x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Tweets from Tahrir: the revolution in real time

Is this collection of Twitter feeds by the key players in the movement that swept Hosni Mubarak from power the digital equivalent of the first draft of history, or something altogether less important?

A soldier hands out food to Egyptian protesters taking part in the Million Man March in Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 1. Andrew Henderson / The National
A soldier hands out food to Egyptian protesters taking part in the Million Man March in Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 1. Andrew Henderson / The National

From the moment she booked her flight Nadia Idle must have known that what she was doing was neither logical nor sensible. Why else tell only one friend? Why else e-mail her boss at War on Want only a few hours before take-off, unless she worried that the cool analysis of others might take the certainty out of the situation?

After two weeks of watching live television images from Tahrir Square, Idle, an Egyptian living in London, could view events from a distance no more. She had to be there. And so, on the night of February 7, she booked her flight and went, leaving only cursory crumbs to guide those who might wonder where.

Meanwhile, Alex Nunns, a writer, musician and political correspondent for Red Pepper magazine, watched in London. It wasn't the live television footage from cameras stationed on top of buildings overlooking the square that transfixed him. It wasn't the news reporters and network anchors who had flown from around the world, to set up camp on hotel balconies and describe events that, even then, seemed hardly credible.

What he found compelling were the words coming directly from the people in the square via Twitter. Their tweets offered an instant, emotional and personal connection.

Both the editors of this book then had visceral, partisan responses to events that found focus at the beginning of the year in Tahrir Square and bloomed into an extraordinary - and still incomplete - revolution. It inspired them to set down this instant history, a selection of the tweets that played a multitude of roles in the Egyptian uprisings and beyond.

Revolutionaries chronicled and organised through hundreds of tweets. They rally roused, informed and misled by turns, in a second by second account encompassing the significant and the utterly mundane. Twitter offered up heroes, as leaders and followers emerged by dint of the sheer volume of their 140-character postings. It became so defining an aspect of this pocket of the Arab Spring that it was dubbed the 2.0 Revolution in reference to the web applications associated with social networking.

According to its editors, Tweets from Tahrir, is "an immediate attempt to document a fraction of those remarkable messages before they disappear into the vacuum of cyberspace".

As an idea it is brilliantly simple and all the passion, immediacy and time-short salvaging that lie behind it conspire towards the strength of this book.

But they are also hugely complicating factors in an already problematic bid to construct the narrative of a story that has, as yet, no end. (Five months after Hosni Mubarak's departure Tahrir Square remains the focus for protesters impatient for democratic reforms.)

So how are we to read this book? As a narrative? As a history? As an inspiration? And who are the authors: the citizen journalists, the activists ... the editors?

Tweets from Tahrir is split into 21 short chapters each with a contextualising introduction to the tweets that follow. This is vital and it works extremely well. It provides the reader with a narrative scaffold of sorts, a structure to clamber onto, take a breath and see where the stream of tweets has carried them.

We begin with "The Spark", identified here as January 14, a Friday, when Tunisia's dictator of 24 years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted from power. With new technology the old regime had lost its control over information. Events were watched all over the world and across the Arab region not only on state TV but on satellite channels and social media networks. For the first time, what was happening could gather momentum through comment and re-tweeting practically in the same moment it was witnessed.

Even from this short distance of time it is fascinating to see the fledgling tweeters organise themselves into what would become a relatively coherent body. We are introduced to Gsquare86, to monasosh, Sandmonkey, TravellerW and Ghonim through their initial exchange of tweets. Given all that was to follow there is something poignant in the element of knock-about humour on display, a constant reminder of the youth of these nascent revolutionaries. mosaaberizing tweets: "Dear people watching Arabs Got Talent, there's a better show going on called Tunisia's Got Freedom. Watch that."

These are not the earnest pamphleteers, setting out carefully crafted ideologies. Many are kids, suddenly offered a chance by the virtual world to turn passions and frustrations untested in life, into reality. There is a real sense that for all the bold talk -

tarekshalaby

VIVA LA REVOLUCION!!! RT MY GOD! MY GOD! This is AMAZING.

19.27.12 Jan 14

 

tarekshalaby

WE WILL FOLLOW! RT Tunisians are the heroes of the Arab world.

