Published by Fair Observer:
Is this Egypt?
Sexual harassment is endemic in Egypt, and increasing numbers of women have begun speaking out against it. Fair Observer’s Natasha Smith asks how this deep-seated problem affects women in Egypt and what can be done to stop it.
On June 24, 2012, I nearly died at the hands of a mob of Egyptian men in Cairo. I was stripped naked, dragged, beaten, and violated. For 20 minutes, I was rendered absolutely powerless in a mass sexual assault. A group of Egyptian men eventually fought through the crowd to save me. Inside a medical tent, women helped dress and console me. “This is not Egypt!” they exclaimed. But is it?
I now have the chance to rebuild my life. But what of the women who don’t have this chance? What of the thousands of Egyptian women who face sexual harassment (SH) everyday – how many people hear their stories?
Egyptian Women and Sexual Harassment
“Pick any random woman in Egypt – veiled, young, old, single, married, any age, any socioeconomic class – and she will have stories about sexual harassment,” says Hannah, an anti-SH writer who has suffered sexual assault in Egypt herself. “Some will be less traumatic than others of course, but nevertheless, they will all have stories.”
Tamara is a 33-year-old Egyptian woman. “In the 18 years I’ve lived in Cairo,” she admits, “I can’t even count the number of times I have been sexually harassed on the streets.”
In a 2008 study, the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights provoked international uproar by revealing that 83% of Egyptian women had admitted exposure to sexual harassment, whilst 98% of foreign women said they had been sexually harassed while in Egypt. Shockingly, it also found that 46% of Egyptian women and 52% of foreign women faced harassment – from ogling and sexually explicit comments to groping, touching, and stalking – every day. In over 90% of cases, Egyptian and foreign women said harassment occurred most often in the street and on public transport.
“Sexual harassment is a constant part of every woman’s daily life in Egypt,” explains Amira, an Egyptian woman who has spoken out against SH on social networks. “Every single day, I would be harassed – sometimes ten times or more. Men would whistle, whisper, or shout, look at my body and describe what they would like to do with me. I don’t remember a single day when I wasn’t harassed in the street, unless I did not leave the house.”
Such harassment often becomes physical. “Males have stood next to me in metro cars and on buses rubbing their crotches up against me,” explains Vanessa, who lives in Egypt. “Once, in Nasr City, I had to jump out of a moving microbus because the driver kept trying to touch me. I was in the front seat, pressed tightly against the passenger-side door, but his arms were like octopus tentacles.”
“Like When People Torture Animals”
Amanda Zohdy, founder of the Sexual Harassment Action Group (SHAG), is among many who believe SH has become a cultural norm in Egypt. “A culture of acceptance has gradually built up over time,” she explains, “which means that, until very recently, the problem has been steadily growing. Not only men, but a lot of women, felt it was inevitable and a very minor offence.”
Deena, a 21-year-old Egyptian woman, grew up in this culture. “Growing up as a teen in Egypt,” she says, “I spent a lot of time with girls my age casually exchanging stories about our sexual harassment encounters as though we were talking about shoes and make-up.” She told me she was once walking with a friend in the daytime while a taxi driver followed them in his car, masturbating. “A lot of people assume it involves violence or force,” she observes, “which can cause them to overlook more common things like catcalls, obscene gestures, wandering eyes, or unsolicited flirting from strangers.” Because “nobody gets hurt”, she argues, such incidents are perceived as socially acceptable. “Yet they still remind women they are objects, to be ogled by men.”
Khaled is a gynaecologist in Egypt. He believes women do not receive adequate care and support for physical forms of SH because of the “blame-the-victim” attitude within the medical profession. In poorer areas, “she will frequently be accused of having provoked the harassment by her ‘inappropriate’ dress or attitude,” he admits. “The medical profession will usually think they have much more important things to do than to care for a ‘bitch’ who received what she deserved.” Fear of being ridiculed can discourage women from admitting harassment when seeking medical treatment. “Women tend to hide the incident,” he explains. “Even if they show up, they will usually lie about the cause, saying they fell from stairs or were hit by a car.”
