Tarek Shalaby: Citizen Journalist, Activist and in Military Custody for That

Most people know the micro-celebrity Tarek Shalaby as the blogger, and activist who was among the first to camp out in Tarir as early as Jan 30th vowing to leave when Mubarak was ousted. His tent, named Bansyon El Horeyya, became a meeting point for some revolutionaries, and soon enough emerged versions 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 of the tent. For me, I mostly know him as my very good friend who always calls me by my full-name, has a special laugh whenever he talks to me on the phone and feels the need to share his love for me with his 12,000 followers on twitter.

When Libya was in its first days of the revolution before the foreign intervention, Tarek and a group of friends raised 40,000 Egyptian pounds and took a convoy to Benghazi and Tubruk to not only deliver aid but show solidarity with the Libyans.

Tarek, always an advocate of the Palestinian cause, volunteered in refugee camps in Shatila, Lebanon helping guide Palestinian refugees on using the internet as a means to get their message through. He is a strong believer in citizen journalism and used his own technical and experiential expertise to help the Palestinians spread awareness about their cause since most western media focuses more on the pro-Israeli side of the story.

In April of this year when people started mobilizing for the third Palestinian intifada, we had the first protest in front of the Israeli embassy this year. Tarek was there for most of the day (even though it was my birthday and he was kind of obsessed with going partying…) reporting what was happening on twitter and live streaming on Bambuzer.

Power to the people

We had been making plans for a few weeks with some friends to make it to Rafah to peacefully protest on the border with Gaza in solidarity with the intifada. The original plan was to join the convoy of 30 buses that were taking activists to the border. However, the SCAF directly ordered touristic operators not to rent out buses going to Rafah. So that plan didn’t go through. As a group of 14 people, we managed to get three cars and took a trip to attempt reaching the border. We knew chances were slim to get there, but we decided to try anyway. Tarek’s car managed to reach Arish (very close to Rafah) and was denied entry at the last checkpoint before Arish. Our cars only managed to get to Port Foad just at the start of North Sinai (after taking a ferry up north from Port Said).

Map showing route from Cairo to Rafah (bordering Gaza)

After a long day and night of trying to coordinate ourselves and spending a lot of time in check-points, we had a nice day in Port Said on May 15th, and headed back to Cairo. On our way back, we were reading on twitter that the protest in front of the embassy was being attacked by tear gas (the same expired tear gas they used on us at the start of the protests) as well as rubber bullets. While most of us decided to go home, Tarek and the crew in his car decided to go check out what was happening.

Tarek was tweeting and broadcasting videos on Bambuzer from the night. He’s always been an active blogger and social media enthusiast. He believes everyone has a role and a passion, and he likes to place himself as a citizen journalist and reporter from events and protest as he upholds a high degree of journalistic integrity (even if he’s not technically a journalist as we define them traditionally…) and is committed to reporting facts.  Below are a series of tweets from the night of is arrest. And here is a link to the Bambuser video he broadcasted during his arrest.

Tarek has been released on Thursday the 19th of May, after standing before a military court and getting a 1 year suspended sentance. His accusations were: – Public Gathering and – Destruction of Public Property (not even true). The rest of the detainees from the Israeli embassy were also released by most of them got 6 months to a year with similar accsuations.

Every since the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (commonly known as SCAF) took over Egypt after Mubarak’s ousting, we have seen a number of human rights violations such as:

– Criminalizing protesting with economic disruptions

Military trials to civilians

Torture of activists and violently  dispersing protests

Testing virginity of female protesters

Media censorship on anyone criticizing SCAF.

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Keeping the pressure for Radwan

We’ve all seen from recent events around the Arab world that authoritarian regimes tend to cave to pressure (unless they are Gaddafi, but he is a madman not just a dictator). This is just what Radwan’s family and friends are doing to free him. With a successful social media campaign, many Egyptian activists on their side and regional as well as international media attention they are definitely playing this right.

Muhammad Radwan, is a 32 year old Egyptian and American engineer. He’s been living in Syria for almost a year running a company his father owns shares in. Last Friday, Syria saw another eventful day in a series of days of an uprising. Radwan being the curious person he is, and according to his mother due to his love of taking pictures and most recently tweeting, he was last seen at the Ummayid Mosque where he made this last tweet.

