Tweets from Tahrir: Egypt's Revolution as it Unfolded in the Words of the People who Made It
ON TUESDAY, JANUARY 25, 2011, Egyptians were scheduled to enjoy a national holiday: Police Day. But rather than being fêted by a grateful populace, Egypt's police spent January 25 facing the greatest challenge to their authority in living memory. In accordance with a pre-arranged strategy, citizens began protesting at scattered sites across the city and attempted to converge at Tahrir Square in the heart of downtown Cairo. A sufficient number reached Tahrir that the police were thrown into a defensive posture from which they would never recover. Egypt's so-called January 25 Revolution had begun, and its first stage would end less than three weeks later with the stunning resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. As a long-time resident of Egypt (I've taught philosophy at the American University in Cairo since 2000), I was astonished by these events. But I witnessed them primarily from abroad, having left for India via Bahrain on January 12, on a badly needed winter vacation. For this reason I, like most Americans, followed the events of this Internet-triggered revolution largely on the Internet itself.
Seldom do books have titles as informative as Tweets from Tahrir, a new edited collection by Alex Nunns and Nadia Idle. The book is exactly what the title suggests: a collection of real-time Twitter reports from the Egyptian Revolution. At just over two hundred pages the book offers a brisk read of unedited tweets, with all misspellings, abbreviations, and curse words left unchanged. For reasons explained in the editors' preface, the volume focuses on a small number of Twitter "stars" who reported in English from Cairo, all of them apparently Egyptian, many exposed to direct personal peril. Anyone reading the collection quickly gains a sense of the personalities of such recurring figures as 3arabawy, Ghonim, GSquare86, ManarMohsen, Salamander, Sandmonkey, and TravellerW.
A book of this kind raises an obvious question: why publish it between covers at all? Why not let readers remain in the original medium by going to Twitter and browsing at random through the "#jan25" tweets still available online, rather than produce a glossy picture book? The best answer is found in the sheer strength of the product: the book format simply works in this case. By gathering emblematic tweets from each day of the Revolution, an important slice of the recent past is organized and clarified through well-established editorial procedures. For such purposes the good old-fashioned book is still the medium of choice. The continued endurance of the paper book may owe less to the nostalgia of sentimental bibliophiles than to the fact that electronic media are still too open to unmanageable floods of data and the endless postponements of revision. Even if paper books die out, the future of editors is secure.
Indeed, this old-fashioned book, despite its novel content, is best read in an old-fashioned manner: as a story expressed in straightforward linear chronology. The Alexandria beating death of blogger Khaled Said in June 2010 shifted the mood in Egypt from passive resignation to outraged commitment. But the immediate spark for the Revolution was surely the uprising in nearby Tunisia, whose own dictator was forced from power on January 14. The first tweet in the volume is a celebration of that moment by the lively Gsquare86: "The Tunisian revolution is being twitterized... history is being written by the people!" Two hours later, tarekshalaby chimes in: "VIVA LA REVOLUCION!!! MY GOD! MY GOD! This is AMAZING." norashalaby risks the dangerous hashtag "#fuckmubarak," while openly calling for the autocratic president to set himself on fire. The fear in Egypt is dissolving before our eyes, as Gsquare86 makes an insightful prediction: "The black and white days are coming. There is no gray."
January 25 went better than the protesters could have hoped. At ten in the morning, the blogger Sandmonkey is already prepared: "Shower, Crago [sic] pants, Hoodie, running shoes, phone charged, cash, ID, cigs (for jail), and some mace just in case. Am ready!" Local demonstrations swelled, with bystanders joining by the thousands for the march to the heart of downtown. Initial demands were a laundry list that stopped short of calling for Mubarak's resignation, but by day's end there were demands for outright removal of the President. The usually fierce 3arabawy begins those tumultuous weeks on a cautious note: "I'm not expecting a revolution today, I'm expecting protests. So let's not shoot too high so as not to disappoint people later." But by early afternoon the tweets are far more dramatic. The police responded with tear gas, rocks, clubs, and water cannons. Norashalaby: "Fuck got kettled almost suffocated till they broke cordon." The violence continues to escalate: "Thugs all around us marching beside us"; "Fuck! We're getting hit. Broke through 2 lines. No serious injuries"; "That was very bad. Very vicious soldiers and officers with batons." By day's end few are able to sleep; there is a euphoric sense that longstanding barriers have been broken. We read jubilant late-night tweets from mosaaberizing: "Breaking 1st cordon at Qasr Elnil bridge was HUGE. Seeing the fuckers run away from us and open other cordons. Priceless feeling." There is a newfound note of national pride: "Let me hear anyone talking shit ever again about this nation." As Wael Ghonim predicts shortly after midnight: "Egypt after #jan25 is no way going to be the same as Egypt before it. Today we proved so many points."
