We talk to the loudest voice of the revolution, Mahmoud Salem - AKA Sandmonkey - about Egyptians being too lazy to fight, Islamists who screw people over for a living and get his predictions for the events that are to unfold come the 30th of June...
One of Egypt’s loudest opposition voices, Mahmoud Salem – AKA Sandmonkey – was blogging, protesting and generally riling up the government long before January 5th 2011. With the revolution in full swing, Sandmonkey not only became the go-to guy for news from the streets, but a target of the government’s attempts to crack down on the revolutionary spirit.
Arrested twice, yet regularly called upon by the international press to give insight into the goings on of our turbulent country, his tweets, self-titled ‘rants’, articles and occasionally brutal opinions have come to represent that state of mind of the secular side of the political spectrum. Some would even say he’s played a part in shaping those minds.
Ready to take to the streets once again this Sunday, the first anniversary of Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, we talk to the monkey man about his rise to the activists’ hall of fame, where he got his name from and get him to give us his predictions on what’ll happen on #June30 and beyond…
What is a Sandmonkey?
It’s one of the derogatory terms being used for Arabs.
Is it better or worse than a ‘Sand Nigger’?
Hahaha. Neither. The story happened this way. In 2001, I was in my third year of college in the States, and I moved into a place with people who were completely politically incorrect. We had a typical white dude we called Whitey, an Asian dude we called Chan and I was Sandmonkey. It was the first time I ever heard that and it struck me that every single one of the derogatory terms used for Arabs are usually funny, except for sand nigger, for obvious reasons.It came back to me when I started writing my blog. I targeted the American audience, and I wanted to target the kind of audience that hated on us. The two funniest names I thought of were ‘Haven’t Bin Laid-en’ and ‘Sandmonkey’. I wanted to make white people uncomfortable and it worked.
And what inspired you to start a blog in the first place?
I came back to Egypt in 2004 and later and ended up barely escaping the infamous Taba bombings. In Cairo everyone was talking about the incident. People were happy that Israelis fell victim but at the same time, they were accusing the Israelis of being behind it. I realised I was dealing with a country where people were not thinking at all. I created a blog hoping to vent out my frustrations that and may provoke a few people into actually using their minds.
I didn’t get involved in politics until July 23rdwhen the bombings in Sharm El Sheikh happened. I was furious because we weren’t doing anything about these attacks. I decided to have an impromptu protest on 6th of October Bridge but the police were like, “No! You have to have a permit.” I used some family connections and got the permit and rescheduled the protest to be at Al Azhar Park. I thought it’d help in getting some international coverage, you know? An anti-terrorism protest at Al Azhar sounds cool.
There was no Facebook or Twitter back then, so I sent out some text messages, asking people to join. Soon, I got a call from state security, urging me to cancel the whole thing. They were worried it’d escalate into an anti-Mubarak protest. I was like, what the hell? It’s an anti-terrorism protest! They warned me that I’d be arrested if I went ahead and I thought, fuck it, and went anddid it anyway. If they wanted to arrest me, nothing was going to stop them. In those days, you’d turn up to a protest with 300 others, and there’d be 5000 policemen waiting for you. I decided then that the government was too stupid to rule.
How do you define a stupid government?
Well, let’s see. If there is a government whose main opposition is an Islamic terrorist organisation and there is a grassroots attempt to oppose that kind of ideology - specifically at a time where many people were supporting Osama Bin Ladin and thought 9/11 was a good idea - I would hope the government would push for that, not shut us down.
Instead, what they used to do is put on these state-sponsored anti-terrorism protests andfill them with celebrities. In reality, this is an ideological war from beginning to end and it’s a war that Egypt has fought,which is unusual because Mubarak was right there when Sadat got shot.
For me,a government that doesn’t recognise the threats infront of it is dumb. That’s not to mention that there was an increase of 50 million people since Mubarak took over and no planning for it. Every good thing that has happened in Egypt has happened because of the private sector and that’s not enough.
Was there a moment where you felt like your voice was finally getting heard?
