CAIRO: Burly security officers pull a woman from a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, dragging and tugging at her flimsy housedress when she collapses in the pavement. Hours later, the images are beamed to millions of viewers across the Middle East — the work of a volunteer cadre of Burberry-clad video guerrillas.
Few who saw the gripping clips of police battering protesters in Cairo last month pondered the source of that footage. Often, over weeks of political protests and paramilitary crackdown, the images came not from professional journalists, but a new flavour of Egyptian social activists. Perched on balconies outside the reach of police, lurking near contested polling places, and wading through street rallies, they’re stealthy witnesses to state brutality.
“We had to take a positive stance on the prevention of coverage, of journalists being attacked, on cameras being banned, on journalists being imprisoned,” said Ghada Shahbandar, whose organisation, Shayfeen.com – Arabic for “we see you” — has become one of the most dynamic groups to emerge from Egypt’s stunted reform movement. “We are about empowering Egyptians by monitoring violations.”
Members of Egypt’s often sleepy elite, Shahbander, a 44-year-old English professor, and her colleagues were spurred to activism last year after security thugs beat and molested several women at a rally in Cairo. They quickly trained and deployed dozens of monitors to record and publicise human rights violations during the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2005, sharing the footage with satellite channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyya.
The group poses a challenge to the security forces: They are somebodies — educated, with money in the bank and friends in the establishment. While other activists have been hauled to jail, Shahbander jokes with the state security boss assigned to her case.
The group’s approach, however, is serious. A complex chain of photographers and couriers smuggle footage past the police and onto TV. A stack of SIM cards sits on a counter top — each is used for a few days and then discarded. The group is now trying to harness public opinion towards a proposed law that would make Egypt’s judges independent of the Justice Ministry. Shahbander set up a telephone line where people can vote on the issue. Egyptian carriers spurned the effort; the number is based in Qatar instead.