Interviewer: Jillian York

Mohamed El Gohary is an open-knowledge enthusiast. After majoring in Biomedical Engineering in October 2010, he switched careers to work as a Social Media manager for Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper until October 2011, when he joined Global Voices contracts managing Lingua until the end of 2021. He now works for IFEX as the MENA Network Engagement Specialist.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.*

York: What does free speech or free expression mean for you?

Free speech, for me, freedom of expression, means the ability for people to govern themselves. It means to me that the real meaning of democracy cannot happen without freedom of speech, without people expressing their needs in different spectrums. The idea of civic space, the idea of people basically living their lives and using different means of communication for getting things done right through freedom of speech.

York: What’s an experience that shaped your views on freedom of expression?

Well, my background is using the internet. So I always believed, in the early days of using the internet, that it would enable people to express themselves in a way for a better democratic process. But right now that changed because of the decentralization of online spaces to centralized spaces which are the antithesis of democracy. So the internet turns into an oligarch’s world. Which is, again, going back to freedom of expression. I think there are ways that are unchartered territories in terms of activism, in terms of platforms online and offline, to maybe reinvent the wheel in a way for people to have a better democratic process in terms of freedom of expression. 

York: You came up in an era where social media had so much promise, and now, like you said about the oligarchical online space—which I tend to agree with—we’re in kind of a different era. What are your views right now on regulation of social media?

Well, it’s still related to the democratic process. It’s a similar conversation to, let’s say, the Internet Governance Forum where… where is the decision making? Who has the power dynamics around decision making? So there are governments, then there are private companies, then there is law and the rule of law, and then there is civil society. And there’s good civil society and there’s bad civil society, in terms of their relationship with both governments and companies. So it goes back to freedom of expression as a collective and in an individual manner. And it comes to people and freedom of assembly in terms of absolute right and in terms of practice, to reinvent the democratic process. It’s the whole system. It turns out it’s not just freedom of expression. Freedom of expression has an important role, and the democratic process can’t be reinvented without looking at freedom of expression. The whole system, democracy, Western democracy and how different countries apply it in ways that affects and creates the power of the rich and powerful while the rest of the population just loses their hope in different ways. Everything goes back to reinventing the democratic process. And freedom of expression is a big part of it.

York: So this is a special interview, we’re here at the IFEX general meeting. What are some of the things that you’re seeing here, either good or bad, and maybe even what are some things that give you hope about the IFEX network?

I think, inside the IFEX network and the extended IFEX network, it’s the importance of connection. It’s the importance of collaboration. Different governments try to always work together to establish their power structures, while the resources governments have is not always available to civil society. So it’s important for civil society organizations—and IFEX is an example of collaboration between a large number of organizations around the world—in all scales, in all directions, that these kinds of collaborations happen in different organizations while still encouraging every organization in itself to look at itself, to look at itself as an organization, to look at how it’s working. To ask themselves, is it just a job? Are we working for a cause? Are we working for a cause in the right way? It’s the other side of the coin to how governments work and maintain existing power structures. There needs to be the other side of the coin in terms of, again, reinventing the democratic process.

York: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you want to mention?

My only frustration is where organizations work as if it is a job, and they only do the minimum, for example. And that’s in a good case scenario. A bad case scenario is when a civil society organization is working for the government or for private companies—where organizations can be a burden more than a resource. I don’t know how to approach that without cost. Cost is difficult, cost is expensive, it’s ugly, it’s not something you look for when you start your day. And there is a very small number of people and organizations who would be willing to even think about paying the price of being an inconvenience to organizations that are burdening entities. That would be my immediate and long term frustration with civil society at least in my vicinity.

Who is your free speech hero?

For me, as an Egyptian, that would be Alaa Abd El-Fattah. As a person who is a perfect example of looking forward to being an inconvenience. And there are not a lot of people who would be this kind of inconvenience. There are many people who appear like they are an inconvenience, but they aren’t really. This would be my hero.