Egypt's revolution hones its skills

Tamarod demonstrates the ability to converge technological innovations and maintain the public's trust and attention.

    Egypt's revolution hones its skills
    A protester holds a poster that says, "Tamarod, the end of the Muslim Brotherhood's regime," in Cairo, June 30 [AP]

    Since Mubarak's dramatic toppling on February 11, 2011, Egypt has been centre stage in most discussions, theoretical and methodological, on the role of social media in political communication and dissent. There is no shortage of treatments on the topic from the popular press to scholarly writings. In just two years, notable manuscripts have been published that tackle every aspect of these online activities.[1] And while most of these address this question from complimentary perspectives, they are nevertheless confined to actions in the past rather than developments in the present or what might be anticipated in the future.

    With Egypt on the eve of another dramatic showdown between the pro-Morsi groups and swelling numbers of dissenting demonstrators, it would be valuable to examine how this movement, known as "Tamarod" (Rebellion), adopted and innovated previously employed communication strategies.

    New media scholars and prognosticators alike have become seductively attracted to the technologically determined view that the Egyptian revolution is byproduct of portals like Facebook and Twitter. Unresolvable hypotheticals such as "would there have been a revolution in Egypt without Facebook?" and proclamations such as "January 25 would have been just another day if it weren't for 'We are all Khaled Said'" abound.

    The problem with this logic is not its desire to determine the correlation between cyberactivism and mobilisation, but rather its disregard for the experiential dimensions of online action and the contextual conditions that precipitate dissent offline. Once the hoopla subsided and the jubilation ceded, the pervasive queries that remained became purely strategic and operational. How can a successful online campaign go offline? What distinguishes a community of activists from slacktivists? When do people choose to move their dissent from the keyboard to the boardwalk?

    As early as the days of the April 6 Movement in 2008 when they created an online platform that popularised and expanded the reach of and solidarity with Mahallah's striking workers, the social media have been perceived as a deliverer for political dissidence. Shortly thereafter, ElBaradei ran a virtual political campaign from a Facebook page and later rallied to gather petitions to amend Mubarak's constitution.

    This was followed by the Khaled Said Facebook page's influence from the summer of 2010 up to the January 25 protests. Capacity building from peaceful silent stands to online collective and participatory action to break the spiral of silence was the desired goal. The use of social media portals as tools for the dissemination of ideas, ideology, perspective, and calls to action reached a small yet growing minority of the technologically-savvy, engaged, and largely middle upper class segment of Egyptian society. It also converged seamlessly with a disparaged transnational Egyptian diaspora which amplified the messaging beyond the territorial geography of the state's jurisdictional control.

    Once collective action spilled onto the streets, the second prong of the social media platforms served to document, archive, collate, and distribute widely what happens in a single locale to a global audience online. Over a span of two years, from 2010 until the middle of 2012, the ability to deploy dissent, document collective action, and then package it for amplified dissemination has become increasingly sophisticated, almost to the point of becoming homeostatic.

    Few protests, small or large, are spontaneous and sporadic, even fewer are not documented using audiovisual recording, and an even smaller proportion don't make their way onto a Facebook page or a Twitter posting. While this has rendered "cyberactivism" a standardised practice of collective action, it has also inadvertently led to a highly busied online environment filled with sometimes incoherent and inconsistent messaging.

    With all the attention afforded to Egypt's activist community, from global media's use of the Twitterati as informants, interlocutors, and recipients of international funding to support capacity building and scaling up of social media operations in human rights campaigns, communities of cyberactivists in Egypt have become celebrities. Even in Egypt's topsy-turvy political environment, activists have seen their local public image and visibility increase dramatically over the past two years as the country's state and private media provided them with a platform express their views, motives, and convictions.

    By the summer of 2013, many of Egypt's activists who rally and organize demonstrations, stands, and strikes both in the streets and institutionally, have crossed over into the terrain of online organizing. Few do not use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and other portals to disseminate their messages and document their experiences and efforts. This digitisation of Egypt's protest movement far exceeds that which existed ahead of the eighteen days of protest in January 2011.

