Was the revolution really tweeted?

Posted on March 3, 2011


Wael Ghonim, Google’s Head of Marketing in the Middle East and North Africa, became something of a figurehead for the Egyptian revolution when he informed his multi-billion dollar employer that he had a family emergency and needed to take six days off work. What actually happened was Ghonim was rushing for a plane from Dubai, where he worked, to his home city of Cairo to join in the protests and act as a totemic leader, lending inspiration and the technological nouse that comes from working for the largest and most powerful computer company in the world to the thousands of Egyptians that decided they wanted to change their lives’ circumstances.

“Don’t be evil” is the motto that Google plasters on its walls in every office it owns around the world, an indication of how they wish to dominate the internet but ultimately make it a better place for learning, for society, and for freedom of expression and thought. Those words became all the more poignant when considered as a chastisement to Hosni Mubarak, who came fortuitously to power a couple of months shy of Ghonim’s second birthday in 1981.

Ghonim’s family moved from Egypt when Wael was young to the United Arab Emirates, and aged 18 he was a major part of one of the most visited websites in the Arabic world. By 22, he had – according to his own LinkedIn profile, “established [the] Gawab.com Marketing & Sales department”[i] at a crucial time for the website. The Chief Technical officer at Gawab was eerily prescient when he said of Ghonim in 2008 that “he simply knows how to get things done right.”[ii] After three years at Gawab, Ghonim moved to Mubasher, a website which was quick to take advantage of the booming financial market in the Middle East and North Africa. Ghonim’s role at the company – which gives users real-time access to prices across markets in the region and a range of analyses to help spread and capitalise on their wealth – was to go out and establish an operational office in Cairo and bring in custom from Egypt, which at the time was booming economically. At the same time as establishing, forming, growing and managing a team which eventually reached 120 employees across eight separate departments, Ghonim was also taking his MBA in Marketing and Finance at the prestigious American University in Cairo. Once again elements of his character would prove invaluable in the later trials a country fixated on revolution would pose. “The most interesting thing you feel when you meet him for the first time,”Shereif Mamdouh, the Business Development Manager at Mubasher who went on to work for Thomson Reuters, “is that he’s a person who knows much about almost everything.” Mohamed Hassan Eissa, who took the same MBA course as Ghonim, said that he “had the ability to communicate his methodologies to any audience.”

When he became the poster boy for the 25 January revolutionaries it was these same qualities which enabled him to best control and encourage the masses. However it was his inability to speak – rather his inability to do anything but cry when confronted live on an Egyptian talk show by videotape of protestors who had died while he was imprisoned by the Egyptian authorities – that truly moved the average Egyptian. In excess of 215,000 joined a Facebook page after his arrest and subsequent television appearance titled ‘I delegate Wael Ghonim to speak in the name of Egypt’s revolutionaries’. His “tears,” wrote Egyptian website masrawy.com after his television appearance, “have moved millions and turned around the views of those who supported [Hosni Mubarak] staying [as President].”[iii]

Moments after Mubarak eventually threw in the towel and secreted himself away to the seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, resorting to a short-term exile amongst pasty fat English cruise ship passengers that had in the months before the popular uprising had only the spectre of killer sharks to worry about on their holidays, Ghonim was on CNN, being interviewed by Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer. Blitzer, a dogged mongrel of a man with a shaggy grey beard of stubble and a hoary, throaty voice, asked Ghonim what was next after Tunisia and Egypt’s dictators fell to the power of the people. “Ask Facebook,” came back the reply.

“Ask what?” Blitzer asked, confused by the two-word answer to a complicated geopolitical question which took in two continents and several million people’s futures.

“Facebook,” Ghonim replied.

“Facebook,” Blitzer’s broadcast partner, the steely-eyed Anderson Cooper interjected, as if to reassure the older Blitzer that his hearing was not, in fact, failing him.

“Facebook.” Blitzer had finally got it. “You’re giving Facebook a lot of credit for this?”