Yahia Zaied, of the Nazra Institute for Feminist Studies, emphasises the negative impact of this “blame the-victim” culture. “The harasser knows that he is safe; that everyone will either support his actions or blame the girl. It’s all about power dynamics: the harasser is in a much stronger position and knows he will never be punished.”
Amira feels this lack of punishment enables harassers to toy with women. “It is somehow like when people torture animals,” she claims. “Why do they do it? For their own amusement: because they can. Because the beaten cat cannot defend itself. They believe a woman cannot defend herself and cannot speak up. This is where we have to prove them wrong.”
Laila, an Egyptian woman, feels that sexual harassment stems partly from child development in Egypt. “Here in Egypt, kids are raised separately from each other,” she notes. “So when boys grow up they are not used to being around girls, and therefore, don’t know how to think of them in any way except sexually.”
This gender segregation leads boys to consider girls as a forbidden fruit, which can lead to inappropriate conduct. Jonathan Moremi is an anti-SH and human rights blogger and activist who also feels gender segregation is unhealthy in Egyptian society. “Even men in their twenties, deprived of the chance in youth to have learnt to co-exist with female friends, behave like little boys who run and lift skirts, pinch, or do anything that allows a quick flight after the attack.”
May, a young Egyptian woman, recalls swimming in public pools as a child. “I remember boys would do anything to touch us under the water and we would feel helpless and confused. Sometimes, we were lucky and someone would notice and keep them away. If not, there was nothing we could do or say.”
Tamara believes boys replicate behaviour they see elsewhere. “Unfortunately, boys often mimic their brothers, uncles and fathers, who copy their forefathers before them.” She, among others, believes the solution to SH lies in the education of future generations. “Boys need to be taught to respect girls,” Tamara argues, “so that when they become men they respect women.”
Egypt and Gender Equality
A series of high-profile stories over the past 18 months have forced Egyptian women’s battle into the global media spotlight.
An anti-harassment protest on International Women’s Day 2011 ended in outrage after Egyptian men aggressively confronted the women demonstrating, ordering them to return home.Seven women arrested during the protests claimed that they were, during their incarceration, subjected to so-called “virginity tests” by military officials. The invasive, humiliating procedures were intended to degrade the status of female protestors by “proving” that they were not virgins. Although such tests were later declared illegal, the doctor accused of conducting the procedures, Ahmed Adel, was cleared in March 2012 of all charges.
In December 2011, an image and video footage of a young, Egyptian female protester being dragged and beaten by police, exposing her blue bra, went viral.Her treatment provoked thousands of women into protesting, calling for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to stand down and demanding an end to systematic abuse of Egyptian women.
In June, an anti-SH protest of around 50 women was hijacked by Egyptian men, whosexually assaulted the female activists. Weeks later, I too was attacked in Tahrir. The subsequent transfer of power after the presidential race has not stemmed sexual harassment.
Lauren Wolfe, Director of WMC’s Women Under Siege, claims such attacks reflect some Egyptian men’s opposition to gender equality. “As greater numbers of women have literally and figuratively gone into the public sphere to protest during and since the revolution,” she notes, “their presence has provoked those who believe women should be (barely) seen and certainly not heard.”
Arab Women in Politics
Amira is among many who link sexual harassment in Egypt to the patriarchal nature of Egyptian society. “The man’s role is so clearly dominant, it is ridiculous. Men are superior in the law, business, politics, and social life, and they take this to the streets.” This widespread disparity between the sexes was illustrated in the 2011 Global Gender Gap Report, where Egypt ranked 123rd out of 135 countries.