    Internet penetration numbers, while shoddy, hover near the forty per cent mark, a dramatic increase over the past year. To reach this growing digital intelligentsia, government offices, cabinet members, politicians, and everyone of considerable influence uses the social media to distribute information and influence public opinion. The president's office, like its predecessor SCAF, often issues press releases and statements on Facebook before they are made public on television and print press.

    With this growing space for political expression - and despite its polarisation between pro-Brotherhood, opposition, and unaffiliated activist - the capacity to organise online has been heightened significantly. Hundreds of protests and strikes occur across the country every week with most of these utilising social media as a platform for engagement, mobilisation, and documentation. Those activities that court or attract public figures tend to see their capacity magnify and their participation increase. However, digitisation has not been a magic bullet for much of Egypt's protest movements as the risk of becoming disconnected from the ground and the entrapment within an echo chamber of like-minded communities online can threaten the viability and longevity of these groups. In a country full of societal enclaves and constituencies with varying degrees of connectivity, it is no longer sustainable for a protest movement to exist in one sphere and not another. 

    Shirky's nightmare, Gladwell's blindspot

    Now that the debate between Clay Shirky and Malcolm Gladwell over the role of social media in the Arab uprisings has grown both outdated and inconsequential, we are in a position to unpack utility without dogmatically obsessing over whether one technological innovation or another should be credited with a revolution. But it may be best to historicise the incapacitation of both perspectives, in a most abridged fashion. Shirky's argument about the impact of social media, which had been a pervasive explanatory tool, fell flat on its head when on the eve of January 28 2011 when the Egyptian government shut down the Internet for five straight days and mobile communication for a whole day.

    Not only was the protest movement sustained, it grew in size and expanded in geographic reach. Following these five days of disconnection, upon the return of the Internet, Egypt's social media platforms were flooded with content documented throughout that period. And while one could rejoice in the soundness of Gladwell's position that the revolution did not need the social media, the return of the web kick started another phase in that it converged all platforms and discourses of dissent to create a behemoth movement. This movement functioned in tandem both online and offline and with the growing widespread support of television which expanded the reach of the activists' messaging.

    Today and on the eve of the June 30 protests, which promise to be the largest protests in Egypt's history, and if projected numbers (the campaign claiming to have gathered 22m petition unique signatures) are to descend, this could be the largest protest in recorded history, the discussion of online and offline dynamics abounds. It would be critical to examine how this campaign, largely intent on unseating President Morsi, utilised various communication channels at its disposal and the extent to which its appeal is a product of its strategic messaging and choice of mediated approaches.

    As opposed to most protest movements in Egypt since the uprising against Mubarak, which follow in the footsteps of "We are all Khaled Said" and often begin with the creation of a Facebook page and building a following online prior to attempting community outreach, a new movement that began in May known as Tamarod (Rebellion) went about mobilisation differently. This is largely a result of having witnessed the difficulty of rallying public opinion to recognise the crimes committed by the military during the SCAF-led transition.

    During the 18 months of military rule under SCAF, and with public opinion about the armed forces extremely favourable, the men in fatigue committed grave violations against the rights of Egyptians. In a short time period in 2011, they detained 12,000 civilians with unlawful military tribunals, oversaw virginity tests against women protesters, and killed scores of activists in the Maspero, Mohammed Mahmoud, and Cabinet sit-in incidents. Despite these violations, Egyptians still had an overwhelmingly positive view of the military establishment.

    To interrupt this obliviousness and to challenge the military's monopoly on Egyptian consciousness, a campaign known as Askar Kazeboon (Military are Liars), came about to bridge dissonance between cyberactivists and the public at large. The approach adopted by Kazeboon was to screen collated video content demonstrating the military's brutal attacks and violations against human rights in public areas across the country. By crowd sourcing projectors and distributing these videos online, each community of activists organised their own screenings in cities and towns. In just a few months, these screenings amounting in the thousands.

    Perhaps one of the most successful revolutionary campaigns to date in Egypt, it didn't take too long before Kazeboon successfully reduced the disparity between public opinion in the streets and online as antinomy towards SCAF's conduct became increasingly consistent on either side of the digital divide. Tamarod's predominantly street-level campaign therefore combines inspiration from two petition drives - one in support of Saad Zaghloul in 1919 and the other led by ElBaradei's in 2009 and 2010 - as well as the best in contemporary community advocacy such as Askar Kazeboon.

