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La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
An Interview with Imma Vitelli
Tanna Tarpley, NYU Florence Student
La Pietra Dialogues
February 23, 2012

The current social and political climate of the Middle East has long been a center of some of the more pressing policy questions of the last decade. Now, in the face of the Arab Spring uprisings, we ask ourselves where the future of both North Africa and the Middle East lies and if it is in fact, like President Barack Obama succinctly puts it, “a moment of opportunity.”

La Pietra Dialogues welcomed Imma Vitelli, International Correspondent for Vanity Fair Italy, on February 9th for a dialogue with the Florence community on her new book, Tahrir: I Giovani Ghe Hanno Fatto la Rivoluzione (English translation: Tahrir: Young People Who Have Made the Revolution) and her firsthand, on the field, experience as a reporter in the fragile field of contestation and revolution in the Middle East and North African region. In the dialogue she shared highlights of her nine-year adventure, discussing the revolutionary wave, and providing her testimony to the beginnings of the Libyan revolution.

She spoke of “a common awakening” in her dialogue, one that she witnessed exponentially rising within the citizens of places touched by the Arab Spring. In providing her personal accounts of meetings with revolutionaries, rebels, government officials, and army generals, Vitelli explained the path of such momentum, “there comes a time when people and intellectuals become one.” Consequently, she created a clearer image of the events that have escalated into the current public explosions of demonstration and revolution seen today.

Vitelli used the January 25th revolution in Egypt, when a surprising 50,000 protestors showed up at Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest the rule of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, as an example and continued to discuss the questions and uncertainties still facing many of these countries. She highlighted the power of homegrown revolution and the power of using social networks as a platform for assembly and a medium for revolutionary momentum.

Currently, Vitelli is preparing for her departure to Syria, a country in the midst of civil war and on the brink of social and political transition. When faced with the question of the future of the Arab Spring countries, Vitelli is uncertain, however, of the outcome and expresses hope for opportunity and change during these times of chaos and transformation. At least for now, the future for these countries remains enigmatic.

Here is a transcript of my interview with Imma the morning following her Dialogue:

TT: So, you were out in the field for nine years and then you decided to take a break. Did you always know that you were going to write a story out of your experiences?  How did the story develop or materialize in your mind?

IV: I wanted to write a book ever since I was seven. I was very young. But before you can write a book you need to live, you need to see and you need to understand things. I guess up until now I was never confidant enough, or mature enough, or didn’t feel like I had a voice or a compelling story. To write a book you need a voice and a story. If you just have a voice and no story it just doesn’t work and if you just have a story but no voice to convey it that doesn’t work either. Definitely after those nine years I felt that I had to write this story. And the story I wanted to write was a memoir of the events and then the revolution that soon came. The moment I started interviewing and meeting the people involved in the revolution, I knew that that was going to be my book. I remember interviewing one Muslim Brother and I started to write down in my notebook the outline of my story. I knew right then and there.

TT: In your book you highlight 10 people’s stories. How did you weed out or prioritize your sources?

IV: There were people who were very compelling and even though they didn’t have a major role they ended up in the book. There was a Council of the Revolutionary Youth of these 15 guys, the number varied between 12 and 15 depending on whether there would be more people representing different groups, and there were five groups that organized the revolutions. Eventually these five groups decided to put together a council where each one would send a representative. I set up at the beginning and as soon as I learned during the revolution that there was this council, I knew I was going to interview each one of these guys and I was going to tell the story of the revolution through their own stories. So that’s what I did, I tracked them down, got their names, got their phone numbers and chased after them. So I discovered who did what and there were different guys who did different things and they were all extraordinary. For example, there was this man who I call in my book “The Commander” because he was more the military mind of the movement--- military in a peaceful sense, meaning he was the guy who knew how to secure the square for example. He was one of the leaders of the different marches. They had different demonstrations in different slums in the city; some of them were secret and each of them had a leader. “The Commander” was one of the leaders of the main demonstration-- they all marched at first to one square and then eventually on the 28th to Tahrir Square. There were some very compelling women too. There was only one woman who was in the council; she was a Christian and a psychoanalyst. Seeing a Christian who was a shrink being there, debating with the Muslim brothers, was very compelling and I’ve never seen anything like it. Another woman, a main character, played a role in tweeting in the revolution. When I interviewed her I found out that she wanted to move on her own; but in Egypt, in Cairo, it’s very difficult for a young woman to move out and get a flat on her own because parents normally don’t allow moving out due to tradition; it’s forbidden. She went up to receive a Fatwa, an Islamic edict of ruling and if the Sheikh of this institution signs a piece of paper, if you are a good Muslim, you would obey it. So when her father told her she couldn’t move out she started studying everything in Islam and she couldn’t’ find a single sentence in Islamic literature that said women couldn’t live on their own. Then she went to the office to convince the Sheikh that she could live on her own. At first he refused but then finally said ok. She said to sign the fatwa for her. Which is the most unlikely thing to happen in a conservative place. So she gave it to her father and said she’s moving out! She’s just this great character. So basically some of them were really involved in demonstrating and in organizing the demonstrations and some were really involved in the plotting scene. I tried to find people from different groups. For example, there is a Muslim brother, there are some women, some liberals, some communist---I tried to cover all political spectrums.