In politics, Egypt suffers a phenomenal gender imbalance. A Mubarak-era quota ensuring a minimum of 12% (64 seats) representation for women in parliament was dropped following the revolution. New legislation has since brought about a decline in female representation to just 2%. This is a disappointing step backwards at a moment when the Arab world most needs to increase women in parliament; a recent study showed that the Arab world is the only part of the globe lacking a parliament with at least 30% female representation.
Wolfe believes increasing female political participation is critical. “It’s crucial that women receive greater representation in the political realm. Without women’s voices at high levels, we’re stuck with whatever patriarchal norms conservative men want to propagate.” Women are four times more likely to be unemployed, whilst those in the workplace stand a pitiful 2.8% chance of reaching managerial positions. Clearly, their voices are not being heard.
A Growing Tide of Opposition
The anti-SH movement is gaining momentum, especially online. “A year ago today, we rarely had anyone speaking out defending victims of sexual harassment,” says Hannah. “Now, for every mass sexual assault in Tahrir, there’s a thousand-person protest demanding respect.” Holly Kearl founded Stop Street Harassment, an online campaign to raise awareness of harassment. “I am always impressed and amazed by the variety of actions people in Egypt are undertaking to address this problem,” she comments. “They’re doing so much online, as well as demonstrations, graffiti and other actions, to take this issue to the streets.”
During the Eid festival, Nihal Zaghloul helped organise anti-harassment patrols of the metro. She describes how it felt to fight SH in a male-dominated group. “It felt great. After years of watching alone and not being able to do anything because you are outnumbered, we gathered and formed a unit, making us, the majority, able to stop them.” It is vital for men in Egypt to support the anti-SH movement. Sherif Amer, a young Egyptian man, feels “it is a matter of honour” for every man in Egypt to defend women against harassment.
Many in Egypt believe police must prevent and punish harassers much more severely. “There are no negative consequences whatsoever for harassers,” says Amanda. She argues that the police should create a specially-trained force to deal with SH, with at least 50% female officers. Yahia Zaied feels police must work together with anti-SH groups. “I believe we have reached a point with SH where we need to highly criminalise it, ensuring that the law will be applied in parallel with our work on the ground to raise awareness and change this culture.”
Moremi is among many who believe that a mass public education campaign, to cover the media, public transport, and in schools, is critical to preventing SH. “Imams, priests, ministers, teachers, journalists – all have to join hands in this in setting the tone right in society so that SH becomes the most despicable behaviour,” he asserts. “Respect for women must be demanded publicly by those public figures.”
Abdelfattah Mahmoud worked with Nihal to organise the metro patrols. He believes any awareness campaign must target women and girls. “Every woman should know her rights at an early age as part of her education in school,” he argues. “She must be raised to know she is more than a sex object and that man is not her superior, but her equal.”
Men and women are joining the fight against harassment in their thousands, yet the battle is not yet won. “Sexual harassment is literally killing us,” says Amanda. “I want to be able to laugh, sing, look people in the eye, smile and swing my hips. It’s my simple birthright and I’m determined to have it.”
For an entire nation to rethink its attitudes, the rest of the world must support Egypt’s women. “Those of us outside Egypt have a duty to the women who have to face abuse and harassment daily,” says Wolfe. “We have to stand for and with them. When half the population is sexually harassed, intimidated, and violated, it is a human rights issue that must concern everyone.”
If this is Egypt, then it will not be for much longer. The tide of opposition is growing ever-stronger, and the world is beginning to take notice. My attack prompted a global response that I could never have imagined. Now let the world listen to the thousands of Egyptian women who for too long have been silenced. Egypt fought through one revolution, and it must now unite in another: a revolution for the women of Egypt.
Lebanon’s complex modern history
A background summary of Lebanese domestic and foreign affairs since the end of French colonial rule.
Lebanon has been the battleground for some of the Middle East’s most bitter conflicts. Yet, it has also enjoyed periods of prosperity. Over the past four decades, animosity between the country’s Christian and Muslim populations and influxes of Palestinian refugees has embroiled the country in major internal and external clashes involving Israel, Palestine, and Syria.