    The Islamists' perennial advantage has been their outreach within working class communities across the country and their sophisticated and integrated online platforms. By contrast, much of the non-Islamist revolutionary groups and opposition parties have been notoriously underwhelming in their offline mobilisation, with the exception of having produced a widely resonant message ahead of the January 25 uprising and a few other instances in the past two years.

    Nevertheless, this outreach tends to be limited to metropolitan urban areas and produces temporary engagement rather than sustained organisational loyalty and affiliation. For this reason, with non-Islamist parties having been dealt a blow at every electoral process since the toppling of Mubarak, of which there have been plenty, grassroots outreach strategies have been imperative. Many of these have attempted to marry offline and online components with varying degrees of success.

    It is within this milieu that Tamarod began as a campaign to revolt against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi on the one-year anniversary of the beginning of his presidential term. I will not discuss here the impetus of this campaign or its legal legitimacy, as this is available more comprehensively elsewhere. Nor am I concerned here with the motives, strategies, or appeal of Tamarod's supporters and adversaries. Instead, I wish to shed light on the communication strategies utilised by the campaign.

    Tamarod has learned from the Kazeboon campaign by focusing primarily on the communities not serviced by social media and digital technology. As part of a two-prong collective action effort, Tamarod did the counterintuitive thing by starting with a paper petition campaign to gather signatures from Egyptians across the country that demand an early presidential election and other demands articulated clearly by the campaign. The second component is to build momentum towards a massive protest on the first anniversary of Morsi's presidency to create popular pressure to see through their petition demands.

    Most Egyptians are suspicious of the police, security, and intelligence agencies and tend to be guarded and protective of their identifications, particularly when it comes to political dissent. So when Mohammed ElBaradei and the Muslim Brotherhood collaborated to gather one million petition signatures in early 2009 to demand an amendment of the constitution and the election law to allow opposition candidates to run for presidential elections, it was considered a challenging and colossal undertaking.

    Egyptians were reluctant to sign their names to a document of this kind for fear of retribution from state's institutions. Three years later, Tamarod has not only invited Egyptians to sign their support, they are also asked to do so by providing their national identification numbers, thereby registering their dissent against the Muslim Brotherhood publicly. Despite this hefty expectation, the campaign's spokespersons claim to have gathered 22 million unique signed forms on the eve of June 30, a number that far exceeds the total voters for Mohammed Morsi in the presidential election run-off.

    Even if the total number of petitions signatures were half of the declared number, they would still amount to ten per cent of the Egyptian population, a dizzyingly large number collected largely through traditional canvasing and on-foot campaigning. As for the Tamarod's online platforms, unlike social media-centric campaigns, their Facebook page is unusually underwhelming, its followers are under half a million (similar to the number of followers of "We are all Khaled Said" Facebook page ahead of January 25 2011 but a considerably small number for a political campaign post-Mubarak), and the number of signatures collected online constitute a negligible contribution compared to the paper forms.

    Even as their two month effort comes to a crescendo with protesters, for and against Morsi, spilling into the streets of Egypt in an unprecedented show of populist mobilisation, the offices of Tamarod are still filled with uncounted petition forms. On the eve of the massive protests of June 30, while watching the tens of thousands stream towards Tahrir Square, Egyptian cartoonist Andeel sacrastically commented: "What we are witnessing today is a defeat of Facebook and Mark Zuckerbeg and a thunderous triumph for Xerox!"

    Depoliticised Politics

    One of the paradoxes of the Egyptian revolution and politics at large is the pervasion of suspicion of political partisanship. Organised politics and hierarchy have become anathema in an environment which privileges unaffiliated representation at the expense of systematised tiered political structure. The disenchantment with political representation explains the overwhelmingly dissociated nature of the protests during the 18 days in January and February 2011.

    It is also the reason by the growing popularity of once unknown candidates like Hamdeen Sabbahi. It is also one of the reasons behind the growing disparagement with political process that manifests in the form of dwindling voter turnouts with every election round. It also among the reasons behind the once glowing perception of the Muslim Brotherhood as do-gooders in society through their charitable work and later their vilification as a party intent on consolidating power and serving their political interests.While this may seem quite satisfactory and acceptable in other countries given the Freedom and Justice Party's glowing electoral successes and can easily be considered part of the realisation of a mandate, in Egypt the broad range of voters who supported Morsi in the elections quickly disowned him as he began to cater to his party's agenda.

