Who/What is Ahvaaz [Avaaz] and why did/do journalists trust them with their lives in Baba Amr

Who or What is Ahvaaz [Avaaz]?

And, why do veteran combat journalsts working for major news organizations trust Avaaz with their lives in getting into, and when inside, the Baba Amr quarter of Homs, Syria, which has been beseiged by the Syrian army on a mission to exterminate “Islamist terrorism”?

Ahvaaz [Avaaz]:
The name of an organization [a “global advocacy group”, The Telegraph coyly calls them] called Avaaz, has been mentioned as cooridinating closely with journalists covering the Syrian uprising, and in connection with their arrivals in besieged places like Baba Amr.

Their website is available in 14 or 15 languages at www.avaaz.org, here, they are on Twitter [@avaaz], and also Facebook — and they are interested in global matters — the oceans, the Amazon, the internet, and now Syria — identifying themselves as “a campaigning community” with 13 million members.

Their website says: “Avaaz—meaning ‘voice’ in several European, Middle Eastern and Asian languages—launched in 2007 with a simple democratic mission: organize citizens of all nations to close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want … Where other global civil society groups are composed of issue-specific networks of national chapters, each with its own staff, budget, and decision-making structure, Avaaz has a single, global team with a mandate to work on any issue of public concern–allowing campaigns of extraordinary nimbleness, flexibility, focus, and scale. Avaaz’s online community can act like a megaphone to call attention to new issues; a lightning rod to channel broad public concern into a specific, targeted campaign; a fire truck to rush an effective response to a sudden, urgent emergency; and a stem cell that grows into whatever form of advocacy or work is best suited to meet an urgent need”…

UPDATE: Julian Borger reported here in The Guardian on Tuesday night [28 February] that Avaaz was founded in 2007.

Borger adds that Avaaz “emerged out of activist groups in the US and Australia, including ResPublica, GetUp! and MoveOn.org. Its founding president is Ricken Patel, a Canadian-British veteran of the International Crisis Group, a global thinktank, and MoveOn.org, a progressive American group. He runs a team of campaigners around the world, with offices in New York, Rio, Delhi, Madrid and Sydney”.

And, Borger added. Avaaz “has taken on a prominent and more physically risky role in the Arab spring, providing satellite phones and other communication equipment to pro-democracy groups in Libya, Egypt and Syria … Amid the bloodshed of Syria, the organisation’s commitment is less likely to be queried. The question its critics are raising now is whether a group that started out in the high-tech safety of the internet has found itself out of its depth in a brutal conflict in the real world”.

While the first time I recall hearing the name Ahvaaz was in connection with an “uprising” against the Islamic Republic regime installed in Tehran that the Iranian authorities strongly believe was coordinated with the American CIA + British secret services, they also seemed to have some kind of association with the MEK — or, Mujahedeen-e-Khalq = a supposedly “leftist’ movement that was part of the resistance to the Shah of Iran prior to the Iranian revolution, but was then persecuted, and took up arms against the Islamic Republic, when they found an ally in Saddam Hussein who offered them shelter and a base came which they are now evacuating for relocation as refugees around the world, under great pressure.

Ahvaaz, if I am not mistaken [will check] is the Persian version of the name of [CORR: the capital city of Khuzestan, the] Arabic-speaking province [Ahwaz] in south-western Iran, bordering Iraq, the Shatt al-Arab, and the north-western shore of Iran along the Persian Gulf.  It was in the Ahvaaz province that the first clashes in the terrible Iran-Iraq war [end 1979 to August 1989] took place, between the freshly-installed Islamic Republic and a Saddam Hussein backed by the U.S., by all Arab states [officially, at least] and by all the “civilized world”.

Ahvaaz came in big, internationally, in social media more recently at a late phase of the Tahrir Square protests — and though nobody knew who they were, exactly, many otherwise savvy people were enthusiastic to support, if not join, their calls for signing petitions, etc., in support of the Tahrir movement.

Like the MEK, Avaaz seems to be very media-savvy, and have expertise in modern technology.

But, Avaaz is functioning differently than the MEK at the height of its influence. Avaaz is concentrating on social media, and video postings on the internet, as well as their new role of helping “smuggle” journalists into battle zones in closed Syria via routes they have access to in neighboring countries [Lebanon, and possibly Turkey — the Israel government is surely aware of this, but keeping a judicious quiet].

