Seven years ago, protesters gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for 18 days, forcing the resignation of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. Last month, on the anniversary of the Egyptian uprising, activists released a new online archive of the revolution.
The 858 archive is a vast collection that documents famous and tragic events as well as more mundane ones—a collage of scenes and moments that add up to an incomplete but rich and moving people’s history. Activists have worked for years to make this material free in every sense.
The archive draws its name from the number of hours of video available upon its creation—though it is designed to allow more material to be added. The members of the anonymous collective behind the archive, whom Al-Fanar Media interviewed by email, chose not to identify themselves, both for their personal safety and to emphasize the collective nature of the project, which does not belong to anyone. All respondents here are referred to as 858.
The archive is a challenge to the current Egyptian regime, which has arrested many of the activists who led the protests and has rewritten the recent history they made. In the current official version, the Arab Spring was a foreign and/or Islamist plot; protesters were misguided if not downright seditious; and the police and the military have never committed human-rights abuses but only did what was necessary to defend order and the authority of the state.
The disparity between events on the ground and the official narrative was a great impetus to the original effort to collect video of the revolution. During the 18 days of protest in Tahrir Square, activists set up a Media Tent, where they collected video evidence of state violence against protesters.
The footage was collected under the principle of creative commons. “The first people to deposit footage during the 18 days knew that in the future the archive would share their footage openly, nonprofitably, and in the service of what the people in the square were fighting for,” wrote 858.
In February 2011, soldiers and police officers attacked protesters, and the activist video collective Mosireen was created to document the abuses. Its work was a continuation of the Tahrir Square Media Tent. Mosireen’s offices became a gathering point for videographers, video journalists and amateurs who wanted to deposit footage; the organization also held meetings and workshops across the country for individuals and associations interested in documenting and archiving the revolution.
The organization held street screenings of material that was not being broadcast by the Egyptian and international media. At these screenings, organizers would both gather video and distribute it to anyone who was interested. The work was a way of pushing back against official denial and narratives that insisted that the violence against protesters was their own fault.
The Mosireen group is the main force behind 858, although they emphasize that hundreds of people have donated footage and contributed technical assistance. The activists always felt that it was important to safeguard the footage they were collecting, and always planned on making it available as widely as possible.
“Though we always understood the relevance of the archive, it became even more valuable once we saw history being rewritten by the military regime after the coup,” wrote 858, referring to the ousting of the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013 and the military takeover that followed. “Today, what people have of the revolution is often found in their memory: we debate and lament over what we experienced, what we saw, moments of empowerment or discouragement. Making raw footage publicly accessible can validate or undermine that memory, or even more importantly is a chance to engage with an event that doesn’t need to rust in our own collective minds. We believe that the regime and especially the police are still very shaken by those two and a half years of revolt and rehashing the existence of that time is a major thorn in their side.”
The 858 site is hosted on the open-source platform Pandora, and allows viewers to search footage by time, location and keyword. (A similar project based on the same platform, bak.ma, initially focused on the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul and then expanded.)
At times, wrote 858, the project of gathering, indexing and making publicly available this enormous amount of material seemed “so big that it would ultimately be beyond our capacity.”
“I think we’ve always known that the archive ultimately requires the capacity of much bigger, better-funded organizations,” noted one member of the group. “In a dream world, which might yet come, the archive would be hosted openly in Egypt and be accessible through libraries, universities and beyond.”
In the age of YouTube, this archive is still necessary, say its creators, because it makes its material available in a format that is uncensored, unedited, and in which the viewer’s experience is “not being capitalized upon.”
The archive was accessed 15,000 times in its first 24 hours, mainly by viewers in Cairo. 858 said they have received many offers to donate footage, as well as offers of technical help.
The artist Kaya Behkalam has used some of the footage in his Augmented Archive project, creating an app that allows viewers to point their smartphones at particular locations in Cairo and view footage of protests, violence, buildings on fire and street art that has since been painted over. It uncannily re-creates the double vision one experiences today in many spots in Cairo, as one remembers powerful events that took place not that long ago, but that seem effaced today.
The 858 collective emphasize that they cannot know—and do not wish to control—the ways in which the archive is used in the future.
“Making things public, accessible, open, transparent, shareable—these are central qualities not only of the revolution, but of the wider drives of what we could broadly call The Left,” wrote 858. “And they are the opposite to the regime’s fundamentals of secrecy, limitation and obfuscation. Releasing things publicly is about having faith in people and in the future and about accepting the limits of what you are able to do. We did the collecting, the indexing and so on. But we can’t see even a fraction of the possibilities that are contained within this material.”