Books

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.

The fact that Hosni Mubarak’s regime took the step of blocking the internet, despite the millions of dollars lost to the economy, is a testament to the fear it provoked among the rulers. This is where commentators who seek to downplay the role of social media come up short. Their argument that social upheavals happen periodically, and that a great many have been very successful without Twitter, is obvious. But every revolution is different, shaped in part by the technology available to those who make it and those who try to stop it. Soon after printing presses became widespread in England, the English Civil Wars of 1642–51 happened. There was lots of discussion and hype about the role that popular pamphlets from agitators like “free-born” John Lilburne were playing. The government’s response (both that of Charles I and later Oliver Cromwell) was censorship. The same thing has been repeated ever since. The tactic does not always work, but those in authority would not try it unless they thought it might.

In Egypt it did not work. By the time the regime blocked the internet on January 28 it had already lost control. While the internet was down the most decisive battle occurred between protesters and the state’s security forces on January 28 and a Million Man March was held on February 1. The revolution was already tangible, it was escalating spontaneously. There was no need to organize events online because people were spending every day face to face on the streets. The demands and tactics of the revolution were being determined by the spontaneous chants of the people.

There is a certain arrogance to the lazy Western description of a Twitter revolution. It excuses commentators from seeking to understand the deep-seated causes of the uprising – the brutal economic reality for the majority of the population, the imposition of neoliberal policies reducing job security and suppressing wages, the lack of opportunities for educated young people, the sheer vindictiveness of a Western-backed dictator as expressed through his police gangs.

It ignores the role of the urban poor, many of whom literally placed their bodies between tyranny and freedom on the front line. For the unemployed and those living on two dollars a day, Twitter and Facebook were the last things on their minds.

It ignores the role of the organized working class which had been striking since 2006 and whose refusal to go to work in the days before Mubarak resigned finally removed the last plank from under his regime. And it ignores the years of thankless work by the very activists who made such good use of Twitter during the uprising and whose words fill this book. They had been mobilizing, forming groups, and holding small protests in the face of police brutality since at least the year 2000, but the world had hardly noticed. And they are still doing so now, as the revolution continues to unfold.

There is a clip on YouTube of a young Californian woman being asked about events in Egypt in a vox-pop. In her account the protests happened because the Egyptian government blocked the internet. She got the entire causal relationship the wrong way around. But she was not so far away from those who say that Twitter and Facebook are the reason for the revolts.

The Arab uprisings would not have happened at the speed and in the manner in which they did without social media. That we can say. And the way in which the revolution is seen in the West, in the Arab world, and even within Egypt would be very different if we had not been able to hear from protesters and see the action so directly.

But the revolution would not have happened at all without the Egyptian people deciding enough was enough and putting their lives on the line for justice, dignity, and the hope of a decent future.

THE SPARK

...as the Tunisian revolution inspires the Arab world

Gsquare86 Gigi Ibrahim
The Tunisian revolution is being twitterized...history is being written by the people! #sidibouzid #Tunisia

ON FRIDAY JANUARY 14, 2011,Tunisia’s dictator of 24 years, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, was forced from power after weeks of unprecedented popular protest. An electric shock zipped through the region. It had begun when Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit seller from the town of Sidi Bouzid on the Mediterranean coast, set himself on fire on December 17, 2010. Bouazizi’s story resonated with millions living under corrupt regimes – humiliated by the state, unable to make enough money to survive, he finally snapped when police officers spoiled his fruit, confiscated his weighing scales and beat him up. He went directly to the local governor’s office and, when nobody would see him, doused himself in petrol and set himself alight. He died 18 days later.

Protests flared up in Sidi Bouzid and soon spread to the Tunisian capital. Bouazizi’s actions were the catalyst, but the depth of Tunisia’s problems was shown as all sections of society, from labor unions to lawyers, joined the revolution.

Things were changing in the Arab world. Power structures that had been fossilized for over half a century were now confronted by a young population with few opportunities and endless frustrations. In Egypt conditions were ripe for an uprising. The country had its own high-profile testimony to appalling state brutality – the killing of Khaled Said, a young man who, according to witnesses, was beaten to death in public by police in June 2010, his head slammed against the marble stairs and iron door of a building and his body dumped by the roadside. His family said he had been targeted because he had video evidence implicating police in a drug deal. In response, a Facebook page was set up called We Are All Khaled Said. It provided a rallying point for Egypt’s youth.

The formal opposition parties to Egypt’s 30-year president, Hosni Mubarak, had failed. Now new activists were to the fore, emerging from solidarity with the second Palestinian intifada of 2000, protests against the Iraq War in 2003,and the wave of strikes that had gripped Egypt since 2006. These events had given rise to a spectrum of social movements from the anti-Mubarak Kefaya (“enough) group formed in 2004, to the April 6th Youth Movement, inspired by a textile strike in the town of Mahalla that was violently put down by police in 2008, to the Revolutionary Socialists with links to the workers, to the reformist National Association for Change associated with Mohamed ElBaradei, launched in 2010. All these groups coordinated online.

