x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

Egyptian activists use projectors to counter propaganda

Young activists are taking to the streets across Egypt armed only with laptops, streaming images and projectors in an attempt to counter and question decades of military propaganda.

The activists believe the Egyptian public is being lied to by the army.
The activists believe the Egyptian public is being lied to by the army.

As crowds gather outside Egypt's state television building, a group of young activists set up a projector on the pavement. From a laptop they stream images of Egyptian soldiers - chasing, beating and shooting protesters - onto the side of a nearby building.

Meanwhile, a young man uses a megaphone to announce a forthcoming release: "Coming soon: a documentary about the Egyptian military's accomplishments this year - sexually assaulting women and killing demonstrators." He spins the projector in the direction of the television building and changes the image to a single line of text that reads "Down with military rule" in Arabic, and flashes it across the concrete wall above the heads of those soldiers tasked with guarding the building.

The show is one of hundreds that has been put on recently by a loosely connected group of activists who operate under the name of Kazeboon, the Arabic word for liars. The activists say the public is being lied to by the army through state television and want to bring wider exposure to violent images of protesters being attacked by the Egyptian military.

"This is the epicentre of lies," says Mohammed Moqbil, a 29-year-old graphic designer, pointing at the state television facility. Moqbil has been organising Kazeboon screenings in Cairo and says that while the image of a female protester in Tahrir Square being dragged and beaten by soldiers has become a symbol of abuse on the internet, many Egyptians have not yet seen it. As many as 80 per cent of households in the country are not connected to the internet. Instead, they get most of their information from government-run media.

"And that's what we want to challenge here. To show the truth, so maybe one day we can broadcast it from [the] inside, on state TV," says Moqbil.

It's because of this block on information, say the activists, that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), which has run the country in the post-Mubarak era, maintains widespread support. In fact, almost 90 per cent of Egyptians still have confidence in the military and Scaf specifically, according to a Gallup poll conducted last month, despite the grim reality that dozens have been killed and thousands injured by security forces in recent months.

"The army has been very successful in using state TV to sway opinion," according to Khaled Fahmy, head of the history department at the American University in Cairo and a military specialist. "Even when I tell my intelligent friends about it they refuse to believe [me]. They say 'No, no it's photoshopped'."

The first Kazeboon screening took place in Cairo just days after the cabinet building clashes in December between protesters, the military and police that left 18 dead and hundreds injured. Footage and photos of the tactics used by security forces quickly went online but did not appear on state television.

"State TV is blocking people's access to the truth, so we decided to go to homes and neighbourhoods and show them. The idea is not to send a particular political message. It's a visual experience," says Moqbil, who believes the screenings have been generally successful.

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Deep in a densely populated area of Haram, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Cairo, three young activists tape together sheets of white poster board to serve as a makeshift screen for tonight's screening.

"Many people haven't seen these images," says Mohammed Said, a 27-year-old media student, standing on a dusty unpaved side street of his neighbourhood. After hearing about the Kazeboon screenings in other parts of the country, he and two of his friends contacted the campaign's organisers via Facebook. "State TV depicts protesters as thugs. So we want to tell people the truth."

Like in many areas, residents here urge the activists to cancel the screening for fear of clashes in the neighbourhood. "People here are worried about stability, they ask, 'Why do you want to break the country apart?'," says Said, who is forced to pack away the makeshift screen.

But even many who have seen footage of army abuses remain defensive of the military and sceptical of those who upload videos to the internet.

"I want to see the whole video, not just half of it," says Mohammed Thabaet, who works in his family's butcher shop a few streets away from where the activists were setting up. "Let's see what this woman did before. I need to see the complete video to know who's at fault." It's not just a year of propaganda that the Kazeboon campaigners are countering, according to Fahmy, it's decades of indoctrination of Egyptians about the might and morality of their armed forces.

"Egyptians had been told we have an invincible army and they want to believe it's defending the country," says Fahmy. "But this is not a successful and victorious army. The war in 1973 did not end up with the Egyptian army in Tel Aviv."

Through glorification in schools, national holidays and the romanticising of military "victories", the army was able to roll its tanks into the streets of Egypt last February with few questions about its motives.

Protesters climbed on the military's modern, American-built tanks waving flags and kissing the well-uniformed soldiers, confident they had come to support the people.

"When the army stepped in last year, I was happy. They were our last hope and they came and said, 'We are with you'," explains Ahmed Abdel Aziz, who was raised to have faith in the army. "All Egyptians grow up with love for this army. It's our hand, our sword and our shield."

The military has held special power in Egypt since a group of young officers led a coup against King Farouk in 1952. In recent decades, however, its tanks and soldiers were rarely seen by Egyptians. Public perception of the military was shaped by a historical narrative produced by the institution itself, as historians like Fahmy have limited access to military records. Because of this, he says, there has been little ability to challenge the army's view: "Army propaganda goes unchecked."

Like a small number of Egyptians, Abdel Aziz eventually lost faith, as state media reports contradicted what he had seen with his own eyes. "On February 12, I saw it was all a big lie," he says. What seemed like a successful revolution last February began to look more like a military coup. "I was shocked," he says.

However, for many who have not spent their days in Tahrir Square, the cult built around this military is unshaken. "I know that the army can't open their guns against Egyptian people," asserts Medhat Ismail, interrupting Aziz.

"OK, they did," he concedes when challenged. "But that was a mistake. It's not like Mubarak. Maspero was a true accident," he says referring to clashes in October at the state TV building between Coptic Christian Egyptians and the army, which left 27 protesters dead.

Images of armoured vehicles ploughing through crowds and crushing protesters went viral on the internet but many Egyptians have not seen the footage.

A year after the military took control, the country is facing mounting security concerns and increasing instability. Last week alone more than 70 Egyptians died in clashes at a football match in Port Said. Young activists blame security forces for allowing the massacre and have again taken to the streets of downtown Cairo battling their army and demanding they leave power.

Despite this, support of the military remains strong outside of Tahrir Square. "People look to the army as a pillar of stability," says Fahmy. "One last pillar that keeps society in check."

Rebecca Collard is a Canadian journalist and photographer based in Jerusalem.