The Avaaz website explains this under the heading, Breaking the Middle East Black-out:

    “Funded by donations from almost 30,000 Avaazers, an Avaaz team is working closely with the leadership of democracy movements in Syria, Yemen, Libya and more to get them high-tech phones and satellite internet modems, connect them to the world’s top media outlets, and provide communications advice. We’ve seen the power of this engagement — where our support to activists has created global media cycles with footage and eyewitness accounts that our team helps distribute to CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and others. The courage of these activists is unbelievable — a skype message read ‘state security searching the house, my laptop battery dying, if not online tomorrow I’m dead or arrested’. He’s ok, and together we’re helping to get his and many other voices out to the world”

But, in Syria, things are not ok.

[Due to the dire situation, presumably, there is no particular information about Syria, at the moment, on the Avaaz website… UPDATE Yet, Avaaz states, here, that it “has been working with activists on the Syrian Spring since it started, setting up a network of over 400 Citizen Journalists across the country, smuggling in medicines and international journalists to report on the unfolding story and campaigning to ensure that sanctions and political pressure are applied on the Assad regime. The organisation is entirely funded by small donations from its members”.

UPDATE: An article published on The Guardian website last July, here, reports that “Since 2009, Avaaz has not taken donations from foundations or corporations, nor has it accepted payments of more than $5,000. Instead, it relies simply on the generosity of individual members, who have now raised over $20m. Much of this money goes towards specific campaigns. This year, $1.5m was raised to supply cameras to citizen journalists throughout the Arab world; as a result, much of the footage currently coming out of Syria was filmed on equipment provided by Avaaz”. The BBC picked up and rewrote this today, reporting rather lazily, here, that “Avaaz says it is independent and accountable because since 2009 it has been wholly member-funded”.]

Why should journalists trust Avaaz with their lives, as Marie Colvin did?

And, why are French photographers and filmmakers working so closely with Avaaz? [Are French photographers just more passionate and curious about the world? Or, do they have some kind of official backing?…]

If Avaaz is behind the recent quantum leap in improvement in the filming and video streaming of protests throughout Syria — particularly the dancing protests highlighted in our previous post — they deserve a lot of credit for their skills.

By comparison, the MEK, before it was labelled by the US as “terrorist organization”, a label which they have been fighting, used to function less as “local fixers” who can boost a foreign correspondent’s impact and reach, and more as an effective pressure group which was in regular contact with members of Congress and other governments, as well as everyone’s editors — and if a journalist didn’t seem enthusiastic about publishing their news, they would threaten to go to one’s editors. They implied that they could promote journalists’ careers — or of having them black-listed, and fired … Like other powerful and effective lobbies, the MEK traded in influence, and was feared.

More to follow later…

Alaa, Egyptian blogger, is [provisionally] freed today

A child is born…

And his father, Alaa, a prisoner of conscience in Egypt, has today been released from detention [while investigations continue]…

Alaa is freed - photo via his sister Mona Seif @Monasosh - 25 Dec 2011

The Egyptian blogger, Alaa [Abd El Fattah], has been jailed for weeks [54 days, as it happens] by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Armed Forces [SCAF], for refusing to appear before a military court and in connection with accusations about his role in protests against the military government.

Alaa has now just reportedly been freed today, just weeks after his son, Khaled, was born [within hours of a court appearance by Alaa’s heavily pregnant wife, Manal, to plead for Alaa’s freedom].

Alaa and Manal named their son Khaled after Khaled al-Said [see our earlier posts, here], an Egyptian blogger whose beating to death by Egyptian policemen in Alexandria in June 2010 eventually mobilized the big protest in Tahrir Square on #25Jan this year]…

[For further information on the Khaled Said story, our earlier posts are here, here, and here.]

UPDATE: Tonight, Alaa Tweeted: “watching my wife feed my son for the first time, bliss”

Continue reading Alaa, Egyptian blogger, is [provisionally] freed today

Protests continue in Egypt, massive tear gas use reported

Protests — and casualties, including deaths — have continued in Egypt today, as a decision was awaited from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on demands for an immediate transition to civilian rule.

Egyptian riot police are reportedly responsible for the worst violence, but .

A “million man” march was called for 4pm to protest police and military brutality against the demonstrators. At least 100,000 people were reported in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi was expected to speak at about the same time.

But, he began a meeting with Egyptian political parties…

His remarks were finally aired on Egyptian State TV three hours later, after 7pm.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Tantawi maintained that the Armed Forces “never killed a single Egyptian”, and he insisted that the Armed Forces are the main protectors of the people. But, he added, “the ability of the Ministry of Interior is improving”…

He said that although they never took a political position, and had no political ambitions, and treated all political parties equally, the Armed Forces had an important role to play, because the “interim situation is not safe … and the Egyptian economy is receding. The Armed Forces would therefore continue to maintain the state and ensure security while “we know that differences are there, and different positions”.