The “Confession”

A day later we find him on television making this “confession”:

He says that he was in touch with a Colombian that was referred to him by a friend because he was looking for someone to talk to in Syria. He said he agreed to send this person pictures and video for 100 Egyptian Pounds per picture and the price of the video hadn’t been decided. They asked him on a completely different note if he had ever been to Israel, and he admited to going and meeting a friend there. He also explained that he asked them not to stamp his passport and went through Jordan.

There are so many things wrong with this “confession” that we just have to believe that the authoritarian Syrian regime made him make this bullshit confession, just like Gaddafi’s regime made another Egyptian volunteering in Libya confess to being with Al Qaeda and coming to disrupt libya:

1. Radwan is a well paid engineer, if he were to help a journalist or give photos he wouldn’t do it for money or he would charge A LOT of money, not 100 LE which is the equivalent of 15 USD.

2. According to his cousin Tarek Shalaby, this Colombian works for “Radio Colombia” and Tarek was the one who put them in touch. So this guy works for Radio, therefore he would not ask Radwan for photos nor videos as they are of no use for him.

3. According to Radwan’s family, he has never been to Israel. And even IF he has, Radwan is a traveler, and he would have gone to see Jerusalem like any other tourist does.

The Social Media Campaign:

On Twitter and Facebook, Radwan’s family launhed a massive social media campaign to raise awareness about their detained cousin. Very quickly the world caught on and to date there are over 5000 likes on the Facebook page and constantly updated tweets following the hashtag #FreeRadwan. These initiatives may seem small compared to someone like Reuters covering this story. However, let’s not forget that the January 25th Facebook event came before the cameras. And social media is definitely a very powerful tool in rallying people.

Media Coverage & Free Radwan Rallies

Radwan’s case, thanks to its strange nature and the efforts of his friends and family, has recieved  a lot of media attention. However, a lot of the media coverage, labels the video above as a confession to selling photos to Israel or confession to being a spy. Whereas, it actually is not what he said. The Syrian regime put it in that context, but he actually confesses to nothing. He only says he’s been to Israel and planned to send photos to Colombia. All of a sudden you find news stories saying he confessed to selling the pictures to Israel or that he is accused of being a spy.

Around 100 protesters outside of Syrian embassy in Cairo

More photos of Protest in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo on Flickr.

Even with the somewhat exaggerated media, it is definitely helping his case. There have been protests staged to free Radwan in London, Texas and Cairo. In the Cairo protest, we stood silently in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo with flowers, posters indicating our one demand. After about an hour or so, the Syrian embassy opened its door to as many protesters as can fit in the courtyard and the ambassador and some officials came out to speak with Radwan’s mother and the protesters. He tried to explain that Radwan confessed, and that they need to go through with the investigation and promised Radwan’s mother, Maha, that if he was innocent the ambassador himself will go to her house and appologise. The protesters were not happy nor satisfied with what the ambassador had to say, except for one who kept praising the ambassador. Only later we found out she belonged to a certain state owned newspaper. (Side note: Reporters should really keep their opinions to themselves, especially when they work for state media.)

Here is a report from Ahram Online on the protest.

Radwan, the dude

Often described as a traveler, Radwan was born in the US, brought up in Saudi Arabia and has been traveling all over the world, most recently after saving up for years working he ended up on a long term trip to South America before moving to Cairo for a few months and then heading up to Syria last year. He’s one of those characters that is just living in his own world. Always has very interesting thoughts to share, has a mind of his own and often ends up misplacing things. I haven’t known him for long, met him a couple of times before he headed to Syria. It was when he came back on Friday the 28th and stayed till about a week after Mubarak was outsted, where I got to know him. We spent our Tahrir days in ‘Bansyon El Horeyya‘ also known as the ‘Freedom Motel‘ where Tarek had been camping for days. We also live quite close to each other so we went home together with others almost daily, and that took a while since every two minutes we were stopped by the neighbourhood watch and asked to show our IDs. Radwan is just a lovely person, he’s not a spy, or trying to create any sort of chaos. He’s a regular, politcally aware individual, who like his mother puts it “was in the wrong place, at the wrong time”. Oh yeah, and he has pretty eyes (like really pretty).

If you can help Radwan, in anyway you can please get in touch. Any pressure on Syria whether through contacts there, media pressure, foreign actors… etc. can help bring an innocent man home to his family and friends. His father is in Syria still trying to see him or get him to talk to a lawyer with not much luck. He really needs any help he can get.

Radwan on Friday January 28th Protesting in Cairo - Photo by Hossam El Hamalawy

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