The first thing Sandmonkey says as he settles comfortably into his chair is that he had just quit his job. “I’m working on a couple of projects right now,” he explains. “Doing anything else just doesn’t seem right at the moment.”
By day, the nation’s most notorious blogger was a business development manager for digital and online projects at a regional media group. As much as he loved it, he knows that he is now needed elsewhere.
For years, the nation’s young intellectual and extremely political online community, the tweeters and bloggers, went where few of the opposition media had dared to go. With their ability to publish outside the realm of state censors, the activists have become the force to be reckoned with. To survive the pressure of the previous regime, however, online activists often hid behind pseudonyms, leading a double life in a dance to avoid state security’s attempts to shut them down.
For Sandmonkey, the January 25 Revolution not only broke through the wall of fear, it encouraged him to tear down the wall of anonymity. Nevertheless, the veteran blogger worries that as events settle in the coming months, their dangerously honest statements online could make activists targets in a vendetta campaign.
“To shut down the internet and all cell phone networks because of half a million protesters protested on January 25? That’s not the act of self-assured, strong state. That’s the act of someone truly afraid of us.”
A Blog Is Born
“Basically me and a couple of other bloggers have been blogging since 2005, we’re called the ‘old guard’,” Sandmonkey says. “We also refer to ourselves as the movement of ‘30 February’.”
I didn’t get it.
“It’s a joke, Farida,” he explains. “It doesn’t exist. Everyone had a ‘day’ name for a movement back then, so we figured we’d choose one that no one else could have.” Literally.
Sandmonkey actually started blogging after the 2004 Taba bombings. “I saw that some people were happy that Israelis were killed, and at the same time they were blaming the Israelis. The conformist mentality at the time was very much alive.”
His blog Rantings of a Sandmonkey quickly became a voice of dissent and a provocation of debate. “A lot of times I would take positions I don’t believe in specifically to present the other point of view and force people to actually deal with the situation,” he says. “Many people had the ‘This is the truth’ mentality. I wanted to break that by asking: How do you know?”
The blog gained momentum after the 2005 uproar over the Danish cartoons portraying images of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), an act considered offensive by many Muslims. As many in Egypt called for a boycott of Danish products, Sandmonkey started a ‘boycott the boycott’ campaign.
“I thought it was incredibly stupid that we were boycotting an entire country. It was misplaced anger,” he recalls. “We are angry at the US and Israel and we took it out on Denmark, and it was easy, since the US manufactures everything, and Denmark produces butter, cheese and Lego.”
By 2007, Sandmonkey’s thought-provoking blog was also provoking authorities. His commitment to political and human rights and his staunch opposition to police abuse, alongside his street activism, put him on the state security radar. The fact that he was widely read internationally didn’t help things either.
“There was no direct harassment, but there were investigations,” the blogger claims. “State security people started talking to my doorman about me, asking the owner of the supermarket under my house about my comings and goings. Things got really tense for a while, and I decided to lay low and quit for a bit.”
A bit lasted just two months. His August 2007 return to blogging was sparked by emotion rather than politics, with a widely read post about the death of his grandmother, an introspection of how Muslim society deals with the death of loved ones.
Tear Gas Catcher
Sandmonkey says that at first, he couldn’t take the call for the revolution seriously — it was organized on Facebook after all. But soon he recognized the genius of the idea: “The Facebook invite just declared the demands and the methods and didn’t ask anyone to follow any leader or group or ideology; it was an open call stating demands we can all agree on, and that’s why people liked it. The absence of leaders makes sure no one can get pressured into something they don’t want and the demands themselves provide a clear road map for how things should proceed.”
On January 25, Sandmonkey was nearly arrested within his first five minutes at the protests. “On that day, I just wanted to go down and play with the police. Next thing I know, the people were pushing me on the police! After being beaten by batons, I decided to move to another spot, and suddenly everybody else was moving with me while the police were trying to block our access. It was a game of hide and seek.”
He says that people were amazed that the January 25 protests actually went according to plan: “People felt like they were on the brink of something solid.”