He said that he [“I”] had decided to accept the resignation of the present Prime Minister and his cabinet — but had asked them to stay on in their posts until a new government could be formed…

Tantawi observed that “the closer we come to elections, the more tensions are increasing — this we cannot understand”.

Only “at the end of this process will we hand over power to an elected civilian authority”, Tantawi said in his televised address.

A first round of parliamentary elections is due to be held in less than a week — on November 28, and Tantawi said that this schedule would be maintained.

Continue reading Protests continue in Egypt, massive tear gas use reported

Bloody hell at Tahrir Square in Cairo + other news

Bloody hell broke out at Tahrir Square this weekend.

There have been so many deaths and injuries — including a shocking number of protesters injured by rubber bullets in eyes, many of whom have reportedly lost their eyes as a result — that the figures are unreliable, and the tallies by various volunteers and news organizations keep mounting. One observer Tweeted that the soldiers/police were blinded themselves by the fast quantities of strong tear gas that was shot around, and as a result they fired wildly [hitting so many protesters exactly in the eyes???]. A group of three Egyptian men — one photojournalist [Ahmed Fatah, in the middle/background], + 2 well-known activists [Malek Mostafa and on the left, Ahmad Hararah] — with almost identical injuries are shown in this photo here.

At a certain point, the Muslim Brotherhood turned out. Then left. A few politicians showed up, then left.

A new terminology had to be learned: who are the ULTRAs? [It seems they are the almost-mythical “football fans” who have been on both sides of this revolution, but who now appear to be against the present military rule and therefore now on the side of the Tahrir activists…]

The situation is still evolving, three days later.

UPDATE: Al-Jazeera Arabic reported Monday night that the entire Egyptian Cabinet tendered its resignation — but the Supreme Military Council has not yet accepted the resignation.

Continue reading Bloody hell at Tahrir Square in Cairo + other news

Ya Rab!

This is the picture posted today on one of the front pages of the U.S. State Department website:

Shot of Tahrir Square - on US State Dept website - Apparently an AP photo

[The front page, here, has changing content — if this picture doesn’t turn up immediately, just enter the word “Egypt” in the search box on the opening page. The use of this photo is a real message — one of a series sent from Washington today.]

The U.S. has steadily firmed up its position over the past week on the need for a transition in Egypt — which it says should start now. Now, President Obama said on 1 February, after Husni Mubarak announced he would serve until the next scheduled elections in September. Now, the spokespersons of both the White House and the State Department said on 2 February. And, that was yesterday…

Also yesterday, a U.S. special envoy, former Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner was recalled to Washington after a couple of days talk in Cairo, with Husni Mubarak and with his newly-named Vice President, Egypt’s Intelligence Chief General Omar Suleiman. There was no reason for him to stay, sources in Washington commented, after a horrendous day of attacks on protesters in Tahrir Square on Wednesday. Wisner is now briefing the administration in Washington.

Overnight, pitched battles continued in Tahrir Square. Protesters repetetively shouted “Ya Rab” (roughly equivalent to “Oh, God”), in unison, as a rallying cry as they rebuffed attacks. At around 4 am Thursday, there was an assault from snipers posted on the rooftops of surrounding buildings who shot at protestors with live fire. There were a number of deaths.

Thursday was marked by a coordinated campaign of attacks, arrests, confiscation of equipment and intimidation — conducted apparently by the military — against journalists + foreign journalists, and against international + Egyptian Human Rights workers.

Human Rights Watch’s Joe Stork, who is in Cairo, told Al-Jazeera English that “it’s the government’s responsibility to protect the right to freedom of assembly, but this government has abjectly failed in this responsibility”. In fact, Stork said, there’s every reason to think that the government party has been behind the violent attacks on anti-Mubarak demonstrators in recent days, and he suggested that the role of the governing party is what we should be looking at — the Army, he said, is only part of this. “The Army role has been very ambiguous, very passive, and reflects the criminal negligence of the government”.

Stork said that one thing HRW would be “taking a very close look at now is what has been happening to those people who have been identified as organizers of the present protests, people like Ahmad Maher, who has been detained, one of the group who set up the ‘We are all Khaled Said’ page on Facebook”. Khaled Said, a 28-year-old blogger, was accosted by plainclothes policemen while sitting at a cafe in Alexandria, and was brutally beaten to death within hours, apparently in the entry halls of nearby buildings, and his bloodied and broken body was dumped not far away (see our earlier posts here).

The administrator of the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page, Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian national who works abroad as a marketing executive for Google, just happened to be in Egypt for a conference when the protests broke out. He was taken away by the police days ago, and has not been seen since. He is still missing.

