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Egyptian Noha Atef Shatters Silence on Police Torture

Blogger Demonstrated Coolness Under Pressure, Smart Tactics, Strategy and Vision


By Katie Walsh
Class of 2011, School of Authentic Journalism

May 19, 2011

Noha Atef, a 27-year-old Egyptian woman and ardent Muslim, launched a blog in 2006 that gave a public, human face to police torture in Egypt. Following her work, the issue became a core tenet of mobilization against the Mubarak regime and remains a growing part of civil discourse in that country and beyond.

Sitting on the edge of the bed opposite hers, the relentless afternoon sun beaming through the window and filling the space between and around us with a thick and heavy heat, I marveled at what seemed to be a forbidden sight. Noha had removed her hijab. A long and beautiful dark brown braid fell down her neck.


Noha Atef introduces herself at the school’s inaugural dinner. DR 2011 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky.
With a smile, a fiery resilience and a knack for elegantly matching the traditional Muslim head scarf with her daily garb, Noha seems like an unlikely individual to take on a police state. But she has a long history of surprising the world around her.

In 2006, Noha came across a startling report issued by Al Nadeem, an NGO in Egypt, detailing women’s testimonies of brutality and torture in police stations. That report inspired her to create TortureinEgypt.com.

In an unprecedented move, Noha linked incidents of torture with the pictures and personal details of the officers who’d committed them. A number of other people’s struggles, like the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, have used this “naming and shaming” strategy effectively to embarrass the establishment. But Noha was the first to apply it to police torture in Egypt. Her daring bulldozed through a longstanding taboo.

“Through her own fearlessness, [Noha] helped tear down the wall of fear of these police,” said Al Giordano, founder of Narco News and of the School of Authentic Journalism, where Noha serves as a professor. “When a 20-something woman starts posting policemen’s photos … and those around her see how unafraid she is, it becomes a lot easier for them to be unafraid.”

In her first year of blogging, Noha made the short list for an international reporters’ award and, through her blog posts, aided in the release of a man who had been unjustly detained and tortured for 13 years.

Noha’s bravery inspired others in Egypt and the world. As they followed in her footsteps and also began blogging about torture, she had in effect helped break down the barriers against resistance within and beyond her country’s borders. Not only had she dragged torture out from the shadows of silence, she had also helped to transform the tone of the discourse.

While previous resisters wrote in bitter and radically negative accusations, Noha’s blog was objective, factual and, at times, even tongue-in-cheek humorous.

“She’s an in-the-closet comedian,” smirked Noha’s School of Authentic Journalism colleague, rooming buddy and friend Katie Halper, herself a standup comedian. “She brings a light-heartedness to torture, which sounds impossible. Not in a dismissive way, but she manages to make you want to listen even though it’s about an unsettling topic.”

Noha flattered “brave policemen,” for example, linking her words to examples of their past offenses. She also used the element of surprise, throwing jokes about torture into the otherwise grave coverage.

She’s also put to work a number of other creative tactics for increasing awareness of and interest in police torture. The blog once featured an online game developed by Amnesty International, wherein players try to escape from police officers who are abusing them.

Noha worked with a friend in 2008 to develop Piggipedia, a community-driven Flickr database of roughly 500 pictures of officers who have committed torture. It now has more than 80 members, including victims who have used the site to find and recognize their abusers and other watchdogs contributing new images and information.

Last summer, Al Nadeem formed a task force and asked her to create a map of torture crimes in Egypt, TortureMap.info. Her blog served as an archive for the map, already having divided the incidents by location with carefully assigned tags.

Her short, to-the-point posts on TortureinEgypt.com are broken up with mixed media like songs, pictures, videos and cartoons, engaging her readers and broadening their understanding of the issue.

And, as a skilled communicator, Noha knows how to present and disseminate her work to make an impact. TortureinEgypt.com was written in her audience’s language, both literally (while the blog is mostly in Arabic, she began adding content in English as readership spread) and in the sense that she’s able to present complex and convoluted legalese in a clear and simple way.

As Facebook and Twitter increased in popularity, she used these and other social media platforms to push new posts through several digital channels. Offline, Noha shared her experience at in-person workshops on resisting and reporting on torture. She delivered a presentation with Giordano at the Tufts University Fletcher Summer Institute on civil resistance in 2010.

She also has built a community around her blog. When she couldn’t dig up information on an offending officer herself, Noha opened the search up to her readers, almost always finding the information through their comments and tips.

She began acting as editor of the site when readers were compelled to contribute their own content. And over time, the general attitude toward reporting torture crimes completely shifted.

“I could feel this. When I first started, victims would not say publicly that they were tortured. They’d ask me to use initials or a fake name,” Noha said. “But in the last year, three torture survivors contacted me and not only wanted to share their story with me, they started their own blogs.”

The State Strikes Back

Standing up to the regime didn’t come without consequences for Noha. Within the first months of starting her first professional job at a prestigious international news agency, her boss pulled her aside.

“He told me, ‘You are just a child, you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re not conscious of how dangerous this is, you are bringing problems to us.’” She was fired, and later learned that her boss had written a report about her for state security, with claims that she was urging her colleagues to be against the regime.

One day, her father got a call from state security, calling her down to headquarters.


Atef performs stand up comedy with 2010 graduate Katie Halper. DR 2011 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky.
“It’s quite a notorious and horrible place. The typical scenario is that women will be at least sexually harassed,” Noha said. “I know my dad didn’t sleep. I didn’t either. I would be lying to you if I told you I was relaxed. I was not.” Nonetheless, she carried with her an unwavering faith as she entered the offices the next day.