Lebanon declared its independence in 1941 following 21 years under the French mandate. In 1943, an unwritten National Covenant laying out the structure of the state distributed parliamentary seats on a six-to-five ratio in favour of Christians. This distribution was based on a 1932 census, when the country had a Christian majority. No census has since been taken, prompting repeated calls from Lebanese Muslims for a new census to bring proportionate parliamentary representation for the increased Muslim population. In 1989, a Charter of National Reconciliation finally redressed the balance of Christians and Muslims in the National Assembly, abolishing the six-to-five ratio.
The 1967 six-day war marked the onset of major conflict in Lebanon. Although Lebanon played no active role in the war, it became entangled in the conflict after Palestinian fighters began using the country as a base for anti-Israeli attacks.
Violent exchanges between Lebanese Phalangist militia and Palestinian guerrillas in 1975, dragged Lebanon into a protracted civil war. Syrian troops invaded in 1976 to restore peace and curb Palestinian groups, resulting in the killing of thousands of Palestinians.
In response to Palestinian assaults, Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1978, but withdrew under UN pressure. However, the assassination of Shlomo Argov, Israel’s ambassador to Britain, by a Palestinian splinter group provoked a full-scale invasion in June 1982. The same year saw the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian civilians by the Lebanese Phalangist militia under the watch of Ariel Sharon, Israeli defence minister at the time.
The civil war ended in 1990 after many years of death and destruction.
Why is Lebanon relevant?
Domestic politics appeared promising in 1990, as Omar Karami forged a government of national reconciliation. The Lebanese government has since become increasingly unstable, with consistent power wrangling between a small cluster of politicians, along with religiously and territorially motivated assassinations.
The National Assembly ordered the dissolution of all militias in 1991, although Hezbollah was permitted to remain active and the South Lebanon Army refused to disband.
Israel has remained determined to end the threat from Hezbollah. This has involved the bombing of Hezbollah bases in southern Lebanon and an attack on a UN base that killed over 100 displaced Lebanese civilians sheltering there.
Meanwhile, Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in May 2000.
In February 2005, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a car bombing, provoking anti-Syrian protests and increased demands for the withdrawal of Syrian forces. The assassination led to a protracted trial, first by the UN and later at The Hague, which indicted four Hezbollah members in 2011; Hezbollah claims the trial was manipulated by Israel.
As a result of anti-Syrian sentiment, Syria initiated the withdrawal of soldiers from Lebanon in accordance with a UN resolution in 2005.
Furthermore, the seizure of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah led to the 2006 Lebanon war between the armed militant group and Israel. The war caused over 1,000 deaths, mostly civilians, and major infrastructural damage, displacing thousands. After 34 days of fighting, a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah was put in force on August 14.
Meanwhile, as Hezbollah and pro-government skirmishes in 2008 sparked fears of civil war, parliament elected army chief Michel Suleiman as president, ending protracted political deadlock. Politicians then set to work establishing a national unity government – a task successfully completed by newly elected PM Saad Hariri in 2009.
However, this unity was short-lived; the government collapsed in January 2011 after Hezbollah ministers and their allies resigned. A fresh government, led by PM Najib Mikati, awarded a majority of seats to Hezbollah and its allies.
More recently, the ongoing Syrian conflict spilled over into Lebanon earlier this year as several people have been killed in Tripoli in Sunni-Alawite clashes.
The rise and fall of Kony 2012
Cynics call it “clicktivism”; believers say they can change the world. Natasha Smith asks how much further the Kony 2012 campaign can really stretch.
“We will turn this digital revolution into something more”. These are the words of Invisible Children (IC) in its latest video on the Kony 2012 campaign, “Part II: Beyond Famous”. The question is, what is that “something more”? With global support already dwindling, how much more can this digital movement achieve?