With new technology the old regime had lost its control over information. The Tunisian revolution was watched in Egypt and across the Arab world, not on state TV but on satellite channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. People no longer had to read stifled accounts in the state-run newspapers when they could go on the internet and hear from Tunisian protesters directly through social networks.

Gsquare86 Gigi Ibrahim
The Tunisian revolution is being twitterized...history is being written by the people! #sidibouzid #Tunisia
17:28:11 Jan 14

Gsquare86 Gigi Ibrahim
BEN ALI LEFT just confirmed through Aljazeera
19:25:19 Jan 14

tarekshalaby Tarek Shalaby
VIVA LA REVOLUCION!!! RT @SultanAlQassemi: MY GOD! MY GOD! This is AMAZING.
19:27:12 Jan 14

tarekshalaby Tarek Shalaby
WE WILL FOLLOW! RT @SultanAlQassemi: Tunisians are the heroes of the Arab world.
19:29:27 Jan 14

Gsquare86 Gigi Ibrahim
goooose bumps alll over ..i can’t believe i lived through an arab revolution !! thank you #Tunisia
19:43:40 Jan 14

amuchmoreexotic Ben
I don’t understand how the people of Tunisia overthrew their government without me signing an e-­petition or changing my Twitter avatar.
20:49:01 Jan 14

mosaaberizing Mosa’ab Elshamy
Dear people watching Arabs Got Talent, there’s a better show going on called Tunisia’s Got Freedom. Watch that.
21:02:46 Jan 14

TravellerW Mo-­ha-­med
Tonight some ppl will go to bed thinking ”I helped free my country today”. #Tunisia’s activists & demonstrators, we salute you.
00:59:10 Jan 15

ManarMohsen
A Facebook event for a revolution in Egypt: http://on.fb.me/ hQioSl. Don’t forget to RSVP. (“Maybe” if you’re still unsure of your schedule).
19:21:27 Jan 15

Gsquare86 Gigi Ibrahim
The black and white days are coming, there is no grey
15:00:42 Jan 16

Gsquare86 Gigi Ibrahim
A MAN IN #EGYPT SET HIMSELF ON FIRE CHANTING AGAINST STATE SECURITY IN FRONT OF PARLIAMENT AT 9:00 AM TODAY #Sidibouzid #Revolution attempt?
10:40:52 Jan 17

3arabawy Hossam
people r setting themselves on fire. I suggest they burn down police stations and torture factories instead.
10:58:21 Jan 17

Gsquare86 Gigi Ibrahim
Is this true a 3rd person lights himself on fire at parliament for the 2ND TIME TODAY!?! #Egypt #Sidibouzid
13:03:28 Jan 18

norashalaby Nora Shalaby
I think it is time for Mubarak to set himself on fire. He is the one who really deserves to burn #egypt #fuckmubarak
13:57:35 Jan 18

Gsquare86 Gigi Ibrahim
There is nothing that #Mubarak can do now to prevent the madness that will end his regime..IT WILL HAPPEN THIS YEAR!! #DownWithMubarak 2011
16:05:36 Jan 18

monasosh monasosh There is something incredibly sad abt ppl setting themselves on fire in a fatal hopeful/desperate attempt to be heard!
19:15:45 Jan 18

Gsquare86 Gigi Ibrahim #Jan25 I hope we can get over the logistics and just take to the streets in masses all over #Egypt
22:28:35 Jan 20

monasosh monasosh
Did we finally settle on a tag for 25th of January?
16:41:11 Jan 21

Gsquare86 Gigi Ibrahim
I still haven’t decided from which place I will be tweeting live coverage on #jan25, if u have a suggestion DM me
22:26:57 Jan 21

monasosh monasosh
What time should we be in the streets tomorrow #jan25?
09:57:06 Jan 24

Sandmonkey Mahmoud Salem
For when and where the revolution will be and other improtant info, go here http://bit.ly/Jan25egypt
21:51:18 Jan 24

Ghonim Wael Ghonim
Despite all the warnings I got from my relative and friends, I’ll be there on #Jan25 protests. Anyone going to be in Gam’et Dewal protest?
22:13:48 Jan 24

monasosh monasosh
Scared, excited and hopeful #Jan25
23:30:48 Jan 24

TravellerW Mo-­ha-­med
Yes, I’m worried about tomorrow. Which is exactly why I am going -­ we cannot, will not let them scare us. #25Jan
01:07:10 Jan 25

Gsquare86 Gigi Ibrahim
Tomorrow will be what we make it to be, so let’s make it an up-rise the police can’t forget #Jan25
02:26:40 Jan 25

Alex Nunns is a British journalist and activist. Nadia Idle is an Egyptian activist who was in Cairo during the protests.