“I had a feeling: this will end up with no loss. I believed that I would win them, I was sure of this,” Noha said. “What I’d been doing was defending justice. We Muslims have 99 names for God, one of them is “justice.” God is justice. I’m doing something for the sake of the people.”

She was not abused in any way at the state security headquarters. Noha shook the officer’s hand, joked with him and even asked for a cup of tea. Dignified, seemingly unfazed, she disarmed his attempts to intimidate her.

“He wanted to give me this impression, to let me know I was being watched,” she recalled.

As Noha told me the story, her body language suddenly transformed and I could see why Halper calls her a “great mimic.” She launched into a convincing imitation of the officer, sitting back in his chair, leafing through her file, aloof and condescending.

“‘We know everything about you, more than you could imagine,” she said in an affected drone. “Tell me again, where were you working? But no, you were doing very bad things…”

The officer produced the report her boss had written about her and even showed her the picture they had on record.

When they found Noha to be unshaken by their scare tactics, the security police moved their focus to her father, prompting her to stop blogging for a time in 2007.

An hour after she ended the brief hiatus with a new post, the police called and demanded that the two of them come to headquarters late that night. They had full knowledge that her aging father was diabetic, had heart problems and would struggle even to traverse the premises.

“I went first, and this time I yelled at [the officer], ‘Do you think this is an act of bravery bringing my dad here?’” Noha said. “He yelled back. ‘I didn’t harm you, but if I want to I can.’”

Noha wouldn’t post again until the following year.

Everyday People Power

One can only speculate on why Noha wasn’t hit with more severe retaliation from the police, but it’s worth noting that she has maintained a very real, genuine and visible self image.

“She’s a regular, real person,” Giordano said. “She’s not shouting the same slogans as everyone else. She’s doing real investigation and sharing information in a way that helps open and change society. Everyday people can relate to that.”

An observant Muslim and hard worker, Noha is a respectable member of Egyptian society, which perhaps offered her some protection. She had built an interesting dynamic with the officer on her case, who had often called “just to chat” between and after her visits to headquarters. Most of the time, she put on a cheery voice and entertained the calls.


Atef inspires colorful head coverings among colleagues at the 2011 School of Authentic Journalism. DR 2011 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky.
“I know that Noha’s presence is 100 percent sincere, but it doesn’t hurt that she also has a flair for theater,” Giordano said. “There’s a dignity with which she carries herself. If you’re not being hostile toward human beings in uniform, but give them the space to be more human, you’ll get that response.”

Noha built a following on her blog and gave several on and offline interviews, where she was transparent about her identity. At the same time, her talent was recognized in her professional career. She went from writing anonymous stories credited to the news agency to a column in a private newspaper, complete with photo and byline. She had become a well-known figure, one who would not be detained or abused without notice.

“They’d think twice before they harmed me because if people heard that an Egyptian blogger who was writing about torture was arrested, it would affirm that it exists,” she explained.

As we talked, with Noha lounging on her bed, propped up on one elbow and fingering the sash of her jean jumper dress, a serene softness replaced the ferocity in her eyes from time to time, and she often broke into a wide smile.

“Some people think I dedicated my life to torture, but I’m just like any other person,” she said. “I go out with friends, I spend time with family. I listen to music. I think I’m enjoying my life.”

Revolution as a State of Mind

When Noha’s work began, she set specific objectives to reach a certain number of people and to increase general awareness of torture, fortifying the people’s will against it. She worked diligently and strategically toward her goals, and in July of 2010, having found them all achieved, she posted her last update to TortureinEgypt.com.

“Writing about torture systematically was my biggest achievement,” Noha said. “It’s no longer random [in Egypt] and then you forget about it. Now people can develop it in other places.”

And they have. In addition to the many victims and citizens who have joined her in exposing torture in Egypt, Noha’s blog inspired a young American girl to create TortureinUganda.com while working for an NGO there.

But she hasn’t walked away from the work of standing against systematic injustice unscathed.

“There’s something left of these experiences,” she said, averting her eyes as the softness returned. “I believe I should have taken more care of myself. As a human being, you have ups and downs. I never lost hope, but I didn’t maintain the same amount of passion all the time either. I wondered, ‘Will I feel this way when I’m older?’”

She flipped over onto her stomach and began gesturing with her hands.

“I had some bad times. I talked to a professor, Aida Seif El-Dawala, who founded a center for the rehabilitation of torture victims. She told me, ‘Don’t be harsh with yourself. This is normal. If we were just all the time, we would get drained. If you feel that you need a break, take a break.’”

Just six months after her last post, protests against Mubarak’s regime broke out in Tahrir Square, and 18 days later he stepped down from a 30-year reign.

As Egyptians became more aware and vocal about state abuse against civilians, the space for civil resistance against the regime opened up dramatically. Police torture was among the driving factors of the revolution.

“Obviously many, many people were responsible for what happened, but no less so was Noha Atef,” Giordano said.

What Noha brought to the world stage was more than just torture resistance, more than just a voice that, along with many others, helped spark a revolution in Egypt. She displayed a courage that inspired others to stand up to their own fears and to seek change.

In a recent interview with Netzdebatte, the blog of the Federal Center for Political Education in Berlin, she hinted at an even larger implication for a rapidly changing world: “We cannot say that the Egyptian revolution started on January 25, 2011, and ended on February 11, 2011, because a revolution is a state [of mind] more than an event.”

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