Internationally, it was the Danish cartoon crisis in 2006. I found it so stupid to boycott Danish butter because of a cartoon. I couldn’t take it anymore. So me and this Jordanian blogger started the ‘Boycott the Boycott’ campaign and it was a joke. Our tagline was, “Support Danish Cows” because the Danish cows are cool. Not like the British cows with Mad Cow Disease! One day, I was sifting through a pile of newspapers and came across one that had actually printed the cartoons, three months before the hysteria happened. It proved that this was a made up crisis. People had seen it before and ignored it. I put that stuff on the blog and that’s when itstarted getting insane. I was getting 50,000 hits per day. That newspaper was sent to Denmark and the Egyptian ambassador denied that it ever happened. Then they showed it to her and she left her post three days later.
How did it feel to witness change as a direct result of your words and actions?
I have to say it was cool, but you have to understand that at the time, I couldn’t go up to my dad and be like, look at my Support Denmark Campaign! I kept all of this away from my family, particularly my mother. We’re what you would call a very feloul family. She was NDP all of her life, so my fight with the regime was rather personal. She only found out about my activism after the revolution. There was a lot being said about me in the international media at the time so part of her was like, “Ahh mashallah, my son!” but the day Morsi won she sent me a message saying: “Ya hobl ya welad el habla!” so it goes both ways!
In the run-up to 2011, what was your stance towards the Mubarak regime and what actions – if any – were you taking?
I was opposed to everything that the Mubarak regime stood for. His was a party based on power not an ideology. It was corrupt and negatively affected all of our lives, so naturally I had long been against it. In terms of actions, anyone who got arrested, for example, I would try and support. For instance, it’s no secret that me and [blogger and activist] Alaa Abd El-Fattah don’t like each other but the moment he got arrested in 2006, I basically created the Free Alaa campaign. I started writing more about campaigning and how we can organise online and offline. After going to a lot of protests, you begin to notice that the whole thing is repetitive, there is no plan and the people who are handling it,who somehow became responsible for the revolutionary movement after the revolution happened, couldn’t get their act together most of the time.
Is violence a requirement for real change to happen?
I think so. I mean, parties have to talk about peace because no one wants to see the kind of violence that’s bound to happen. We are a violent population but we’re not bloodthirsty. Our situation won’t turn into one like Syria, mostly because we’re too lazy to sustain that kind of violence. We are aggressive though, so I feel like if you don’t end up meeting the population’s demands, the people who are supporting you start wondering how they can get what they want. And now, with the Muslim Brotherhood sending a message that the rule of law is suspended, people are going to take things into their own hands.Honestly, I think that without some violence or something that will raise eyebrows, nothing will change. It’s hot and we’re lazy. We’re not going be able to sustain a long conflict and a civil war. It requires a lot of work. Back in 2011, after 18 days, people were like “ENOOOUGH! Mubarak leave, we won’t leave so you leave... Come on! We want this over.”
Would you say it’s time for the revolutionaries to stop labeling people as ‘feloul’ and include them in the struggle against Morsi and his government?
I don’t think that these people need the revolutionaries’ permission, honestly. The reality is that this has been a discussion from the beginning. What is the definition of the term feloul? At first it was anyone in Mubarak’s government. Fine! Of course! Next, everybody who was in the NDP is feloul. Eshta. Then it was all business men are feloul and then you're like, hold on a second...Finally, it was the MPs and heads of tribes and families and small communities in rural Egypt are feloul and they’re you’re like, hold on…They they joined the NDP after winning the elections because they used to get a phone call saying the President wants you with us and you had to say yes! No one was in a position to say no to Hosni Mubarak. That's when it got ridiculous. That’s 70-80% of the country!
Which group of people do you see as taking the revolution forward?
Let’s look at it this way. This revolution happened to me when I was 29. But there are some people who are in their teens and it’s an overwhelming experience for them. When we were that age, the most dramatic thing was a playground fight. Now these kids are batting with the police. That kind of thingcan really affect you and create what is very much a faith in the revolution, so to speak. That generation is growing up and they’rethe ones who go down and fight and they’re the one who won’t stand for an oppressive regime when they’re adults. If the Muslim Brotherhood stays, that’s the generation that’s going to take them completely out. The Muslim Brotherhood is facing a problem when it comes to the younger ones because they’re all leaving the organisation. Respectable Brotherhood families who have raised their children to follow in their footsteps are finding that their kids have even stopped praying. They have blogs and Facebook pages and are dropping everything their family taught them to go and join the socialists and the revolutionaries. So the organisation is getting eaten out from underneath and they’re left with two kinds of young recruits: ones that are too stupid and the ones who are still in it for the benefits. The latter is brilliant, because that’s exactly how the NDP used to work. The NDP had no overriding ideology; it was a party of power. You wanted some kind of power, so you’d join the NDP in hopes that someone will hook you up with a job or whatever. That’s how the MB are operating now.
