OREBRO, Sweden — When the Arab Spring erupted, Walid Al-Saqaf was determined to help protesters pouring onto the streets across the Middle East, so he pulled up a chair to his office computer in this Swedish city to lend a hand.
Protest leaders and activists in Egypt were complaining that the government had blocked access to Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks that were vital to organizing protests and spreading information.
Al-Saqaf tweeted about a computer program he developed called Alkasir, which means “circumventor” in Arabic. He told people that the program would restore Egyptians’ Internet access despite the government blocks. Traffic to the website that hosts Alkasir soared, and Egyptian protesters were again able to access Twitter and Facebook despite the ban.
“I wanted to prove a point — that you just can’t get away with something like this in the digital age,” said Al-Saqaf, a 41-year-old former computer programer turned journalist. “My response was ‘It’s the internet, idiots. It isn’t owned by any government’.”
Alkasir’s popularity transformed Al-Saqaf into one of the Arab Spring’s unsung heroes. In Tunisia and Egypt, his program proved critical for activists looking to skirt censorship and upload content to blocked websites. It also took off in Syria, where today the country still registers one of the highest number of Alkasir users.
Al-Saqaf's program provides access to blocked websites through an encrypted tunnel that confuses Internet service providers and prevents them from seeing which websites people are looking at.
Activists who used Alkasir say it helped them remained connected during information blackouts imposed by the government.
“Alkasir has had an immense impact helping us to remain connected and to coordinate with each other,” an anti-government Syrian activist, who wished to remain unnamed, told Al-Saqaf in an email. “Thanks to Alkasir, we were able to connect to YouTube … and post pictures and videos exposing some of what the security forces of the regime were doing to the youth, including killings, beatings and the destruction of homes.”
“We were also able to use Alkasir to make Skype calls to ask for assistance and relief,” the person said. “When inspection operations began seeking leaders and organizers of the revolution, the software allowed us to send warnings on Skype or Facebook that security vehicles were approaching a particular neighborhood or street.”
Alkasir was borne out of Al-Saqaf’s own experiences with censorship in his home country of Yemen, which until 2012 was ruled by longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh.
It also marked Al-Saqaf’s evolution from a computer engineer to journalist to cyberactivist.
A computer engineer by training, Al-Saqaf was a reluctant journalist who once dreamed of a career in Silicon Valley. The son of a prominent journalist who founded the country’s first English-language newspaper, the Yemen Times, Al-Saqaf inherited the family business at age 26, after his father, a well-known Saleh critic, was killed in a mysterious hit-and-run in 1999.
He ran the newspaper for a year, but then left for California to pursue a graduate degree that he hoped would aid his Silicon Valley ambitions. That plan got shelved a year later, when the sudden death of his mother forced him to return to Yemen to take over the paper again; the incident left him wondering if a higher power was steering his life towards journalism.
Al-Saqaf moved to Sweden to start a another graduate program in 2006, this time in global journalism. As a class project he founded the website YemenPortal.net, a news and opinion aggregator. The website was a novelty in Yemen — an open platform that brought together a wide range of articles from pro- and anti-government supporters, and at a time when the dictator was increasing his influence over the media. YemenPortal.net quickly became one of the top websites in the country, particularly among young Yemenis.
Its success didn't go unnoticed by the government. Two years later, in 2008, Yemen Portal suddenly went dark.
“I wrote a letter to the minister of information to find out what was going on, but it was disregarded,” said Al-Saqaf. “My phone calls were all neglected. The only path I had was to fight back. Not through violence, but using something that showed a new mindset.”
Thus began Al-Saqaf's cyber war with Yemeni officials, giving rise to the idea of Alkasir.
“I allowed Yemen Portal to be a proxy, because by allowing blocked websites on my website, I served as a proxy,” he said. “So I thought if I’m serving as a proxy in the news sense, I might as well develop a proxy in the technical sense.”
That technical proxy became Alkasir.
For weeks, Al-Saqaf worked from a library at the Orebro University in Sweden, programming and sorting out issues with the Alkasir website. The Yemeni government was aware of Al-Saqaf's cyberactivism and sent proxies of their own to vandalize his car during a visit to Yemen.
Still, Alkasir's popularity began to spread by word-of-mouth through the Middle East, just as the Arab Spring was taking root in 2011. A year later, protests in Yemen led to Saleh’s removal from power.
“You need to challenge authority,” Al-Saqaf said. “If you stay idle or succumb, the world won’t change.”
Al-Saqaf's tips for cyberactivism:
1) Make sure your passwords are long and difficult to guess/crack, but easy enough for you to remember.
(example: IhadaCRUSHonmy30-year-oldteacherwhenIwas14!). Update it often.
2) Encrypt your sensitive emails and files on an external drive (but don't forget your password or where you left the external drive!)
3) Don't share your account credentials with anyone, not even your mother.
4) Never click on links or download files or respond to emails that are too suspicious (a friend had his wallet stolen and needs you to remit funds) or any other message that obviously is too good to be true (You just won $1 million).
5) Never log onto your account on an open network or computer that you don't trust is secure.
Walid Al-Saqaf will be a featured panelist at Fusion’s #Riseup event on Nov. 19.