TT: You are going to Syria in 10 days, what are you expecting? Do you have any expectations?

IV: Syria is in a civil war, it’s not a revolution; it’s in a different phase. It started as a revolution of different people peacefully demonstrating. This is the way it all happened, people go out and demonstrate, but then the people started getting killed and the more they were getting killed they finally started arming themselves. The way you go into a civil war is complicated because at this stage, which is pretty advanced, you have to unfortunately pick a side. Because if you go in with a Journalist Visa what happens is the Government will assign minders, probably people from the secret service, and they will never leave you alone so you can only cover what the government wants you to cover which means you’re not getting the story because the government lies [… ] The situation on the ground is very fluid. They are on the defensive right now, the army is loyal to Bashar al-Assad. In these kind of circumstances where things are really moving fast on the ground, you do not really have expectations, you just go in, trust in the people you made a choice to work with and then see what happens. It all happens with time.

TT: Are you moving back to the Middle East? How long are you going to be in Syria?

IV: I don’t know. It all depends on what happens. I expect things won’t be moving fast.  It’s very unpredictable. I think the best place to live in the Middle East is Beirut, meaning for a foreigner nothing beats Beirut in the sense that it’s by the sea, you mingle, it’s a diverse city of Christians, Sunnis, Armenians, everybody is there.  There are women in bikinis on the beach and women completely covered in niqabs in the suburbs.  There are the clubs and hotels in the east and then ten kilometeres away you have Palestinian refugee camps. It’s a very interesting place where things always happen because Lebanon shares the border with Israel and Syria and the sea so it’s a country in the thick and in the midst of where everything is happening. And so I think I’m going to be based there, which is rather close and I can hop in and out, but I don’t do just the Middle East. For example, in March I think I’m going to Nigeria to report on a story about the Christians who have been massacred in the last couple of years or so.

TT: The technological boom of social media really has heightened over the last decade or so. Being on the field, what did you witness in terms of the transition to online outlets and mediums like Facebook and YouTube and seeing them play such big roles in the revolution?

IV: It was amazing. It was like going from dinosaurs to kangaroos. It was very fast because in most of those countries the government controlled the press and there were very few independent outlets. Right about the time the war in Iraq started in 2003 the people started blogging. It was just massive; it was this movement of bloggers who took to the web to just vent. And it was the first time they were getting political online. And then they started blogging and blogging, and then taking to the streets. Most of these guys were the people who eventually organized the demonstrations. The real momentum came in 2008 when they suddenly realized that they needed to figure out how to use Facebook. That was really when they started being creative and brainstorming how to politicize this tremendous medium that they had. They had so many connections, they knew so many people online and they wanted to reach out to them and make a point to make them join the cause. They were systematic about them. Some of them made the point to add new friends every week and talk to them about politics; but the big momentum came during the Mahalla strike--it was huge. Mahalla is the biggest textile factory in the Middle East, it has 17,000 workers and the workers just went on strike. And the bloggers were pretty depressed about the way things were going in their country because there was a time where there was an opening for freedom when the Americans first went to Iraq, but when America bogged down in Iraq everybody felt embolden again, they didn’t believe they needed to demonstrate for liberalization anymore because there were talks of democracy, so the governments started torturing them again and cracking down on them and the bloggers in the movement were really depressed. So when the Mahalla strike happened, that actually really galvanized them. They decided they needed the workers on their side. They wanted to know how they could help and politicize them. So it was the workers struggle meeting the youth and asking for political rights, it was a very interesting union. That was the moment when they created that online page where they received 50,000 hits in one day. Then there was this idea of coming to the streets using the Facebook page. This is what everybody has done and it was the copycat effect that went viral. This all really started in Tunisia, but it’s a small country so you don’t really pay attention to what happened or happens in Tunisia. It’s just too small to matter. So when this was done by the Egyptians on such a huge scale, it caught the attention of everybody. Everything went viral. There was this girl who posted on YouTube to join the demonstration on the 25th and millions of people watched it. So they knew they had a powerful ally in the Internet. That’s kind of the way it works; any leap in communication is bound to affect politics. For example, the revolution in Iran, the leap at that time that really had the revolutionaries in Iran, before it turned Islamist, is that they used tapes. No one before used the pre-recorded tapes to send or listen to revolutionary messages or sermons by Khomeini.  It’s very interesting because when you do have a new medium to communicate, things will change fast.    

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