ELECTIONS

Egypt: We Are Watching You

Three Egyptian Women Use the Internet to Promote Democracy

In 2005, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced the country's first multi-party elections. Three professional women with no experience in political activism decided to make sure the elections were really fair and free through their own initiative and the power of the Internet. In the documentary Egypt: We Are Watching You, directors Shereif Elkatsha and Jehane Noujaim give us a glimpse of democracy in Egypt through the lens of this firebrand trio and their Web site, Shayfeen.com. I.M.O.W. reviewed the film.
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Shayfeen.com
Shayfeen.com's first film Fear. Egyptians interviewed express their grievances with their government.
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Shayfeen.com
Security records the environment of violence, protests and arrests during the 2005 parliamentary elections in Egypt.
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Shayfeen.com

Shayfeen.com's soundtrack speaks their mission to open people's eyes: "For many years we have been silent/ This Egypt is ours and not yours/ We will guard it from you with our eyes / And like an eagle we will uncover you/ For we/ We can see you."
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Shayfeen.com
Boysana Kamel attempts to distribute Shayfeen.com campaign pins to the national security police surrounding her. View Larger >
Meet the trio: Engi Haddad, a chain-smoking, husky-voiced marketing manager; Bosayna Kamel, a well-known TV news reporter; and Ghada Shahbandar, a university professor. Against the backdrop and momentum of the Kifaya (Enough!) protest movement, these powerful women came together to found Shayfeen.com, a Web site and on-the-ground effort to witness and record the reality of the Egyptian first multi-party election. As journalist Boysana says, their goal was to bring the "real" news to the people, not "their" news.

The documentary follows Shayfeen during the first year of the project. The trio monitored elections by sending dozens of people to polling places to ensure that the process was regular and democratic, particularly at so-called "trouble spots." Volunteers videotaped polling irregularities, interviewed people about their experiences and then posted the footage and photographs on the Web site for all of Egypt and the world to see.

Watching the Watchers

Directors Elkatsha and Noujaim filmed alongside the Shayfeen "watchers" as they conducted interviews. On camera, people speak about being tortured for protesting against irregularities. We hear from judges unable to make independent decisions. In one of the most poignant scenes in the film, an older Egyptian man, exasperated by the government-sponsored election fraud, approaches the camera, looks straight into it and cries out: "Record this!" He explains that when his wife tried to vote, she brought her voting ballot to a judge who looked at her and told her, straight-faced, that she could not vote twice. She pointed to her empty ballot, but the judge shooed her away, telling her to "Take your complaint to the president."

In Elkatsha and Noujaim's hands, this scene, which could seem hopeless, becomes the opposite. The outraged man, determined to have his wife's story of injustice heard and recorded, is presented as proof that the pillars of Egyptian democracy have been put in place, that its citizens are aware of their rights and not afraid to demand them.

Defying Stereotypes

As much as the film is about Shayfeen's mission, it is also about the women, themselves. "When we were introduced to Engi, Ghada, and Bosayna, we knew this was our film," says Elkatsha. "I grew up with outspoken, powerful women, and Egypt: We Are Watching You was our chance to put three such women on the screen. We were drawn by their characters, and the way they complemented one another even though the work they were doing in support of democratic initiatives was taking them in different directions. They were tireless in their efforts, and we found this very inspiring."

Elkatsha continues, "In today's media culture, it is important to show three strong, independent women from the Middle East, who defy stereotypes."

These Middle Eastern women smoke. They are not veiled. They are educated. They are activists. They are tech savvy. They wear designer clothing. They speak their minds. They get angry. They cry. They have a sense of humor. They are patriotic. In the context of most Western representations of Middle Eastern women, every shot of Haddad taking a drag on her cigarette feels like a breath of fresh air.

Blue Skies and a Beautiful Country

One way the film celebrates the women is through its strategic use of color. Haddad wears a bright red shirt while behind her a green curtain flutters in the breeze. Looking like a Hollywood starlet, Kamel is framed by flickering orange lights. Shahbandar speaks against a rich red backdrop that brings out the light blue in her eyes.

The directors' emphasis on color is not coincidental, but inspired by Haddad's description of her ideal Egypt. Before her disillusionment with the status quo, Haddad produced a campaign video for President Mubarak's National Democratic Party in which she created a prototype of that "perfect" Egypt.

In it, she says, the skies are "clear blue, the greens are really green and the peasant is wearing this beautiful dress." Haddad is now critical of her one-time idealism. "I thought that all it took was some color correction, some blue skies and we would have this beautiful country."

Directors Elkatsha and Noujaim borrow Haddad's theme of color as symbolic of a democratic Egypt. But they are definitely not "color correcting" Egyptian democracy. Rather, they are showing that bright, colorful Egyptians are coming together to correct it themselves by fighting to make that ideal, picture-perfect Egypt a reality. "Nobody can make this Egypt happen except the Egyptians," says Haddad.

At the end of the film, Boysana sums up Shayfeen's mission: "Change won't come suddenly. It'll come step by step. Our first step was to open our eyes."


ITVS funded this film as part of their Global Perspectives Collection. For educator resources on this story on Shafyeen.com, visit ITVS.


Other educator resources are also available.




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