Alya El Hosseiny

Alya is the most modest revolutionary I’ve ever met. Not that I’ve met that many.

She was introduced to me, by one of her friends, as a young activist who had done some protesting in Egypt, and who was involved with the revolution there. I asked her a few questions over email, as I did with all of the folks I spoke to for this piece; she mentioned that she often communicated with other activists through Twitter. Then I found her Twitter. And I realized that I had been speaking with the first girl who tweeted #jan25. This would be the Twitter hashtag that protesters used to communicate with one another about the massive series of protests this year that kicked off the Egyptian revolution itself. That revolution was aimed at ending the corrupt and abusive regime of President Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled for 30 years, and it succeeded—but not before Egypt blocked Twitter and Facebook in an attempt to quell the rising tide of protest.

When Alya sent out that first tweet, protests were already being planned. She only linked to information about it: “ over 16000 of us are taking to the streets on #jan25! join us: #egypt #tunisia #revolution,” the tweet read. It was retweeted by only two other people. But the #jan25 hashtag picked up steam, and became a way for activists to communicate and keep track of one another’s activities—while also providing a way for outsiders to watch the revolution happen in real time.

“At the time,” Alya told me, “my main channel of activism was talking to people about protests; I talked to my classmates at uni, and to shop owners, taxi drivers, etc., and tried to persuade them to join the protests. I’m not sure the tweet impacted much, beyond providing the hashtag. I mean, that’s important, because it gave us a handy way to stay updated about people joining, police crackdowns, etc., but it would’ve eventually happened without my tweet.”

I asked her what inspired her to get involved. “I grew [up] hearing about police brutality and torture, about workers’ strikes, about imperialism and what can be done to counter it,” she said. “Getting involved was always the next logical step. But I think a lot of it is also growing up as a shy, nerdy girl. I read a lot, and I learned to value education. I spend a lot of time online, and I like to read up on feminist issues, for instance. I learned to look critically at the reality around me.”

Looking critically at reality, and acting to change it, has carried some very high risks. “My family has always been supportive, but they worry about me. We had a ‘no going to protests alone’ rule, which effectively kept me from getting involved in some things I’d have liked to be involved in. A rule like that does make sense in Egypt, though, where police can arrest you at any time and no one would know about it,” she said.

“The revolution, which started in January, has been a reward beyond anything I dared dream of. It’s not perfect, and to tell you the truth, we’ve still got a long way to go before it’s over and we can have a safe, free country. But it has opened up a horizon of possibilities I’d never thought I’d see. It has inspired me to get more involved, and now I can see my activism changing the world around me in little ways. I truly believe these little things have the power to effect real and lasting change.”