On Thursday, State Department Spokesperson P.J. Crowley said at his regular daily press briefing that the detentions of journalists etc. “do not seem to be random events”. He did note that the U.S. Embassy has been “using its security officers” to make contacts with their Egyptian counterparts to keep track of what is happening and to gain their release.

A day earlier, P.J. Crowley made a clear distinction between the anti-Mubarak protestors and the pro-government mobs that suddenly rushed into Tahrir Square and mounted hours of sustained and deadly attacks on the protestors, who defended themselves.

Crowley stated Wednesday that “what’s imperative is that officials in Egypt heed what the Egyptian people are demanding. These are demonstrations that have been very compelling. These are demonstrations that underscore the aspirations – the unfulfilled aspirations, of the Egyptian people. And these demonstrators are not going away. This is gathering momentum. They are sending a clear message … let me differentiate between those who can bring forward their perspective on current events as opposed to the thugs that we saw on the streets today who have – clearly trying to intimidate those people who have been peacefully protesting and expressing their strong views about a different kind of future for Egypt”.

About the pro-government mobs, Crowley said: “we don’t know who unleashed these thugs on the streets of Cairo. They’ve been identified as supporters of the government. But whoever they are, they need – there needs to be accountability here. This was clearly an attempt at intimidating the protesters who have been communicating to the government and insisting on change”.

And, Crowley noted, “the violence today just underscores how urgent the situation is. The longer that this goes unresolved, the greater the danger of further violence”.

The newly-named Vice President, General Suleiman, said today that an investigation would be mounted into who was responsible for unleashing the pro-government mobs on Wednesday, and that they would be found and punished. He said he had been having a dialogue with the opposition, but it was not possible to determine who, exactly, he had been speaking to. Nor, by his own account in a later television interview, did it seem like much of a dialogue.

An Al-Jazeera reporter in Washington noted Thursday evening that while General Suleiman had called, today, for foreigners to stop giving advice to Egypt, the State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley later said that the U.S. is “continuing to give advice to our Egyptian partners about the demonstration tomorrow”, Friday. Protest organizers have been saying that Friday’s demonstrations would be Mubarak’s “Day of Departure”.

ABC TV news has today compiled + updated a list of “all the journalists who have been in some way threatened, attacked or detained while reporting in Egypt. When you put it all into one list, it is a rather large number in such a short period of time”. This list is published here.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has prepared which its own list, which is posted here.

Meanwhile, ABC’s Christiane Amanpour (formerly of CNN) was granted an interview with President Husni Mubarak today. According to reports, Mubarak told her that he wants to leave office — and is fed up after 62 years in public service — but, he said, if he resigns today, there’ll be chaos. Mubarak has, however, demonstrably failed to prevent chaos in the past ten days…

One of the commentors on Al-Jazeera English said tonight, however, that Mubarak said the same thing in 1981, after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Mubarak said then that he was only going to serve one term, in order to restore stability.

Later tonight, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “We condemn in the strongest terms the attacks on reporters covering the situation in Egypt. This is a violation of international norms that guarantee freedom of the press and it is unacceptable under any circumstances”.

Clinton added “We also condemn in the strongest terms attacks on peaceful demonstrators, human rights activists, foreigners, and diplomats”.

She noted that “freedom of association, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press are pillars of an open and inclusive society. It is especially in times of crisis that governments must demonstrate their adherence to these universal values”.

And, Clinton said, “the Egyptian government must demonstrate its willingness to ensure journalists’ ability to report these events to Egypt and to the world”.

, ,

At least 1 out of every 80 Egyptians are already in the streets

UPDATE: Very late at night, after speaking to a special U.S. envoy (former Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner), Husni Mubarak made a pre-recorded statement to the country. He said the protests have been heard, but that he would stay until elections now set for September (he would not run, he said. Mubarak also said he would not leave the country. Two hours later (after another 30-minute post-Mubarak-speech phone conversation), U.S. President Barack Obama said that “An orderly transition must be meaningful, must be peaceful and must begin now” Of course, it all depends on what one means by “begin”, and what one means by “now”… At least one million people were out on the streets throughout the country during the day — estimates ranged as high as 4 million, or even 8 million (one-tenth of the total population)…

Today is the “million-man (+ women)” march, which started in the morning.

Estimates by 10am were that there were at least 500,000 people already in Tahrir Square.

More people are continuing to stream to Tahrir Square, and demonstrators are also moving in other cities around the country.

One said (in an interview posted on Brian Whitaker’s blog, Al-Bab) that if the Egyptian government is satisfied that it is allowing “democratic expression” in Tahrir Square, then the idea would be to move, today, to protest in front of the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis.  The entire regime must go, this man said, not just the government…

The internet was totally shut down in Egypt last night (so much for U.S. President Obama’s call last Friday to turn it back on).