Since early March, the Internet has been swarming with links and references to the Kony2012 campaign video. It landed more than 100m views in less than one week, becoming the most viral video of all time. Yet according to YouTube the second video, released on April 5th, had barely exceeded 1.5 million views a week after its publication – despite winning round former critics with its more balanced, in-depth portrayal of the situation in central Africa.
“Clearly even a viral success (in large part spurred by controversy) does not translate into sustained online engagement or offline action”, said Katrin Verclas, co-founder of Internet activist group MobileActive.org.
The overwhelming global response to the campaign indicates it has fulfilled its primary objective of raising awareness of Joseph Kony and his crimes.
Value of awareness
On April 20, IC invites the world to “Cover the Night”and decorate the streets with imagery promoting the campaign. However, many remain critical, suggesting that such events will bring minimal long-term results. “Clicks and views do not equal action, and particular actions, like their ‘Cover the Night’ event, do not equal the desired change,” said Kate Otto, founder of Everyday Ambassador, a group promoting global citizenship. “These things in fact can be a distraction that pushes us away from understanding the roots of the problem.”
Jedidiah Jenkins, head of ideas development at Invisible Children, defended the value of spreading awareness. “That’s the challenge: awakening people to global empathy and then providing thoughtful action, steps, and tangible results,” Jenkins told me via Twitter. Invisible Children’s team at the University of Southern Indiana explained that organising local events helps spread “awareness and compassion”. “The more both are spread, the more we can affect action”, a group member tweeted.
TMS Ruge, the co-founder of Project Diaspora, a scheme to engage and mobilise young Africans to social action, disagrees. “I wish we wouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking awareness fixes problems”, he explained. “It doesn’t. Action, by the right actors – civil society and local government – does.”
Since the Kony 2012 campaign began, the international community has responded with increased efforts to bring Kony to justice. The African Union, in conjunction with the UN, has now committed a 5000-strong military force to capture Kony. In the US, senators and congressmen and women have put forward bi-partisan legislation to catch him. Additionally, the International Crime Court’s chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo has assured the public that Kony will be arrested in 2012, thanks to the global interest generated by the campaign.
The UK Foreign Office is supportive of these efforts. “Kony 2012 has achieved its aim of raising awareness of Kony/LRA”, a spokesperson told me. ”The AU, UN and US military effort is appropriate at present.”
But a whirlwind of scandals surrounding the campaign have also provoked widespread scepticism about Invisible Children’s ability to solve this problem. “They lack credibility among the press, NGO community, and African experts”, said Mary Joyce, founder of digital campaign group meta-activism.org. “If they retain credibility with their young American base that will allow them to mobilize in the US and to raise money, but it is unlikely to be enough to actually capture Kony.”
Kate Otto feels the charity should shift its efforts to target more achievable aims. “I wish that the IC team would leave conflict-resolution and development in Uganda to the professionals”, said Kate, “and instead form a socially-minded film company, applying their communication skills to issues like halting global warming or ending AIDS – issues that do require participation of the masses to achieve.”
Kony 2012 has fuelled media interest in another African war criminal, Bosco Ntaganda. The Congolese army general and former rebel group leader was indicted by the ICC in 2006 for conscription of child soldiers and the rape, murder and mutilation of civilians allegedly carried out by his forces, but, according to Channel 4 News, has not yet been arrested due to fears of jeopardising a fragile peace agreement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Interestingly, the ICC is getting renewed attention, as well as other elusive war criminals under indictment – both by the public and lawmakers”, says Katrin of MobileActive.org. “So maybe the attention given to Kony 2012 is yielding something.”
But with the Twitter hashtag #BoscoNtaganda2012 receiving far less attention than #Kony2012, the chance of copycat digital campaigns against other tyrants appears unlikely. “It was just a perfect storm of conditions that allowed the first video to go viral, and it would be hard to replicate”, said Matt Brown, Associate Director of Communications at the Enough Project – one organisation collaborating with IC on the campaign.
