We will document Egypt's revolution, not dictate the story: AUC professor

Mary Mourad, Saturday 28 May 2011

The head of a volunteer team doing the critical job of collecting the revolution’s documents to display to the public via high technology tells Ahram Online of a few of their glitches and ambitions

"This should be the best documented pivotal event in the history of Egypt," Khaled Fahmy explained as he went on to describe the ambitious project sponsored by the National Library and Archives of Egypt Organisation whose large number of volunteer experts have one aim: documenting Egypt’s January 25 Revolution.

Fahmy, the former professor of history at New York University, current head of the history department at the American University in Cairo authored multiple books on Egypt’s history, including All the Pasha's Men.

Fahmy explained that he was first called by Mohamed Saber Arab, head of Egypt’s national library and archives, around 20 February, soon after Mubarak stepped down, asking him to start planning to document the revolution.

"Egypt's history is very poorly documented. As historians we struggle to find primary resources to guide us on some of the blank spots of history and eventually have to rely on secondary resources and memory," Fahmy continued, "We want it to be different this time. This revolution is a turning point in Egypt's history. We're not changing a ruler; we're changing the game itself, refusing to allow for a political leader that has no connection to the people on the ground and no longer accepting injustice and tyranny. "

The work began by forming a steering committee of historians, political scientists, anthropologists and IT experts. Out of this committee, eleven other smaller committees were formed to gather documents according to source of information: media, newspapers, NGOs, human rights organisations, political leaders, online material etc.

"We do not want to tell the story of the revolution," Fahmy insisted and repeated many times, "We want to gather material that historians and scholars and simple people can then use to tell their versions of the story. The July [1952] revolution documentation failed for this reason: assigning one committee the task of writing what happened can only distort many parts of the picture. Until today, we cannot really tell what happened because all details - other than the official story - were lost. If we tried to prove or refute any of Hassanein Heikal's statements, we would never be able to. We're now trying to avoid all this by collecting everything we know, including oral testimonies, blogs, newspaper clippings, even Facebook status messages and tweets in order to make this a wide library resource for anyone studying the events."

Fahmy explained that this is not an "authentication" project: "We have standard quality control over the materials: there's a specific date, name (resource or person) and location attached to anything we share. But we do not conduct any investigations to prove it right or wrong. Does is sound horrendous? Well, newspapers themselves have been telling lies for years! It's all part of the documentation and we have to accept it. Any scholar using the material will have to write clearly the resource and possibly try to follow it up."

"We're not the only people doing this effort," Fahmy explained, referring to efforts by Bibliotheca Alexandrina, American University in Cairo and other independent bodies that are undertaking similar tasks, "But there are two major aspects that differentiate us: first, a focus on quality, and, second, a focus on the end-user. We're not only concerned with collecting material, but also about storage, retrievability and accessibility in the future when technologies are upgraded. This concern is leading us to think a lot about what we are going to do with the material we gather. Our thoughts about how to divide, categorise, tag and link material are making up a lot of the effort."

The final output is a website: no security clearance required and with open public access. "We need to make it accessible and attractive," Fahmy explained, highlighting that the material will include many photos and videos in addition to the newspaper articles, reports, blogs etc.; all to be text-searchable.

Concerning the timeline of the project, Fahmy shared their latest conclusions: "We are considering starting with when Ben Ali [Tunisia’s president] stepped down until Mubarak's trial for the period of documentation. But this may change! We're in the middle of a very lively revolution and we have to stay flexible as we observe it develop."

According to Fahmy, the value of the project is in that: "History belongs to people. Egyptians need to realise that it's not the ruler who makes history, but their own every day actions do; by digging the dam, building the pyramids and by tilling their own soil. The revolution belongs to the people - not to the state. In addition, we hope that this project will reinstate Egyptians’ rights: their state is answerable to them! They have the right to know, and information should be made available and accessible - not become a sacred right for the [sole] use of the state. We hope this project will help encourage further disclosure and return the archives to their true owners: the citizens."

Ahmed Gharbeya leads the information technology effort behind this project: "We're trying to get more creative this time. The old archiving systems used by the national library and archives is quite outdated and not particularly user-friendly. We're looking into new, web-based systems that enable easy access and are not necessarily more expensive."

According to Gharbeya, and echoing Khaled Fahmy's concern, the real challenge lies in categorising and enabling easy and logical retrieval of the information, which is not only an effort in technology, but also in the thinking behind the project. "We tried to learn from the similar projects such as AUC’s, to avoid mistakes and try to link with others. But we have other problems."

Money and time are the two major challenges. "We do not have a dedicated fund for the project; we're all volunteers and we buy things with our own money as we need them," Gharbeya explained, referring to recording and photography tools just purchased. "Little money is being donated for the website developers and to purchase the needed software or pay experts."

"But I'm not too afraid," Fahmy insisted, "I receive calls every day from people who are eager to volunteer and happy to offer some money, as well, to support the project."

Yet, as time passes – already four months since the Ben Ali stepped down, which is the date the committee is gathering materials from – critical knowledge (memories) may be fading. "There are still many unknowns," Hanya Sholkamy, professor of anthropology, explained during the volunteer training held on 26 May on the national library and archives premises: "We have to start and then solve problems as they come. The real challenge for this project is a logistical one."

The ambitious project has, indeed, many obstacles along the way, not particularly different from the overall difficulties facing the country on the political, social and economic fronts: time, money and management. The hope lies in continuation of the efforts and a focus on the light at the end of the tunnel.

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