun battle on the streets of Egypt as people fight for the country’s future. What are your thoughts on this shift?
HH: I’ll speak from the perspective of someone who is helping the voices of Egypt get out to the world – and what we’ve seen is a shift in those voices as well.
When people were calling in from Egypt, right before the big demonstration, they were saying “We’re going. We’re excited and passionate and we might not come back, but we don’t care. Long live Egypt.” And then on the day of the clashes, we started getting disturbing and very intense voice messages from people talking about what was happening in the clashes – people running around and calling in to say, “We’re being killed. We’re being destroyed by thugs and thieves on the street.” Since then, things in Egypt have gone crazy … but I really think it has given even more passion and even more adrenaline to the demonstrators on the streets, as more than ever right now the fear has been killed. This is what we are hearing in the voices coming in from Egypt.
SE: That’s interesting, because the fear was that this crackdown by the government would start to kill the momentum on the ground – but you’re seeing otherwise?
HH: Yes. In fact, a woman named Mona Seif gave a very iconic interview on Al Jazeera not too long ago. She spoke about how she was being followed, and how she saw people on the bridge being shot and killed in front of her, and how this is the point of no return. If we do go back, she said, she fears for her life. It’s interesting because we have a recording of her speaking on an audio tweet from the day before, and at that point she was much more calm and looking towards the future. I think at the point of the atrocities, there was no going back. So the fear kind of just died, and there is only one way forward now for demonstrators on the street.
SE: As the founder of [Arabic search engine] Yamli and other ventures, you’ve been an online leader in the Middle East, and in recent days you’ve co-founded Alive in Egypt, an online portal designed to help people in Egypt get their voices out to the world. Can you tell us about that project and what its goals are?
HH: Right, and to be honest I am only one of probably 1,000 other co-founders! It’s really a grassroots effort. As soon as Google announced that it was launching a new service that allows people to leave voice tweets online just by calling in, we noticed that the majority of those tweets were coming in from Egypt, and for obvious reasons because this service allows people to leave their tweets without need of the internet. But all of those messages were in Arabic, so the goal of getting those messages to the world was not very effective. Seeing this, I immediately tweeted and said, “Who can help me translate them?” and hundreds of tweets came right back. And then there was a small group that offered technical help. They came in and set up the site, and we set up a Google doc that we shared with the translators, and the input started coming in by the hundreds. We had people self-organize, pulling links to the audio so individuals could first transcribe those audio clips into Arabic and then translate them into English, Spanish, German, and French. Since then it has been non-stop. People have been working back-to-back shifts, sleeping for only a few hours at a time. And because we’re international we’ve been able to work around the clock.
SE: Remarkable. So it was totally spontaneous?
HH: It was completely spontaneous. It began with one tweet, and from there we joined with others who were trying to help. Then, together, we decided to launch a major effort.
It’s really a major crowd-sourcing effort of transcribing and translating the audio, and the real power of that is that we are actually in touch with human beings in Egypt who are leaving their voices voices that are sending a powerful message, but that could not be understood by the international community without our help. Our efforts are critical, because it is the international community that is glued online and reacting to these events. We are essentially multiplying the effect of these voices so that everyone can hear them.
Haddad plays some of the haunting audio tweets that Alive in Egypt has received. These tweets are from people on the ground who, just days before, felt safe. Now they are screaming that they are being targeted and, as a woman on one audio tweet put it, that people are “being slaughtered.”
SE: Habib, these messages are chilling as are the stories coming in on other portals. You mentioned the need for the international community to hear these voices, but how do you think this is going to affect the Egyptian leadership in the long term? Are Egypt’s leaders hearing these voices?
HH: In the past few days, and even in recent hours, we’ve seen Mubarak’s tone changing from “I don’t want to leave. I want to die in my country” to “I want to leave, but I can’t leave the country in chaos.” I hope this is an indication that he is moving toward resignation, but the point is that the regime is definitely hearing the voices of the people on the street. You’d have to be deaf not to hear them. But the regime is trying to shut these voices off in whatever way possible even using brutal techniques. We’ve seen them trying to eliminate those voices by shutting down the internet, but on the ground it is much more brutal than that. That’s important to understand. It’s really no longer a question of whether or not the Egyptian leadership is hearing these voices, but a matter of when they are going to act.
SE: In the last few days we have seen a severe crackdown on journalists. From my experience, that’s often a forewarning that a larger showdown is coming, and that the government doesn’t want cameras around when that happens. Is this the sense you’re getting on the ground, and have your efforts been affected by it?
HH: Yes, it is, and I’ll give you an example: the phone numbers that allowed people to call in to leave their voice messages on our service stopped working a few hours ago. And, ironically enough, as those phone numbers stopped working we started getting pro-Mubarak calls, and calls from people who were vouching for the existing government. We were astonished by the number of tweets we were getting that had shifted completely in tone. So we looked into it and reached out to Egyptians on the ground to try and find out what had changed. Sure enough, we discovered that the phone numbers had suddenly “stopped working.” In response, we have changed the numbers and are no longer announcing them directly, but rather through other means via the internet and Twitter. Our aim is to get the numbers out to the people of Egypt in other ways so that we can keep getting their voices online. It’s disturbing.
SE: Many of the audio tweets coming in are from young people. We know that youth are not only at the frontlines of the uprising in Egypt, but also at the heart of the Middle East’s future. What, in your view, has been their role?