The next two days, January 26 and 27, were normal work days for Egypt, and thus the available stock of protesters was diminished. The strategy on these days was "Keeping the Streets Unsettled," the aptly chosen title for Chapter 3. With Friday the weekend begins in Egypt, and the most explosive protests in the Arab world typically occur following Friday prayers. The mood of anticipation is palpable during these two days of waiting. Packafy describes it with moving poetry: "after 2 days of protesting, tear gas is like fresh air, rubber bullets are like rain drops, sticks r like thai massage." But these days of waiting were not bloodless, as seen from another tweet by mosaaberizing: "Live bullets? FUCK YOU MUBARAK!!" And ManarMohsen: "I saw over 100 security forces join those already in Ramsees & beat everyone without exception." And still more national pride from ashrafkhalil: "the people of suez are absolute bad asses. The canal cities have always been tough and defiant," he boasts.
One structural problem Nunns and Idle face with their book is that on Friday, January 28 — the first pivotal day of the Revolution — the internet was shut down in Egypt, and protesters were presumably too busy to discover the internet workarounds that proved so effective over the ensuing four days of blackout. (As an Egyptian resident camped on a rooftop art studio in distant Mumbai, I was suddenly cut off from dozens of friends in Egypt and from my employer.) The editors of Tweets from Tahrir handle the one-day Twitter gap nicely: by inserting two black pages as a placeholder for that day, they leave the reader free to imagine and recollect. January 28 saw masses of unarmed protesters defeat police violence on streets across the city. Protesters captured Tahrir Square yet again, never to relinquish it: a stunning achievement given the square's nearly indefensible landscape. Hundreds were killed, but protesters succeeded in torching police vans and even National Democratic Party Headquarters. Hosni Mubarak announced the firing of his Cabinet, in a move widely mocked as a cosmetic sham. It was perhaps the second measure to backfire that day, the first being that the shutdown of the internet forced everyone to seek their news in the streets.
Indeed, it is striking how often the tactics attempted by the Mubarak regime simply backfired. On January 29 the police were pulled from the street, presumably in hopes that a Hobbesian State of Nature would lead Cairenes to beg the police to return. Instead, city neighborhoods rapidly organized efficient self-protection groups, with residents checking ID cards and patrolling the streets with homespun weaponry, thereby refuting the regime's own claims that its people were not ready for democracy. As monasosh proudly notes: "Popular committees now r being formed in Alex & Cairo to protect public & private properties from thugs." ashrafkhalil develops the theme: "Elements of self-policing on display. Saw volunteers directing traffic at several intersections." He reports a ragtag militia armed with sticks and clubs, a weightlifting bar, a machete, and a field hockey stick, before adding: "[The] militia outside is a fairly motley and scary bunch. Hate to be on their bad side but I DO feel safer with them" And 3arabawy reports: "Barricades r up, cars r checked by the shabab [youth]. Saboteurs r beaten up immediately on the spot." With the Army sending tanks onto the streets for the first time, protestors gauge the Army's sentiments towards the uprising, with sharifkouddous beginning on an optimistic note: "Amazing scene: three tanks roll by with a crowd of people riding atop each one. Chanting 'Hosni Mubarak out!'" But 3arabawy is already fearful: "WE DO NOT WANT THE ARMY! THE ARMY HAS BEEN RULING SINCE 1952. THEY ARE NOT NEUTRAL PLAYERS."
