One of the highlights of 2011 for me was meeting Wael Abbas in person. Many people don’t understand my love and loyalty towards this very “real” and consistent blogger. If you follow him on twitter alone, you might be forgiven to be put off by his obscene tweets often directed at religious institutions and high profile, generally well liked figures. However, this man needs to be taken far more seriously than both twitter and the picture once on his blog of him sat on the toilet claiming that this was his space and if you were offended you were welcome to leave. There is much to learn from Wael; not only from his struggles, or even his political predictions which have proven time and again accurate, but from his unwavering consistency to his cause: freedom and human rights for all.
Wael has been my favourite blogger for some years. He was among the first to use his real name to encourage others to write. Wael became well known for reporting an incident over Eid of mob harassment of women. Following the success of getting the message across he broadcast videos of the brutality practiced by the Egyptian police leading to their conviction for torture. It was not all success and glory, however. Wael started being harrassed by the government. He was also detained with 17 other bloggers in January 2010 after a 9 hour train ride to pay condolences to families who lost their loved ones in the Nag’ Hamadi incident earlier that same month; ironically one of the charges was inciting sectarian violence.
The social media websites that Wael relied on to communicate the violations he was brave enough to report and communicate let him down. In September 2007 his accounts on YouTube and Yahoo were closed and his Facebook account deleted. They have since been restored. But along with Flicker that deleted many of Hossam Hamalawy’s pictures after 25 January, it leaves a lot for contemplation. When YouTube restored Wael’s account, it did not initially restore the 187 videos which included videos of police brutality (of these were violence inside police stations), voting violations and anti government protests it had taken down. The reason he was given for his account being blocked was that he had failed to provide sufficient context about the violence. Yahoo used the excuse of shutting down his account for being a spammer.
Last night in Tahrir, I met Wael personally for the first time. His shy and sweet temperament were things I had already picked up in private conversations on Twitter. In his quietness he was as inspirational. We spent sometime walking around the square and ended up outside Qasr Eldobaara; me holding a candle that wouldn’t fight the wind and having turned down one himself so he could tweet the event, we walked back with the hundreds singing hymns of celebration. He’d forgotten his camera in the car and I confessed to him that I had stopped taking mine around with me, that I felt ashamed of capturing the eeriness of what was here through technology when there was so much feeling and so much to write about. In his easy and assuring manner, he told me I should keep practicing and throw myself right in it, that the pictures would, for people, show what my words wouldn’t capture and my words would show what I couldn’t in the picture. It doesn’t really matter what it is he speaks about, it’s all so clear and simple and “as it is”. His accessibility puts wrong to shame.
I asked Wael how he felt about the people on twitter who were previously politically apathetic and who have suddenly become very vocal and often against him when he had been part of the struggle for many years before they had the courage to be. I had seen some heated tweets back and forth and often felt frustrated on his behalf. His answer however humbled me and made me realise again how much he “got it”. He said, “it doesn’t bother me at all! On the contrary, this is why I’ve been blogging for years, to help in the process of getting others to speak out. I’m happy they speak out now.” This really summed him up. The bigger picture and the principe itself is always what matters. When many were silent on Maikel Nabil because they didn’t agree with what he had to say, Wael was on as much media as he could, days after the arrest, speaking about the seriousness of what happened to Maikel and what it would mean for freedoms if the decision wasn’t reversed. He sticks up for the liberals or the Islamists when they’re down and it’s never the person, but the cause that’s central to his debate.
I wish I had written my masters thesis on freedom of expression in Egypt a few years later than I had so that I could have bumped into Wael’s work which would have made my writing richer and would probably have kept me involved in the cause more exclusively.
There are many amazing personalities that have shone through in Egypt during the last 12 months, each with a struggle and a story, each with a purpose and an powerful dream. For me, by virtue of his unwavering integrity, Wael is person of the year every year.
For being my mentor without even knowing it, thank you.
Wael Abbas: Awards
– In 2008, he turned down an invitation to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush.
– He was announced the winner of a journalism award by the International Center for Journalists on August 24, 2007
– Won the Human Rights Watch’s Hellman/Hammett Award 2008
– Was named Middle East Person of the Year 2007 by CNN
– Was considered one of the Most Influential People in the year 2006 by BBC
– Won the Egyptians Against Corruption Award 2005/2006