On October 13, longtime SecDev Foundation contributor Ahmad Hegab was recognized by Mozilla as one of its “Rise 25” open-Internet pioneers.
A digital pioneer itself, Mozilla was founded in 1998 to promote free software and open Internet standards. The Rise 25 awards mark Mozilla’s 25th anniversary, recognizing “25 game changers—artists, activists, creators, builders and advocates—who are shaping the future of the internet to be more ethical, responsible and inclusive, ensuring a positive future for all.” The Mozilla Foundation presented the awards at a ceremony on October 13 in Berlin.
Mozilla selected Ahmad Hegab in its Rise 25 Activist category. For nearly 20 years, the Egyptian-trained engineer has been promoting digital safety among at-risk populations. He’s done that as a trainer and advocate as well as at the policy level. Along the way, Ahmad has become a recognized male voice against digital gender-based violence. Today, he is a key contributor to the Foundation-supported Salam@ program, which promotes digital resilience—focussing on women and girls—across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
The SecDev Foundation’s Chief Storyteller sat down with Ahmad to discuss his Mozilla Rise 25 award and the path that led him here.
Our conversation with Ahmad
SecDev: So how does a young engineering graduate in Egypt turn himself into a globally recognized voice on digital safety and gender-based violence?
Ahmad: I was working 9 to 5 as an engineer, but it actually started with photography. This was back in 2004, and I was freelancing and showing some of my work on this brand-new service website called Flickr. And when people started leaving comments, I’d follow them back to their own websites, and found people writing all kinds of things. This was before social media, but I found this amazing new (to me) world of blogs.
So at some point, I decided to start my own blog. This was my first time with a space to write anything out loud. So I started writing about things I’d faced during my childhood in Egypt. Personal thoughts. Social issues. Eventually, thousands of people were coming from Gulf countries every month to read my posts. Some of my articles got republished by Egyptian newspapers, and even by the BBC and CNN.
And then the hacking started. This was around 2006, 2007. It was happening to blogging friends in different countries: photos and blog posts would just disappear. We didn’t know why exactly, or who was behind it, or how. But we started to look into what we could do about it, so we could keep writing and sharing. And for me, this urge to have a safe, open Internet started to grow.
SecDev: You moved pretty quickly from having that “urge” … to putting yourself out there as a frontline digital-safety advocate.
Ahmad: There was an international project … a collaboration between some small tech NGOs. Basically a set of how-to guides and tools for digital safety, and it was being brought into Arabic. And I wanted to take this material and introduce it to people.
I was working 9 to 5 as a telecom engineer. And I had studied how the Internet works, how mobile works. So it was easier for me to understand this stuff than most people. And I just started to have open workshops, and more and more people would come. By 2009, organizations were hiring me to do digital safety training, and everything grew from there.
SecDev: What about gender-based violence? How did this become such a central focus for you? Especially as a man.
Ahmad: When I was blogging, I’d write about violence against women that I’d seen in the MENA region. That was in 2006, and many people didn’t even seem to recognize violence against women and children. And it seemed to be embedded in the culture somehow that if, say, the head of a family is harming a child or a wife, the community doesn’t engage. And that, for me, was horrible.
During the uprisings in 2011, there was a lot of gendered violence happening. I didn’t face violence inside my own family, but seeing this as a “normal” thing in the community made me keep writing about it. And I continue writing about it. And as I got into digital safety, I saw gender-based violence moving into the online space.
In 2007, I’d added a tab on my blog with some digital safety tools. Open source tools. A safe chat application. Password advice. We didn’t have a lot back then: we didn’t even have free antivirus apps! And through the blog, I really saw the connection between gendered violence and digital safety. Women would come to read my posts and comment. And if someone experiencing digital violence needed help, I could point her to those tools. And my engagement with digital GBV work just expanded from there.
SecDev: You promote male engagement to eliminate gender-based violence. You’ve delivered workshops, trained trainers, designed policies for NGOs… You co-founded Egypt’s first nationwide male-engage campaign. Talk to us about male engagement?
Ahmad: In 2013, I started working with HarassMap in Egypt, and I so was engaging all the time on sexual harassment. And when talked to anyone about sexual violence—in universities or on the street—we always tried to have a team with both male and female volunteers. We found people would respond differently. They would see that, okay, this isn’t just a woman saying she wants something; there’s a man here saying there’s something we all need to change.
Then I started doing workshops for men to open up about violence they faced. Because violence is like a circle. It’s mostly men doing it, but they’re also doing it to boys and other men. If you see the leader of a family doing violence, he’s affecting everyone. He’s hurting everyone, and also normalizing the behaviour. And what was surprising for me was how many men in these workshops “got it” and wanted to join the fight alongside women.
I worked with a lot of men: more than 2,000. From sports, from teaching, from NGOs. Ordinary people like Uber drivers. For most, it was their first time talking about male violence because of this cultural pressure to not talk—to not show weakness. So we gave them a space to talk, to express their feelings. And it was so emotional!