Ghonim came back with an effusive reply, fuelled by the scenes of jubilation that were at that moment being played across the world through CNN and a host of other news channels, and the immense promise that beckoned for the future of Egypt. “Yes, for sure. I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him, actually. This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook.” He paused for a split second, then came out with his most audacious sentence yet, capping nearly two weeks of speeches about what would have just a few months prior seemed impossible in the authoritarian state of Egypt. “You know, I always said that if you want to liberate a society, just give them the Internet. If you want to have a free society, give them the Internet.”[iv]

Ghonim was simply repeating what countless others had said as successive regimes fell in Tunisia and in Egypt: the first draft of history, written on the internet by countless pundits, said of the events of early 2011 that “in the literal sense, it may well come to be known as the social media revolution.”[v] However that is too strong a nomenclature for a revolution that spent significant sections of its existence under the dark cloud of service denials and country-wide internet blackouts. On 28 January, the Egyptian government cut off the internet at source for the overwhelming majority of the country: it enacted a total shutdown of the five biggest internet service providers (ISPs) in Egypt. The constant and steady stream of tweets, Facebook updates, Youtube videos and emails that had made their way out of Egypt to heads of government, advocacy groups, media corporations and ordinary people – anyone, everyone, just to get the news out there – dropped off a cliff.

First to fall in the list of ISPs was Telecom Egypt at 12:12am on Friday morning. Raya, an infinitely smaller but still influential ISP, began shutting down its systems a minute later and after quarter of an hour recorded almost zero levels of volume across its routing tables. Link Egypt, almost as big as Telecom Egypt, followed at 12:17am; Etisalat Misr fell at 12:19am. Internet Egypt, the smallest of the major five ISPs affected, began its shutdown at 12:25am. By 12:35 almost every avenue out of the country to the world wide web was shut for all Egyptians.[vi] Gmail, Youtube, Google Search and Buzz, Hotmail, Bing, Yahoo Mail and its search engine – almost every foreign-hosted website was fenced off. Ordinarily at midnight on a Friday morning the internet would handle up to 5 gigabits (Gb) per second of data from Egyptians: night owls searching for entertaining Youtube videos, students frantically trawling through Wikipedia articles for their last-minute homework, drunks typing ill-conceived emails that they might regret in the morning. It instead was coping easily with a pitiful volume of traffic that never got above the tens of megabits per second, an enormous drop in traffic.[vii] Chief Technology Officer of Renesys, a US network management company, Jim Cowie, had never seen anything like it before. “With the scope of their shutdown and the size of their online population, it is an unprecedented event.”[viii]

If this truly was the social media revolution, the revolt would have stopped at about dawn on that black Friday when people woke up and realised they couldn’t access the internet.

Rather what has been called the Twitter, the Facebook, the social media revolution was in fact a social media uprising which quickly gave way through expediency (and because of technology crackdowns) to a television revolution. That in turn, when the journalists were forced off the streets and into the safety of hotel rooms around Tahrir Square, became an old-fashioned peasant’s revolt, fostered and encouraged by the most primitive means: word of mouth.

No doubt the internet and social media was the kindle for the fire of revolution, but when the fire began to wane it was stoked first by coverage from more traditional media then by simple community spirit and humanity. The engine was started up through Facebook and Twitter, but kept turning over through judicious use of Al-Jazeera, the BBC and then through the strength of human spirit when respective governments chose to shut down satellite signals which provide the lifeblood to rolling television news stations. The momentous events of 2011 then were categorically not internet or social media revolutions by their end, though they may have – for a fleeting moment at any one time during their lifespan – been powered almost entirely by the tremendous organisational and inspirational powers that the internet can give to an unvoiced population. They were rather revolutions of normal people, gathered together to protest their human rights: the internet was a medium to put across that message, and it was never the sole media.

Four days after Hosni Mubarak was sent packing by the power of the people, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed gathered dignitaries, students and a bank of television cameras at George Washington University in Washington DC. Her 15 February speech was on a theme the State Department had sought to promote in the past with relative success, but which was given a meteoric lift by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt being carried out in some part through the internet. ‘Internet Rights and Wrongs: Choices & Challenges in a Networked World’ was the title of her remarks to the gathered audience, and she made it clear that despite the immense power of the internet to aid those who want to speak but whose governments do not give them a voice, it was not the internet that deposed two despotic and seemingly entrenched rulers in a matter of weeks.

“[P]eople protested because of deep frustrations with the political and economic conditions of their lives. They stood and marched and chanted and the authorities tracked and blocked and arrested them,” she said. As if her opinion was not clear enough, her next statement was unequivocal. “The internet did not do any of those things; people did.”

