Egyptian activist takes fight for freedom online

Nora Younis has risen to fame in Egypt by pressing for change on her political blog.

By , Correspondent

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    Gotcha! Nora Younis at work this past fall in the Cairo office of Al Masry Al Youm, the leading independent daily.
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Few members of Egypt's street protest movement for political reform are as recognizable as Nora Younis. Since Egypt's troubled period of political opening began in 2004, she has made her mark both online and in the street with visual flair and persistence.

As the author of a self-titled political blog, www.norayounis.com, she broadcasts her demands for democracy and human rights. And as a fixture in the street protest movement, she became known in the country's media as the curly-haired girl holding photographs of the Interior Minister and a police commander accused of sexually assaulting her and 30 other women, demanding their arrest and trial.

In October, the New York-based Human Rights First charity gave her one of their annual awards for courage.

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But Ms. Younis never set out to be an activist. When the government began opening the political system in 2004 by allowing challengers to run against President Hosni Mubarak, she was an underemployed translator.

A job with a PBS crew who came to Egypt to make a film on the country's democracy movement introduced her to both digital media and some of the country's leading activists. From then on, she says, "I was hooked."

Younis began attending protests, taking photos with the journalists. But the first time she finally decided to take part in a protest, it quickly spun out of control.

On May 25, 2005, police weeded out about 30 women from a crowd of protesters and penned them in to the entrance of a parking garage, where government thugs violently sexually harassed and assaulted them. Many of the female activists were left half naked and sobbing on the street.

Trapped, Younis photographed the approach of the thugs but exploded in anger when she realized what was happening. She began cursing at the police commander.

Then, low-ranking officers beat her across the head and back with batons, and as she crouched to protect herself she wiggled to freedom between their legs.

She and a friend ran down the street as the sounds of shrieking women filled the air. When the others were finally released, their clothes were ripped open and many were crying.

"One of my friends tried to laugh about it," recalls Younis. "She said: 'I kept telling them that I'm like their older sister but they didn't listen, they wouldn't stop.' Her shirt was torn open and all the buttons had been ripped off."

Younis submitted a CD of photographs of the attackers as part of a lawsuit against the police, but the state never pressed charges.

The experience was a turning point. "It was the first time I really saw that something had gone wrong in Egypt," she says.

After that, the photographs of Habib el-Adly, the Interior Minister, and the police commander became her trademark. Under each photo she wrote "Try him!" and "Impeach him!"

"Egypt is like a dark comedy," says Younis, who now works as the multimedia editor of the country's independent newspaper of record, Al Masry Al Youm. She describes her impeachment demand as "naive."

Since the president's re-election in 2005 to a fifth six-year term, the state has cracked down hard on opposition. Mr. Mubarak's challenger in that race now languishes in jail, as do thousands of Islamists and scores of secular activists, journalists, and bloggers.

The last several years have shaken many Egyptians' faith in the possibility of peaceful reform.

"If you can't impose a different reality through elections and public referenda, and it is not safe for people to politically engage, participate, and express themselves, then what are you left with?" she asks.

Younis thinks that new media technologies like blogging and digital video may be Egypt's best hope. "New media can bring people together, build consensus, and try to maintain the free space we have been given" during the political opening of the last several years, she says.

"That free space is shrinking every day," she adds, "but new media is fighting back and it is developing and growing all the time."

Many others agree. Egypt's bloggers are treated like stars by both the country's opposition groups and global human rights organizations. Foreign students even travel here to do doctorate-level research on her and her blogger friends.

She still regularly updates her blog, and as multimedia editor her primary goal is to train the paper's entire staff in video journalism skills, armed with a bright pink minivideo camera.

She sees progress every day.

"Three years ago when I would tell people I was taking photos for my blog they would not know what a blog was," she says. "Now they ask me for the URL."

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