Censory Overload: How a reluctant journalist used his software skills to aid the Arab Spring
January 26, 2011, was just another cold winter day in Sweden, where I attend graduate school. I returned to my office from a coffee break to dozens of e-mails saying that the websites of Facebook and Twitter had been blocked in Egypt, apparently in response to massive demonstrations the day before in Tahrir Square, calling for the end of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The activists there desperately needed a way to bypass censorship. I sat down at my computer and did my best to get the word out about software programs that would help them, including my own.
This was a long way from where I began, but in a sense, I’d also come full circle. When I graduated from Middle East Technical University in Ankara in 1998 I’d returned home to Yemen, eager to start a career as a software developer. But my father had other plans for me.
The man others referred to as Professor Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf (1952-1999) had just marked the eighth anniversary of his founding of the Yemen Times, the country’s first English-language newspaper. He launched the paper the same year North and South Yemen joined to form a single country, led by the fearsome Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Saddam Hussein crony who was the longtime leader of the north.
My father and I did not have much in common. A Harvard alumnus, my dad had remarkable communication skills and a vast network of contacts across the globe; I wasn’t very sociable. He courageously exposed corruption and injustice, while I tended to distance myself from politics. As much as I hate to admit it, I was scared of confronting anyone in uniform. I did admire his bravery—yet I also felt he was constantly putting himself and the paper at risk. I was selfishly set on a career in Silicon Valley, while he was struggling to help his people.