Even though digital activism has become increasingly powerful in its reach and potential, with Kony 2012, it may be receiving a reality check.
The fall in the campaign’s popularity could signal its demise, and “Cover the Night” may prove to be its swansong. As new footage of Invisible Children’s Jedidiah Jenkins joking about keeping $900,000 of a $1m grant sweeps the Internet, IC appear to be dangerously close to isolating former supporters through a barrage of irresponsible mistakes. Internet activism through social media has yielded spectacular results, yet resolving an African conflict that spans a quarter of a century is perhaps beyond the capacity of a relatively immature charity struggling to handle such unprecedented publicity. Kony 2012 has been phenomenal, but with popularity sliding, it seems doubtful that it will be either sustained, repeated, or that Kony will be caught in 2012 at all.
Political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa has forced the United States to re-evaluate its interests and foreign policy in the region.
After World War I, access to natural resources became one of America’s top priorities, as oil was becoming increasingly important in modern industrial society. The United States pursued an “open door policy” to provide American oil companies with equal access to foreign oil, predominantly from the Gulf countries. Washington averted a collision with British oil interests in the Middle East by backing a stream of cooperative arrangements between the two countries from 1928-1934, which enabled the pair to dominate the world oil economy. America first gained access to Iraqi oil reserves, and later to Saudi Arabian resources during the 1930s.
In 1953, US involvement in the Middle East grew with the British-backed coup d’état of the democratically-elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh. Instrumental in provoking the coup was Mosaddegh’s nationalisation of oil in1951, which took away control of Iran’s oil from the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
Following the coup, the US-backed Iranian dictator, Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi, proceeded to become increasingly authoritarian and dependent on American support to retain his power. The Shah was finally ousted in the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
With the Cold War in full swing, America perceived the rise of Pan-Arab nationalism with caution and as a direct threat. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel-Nasser epitomised Pan-Arabism. At one stage, after initially approaching the US for military support, America’s refusal pushed Nasser closer to the Soviet Union for military backing, much to Washington’s displeasure.
The US heightened distrust from the greater Muslim world by intervening in various regional conflicts from the 1970s into the 1990s, along with its strong backing of Israel. The western superpower responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by funding and arming the mujahedeen groups fighting the USSR, in a bid to combat the spread of communism. The move inadvertently aided the rise of Saudi-born Osama Bin Laden, and Al-Qaeda.
The US effort to gain a strategic ally in Saddam Hussein by arming and funding the Ba’athist regime during the Iran-Iraq war also backfired as the dictator proceeded to invade Kuwait in 1990, resulting in the Gulf War. Although the US successfully liberated Kuwait of Iraqi forces in the 1991, America’s presence and influence in the Arab and Muslim world arguably led to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993, pre-empting the 9/11 attacks and America’s subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Why is the US and the Changing Middle East Relevant?
Like other leading world powers, including Russia, China and European nations, the US has had a long history of support for Middle Eastern and North African dictators. Significantly however, the Arab Uprisings have ousted many of America’s former allies — including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — and has now called into question the influence that Washington may have in the region.
Despite being caught off guard by the Tunisian uprising and being highly hesitant with Egypt, the current US President Barack Obama has backed peaceful protests and reform in the Arab world. However, Washington has been highly cautious of the ongoing unrest in Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet, due to geopolitical interests in countering Iranian influence amidst the ongoing nuclear dispute.
Moreover, the US holds strong support for other autocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia, despite its calls for Arab nations to enact reforms and meet protestor demands. Consequently, the US has often been criticised for its pursuit of geopolitical and strategic interests, like natural resources and the security of Israel, over supporting genuine reform throughout the entire Arab world.
In addition, the role of the US as a genuine broker in peace-talks between the Israelis and Palestinians has been questioned by analysts.
Significantly, the electing of Islamists in North Africa presents the US with a conundrum. While Washington has worked and cooperated with religiously conservative regimes like Saudi Arabia, the US has often sought to curb Islamist influence due to regional interests. The rise of Islamist parties like En-Nahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has forced the US to rethink its stance.