    It is this precise impulse which rendered the "We Are All Khaled Said" campaign a success at galvanising the public. Both Wael Ghonim and Abdelrahman Mansour actively avoided politicising, ideologising, or polarising their discourse on the Facebook page to avoid fragmenting support and disaggregating solidarity that crossed all lines and rendered Mubarak a common adversary. While this may be seen as a form of political naivete that later disadvantaged the revolutionary youth, it was a necessary rhetorical tool to avoid splintering, disparity, and critique from one constituency or another.

    Having witnessed this process, the young activists behind Tamarod attempted to replicate this success by producing a discourse that is adversarial to President Morsi and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood while avoiding alienating any single individual group. By some accounts, in their desire to standardise their discourse and avoid any alienation, they have aggressively attempted to control their message through sanctioning slogans, asking protesters to not carry party flags or images of political figures, and avoided dismissing the participation of any one group. While this has given them an extremely large platform of support from across the opposition party's political spectrum, it has also drawn criticism.

    By not refusing any petitions gathered by any parties, including those known to have connections with Mubarak's now-defunct National Democratic Party, Tamarod has been accused of reconciling with the corrupt and dictatorial past. Political parties of every stripe have collaborated with Tamarod to gather petition signatures rendering this a cross-cutting campaign. While not politically subsumed by any one current, ideology, or party, Tamarod is nevertheless functionally political and prone to partied co-optation.

    It is not uncommon for the campaign's spokespersons to disavow any connection to or affinity for popular political figures but their work inadvertently, if successful, creates possibilities likely to be advantageous for established party platforms and personal mores than the core group of unaffiliated activists that conceived of Tamarod. Yet throughout the campaign's seminal two-month push, the core team regularly dismissed any action or expression from political figures in their name.

    This is quite possibility the most successful criterion which inadvertently created room for Ahmed Shafik and other old regime supporters to have their political legitimacy and possibility resuscitated. While this is both a strategic success and failure, it is nevertheless ethically unsound to advocate for a new egalitarian, representative, social justice oriented, pluralistic, and incorruptible political future while accepting to be courted by those whose immediate lineage contradicts this vision. It is not unlike the Muslim Brotherhood's language of unity, tolerance, and non-violence, while narrowing their proximity to more conservative and radical Islamist groups whose commitment to their principles is shoddy at best. 

    While similar attempts to destabilise the government of Morsi by the political opposition in November and December of 2012 following his constitutional declaration and pushing forward of a polarising constitution to referendum, Tamarod's visibility and ingenuity has already produced a far more wide-reaching consensus without becoming embroiled in party politics.

    Anonymity vs Recognisability

    It is no coincidence that the official spokespersons for Tamarod - such as Mohammed Abdelaziz, Mai Wahba, Hassan Shaheen, Eman El-Haghy, and Mahmoud Badr - are all under the age of 35 and with no prior public visibility whatsoever. Functionally, Tamarod seemed to have emerged out of the blue. At a time of political standoff and polarisation between the government and opposition and with the latter occasionally unified but most frequently at odds, it was necessary for the movement to begin with a political blank slate.

    Having learned from the anonymity of the anti-Mubarak protest movement throughout 2010 in the run up to January 2011, Tamarod tried to appropriate the defensibility of unfamiliarity. The anonymity that rendered many cyberactivists insulated from admonishment and critique, while unnecessary in the post-Mubarak period, remained instructive to Tamarod's outreach.

    For Tamarod to consolidate support from across the political spectrum against Morsi's presidency, the campaign fielded spokespersons and representatives to the media who were unrecognisable. With no prior political presence, the absence of any lineage immunised them from ad hominem attack and rendered them ahistorical. Had this campaign been led by prominent political figures such as members of the National Salvation Front or party personalities, it would have been an easy target to deconstruction, demonisation, and vilification on accusations of political opportunism and or partisan populism. 