19.29.27 Jan 14

 

Gsquare86

goooose bumps alll over...i can't believe i lived through an arab revolution !! thank you #Tunisia

19.43.40 Jan 14

 

- they are unprepared for the reality of the revolution.

Similarly #Jan25 has become so enshrined as the jumping-off point for the 18 days that felled a dictator that there is something oddly comic about the discussions that fixed on that hashtag. Uncertain over quite what has been agreed, but keen to keep up, monasosh anxiously tweets "Did we finally settle on a tag for 25th of january?"

The tweets are presented on the page as they would have appeared online - with tweeters responding in real time regardless of whether or not this follows a linear discussion. Often it does not. At times this makes for some pretty hard going, and not always terribly meaningful, reading. It is hard to escape the feeling that much of Twitter's power comes from its immediacy and even set in context there are moments when, frankly, you feel you kind of had to be there.

Still, it is genuinely shocking when the first bemused tweets report violence in the square and on the streets (Sandmonkey "Huge demo going to tahrir #jan25 s*** just got real").From the excited corralling of the previous day the tweets tumble into a series of warnings and expressions of alarm:

 

norahalaby

"Tear gas!!"

15.58.37 Jan 25

 

TravellerW

"tear gas #25jan" 15.59.10 Jan 25

monasosh

"Eyes burning #jan25"

16.00.04 Jan 25

 

At times it is like reading the script of a play, with the editors' introductions and stage directions. There is certainly a dramatic awareness to the whole. For instance, Friday, January 28, when Egypt went offline as the government shut down internet service providers and mobile phone operators, is represented as two black pages. After the noise and pace of the tweets these two "silent" pages are chillingly effective.

The speed with which the protesters found alternative ways of posting their tweets - contacting friends in other countries via landlines, finding a connection through the one remaining internet service provider used by the Egyptian stock exchange or borrowing satellite links used by international media - only serves to underline the nimble nature of this youthful movement. The state is a slow-moving monolith by comparison. But it was still one that had guns and tanks and F-16 jets; still one that would make martyrs out of many before Mubarak departed.

Surprisingly, though, he received much attention in the media for his connections to Google and television interviews, Wael Ghonim is not the most prevalent and therefore not the most compelling character to emerge in this narrative. This simple fact shows the power of the editing process.

Which brings us back to the troubling question of how to read this book. Part of the power of it rests in the apparently raw nature of the tweets - spelling uncorrected, accuracy unvetted. Submerged in this virtual account of events it would be easy, then, to read them as an unfiltered truth. But these tweets have been filtered many times over: they are all from Cairo though there were strong movements in Alexandria and Suez and the revolution took place across Egypt, they are all in English (none are translated) and they are culled from a selection so vast that the very prospect of fixing any narrative to the page is dizzying.

The editors make no apology for this. They openly explain their methodology at the outset:

"The editing process involved selecting tweets to tell a story. Some may feel that in doing so we have imposed our own narrative onto events. In fact this is always the case when any story is told or any history book is written."

 

Well, yes and no. Yes, any editing process invariably and inevitably breeds a degree of subjectivity because, expressed at its most self- evident, no decision can be made without a decision being made. But Idle and Nunns are wrong to conclude that their history therefore stands alongside all or any others on this point. Because not all editing processes begin with a consciously partisan editor. Their key hope expressed in the introduction is that the reader will find this work "inspiring". And not all histories are drawn from one documentary pool; a self-selecting one however seemingly vast.

In a recent tweet Alex Nunns described Tweets from Tahrir as a "first draft of history". It is not. Nunns and Idle have created an oddly compelling, dramatic book and one surely only a few swivels of a screenwriter's ballpoint away from a successful film or docudrama script. They have archived something that, by its nature, seemed temporary and have successfully pinned these tweets to the page.

But as editors what they have created is not so much a history as "journalganda", a genre defined by Charles M Madigan, the man who coined the term, as "where partisans go to make you feel absolutely certain you are correct, no matter what your position".

The time that they chose to cover in this book allows that absolute certainty because Mubarak's presence provided a unity of purpose: getting rid of him.

Now in the muddled hangover of Mubarak's downfall it is quite clear that the revolution is not over. When a history does come to be written, this book, this collection of tweets, will prove an invaluable resource for its writers. But, ultimately, a history cannot be instant any more than a revolution, in all its violent complexity, can be virtual.

 

Laura Collins is a senior features writer for The National.