Interviewing Omar Afifi During The Egyptian Revolution1
This was one of those moments that seemed surreal. I drove in the snow to a large apartment in Falls Church, Virginia. I was alone, meeting a man in his apartment. Not unusual for a journalist, but I had little information and part of me wondered what I’d be walking into. I knocked. The door opened, and a wall of cigarette smoke hit me like a brick. A few feet away, smoking and talking on several phones, was Omar Afifi.
He was busy. Very busy. He converted his living room into a command center of sorts. He hooked a computer up to a large flat screen TV and was looking at Google Maps. On another computer, he talked on Skype. He had a phone up to each ear, and another ringing in his hand. Trying to interview him would be a challenge, but he wanted to talk.
It was exactly one year ago. The world was wondering how long Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would last. Afifi was determined to help bring the leader down.
It’s hard to believe that someone so far away could have any influence on something so big. But Afifi used his knowledge to act as a consultant to the protesters. He told me about his former life in Egypt. He was a police officer that did something forbidden. He wrote a book that helped Egyptians understand the law so they could avoid breaking it and being arrested. The book was banned and he had to leave Egypt. But he wanted to go back. Badly.
The whole time we talked, he was interrupted with more phone and Skype calls. He would zoom into the map and start giving directions. Because he knew how the police would react to a large crowd, he advised protesters on which routes to take so they could grow larger. Smaller streets were better, because the police would be too overwhelmed. He told me that the idea was to protect protesters from police violence. He insisted the protests should be peaceful.
He used social networking to spread information. Skype and phone calls were just one method. He also had YouTube videos and a popular Facebook page. I realized then that I was witnessing an important part of the Revolution. One that was happening in my own back yard.
I left his apartment that day, trying to fit everything I learned into a minute and a half package– hoping that I could accurately tell the story, even though I didn’t know his language.
I interviewed Afifi again, when Mubarak lost his power. I went to Afifi’s apartment, but this time I noticed suitcases. They were packed, sitting in middle of the living room. The phones were still ringing, but there was a calm in the air. He was going back to Egypt. He wasn’t sure if he would be killed, but he was ready to go home. We did a quick interview and he gave me a copy of his book– the one that was banned. Then he shook my hand. One of those handshakes that you know could be the last.
Curious, I look up Afifi online from time to time. I found this article in Ahrem Online about the ongoing Mubarak trial. Afifi is mentioned in the story and, although he is not on trail, is being accused– by the defense– of telling protesters to attack police on the one year anniversary of the January 25th Revolution.
For most Americans, the day Mubarak left office was a new beginning. Yes, there would be rebuilding, but most people here in the US don’t realize what is happening in Egypt. The Revolution isn’t over yet. And judging by the fact his name is still being brought up, neither is Afifi’s role.