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Tweets from Tahrir: Egypt's Revolution as it Unfolded, in the Words of the People

Egyptians bypassed the Mubarak regime, using online social media to organize and unite against the oppressive forces.

The following is an excerpt from Tweets from Tahrir: Egypt's Revolution As It Unfolded, in the Words of the People Who Made It, edited by Nadia Idle and Alex Nunns (O/R Books, 2011).

The Egyptian uprising has been described as a “Twitter revolution.” It was not. Revolutions do not come out of thin air, or even cyberspace. But the internet provided a tool that helped shape the form of the uprising, and it gave us some of the most riveting real-time coverage ever recorded.

Since the wave of revolts that swept the Arab world starting in December 2010, commentators have struggled to explain a phenomenon none of them saw coming. Searching for a distinctive factor at play, many have settled on Facebook and Twitter, aspects reassuringly familiar to their own lives. In an inevitable backlash, others have pointed out that revolutions happened long before computers were invented.

What has sometimes been missing from the debate is close analysis of what the revolutionaries actually used social networks for. In the case of Twitter it was primarily used as an alternative press. It was a means for those on the ground to report what was happening for the benefit of their fellow Egyptians and the outside world, and a place for emancipating bursts of self-expression.

Of course, the internet was also an organizing tool. Calls for protests and coordination between the different groups that mobilized for the January 25 demonstrations in Egypt, which started the revolution, did happen online. Facebook was the network most suited to the task, where information could be spread to thousands of people in an instant and then shared between friends. This dissemination was far faster than leaflets, with the added benefit that those receiving the messages were already interested and trusted the source.

Planning discussions also took place on Twitter, using the hashtag #Jan25 to enable anyone to join the conversation, and activists talked to each other directly using the @ reply function. Later on, once the revolution was in full swing, protesters used Twitter to announce new initiatives, like marching on the parliament building, and to boost their collective morale with reports of other developments around the country. But Twitter came into its own as a place to report on events. Initially, Egyptians were avid recipients of such reports coming out of Tunisia. Later their own accounts of the Egyptian revolution would help inspire uprisings across the region.

That Twitter was used in this way, for news, was no coincidence. Many tweeters considered themselves “citizen journalists” and made it their mission to get the word out with (usually) accurate bites of information and a flow of videos and pictures. Professional journalists also used the site (some of them like Ashraf Khalil are included in this book) as did more opinion-orientated bloggers. The result was like a company of artists painting a constantly updated picture of events.

The importance of citizen journalists cannot be overestimated in a country like Egypt with a state-controlled media. One of the features of the uprising was the gradual undermining of state TV and newspapers, to the extent that journalists began to resign as the public saw the ludicrous coverage for what it was. Also instrumental in this process was the contrast provided by transnational satellite TV channels like Al Jazeera, whose reporting was often influenced by information and footage coming from citizen journalists on the ground.

The activists on Twitter were not only talking to their fellow Egyptians but to the international media and the world. They went to great lengths to get online during the five-day internet blackout, when their tweets could not easily be read by other Egyptians. By telephoning friends abroad to upload their tweets, pooling their resources to get on to the one remaining internet service provider in Egypt (the one used by the stock exchange), or offering interviews to news organizations in return for access to their satellite internet connections, activists managed to ensure that the regime could not cut them off from the world.

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