    This was a critical decision in the post-Mubarak activist sphere where increased expression online and offline translated into heavy activity and traffic but coupled with decreased trust and a growing crisis of harmonisation. Few movements not centreed on the cult of personality were able to replicate the wide-reaching appeal of the Mubarak-era dissidence. This dynamic was further aggravated by consecutive instances where disparity between the digital and analog spheres of political expression appeared to be at odds.

    For instance, in the run up to the March 19 2011 referendum on constitutional amendments, online polls confirmed that over 70 per cent of potential voters would vote against the motion. On the contrary, with advocates of the affirmative, primarily from the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist political groups, choosing to campaign offline rather than online, the vote was overwhelmingly in their favour by a similar margin of 77 per cent. This was a stark reminder of gaping disparity between online and offline sentiments the glaring disadvantage of cyberactivism at reaching offline communities.

    To overcome the problem of trust in political expression, engagement, and mobilisation, two distinct strategies seemed to suffice - personality-based outreach and ideational outreach. The prior strategy was employed largely by political figures like Hamdeen Sabbahi, Mohammed ElBaradei, and Hazem Salah Abou Ismail. Conversely, ideational outreach strategies that made their mark include Emsek Foloul, Askar Kazeboon, and various Ultras groups to name a few. Despite the relative success strategies at building online and offline community spheres, their capacity was often limited by either their narrow objectives and goals or their heavy reliance on celebrity status to draw adherents and supporters. Tamarod fashioned its work to resemble campaigns that focus on ideational outreach.    

    Yet, in an Egyptian political milieu, both actual and virtual, characterised by diversion, polarisation, and cacophony, for a campaign like Tamarod to reach and successful garner the endorsement of millions of citizens, it had to be publically unaffiliated, egalitarian, focused, and defiantly unified.

    Mediated Convergence 

    From the outset of the Tamarod campaign, its spokespersons have crafted a careful and coordinated media blitz that crosses all platforms simultaneously. In its first two weeks, they made their rounds on virtually every private television network talk show to discuss the motives behind their campaign, its clear and concerted objectives, as well as its strategy and execution. In addition to the narrative and rhetoric of the campaign, the markedly wide visibility of the campaign on satellite television had an instrumental role in increasing public familiarity with it, suggested it had widespread support, and further galvanised the Egyptian public to participate in it compared to previous efforts of the kind.

    Having logged tens if not hundreds of hours of television time, the spokespersons for Tamarod have built a startlingly successful brand for the campaign that posited them in opposition to Brotherhood representatives across platforms. In an attempt to undermine Tamarod, Islamist groups supportive of the president congealed a campaign - part formal, part parody - called Tagarod (Emptiness) to gather petitions in support of Morsi. While half-hearted, poorly conceived, reactionary, and with limited reach, the campaign failed to pose a threat to Tamarod.

    Yet one of the greatest advantages for Tamarod has been its ability to inspire popular cultural expression that advocates its message. Countless songs have been written and performed by both notable and amateur artists advocating participation in both the petition campaign and the ensuing protests on June 30. Countless rap songs were released in the past two months including Mahmoud Haggag's Tamarod, another by Wara2a B-100, and Lebesna Khazook (We were impaled) by Magic Ft. Safari. Other tracks from different genres include one that was recorded to sound like a military anthem.

    Poet Amr Katamesh wrote a poem called Tamarad which was recorded and sung by Shady Abdelsalam and Rana Ateeq which was turned into a street performance in support of the petition campaign. Popular higher production songs were also composed to push for participation in the June 30 protests, such as Inzel (Come down) by Toba and Baha'a Sultan. While most of these songs were posted online to varying degrees of success others have found their way onto television screens as private satellite channels with outright hostility towards the Brotherhood chose to air them. It was these television networks that served as the most influential medium used by the campaign to increase their overall audience footprint to reach most Egyptian households.

    In addition to the musical production and television interviews that were deployed in a short few months to support the Tamarod campaign, mediated content included widespread graffiti drawn and posted across the country announcing the protest date to entice public involvement. Most of such artwork that uses public space as a canvas for the expression of dissent coupled persuasive messaging with targeted criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood. These served as a pervasive supplement to other advertisements for the campaign in the form of banners, posters, leaflets, street art, performance, street theater, dance, and other forms of expression.  

