[Guest blog post by Anonymous]
Two months ago I started working on a project hosted by the Development and Institutionalization Support Center “DISC” in Cairo on the use of the Ushahidi platform to monitor the upcoming parliamentary election 2010. Despite the pessimism and the despair about the political situation in the country, the undercurrent of digital activism is tangible
The use of social media and Facebook in particular is increasingly enabling the youth to engage in a political scene that normally opts for the physical elimination of the opposition. Blogs and Facebook groups are clearly taking the place made empty by the lack of a real political debate in Egypt, and are more increasingly emerging as an alternative political scene where a discussion on democracy and human rights is still possible.
Until recently, Egyptians have only been able to approve or reject a presidential candidate appointed by the parliament, which of course is dominated by Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. The turnout in the last referendum in 1999 was around 10% with only 40% of the total population in Egypt registered to vote. Mubarak has been re-elected four times during his 24-year rule thanks to this system. The media landscape is completely controlled by the establishment, bordering on the ridiculous like the recent Photoshop modification of the picture of the meeting in the White House of last week.
In May 2005 a constitutional amendment approved in a referendum opened the way for multi-candidate presidential elections. Under the new election law, parties that garner 5% of the votes in the parliamentary election can propose candidates for the election, which are reviewed by the Presidential Election Commission. In this context the parliamentary elections schedule for November 2010 become extremely important for the upcoming Presidential elections that are scheduled for 2011.
Nobody knows whether Mubarak will be a candidate in the next year’s elections or if he will push for the candidacy of his son Gamal. But amidst these machinations and speculations, something else is starting to shift in the background: the youth in Egypt are more and more interested in having a voice and want an active part in the political discourse going on in their country.
The U-Shahid project is actually very simple: the use of the Ushahidi platform to monitor the elections by allowing people to send SMS, Twitter messages, Facebook comments, voice mail, e-mail and web-submission to the U-Shahid (Anta Shahid – “You witness” in Arabic) and by creating a combined system of bounded and unbounded crowdsourcing.
The U-Shahid platform is based a Ushahidi version 2.0 Beta, which allows the system to use new features: we can use the Cloudvox plugin and receive voice mail (still working on it cause Cloudvox doesn’t have Egyptian numbers available); we will use the full screen map; people will be able to upload reports and see the platform on their mobile phones thanks to the mobile version. The platform has also been translated entirely into Arabic, including the back end and the admin page: this is an Egyptian project for Egyptians.
In addition, we have the Flicker integration that will allow anybody to upload pictures on Flicker and tag them with the hashtag #U-Shahid so the picture can be displayed on the homepage of the platform. We also have the YouTube Channel integration that will allow us to receive videos from anybody, which can be displayed on the U-Shahid homepage on and our YouTube channel.
Since Facebook is an important platform for Egyptian youths, we added a feature that makes it easier for people to report using the tool. We created a Facebook plugin in the home page that is automatically updated every time someone post something on the U-Shahid Facebook page. In addition, we subscribe to the Facebook page by using the official e-mail address of the platform, so that every time someone post something on our wall we receive in the back end of the platform an e-mail that we can easily transform into a report on the Ushahidi map.
We are working on a host of other features such as independent RSS feeds and alerts triggered from verified reports, Skype integration with Ushahidi, automatic block function so that reports that are being edited cannot be opened by more than one person in the back end, drop-down menus for verification visible to users so that you can actually specify different range of verifications publicly.
We are aware that technology cannot by itself change the political situation in Egypt. We also know that the National Security in Egypt can shut down the project and block access to the website if it wants. Furthermore, everyone involved in the project know full well that their involvement in the project could get them arrested. Egyptians are well aware of the risks they’re taking. But this is not the issue. The issue is that sometimes having an alternative is enough to be the difference: at the end of my first training in Cairo, one of the participants came to speak with me after the training and simply said: “You know? We may all end up in jail, but before this I thought there was no hope to change anything. Now I can even dare to think it is worth a try.”