Indeed although the internet has played an important role in helping spread the protests across North Africa and the Middle East, it was neither started by a computer (rather, it was the extraordinarily desperate imagery of the self-immolation of a Tunisian greengrocer and the shockwaves that sent pulsating through everyday Tunisians’ conversations that spurred on revolt in the new year) nor – going against Wael Ghonim’s attribution of the success of the revolts to Facebook and other internet sites – did the internet or social media prove integral at any point during the uprisings.

We have not yet reached the apogee that Marshall McLuhan (who himself predicted the birth of the world wide web several decades before Tim Berners-Lee unleashed his first public posting on 6 August 1991 on the newly-founded internet he helped to create) theorised in 1964. The medium has not yet, at least, become the message. We saw moments where social media and the internet tried desperately to propel onwards the revolution, but at crucial moments the technology we herald as being so forward-thinking and up-to-date failed protestors in several North African and Arab countries, leaving them to rely initially on the crutch of an earlier technology, satellite television. When that in itself failed thanks to manipulation by authorities (Al-Jazeera, whose almost impractically wholesale coverage of every event, no matter how small, along the timeline of revolution in Tunisia and Egypt led it to come closest to blurring the distinction between medium and message after social media), humanity relied on a technology which has existed since time immemorial, and has of yet never categorically failed the human race as a whole: the common sense of good.

“The internet did not do any of these things,” Secretary of State Clinton said in her speech at George Washington University. “People” – and their ceaseless ability to constantly strive for equality, humanity  and charity – “did.”

The media perception of the revolutions of late 2010 and early 2011 was not entirely incorrect: to claim that social media had no role in fostering a revolutionary spirit would be churlish and factually incorrect. However what is important to point out is that it was not – nor would ever be – the main driving force behind the overthrow of governments and dictators. While a small section of the educated, computer-literate, and often middle-class (in regions where access to technology can still not be as ubiquitous as it is in the United Kingdom and other western countries) wished to carry the revolutionary goals purely through social media, ultimately the internet proved too brittle to withstand the rigours of revolution.

For the first time, then, in humanity’s history, the internet (our great white hope) failed us. Social networking and the power of cloud computing could not yet withstand the ability of dictatorial leaders to press the killswitch and shut off an entire form of communication. Undoubtedly the time will come when the internet will be so powerful, and the social media so pervasive, that to do so will be impossible, but the North African and Middle Eastern uprisings of 2011demonstrated that for all our championing of technology, technology is not as advanced as we think.

There is no question that social media was important in the revolutions, regardless of country. However some writers and broadcast journalists have been too quick to ascribe something of a God-like quality to the internet when it comes to uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, Libya and other nations. To them the internet was the great creator, the great cult leader. People did not converge around a single individual to look for a way to remove their egomaniacal leaders, nor to the power of the collective. Rather, they followed a monolithic, omnipotent, omniscient deity: the internet. This patently is not true, of course. The revolutions created heroes of the uprising that were lauded in the same way and inspired ordinary people to believe in a chance for change. Characters such as Wael Ghonim and Mohamed Bouazizi were quickly rallied around as the great symbolic leaders of the uprising in Egypt, and have attained God-like status in many people’s eyes even now when the afterglow of revolution has faded into the reality of rearranging their country from the top down. In Tunisia Mohamed Bouazizi became a martyr for the cause, and has been rightly attributed as the closest to God-like creator of the revolution that spread across continents that we have. His heroically desperate actions saw him become the figurehead of the revolutionary spirit, and he inspired many (too many literally: a spate of self-immolation followed his actions at the tail end of 2010). All this proves the notion that a revolution cannot be carried out without people. We are often slaves to our computer screens, and we gather daily to worship in front of our televisions, but they cannot inspire or carry out regime change. For that we need common heroes, with faces and hands and hearts; with the ability to gather crowds and to inspire through their words. We need the unique feeling of hope and inspiration – the chemical impulse that translate auras of inspiration into bodily reactions, that snap through synapses to make the hairs of the back of our neck stand up and our feet to move; that turn our stomachs over with excitement and possibility and tighten our vocal chords to allow us to form the words “enough” in the face of injustice. And simply put, computers cannot do that.

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