I’ve become a kind of mentor for different groups and people. With HarassMap, at one point, I was managing 800 volunteers, including in universities. A lot of medical and engineering students. Many of them are working now all over the MENA region or in Europe. And many are still connecting with me for advice. Like… “A 15-year-old girl came to the hospital today and she’s pregnant—what should I do? Should I report this somewhere?”
Every day, men are still reaching out. And I’m glad to help as a volunteer. But it reminds me how far we still have to go. The questions…they often come because there’s no policy to lean on, or anywhere else to go.
SecDev: This keeps coming up in Salam@s GBV research. In many MENA countries, there are huge gaps in policy and law that could help protect women from violence.
Ahmad: Salam@’s research is helping us understand what we need policies to achieve, and how. And yes, I’ve been involved in the policy side for a long time. At HarassMap, we helped 10 of Egypt’s public universities develop anti-harassment policies. Cairo University was the first, and they set up a special unit to implement it. We also worked with them to train volunteers, faculty and staff. We also worked with Uber—and there’s a good story here!
I was helping Uber Egypt develop policies and training manuals on sexual harassment. There was nothing at all in the Uber manuals. And one day I was in the U.K. attending a male-engage workshop, and people started congratulating me for our big partnership with Uber Global. And I was like, “no, no, this is a small thing in Egypt.” But it turns out that Uber had just put out a press release, and they ended up adopting parts of our policy worldwide.
What’s amazing is that definitions of sexual harassment we developed in Egypt were effective in a place like India. Creating definitions is really important. When you give something a name, you can see it—and only then can you really build it into policy and laws. We did a lot of that with HarassMap, and definitely with Salam@.
SecDev: So let’s talk about Salam@. It’s a milestone MENA program for SDF, and you’ve played a key role. What do you see as Salam@’s biggest legacy so far?
Ahmad: Salam@ took digital safety and gave it to average people. Almost 40,000 so far—especially women and girls, through training and clinics and so on—but also millions more through public awareness. Before Salam@, in many of these countries, digital safety was a niche thing. Something for human rights defenders and fragile NGOs. In each country, there might be three or four specialists to help. Well, Salam@ helped create thousands of experts.
We did that through localization. That means empowering local people to carry the work forward. It also means adapting to local realities, including local dialects. If you want to build a culture of digital resilience, you need to bring ideas into everyday language. That’s why our awareness campaigns in Tunisia look different from our campaigns in Jordan or Morocco.
Everything digital is moving faster and faster. Faster phones, scrolling screens. Faster digital attacks. And so you need faster responses. Nobody’s slowing down to find an expert to help them set up two-factor authentication or whatever. Salam@ is spreading the tools and knowledge through ordinary people. So if you need help, you can ask your sister or son, and someone’s going to know how. These days, ask a teacher, a doctor, a supermarket cashier… and they will probably know about 2FA because of Salam@.
SecDev: Salam@ is full of success stories. Is there one you find yourself sharing with people most often these days?
Ahmad: One of our big goals was to empower female digital-safety advocates and trainers. I trained more than 50 women myself. Many came to us knowing nothing about digital safety. But many of these women are now among the experts in the regions. And that group is growing because trainers are now training trainers.
In Jordan, some of them worked with UNICEF to train 700 refugees. That wasn’t even part of our programming, but because of Salam@, they were able to step in. They’re reaching outside their own countries too. For example, someone came to us looking for a safety trainer in Yemen, but we hadn’t worked there, so we referred someone from Tunisia to do it online. And the curriculum and slides we built made it easy for them.
That’s important. You don’t just train people and let them go. We gave them our resources too. Advice on how to localize and personalize. Ongoing mentorship. You asked about Salam@’s legacy. But really, you want to help people start their own legacy. When they do, they take ownership. It’s not yours anymore. They take it, rebuild it, make things work. It was the same thing with Salam@ national coordinators—local people—we hired in seven countries. With mentorship and resources, but their local knowledge, they’ve made Salam@ work.
SecDev: Mozilla just named you one of its Rise 25 honourees. What does it mean to you to be recognized among “the innovators who are shaping the future of the Internet?”
Ahmad: It’s a great honour, of course, coming from Mozilla with their work on giving the Internet to normal people. And what it really means to me is that I played on some great teams. Because you can’t build any of this by yourself. That’s what’s great about Internet culture: it’s all collaboration. I’ve had great mentors who gave me a lot of time and information and patience. I’ve learned from our teams working not just in MENA but in Southeast Asia and Eurasia.
So for me, this award is for the great people in Salam@ and SecDev and HarassMap. And it’s for everyone who helped save someone from violence, in a remote area, or a city, or anywhere. When you teach digital safety and resilience, you are literally saving lives, especially in more conservative countries. Women are literally losing their lives because of faked pictures and misinformation that goes online.
I see these awards as a recognition for the journey. The digital citizenship, the journalism, the blogging … having online spaces to express yourself … it all leads somewhere. It doesn’t matter that it comes after so many years. The awards are a reminder that if you choose to help others, it will repay you somehow. And if you ask any of the 25 recipients, I bet they’ll all tell you some version of the same thing. The “repayment” is that feeling of seeing people using this new digital world to make their lives better—safely, and in ways they couldn’t before.