Let’s talk about June 30th. Who’s going to be there and what do you think is going happen?
The question is whether it’s only going be Sunday. Let’s put it all in play and see what were dealing with here:
We have the revolutionaries; the first and second generations. Most of the first-generation are people who supported Morsi during the elections, and nobody is going to want anything to do with them. The second-generation, which are the younger ones, are bound to create problems since they feel like violence is the answer. They are unorganised and young so it’sgoing be messy.
Next, you have the old regime forces. Unlike the second generation of revolutionaries, they have a plan and an objective and it’s really simple: to attack as many Muslim Brotherhood strongholds as possible, occupy as much of the state as possible and cause as much chaos as possible so that the army gets involved. But if the army gets involvedand they’re on the side of the Brotherhood, it’s done right there and then.
Then you have the independents, people who don’t identify with any particular party or ideology, and are made up of so many types of people you can’t predict what will happen. They’re unorganised and angry so they’re the wild card in all this.
You also have the police, which in my guess won’t get too involved, and if they do they’re going to do it dressed in civilian clothes. I don’t think they’re listening to orders. They’re beyond that. So then you have the criminals who know it’ll be a free for all and will head out and cause as much chaos as possible.
Finally, there are the Islamists. You have the MB Islamists and the non-MB Islamists. The non-MB Islamists are going to hide. The ones that support the MB are going to try and protect their important locations and their homes. Ofcourse, naturally, they’re going to engage in a terrorism campaign. That’s what happens when you become friends with Al Gamaa Al-Islameya and all the other nice people who screw people for living.
What will you be doing on June 30th?
In the second siege of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, after the Port Said incident, I was there when the first tear gas canister struck and it quickly became hell. Literally what hell looks like; it was crowded, violent, and smoky. People were rushing in and people were rushing out, injured or worse. Since this was the second time this was happening, I couldn’t tell these young kids to calm down and I couldn’t tell people to come and stand with them because it was too dangerous. I realised then that the best thing I could do was damage control. I would go there every day and grab whoever’s injured and carry them to the field hospitals but it really messes with your mind how it’s literally children being injured. Ever since then, it has been kind of my mentality to save as many people as possible from being in harm’s way.
So on the 30th, I’ll be at Etahadeya focused on protecting women. We’ve set up safe houses so if anything happens, from sexual harassment to physical injury, women have a place to hide out in. That means I’m going to be on the ground a lot, jumping from one place to another.
What are the best case and worst case scenarios that can come out of June 30th protests, in your opinion?
We have three scenarios.
Scenario One: The military shows support of Morsi and Morsi wins the battle before it starts. If this happens, the feloul will back away, the revolutionaries will become more like martyrs. But this is a very unlikely scenario because not only would the army then lose support of the feloul, it’ll also lose the support of the independents which is deadlier and then they will be completely under the mercy of the Islamists who don’t really like them.
Scenario Two: This is what I like to call Morsi fe Shewal. Whoever gets Morsi in a shewal (a sack) wins. What I mean is that whoever manages to topple the president gets to run the show, with the Military being there for the transitional period. That’s also an unlikely scenario because in order to do so you’re going get some serious conspiracy from the state.
Scenario Three: This is what I think is going happen and that is that there are going be clashes which will weaken the Muslim Brotherhood. They’re going to end up more or less a broken organisation with the president having less of a network around him. I imagine the army will come in and impose curfews to calm things down, and force through early parliamentary and presidential elections.
In any case, I don’t think there’s a scenario in which the Muslim Brotherhood can walk away unharmed.
What’s your message to Egypt ahead of June 30th?
Relax!Don’t allow yourself to be mentally dragged into this. After everything that we’ve seen, what’s the worst that could happen? A lack of services? Destroyed economy? Lack of security? Crime? Jihadists walking down the streets? Do you have any idea how many people are armed now? How long do you think they’regoing survive? Personally speaking, I’m more worried about the gas in my car than I am worried about my car. You might be able to drive for like 10 kilometers if you steal it!
So relax. The game isn’t about hope as much as it is about determination. If you are determined and you truly believe that it's best for your country is for those people to be removed then just go ahead and do it. Stop worrying.
Would you like to be president one day?