The authorities struck back by shutting down communications: first the social networking sites, then the smart phone applications, then on January 28, the mobile phone network and the internet was turned off.
“My main concern was what’s going to happen next,” Sandmonkey recalls gravely, “but I thought it made the state look incredibly weak. To shut down the internet and all cell phone networks because of half a million protesters that protested on January 25? That’s not the act of a self-assured, strong state. That’s the act of someone truly afraid of us.”
On January 28, Sandmonkey and his friend went out with a mission: “The main problem was the tear gas, so we decided to be the tear gas canister catchers. We got gas masks and goggles, sprayers with water and vinegar, and goalie gloves because the canisters are really hot. And we headed to the ‘Battle of Qasr El-Nil.’ Fun times all around. I almost died, and my friend got shot in the head with a rubber bullet.”
Their mission was short-lived. “I […] was only able to get four canisters before I started to get affected [by the tear gas],” Sandmonkey says. “When I looked around I could already see four or five people dying. I decided there was no way I could get all the tear gas canisters alone so my mission became helping the fallen to get out.”
Out on the street, Sandmonkey spent much of the revolution tweeting on micro-blogging website Twitter. “I was sending pictures and information as much as I could. It’s better for these circumstances, and it’s a cooler challenge,” he says. “I had 3,000 followers before the revolution, now its 26,000.
“My arrest helped [his Twitter following],” he says, “but before that it was because I was from the select few who were able to get the news outside of Egypt, so that really paid off.”
The Man Behind the Monkey
His arrest did more than increase his popularity; it pushed him to go public with his real identity.
The catalyst was the February 2 attacks on the protesters in Tahrir Square. “I had taken Wednesday off, and then I saw what was happening on TV,” Sandmonkey recalls. “I cried, I couldn’t go. I was in Heliopolis.”
On February 3, just before heading to the square with medical supplies, Sandmonkey wrote an emotional post called “Egypt, right now!” on his blog. “I wrote it an hour before I left and it was all over the place when I got arrested.”
The events are still vivid in his memory. As he and four friends drove through Talaat Harb, they were attacked by people with sticks and tire irons. Sandmonkey says their “biggest mistake” was asking police officers nearby for help. “They took my car keys, they took our cell phones and they told the people around them that we were American and Zionist agents and that our IDs were forged and urged them to attack us.”
Sandmonkey says the first people to attack were state security goons, followed by the people. “It was like a zombie movie. People punching [us], people jumping on the car attacking it and destroying it, throwing rocks at the car and jumping on the roof, breaking all the windows.
They tried to flip the car with us in it. A group even started bringing in rope and telling us that they would lynch us. We were completely unprotected, and the three girls were all huddled up in the back. This went on for half an hour then state security came and made us jump from my car to their van, leaving my car to get destroyed.”
State security didn’t save the group; they detained the activists for three hours.
“After we went home I was so furious that I decided to break my anonymity to hold them accountable,” Sandmonkey says. “I did interviews, I made calls and I told my story.”
Six years after the blogger started his rants, the world met Mahmoud Salem, the man behind Sandmonkey.
With his face and name finally out in the open, Salem started to feel the fear. “I was worried about my family because this isn’t a decent apparatus we are dealing with,” he admits. “After a while I didn’t care, what else could they do to me? They beat me with sticks, tear-gassed me, shot at me with rubber and live ammunition, lynch-mobbed me and destroyed my car. What else was left? To kill me? They screwed up and let me live, so I won’t let it go.”
The whole point of his coming out is accountability, “but what worries me is that everyone who was involved in this revolution is now known and it might not be over.”
Salem notes that ever since former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, the country has been in a state of confusion.
“The Armed Forces have done a lot, but somehow we’re still not in power. So this raises all types of questions of what should we do next?” he says, smiling cheekily. “I’m cautiously optimistic, I’m not worried about the army taking over or disrupting things. Especially after the fact that we taught ourselves to be militias to protect ourselves.”
On his way out of the restaurant, he turns around and calls out over the noisy music, “Friends now all over the world want help with their revolutions. Cool, no? Next stop: Libya.”
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