Indeed, decades of sponsoring Arab dictators with questionable human rights records for the sake of sustaining military, security and oil agreements has left the US in a tight spot, as nations now seek to break with old norms and establish social, political and economic reform. As the presidential election draws near, the United States will have to re-evaluate its Middle East foreign policy in the years to come.
Kony 2012: one month on
Kony 2012 has revealed the limits of global Internet activism after great successes with Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and the Arab Spring. When social media-based campaigns target complex, external conflicts, public scepticism emerges.
Just over a month ago, a ground-breaking campaign to catch the world’s most-wanted war criminal sparked furious debate across the planet. The San Diego-based charity Invisible Children told the world that Joseph Kony, founder and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), must be brought to justice. Atrocities include the abduction, rape, mutilation and murder of men, women and children across central Africa, which have been carried out by his ranks since the 1980s. As the campaign video fervently depicts, Kony stands accused of kidnapping tens of thousands of children, whom he recruits as child soldiers or sells as sex slaves. He has brutalised communities – beginning with those in northern Uganda – in a chain of attacks that has lasted more than 20 years.
The Kony 2012 campaign video launched on YouTube on March 5th and spread like wildfire. Within hours of its release, Invisible Children’s slickly-produced footage achieved phenomenal global publicity. People around the world heralded the charity’s attempt to “make Kony famous” in order to pressurise world governments, and to catch the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) most-wanted. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter were bursting at the seams with Kony-related status updates and posts – bolstered by backing from such celebrity favourites as Oprah Winfrey and Zooey Deschanel. Thus began the saga of the most viral video of all time.
Alas, then came the backlash. Bloggers, commentators and, most significantly, Ugandan citizens, spoke out against Invisible Children for a host of reasons. They have been accused of oversimplifying a nuanced, complex issue; perpetuating the “white man’s burden” attitude towards third world conflict resolution; and distributing only one-third of donations to fund efforts on the ground. The charity has defended its position regarding the latter by emphasising that it is an advocacy and awareness group, and makes all its finances public. The video did not mention that since Kony was pushed out of Uganda in 2006 he has been coordinating a much smaller army of 200-300 LRA soldiers, scattered across the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Amid the furore, Jason Russell, co-founder of the charity and director of the campaign video, was detained and hospitalised after roaming the streets in his underpants, performing lewd gestures and screaming inconsolably one sunny San Diego morning. Colleagues Ben Keesey, CEO, and Jedidiah Jenkins, Director of Ideas Development, rallied in a show of strength. They boosted morale in a new video promising viewers that Kony 2012 is “off and running”, with 3.5mn signatures to its online pledge supporting Kony’s capture.
Drama aside, Kony 2012 raises many interesting questions about the future of activism. Sceptics have discredited the campaign as an example of “slacktivism” or “clicktivism”, whereby people savour that feel-good charitable sensation with minimal effort, by signing an online petition, or changing a Facebook status in honour of a certain cause. CEO of Astonish Media Group John Conway categorises such acts as the first tier of “slacktivism”, which is as far as most people go in taking action in support of a cause. Conway depicts a three-tiered “slacktivist” hierarchy, in which the second tier consists of giving money to the cause, whilst the third features activists who visit the problem site to take physical action – often a small number. He notes that although “slacktivism” must not be ignored, particularly given that the OWS movement and the Arab uprisings are “slacktivist” in origin, capturing Joseph Kony is, sadly, one of the more complex causes that will not be solved in this manner.
The crux of the issue is the value of “awareness” in a world where more than two billion people are using the internet and responding critically to everything they find on it. Awareness has been instrumental in so far preventing the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) and the “Protect IP Act” (PIPA) from being passed in US Congress and Senate. On January 18th, a one-day online “blackout” involving such influential sites as Wikipedia and Reddit was conducted in protest against the proposed legislation to clamp down on illegal file-sharing, particularly from foreign websites that flout US copyright laws.