    One of the many innovations to support the campaign is a free Android app called Tamarrad (Rebel) developed by Nader Habib of UPFRONT Interactive which garnered over 10,000 downloads, a four-and-half star ratings, and 428 reviews. The game, which allows players to select from a female and male avatar tasks the player to collect Tamarod petition signature, forms while avoiding running into sheep (the colloquial and condescending term used to describe Muslim Brotherhood supporters) and avoiding roadblocks. With every collision with a sheep, the player loses petitions and the game prompts the player with infamous quotes for Morsi's speeches. Elsewhere online, communities of cyberactivists have mass-produced memes that call on people to rebel on June 30.

    With Tamarod's campaign, a nebulously disaggregated collective comprised mostly of young people disenchanted with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, starting mostly in the streets and public places, it became imperative that the effort not be perceived as belonging to the bourgeoisie elite that dominate activist groups online. Once a wide platform of support, recruitment, and mobilisation was secured in every city and governorate in the country on the ground, the campaign's online reach served as a supplementary platform to help disseminate information, build further capacity, communicate between and behalf of campaign supporters, and build consensus across geographic locales.

    Initially, Tamarod used the most pervasive communication technology in the country, the mobile phone, to attract supporters, coordinate with members, and most peculiarly to respond to public queries and criticism. The phone numbers of each of their local representatives were made available and readily shared on television networks, radio broadcasts, leaflets, petition forms, newspaper articles, and online.

    Having won wide legitimacy in the Egyptian street and garnered millions of signatures, not only was the campaign taken seriously, so did its online presence which became an increasingly important service for those trying to keep up with latest developments. The Facebook page became a news provider that offered campaign-related information as it unfolded and used to rally supporters ahead of June 30. In fact, with the first protests erupting a couple of days prior to the day and following Morsi's dramatic speech on June 26, the official Facebook page as well as affiliated regional pages began reporting from the scene of the protests.

    In the end, and irrespective of the outcome of Tamarod's now substantial movement of dissent, it can already be deemed a success by virtue of its unprecedented outreach and message tailoring. While there are definitely problematic aspects to the campaign, especially given its scope and reach, despite these, it has helped demonstrate the ability to converge technological innovations, combine ideological perspectives, and maintain the public's trust and attention in the face of ardent criticism, skepticism, and occasional absence of conviction in the cause.

    Not unlike other movements, it is likely to splinter and disaggregate over differences of opinion, motive, and strategy. Yet, if the protests that materialise on June 30 match the prognostications and estimates, this once small movement with an inconceivable objective of toppling an elected president will have precipitated the largest single protest to date. This was never the motive of the campaign. Rather it serves as a reminder that whatever incapacitations and obstacles existed throughout Tamarod's effort, it's an exemplar of how Egypt's revolutionary movement in three years has transmogrified to attenuate a more complex, adaptable, and inventive output with every new iteration.

    In comparison to similar campaigns worldwide, Tamarod stands to be one of the most successful ever, having garnered colossal engagement in a record time period. All this was done while inspiring a spontaneous eruption of popular dissent that promises to eclipse even the 18 days in 2011. While this success deserves to be acknowledged, it should rightfully raise suspicions and concerns about what could be done with all this political capital and bring forth queries about whether Tamarod was facilitated, sponsored, or propped up by such authoritative institutions as the military or security services. As Egyptians descend into the streets in the hundreds of thousands if not millions to couple their petition signatures with corporeal representation, it remains too early to resolve these questions. For now, we can only stop and marvel at how agile, energetic, imaginative, and resilient Egypt's revolutionary current has thus far proven to be. 

    [1] These include Faris' Dissent and the Revolution in the Digital Age, Gerbaudo's Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism, Castells' Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age, el-Nawawy and Khamis' Egyptian Revolution 2.0: Political Blogging, Civic Engagement, and Journalism, and Iskandar and Haddad's Mediating the Arab Uprisings to name just a few.

    This article first appeared on the website Jadaliyya.

    You can follow Jadaliyya on twitter @jadaliyaa

    Adel Iskandar is a scholar of Arab studies whose research focuses on media and communication, based at Georgetown University. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of several works including Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism, Edward Said: A Legacy of Emancipation and Representation (University of California Press), and Mediating the Arab Uprisings (Tadween Publishing).



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