Sunday, July 17, 2011

bqfp publishes tweets from tahrir

Tweeting the Tahrir revolution

On February 7 the Egyptian tweeter and blogger Sandmonkey (actually 29-year-old Mahmoud Salem) tweeted: “A revolution organized by facebook, spread by twitter and organized by a guy working for Google. I LOVE OUR REVOLUTION.”

Sandmonkey issued his tweet on the day Google executive and internet activist Wael Ghonim (30) was released after 11 days of being held blindfolded in detention. Ghonim had been seized on the day after the uprising started. His detention had led to a vigorous campaign in Egypt and beyond demanding his release.

On his release Ghonim gave an emotional interview to Dream TV, which made a considerable impact. It emerged that he had been among the anonymous administrators of the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said”.

The page was set up in memory of a young man who was publicly beaten to death by police in Alexandria June 2010. He was reportedly targeted because he had recorded on video evidence of police involvement in a drug deal. The “We are All Khaled Said” page became a vital engine of the revolution when it circulated calls for the first demonstrations.

Certainly the social media has played a vital part in the revolution. A fascinating record of the use of Twitter is provided by the book “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.

The book is published in the Middle East and North Africa by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP). Its editors are young activists based in Britain. Nadia Idle, who is half-Egyptian half-English, is the Activism and Outreach officer at the anti-poverty charity War on Want. Two weeks into revolution she decided she must fly out to Cairo and join the action. Alex Nunns is a writer, campaigner, musician and political editor of Red Pepper magazine.

The foreword is by Egyptian-British novelist and essayist Ahdaf Soueif, who was in Tahrir Square during the revolution. “Without the new media the Egyptian Revolution could not have happened in the way it did,” Soueif writes. “The causes of the revolution were many; deep-rooted and long seated. The turning moment had come – but it was the instant and widespread nature of the new media that made it possible to recognize the moment and to push it into such an effective manifestation.”

Twitter, with its real-time messages of up to 140 characters, was citizen journalism at its most immediate and rawest. Idle and Nunns aim to present a “readable, fast-paced account of the Revolution that gives a sense of what was being said on Twitter.”

The tweets are displayed eight to a page, in chronological order. The narrative also includes some of the photographs circulated by tweeters, including several by the journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy who tweets under the name 3arabawy.

The editors have left the tweets just as they were, complete with misspellings, swear words, and imperfect grammar. The stream of tweets adds up to a cumulatively powerful and moving testimony. The courage, spirit and good humor of people persisting in the face of violence and authoritarianism, sometimes putting their lives on the line, is awe-inspiring.

The book’s 21 chapters are arranged chronologically, each introduced by a summary of the main events covered by the tweets in that chapter. The first chapter, “The Spark”, covers the period between January 14 – the day Ben Ali left Tunisia – and January 25, the Day of Revolt. The first tweet was sent by Gsquare86 (the Twitter name of Gigi Ibrahim) on January 14: “the Tunisian revolution is being twitterized...history is being written by the people!”

Each chapter that follows covers a day, from January 25, the National Police Day holiday, when demonstrations were called across Egypt, up to February 11 when Mubarak resigned, and February 12 when the people embarked on an impressive cleaning up of Tahrir Square. After the news of Mubarak’s resignation ManarMohsen tweeted: “Who did this? WE did, the people. Without guns. Without violence. Rather, with principles and persistence. Mabrouk, everyone!”

The hashtag #jan25 was used throughout to identify tweets related to the revolution and is still used today, for example in relation to the fresh protests in Tahrir Square. The book’s epilogue has tweets from the revolts inspired elsewhere in the Arab world after the baton of revolution passed from Tunisia to Egypt.

On January 28, the Day of Rage, the internet was blocked when the government ordered internet service providers and mobile phone operators to shut down. The editors recount the events of that particularly violent day, on which hundreds of people died across Egypt.

The absence of tweets due to the internet shut down of that day is represented effectively by two black pages. Although the internet remained shut down for four more days, some tweeters found ways to skirt round the blockade and got online.

The tweets vividly recreate the events and mood of the revolution. On January 25 ashrafkhalil tweeted that “police and protesters in tahrir all gagging on tear gas”. On Bloody Wednesday, February 2, the security forces were remobilized in plain clothes and were joined by thugs paid to attack demonstrators. There was the notorious cavalry charge of thugs charging through the crowds on horses and camels and attacking people with whips. Monasosh (Mona Seif) tweeted: “Cut wounds, fractures, rupture eyes. Weapons used glass, coke bottles, knives, swords.”

The authors make no claim that their compilation of tweets is comprehensive. “To print every tweet that related to the uprising would take several volumes,” they point out. “One activist alone managed to tweet 60,000 words during the revolution!”

In selecting tweets to tell the story of the revolution the editors decided to use only English-language tweets “for logistical and stylistic reasons”. This means that some popular tweeters who write in Arabic, such as Wael Abbas, are excluded.

The editors acknowledge that one reason English was so commonly used by Tweeters is that those who have laptops and smartphones tend to be the more affluent members of society, among whom the use of English is quite widespread. They stress that on the ground the tweeters were just part of a far wider movement that included the urban poor.

Numerous tweeters are represented in the book, but some “core tweeters” appear with particular frequency. Among them are Sandmonkey; tarekshalaby; Gsquare86; ManarMohsen; 3arabawy; adamakary (Adam Makary); and ashrafkhalil.

Humor is a constant feature of the #jan25 Twitter stream. There is a tweet from a spoof HosniMobarak Twitter account on January 26: “I blocked Twitter and Facebook so you could focus on your work, not run around the streets shouting.” The final tweet in the book, dated February 13, is from the same account: “You people are hypocrites! You talk about democracy, but you won’t let me run for president? Where’s the freedom?! #VoteHosni.”

The Egyptian revolution is an evolving story, and will remain so for a long time. The editors end their book with the words “Not the End”. And on Twitter one can daily witness Egyptian history continuing to unfold in real time as in the violent protests in Tahrir Square in recent days. There is clearly scope for follow-up editions of “Tweets from Tahrir”.
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 3 July 2011

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