On February 1 came the Million Man March, which apparently reached its stated goal in spite of the regime's total shutdown of railways into the capital. The mood that day was festive and confident, with many families joining in the protest. But ashrafkhalil is prescient about events in store for the following day: "Fears that pro-Mubarak rally/thug-squad will try to spark violence. Protestors completely aware and expecting this." At day's end Mubarak made another speech, pledging to leave office after the September elections. It was a crafty rhetorical performance that gained the sympathy of a surprisingly large portion of the public. If matters had been left there, the populace might have remained split, and perhaps the Revolution would have ended. But the regime pushed its luck too far once again, in perhaps the ugliest day of its history.
Internet service was restored on the morning of February 2, providing a false morale boost. The situation began to degenerate in early afternoon. Sandmonkey reports: "1000 pro Mubarak demonstration is heading towards Tahrir. The military is withdrawing. This will get ugly quick." The Woodstock of Egypt was cruelly invaded by thugs and plainclothes officers, mounted on horses and at least one camel, armed with sticks, clubs, machetes, and Molotov cocktails. A medieval-style battle raged for hours near the northern end of the square, with the protesters initially in panicked retreat, then rallying for a decisive victory. The combat was brutal, our witnesses report. 3arabawy: "Plainclothes thugs (police) are on horses now, trying to storm Tahrir Square, with whips!" beleidy: "This is turning into prehistoric war." Gsquare86 calls for reinforcements: "They r coming in with horses and thugs, we need more revolution people in Tahrir square now!" monasosh offers a grim catalog of objects: "Cut wounds, fractures, rupture eyes. Weapons used glass, coke bottles, knives, swords." Protesters report finding police ID cards on captured thugs, sparking further rage as the violence continues to escalate. TravellerW: "I am seeing — not reporting, seeing — Mubarak ppl throwing Molotov cocktails on demonstrators, and on shops." By night's end, Tahrir remains safely in the hands of protestors. mosaaberizing tweets in anger: "At least 80% of people here are bruised/bandaged. You'll pay for this, Mubafuck." Sniper fire claims the lives of Tahrir campers during the night, but protestors advance to capture the October 6 flyover behind the Egyptian Museum at 4 a.m.: "THE BRIDGE IS OURS!" But waelkhairy88 captures the simultaneous sense of panic: "Oh God. The sound of gunfire! Machine guns echo can be heard everywhere. God help us all."
On February 3 RamyYaacoub tries to call his friend Sandmonkey, but the phone is answered by an obscenity-spouting stranger who tells him his friend has been arrested. Later that day, Sandmonkey reappears and tweets that he is safe. Otherwise, the day is one of satisfaction and exhaustion. MohammedY: "No one can imagine the beautiful feeling one gets as you enter #Tahrir Square. It's like coming home & being surrounded by loved ones." Huge crowds appear on Friday, February 4, but the imagined march on the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis never occurs. Sandmonkey: "It doesn't seem like they will march to the presidential palace. The mood is not ready." The role of the Army remains possibly sinister, as TravellerW reports: "2 Army officers were 3 metres away when I was being beaten up by the pro-Mub mob. Did abso-fucking-lutely nothing." Mosaaberizing adds: "The army is trying so hard to *look* neutral but we know they can't wait to find an excuse to take us down. Not giving them that."
On Sunday, February 6, the regime reverses strategy. Rather than trying to create as much chaos as possible by withdrawing the police, they now re-normalize life in Egypt, appealing to "Revolution fatigue" among the populace while pretending that the protests are irrelevant. What ended this brief stall in the Revolution was an unexpected event: the sudden release from prison of Wael Ghonim. After spending eleven days blindfolded in prison, Ghonim goes directly to the television studio and appears live on the air. His tearful reaction to the photos of dead protesters, and his admission to having been a secret administrator of the "We are all Khaled Said" Facebook page, captured the imagination of his country and swung the momentum back toward the protesters. Watching the activitist's tears, Sandmonkey tweets: "@Ghonim it's not ur fault [that people were killed]." MennaAmr reacts even more strongly: "Holy shit this is devastating." NevineZaki: "everyone is crying, EVERYONE @Ghonim." And Sandmonkey concludes: "Mubarak now has no choice but to go." Yet again, a regime decision has backfired. Releasing Ghonim under international pressure, they deal themselves a death blow in public opinion just as the public seemed to be splitting down the middle.