HH: I have a big passion for youth entrepreneurship, and what we are seeing in Egypt – along with what we have seen in Tunisia – only points to one thing: there’s a huge number of youth who are fed up and want to be employed, and who also want to create jobs for others. We also see a very smart layer of young people in the Middle East who are tech-savvy – as is evident from the fact that most of these revolutions have been enhanced and supported by social media – and we are seeing a large amount of innovation. Innovation is certainly being used to demand our rights, which is something we can’t ignore … but imagine if that innovation were applied to something more constructive for the future. There we can see our future, and the key here is to face the problem. We can’t just ignore the high rate of unemployment and say that we didn’t see this coming – everyone should have seen this coming! Given the high number of unemployed youth and their growing numbers, it was only a matter of time before this bubble was going to burst.
SE: Do you see these uprisings spreading and lighting a spark in other Arab countries?
HH: Well, I think in general Egypt has had one of the most oppressive regimes, and the one most counter-intuitive to the people’s wants and needs. I think all of the regimes in the Middle East all of the governments are trying to understand this and react to it much more quickly. I think if Mubarak had taken the steps that he took today six months ago, he could have avoided a big disaster. But I don’t think most youth are fixated against one particular person. They seem to be more against the situation that they are in one that they can no longer bear.
You need to allow them to be innovative and creative and to move forward. Let me give you a very simple example from Lebanon, which has been described as the most democratic country in the Middle East, but which is also a country that has often had a non-functioning government. The reason you don’t see large rebellions against the Lebanese government is that the youth are given enough freedom and leeway to create jobs for themselves and others. From that perspective, it is really about creating opportunities for people and then stepping away pulling back the red tape and refusing to meddle in the affairs of the people.
SE: First in Tunisia and now in Egypt, we’ve witnessed the role of social media. Many are now calling it the Twitter Revolution. What’s your view on the impact and role of social media on this uprising?
HH: I would definitely not call it the “Twitter Revolution,” but might instead call it the “Twitter-enhanced Revolution” or, as you’ve called it, the “Twitter-enabled Revolution.” The uprising in Tunisia was much more spontaneous than the one in Egypt, and I really believe that Twitter and Facebook have played a huge role in this.
I completely disagree with people like Malcolm Gladwell who completely dismiss the role of social media in these revolutionary events. Social media has served to multiply the voices of the people. One thing that a lot of people don’t understand is that in some countries it is actually illegal to gather a large group of people in a physical place and discuss matters, brainstorm, or organize. Online, however, it is very easy to do that. It’s very simple, it’s free, and you don’t need to find a meeting place where you will be safe. You don’t need to be scared of the police, because you can hide yourself. The internet essentially makes it possible for smart geeks to become revolutionaries, and these are the people who drive innovation and economic empowerment in the country.
I would say that social media has played an even larger role in Egypt than in Tunisia, specifically because the events in Egypt have been planned for, called for days in advance by groups on Facebook and Twitter. Social media played an instrumental role in igniting the revolution and in showing people what was happening on the ground. But it has not played a role in continuing the momentum. Igniting it was more than enough, and it certainly got people on the ground. From then on, however, the revolution grew on its own. Even when the internet was turned off, the revolution continued. In fact, with the internet cut off, people became even more passionate about their fight for freedom.
SE: Habib, on a personal level given your role as a young leader in the Middle East what does it mean to you to see people in Egypt, for example, sharing their stories in some cases for the first time not only with each other, but with the world? As dark as some moments have been in the last few days, has that aspect moved you?
HH: It is very moving, but at this point in time it is very hard to judge where it is going. The trouble is that a lot of the “geeks” in my world the entrepreneurs still have to earn a living, and so are starting to return to their desk jobs. They’re still active, certainly I see them on Twitter saying, “I’m home now, but will go back to the protests in a few hours.” Nevertheless, protesting has been difficult in the past few days. Once you’re out of Tahrir square, it is almost impossible to go back. This has created a “wait and see” approach, and people are very scared. These are very scary moments, and Egypt will never return to what it was. This is why the people on the streets, and in the square, see this time as a point of no return. This is also why they are determined to stay and see this through to the end.
SE: While no one knows how this is going to play out in Egypt, we have been witnessing a remarkable conversation among people especially young people in the Arab world, from Tunis to Cairo to Amman to Beirut. Is this moment, and the dialogue that it is inspiring, contributing to the rise of a new Arabism, or even to a new shift in the region’s consciousness?
HH:Well, Salimah, you and I are among the many who have been calling for a change in global forums – including the World Economic Forum. Such forums need to look at the new Middle East. We should not be talking about the old issues, but should instead be focusing on the new issues that are affecting the youth. We have been calling for that change for years, and right now it is becoming increasingly clear in public forums that such a change is needed. People are beginning to realize that the youth of today make up a demographic power that could topple regimes and that has the potential to change the course of history in the Middle East. So far, this has been ignored.
So yes, there will be a new Middle East. And hopefully it will be a Middle East that will be directed by its youth, and that will cater to its youth rather than to its rich, lazy elites.
SE: I know you have to get back to work on this project, but I have one last question as so many people are watching this unfold online and want to get involved. Can you tell us how people outside of Egypt, as well as those in Egypt can get involved with your efforts?
HH: People outside of Egypt should be visiting Alive in Egypt and should get involved in helping us translate those voices and spread the word about those voices, talking about those that move them. Those within Egypt should call in and leave their own views and audio messages. This is a very important time in Egypt’s history, and with the possibility that other media like Al Jazeera could be cut off, we need the voices of the people on the ground, and we need the peer-to-peer journalism that this project is trying to empower.
SE: Habib Haddad, thank you so much for joining us at this important moment. We’ll be keeping in touch with you and your team in the days to come.
HH: Thank you very much, Salimah.