More recently, an online awareness campaign has been critical in bolstering the effort to prosecute the killer of Trayvon Martin. On March 8th, a petition was posted on digital campaigning site change.org to pressurise Sanford police in Florida to arrest George Zimmerman for shooting 17-year-old Trayvon, who was returning home from a local shop, reportedly unarmed. The petition has gathered more than two million signatures, and has triggered waves of street protests across America, as well as recognition from President Barack Obama.
Furthermore, the grassroots digital campaigning seen throughout the Arab Spring has been celebrated the world over for providing previously silenced voices with a global mouthpiece. Armed with this, repressed peoples can coordinate and enact change.
Yet Kony 2012 is not grassroots activism, and the majority of spectators of the video have not ventured beyond the first tier of simply spreading the video further across the internet. As Evgeny Morozoz, author of The Net Delusion: The Darker Side of Internet Freedom notes, “The real issue here is whether the mere availability of the ‘slacktivist’ option is likely to push those who in the past might have confronted the regime in person with demonstrations, leaflets, and labor organizing to embrace the Facebook option and join a gazillion online issue groups instead. If this is the case, then the much-touted tools of digital liberation are only driving us further away from the goal of democratization and building global civil society”.
“Slacktivism” aside, Invisible Children has been the target of many complaints for appearing to hog the microphone to propagate its own version of the Joseph Kony story. Ugandan blogger and journalist Rosebell Kagumire said the charity had no right to convey that Ugandans were too helpless to speak for themselves and to present its own African narrative to the world. Her comments were reinforced by Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi’s video response to the campaign. In this he invites celebrities and global citizens alike to visit his country and see for themselves that it is not the war-torn, hopeless state portrayed by Invisible Children, and emphasises that Uganda continues to search for Kony.
To its credit, Invisible Children has created a comprehensive LRA crisis tracker and early warning system through which communities in LRA-held areas can alert one another when an attack or abduction occurs. Additionally, following the video’s release, the African Union (AU) announced it would deploy a 5,000 strong force to catch Kony, which illustrates the huge impact the viral campaign has had on regional efforts to capture the warlord. In October, Obama had already confirmed a smaller force of 100 US troops would be sent to the region following persistent lobbying by Invisible Children. However, Ugandan cabinet minister Ayalla Bigombe is among many Ugandans to point out that efforts to not only catch but negotiate with Kony were in place throughout the 1990s. During this time Kony’s attacks were most severe and his army was at its most robust in contrast to its relative decline today.
The Internet seems to have created an illusion of endless possibility; if one’s efforts can reach a global audience, then anything is possible, and everyone can work together to change the world. Yet, as Kony 2012 indicates, this only really works when one’s audience is personally connected to and directly affected by the movement in question; in other words, when it is by the people, for the people. For instance, whether actively supporting it or not, Americans have largely accepted the validity of the OWS movement. Likewise, people around the world have offered a nod of approval to citizens of the Arab world joining a campaign rooted in social media for freedom and democratic values. A humanitarian campaign based thousands of miles away carrying an unsavoury hint of neo-colonial sentiment, however, faces a far greater struggle to gain support from the global online community.
Kony 2012 has both helped and hindered Invisible Children. Whilst it has indeed made Kony famous, it has also exposed the charity to such bitter criticism and cynicism that the actual efforts being made, risk being overlooked, or even undermined, by its seemingly naïve online strategy. It can be seen as a wake-up call for digital campaigning after the successes of OWS and the Arab Spring, demonstrating that visionary rhetoric will not satisfy a sceptical online public when complex third world conflicts are brought into play. Nevertheless, as the Global Poverty Project observes, “it may be that the revolution will not ‘take place’ online, but…it is increasingly likely that it will start online.” It is what happens after this initial publicity that really counts.