On February 8 and 9, the regime's plans backfire yet again. The move to re-normalize the country by sending everyone back to work serves only to bring workers together to unleash a crippling wave of strikes. 3arabawy ends a tweet with an ominous new hashtag for the regime: "telecom workers in cairo r on strike. #egyworkers," and a brief while later informs us that "3000 university professors r now marching on Tahrir from Manyal [an island near the city center]." The following afternoon, on February 9, 3arabawy seems almost intoxicated as he reports a stunning wave of new labor actions: "thousands of oil workers r now protesting in front of the oil ministry"; "at least 2 military production factories in Welwyn r on strike"; "several factories in suez have gone on strike"; "the railway technicians in Bani Suweif r on strike"; "there is revolt taking place now in all state run newspapers by journalists against their pro [government] editors." The situation for the regime was becoming unmanageable.
Thursday, February 10 brought the protestors their last great scare. Rumors were rife that Mubarak would appear on television that night and resign. When his speech turned out to be anything but a resignation speech, the assembled multitudes in Tahrir erupted with rage, and for a time there were fears of civil war. An hour before Mubarak appears, waelkhairy88 is optimistic: "The regime & the army know they can't handle the 20 million estimated to march tomorrow which is why Mubarak will hopefully step down." At 10:45, Mubarak makes his delayed television appearance, projected into Tahrir on a large sheet used as a screen. It doesn't take long to grasp that the speech will have a disappointing outcome. Sandmonkey: "He doesn't look like he is resigning." Ashrafkhalil: "Crowd realizing they're not going to hear the magic words. This won't go well"; "the soldiers watching speech don't look any happier than the crowd..." mosaaberizing: "Chanting against Mubarak now. Very angry chants." Sandmonkey laments: "Mubarak is staying. The bastard is staying." Protesters swell into Tahrir, with everyone predicting chaos and violence throughout the night and the following day. Mubarak has made the bizarre choice to inflame a vast Tahrir crowd on the eve of yet another Friday.
Early on that Friday, February 11, the ramifications of the speech were still unclear. Was there a sinister plot afoot involving the Army? Would Tahrir be subjected to a Tiananmen-style crackdown by a regime now backed into a corner? In the morning Salamander is in a fighting mood, with a stirring tweet which I clearly remember from when it was fresh: "In #tahrir with the pple of #egypt. If they were to kill us today I would die next to my brothers and sisters. I have no regrets." The Army makes a series of proclamations that seem to promise democracy, but protesters suspect a trick and enter Tahrir in ever greater numbers. Wael Ghonim weighs in: "Dear President Mubarak your dignity is no longer important, the blood of Egyptians is. Please leave the country NOW."
Then, at 6 P.M., Vice President Omar Suleiman suddenly appears on the air to announce Mubarak's resignation. 3arabawy tweets the news at 6:02: "Mubarak has stepped down, says Omar Suleiman"; "Gunshots in Nasr City. Everyone is celebrating." MennaAmr: "WE DID IT!" Sandmonkey: "Hosny quit. We won. We won :)" Cer: "Mubarak to step down. I am not able to breathe" mosaaberizing: "It IS the decisive Friday. I'm only crying at the moment along with 2 million men in Tahrir." Amidst scenes of triumph, the protesters show a practical streak with their plans for Tahrir Square. MohammedY: "I will go tom to clean up Tahrir. I'm willing to do anything! Clean up, painting - anything for the most special place to my heart."
It is often said that good authors disappear and allow us to focus only on the scenes they describe. If the same can be said of good editors, then Nunns and Idle clearly pass the test. With their excellent selection of tweets and the light touch of their editorial voiceovers, they succeeded in allowing this reviewer to forget he was reading a book at all, and simply to relive the Revolution as it unfolded.