An Egyptian political activist, a Bush-appointed diplomat, and Obama campaign staffers met in New York in 2008 to talk about revolution—of the social-media kind. And now the Internet is buzzing.
In December 2008, a prominent Egyptian opposition activist walked through the crowded airport in Cairo. When packing, he had been careful not to leave any evidence of where he was going among his belongings, and in the departure hall, he walked up to a security desk and told the guard to search him. “I am on your watch list,” he said. “So please get this over with so I don’t miss my plane.”
Three days later, the Egyptian sat in a room on the campus of Columbia’s Law School in Upper Manhattan, listening to presentations from three key staffers from Barack Obama’s social-media team: Joe Rospars, Scott Goodstein, and Sam Graham-Felsen. Given that the three had just helped the first black man get elected U.S. president, there was a buzz in the air. After all, the three staffers represented the revolutionary potential of new social-media tools, and, as Graham-Felsen puts it now, their speeches revolved around how to give “ordinary people the power to connect.”
In the last week, since the eruption of protests in Egypt and the release of more State Department cables by WikiLeaks, much has been made of this 2008 meeting, and how it points to “America’s secret backing” of Egyptian “rebel leaders.”
While all sides involved have an interest in either downplaying or emphasizing the political significance of the summit, this was hardly a covert effort. For one thing, organizers openly advertised the summit’s program as well as its keynote speakers, who, in addition to Obama’s young social-media staff and an outgoing official from George W. Bush’s State Department, also included Whoopi Goldberg, the ABC morning-show host—and an unlikely person to invite if the organizers wanted to fly underneath the radar. (At the time, the conference organizers did protect the activist’s identity to guard against retribution from Egypt’s police state.)
Although the NGO that organized the summit—the Alliance for Youth Movements—did receive funding from the State Department, the event was squarely focused on the power of social media and other connective technology like SMS as an organizing tool, and carried no one particular political agenda beyond “pushing against repression, oppression, and violent extremism,” according to Stephanie Rudat, a cofounder of AYM.
State Department officials did not return calls for comment.
The Egyptian activist (who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal from the Mubarak regime) listened to the presentation alongside about two dozen agitators from around the world, some wearing business-casual garb, and others sporting T shirts with the slogans of their causes.
It was a young but motley crew. Among them was a Colombian who successfully used Facebook to mobilize a 12 million–strong march against the country’s brutal Marxist guerrillas known as the FARC, as well as a Venezuelan activist who had organized "No Más Chávez"—a popular student-organized protest aimed at President Hugo Chávez.
But not everyone in the crowd had political motives. One activist, for example, was fighting HIV/AIDS in Sri Lanka, and others came from such diverse groups as the Genocide Intervention Network, the Burma Global Action Network, and a London-based campaign against knife crimes. Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz gave a talk called “Origins and Tools for Social Change.” Jason Liebman, CEO of Howcast, was also here.
Present also were a number of people from the State Department, among them James Glassman, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy during the administration of George W. Bush, and whose idea it was to hold the conference, along with Jared Cohen, a member of Glassman’s staff who specialized in technology and innovation.
In a telephone conversation this week, Glassman described the event as “Public Diplomacy 2.0.”
“My dream when I got to the State Department was always how we could help to develop an antiviolence movement around the world,” said Glassman, who is now the director of the George W. Bush Center in Dallas. He had been on a trip to Colombia when he discovered Morales, and, impressed by his work in the social-media realm, asked Cohen, now at Google, to find other people doing similar work around the world.
Glassman said he knew that bringing over someone from Egypt’s April 6 Movement, which had taken a very public stand against the Egyptian government, would be controversial, given the American administration’s support of Mubarak’s regime, which includes significant financial and military aid. But the event fit into an “overall strategy in Egypt, which was to support civil society and to encourage people to promote democracy as much as they could,” he said, adding: “My job was public diplomacy, which means communicating with the public.”
In other words, Glassman said, his job was to help people like the Egyptian activist—and he had no qualms about letting Egyptian officials know about the conference. In fact, he was furious when another Egyptian he had invited was prevented from boarding his flight in Cairo, and called in the Egyptian ambassador for a stern dressing-down. “I was very blunt with him,” Glassman said.
The Egyptian activist who did make it through said the conference was of limited value. “I taught … more than I learned,” he said—an assessment shared by other attendees. To him, though, the value of the event lay in networking and bonding with other activists during coffee- and cigarette-fueled philosophical discussions, and he said he left feeling motivated, “with ideas in my head.”
After the conference, he also had contact with State Department and congressional staffers in Washington and, later, the American Embassy in Cairo—meetings much discussed on the Web after WikiLeaks released cables detailing the talks. Asked about those meetings, the Egyptian said he felt mostly as though he was being humored. “I was trying to talk with them about democracy in Egypt, but they were only polite, without really listening much.” He said he would ask, “ ‘Why are you covering for this regime and covering for their crimes?’ And they would talk nonsense, like ‘We have to keep bridges open. There is too much at stake.’ ” To which he responded: “But Egypt is at stake.”
On the plane back home, he worried he would get in trouble for the trip—“I’m breathing my last air of freedom,” he thought to himself. But although he was thoroughly searched and security guards confiscated his notes from the conference, he wasn’t arrested initially. Later, though, as he continued his democracy work, police arrested him multiple times, most recently during last week’s protests, when he was thrown in jail and beaten up, he said.
Shortly after the uprising began, the Egyptian government cut off access to the Internet. But when told about the cables and the Internet attention they got, the activist scoffed.
“This is so ridiculous,” he said. “They are going to try to [portray this as] an American conspiracy, and so forth.” The intent of the April 6 Movement was never a secret, and the idea that the U.S. was somehow behind the efforts was almost laughable, he said.
What had begun as a Facebook page was now “in the hands of the people,” he said. “And it’s happening. It’s happening.”
This article originally appeared on The Daily Beast.