Idle, Nadia & Alex Nunns (ed.) (2011) Tweets from Tahrir. New York: OR Books.
“History has never been recounted in this fashion”
Reading these words on the back cover of Tweets from Tahrir, indicates a remarkable change in the way history is documented. Usually history is written by historians who study the past by the rules of their discipline, and sometimes they apply a public-oriented form of historiography, by which we mean the scientific study of the way normal people comment about the distant or recent past. In addition to this, there exists a special category of books that concentrates on the assemblage of historical accounts, and it is in this category that we should put Tweets from Tahrir, the book we will be discussing here. Tweets from Tahrir gives a compilation of historical accounts describing the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 by means of selected tweets, but the book does more than just that. The book zooms in on the cultural importance of the services that Twitter provides for our time, as it also tries to place the feelings of the tweeters who were involved in the Egyptian Revolution, all of this urgently with the intention to define the tweeter’s role in history. To a considerable extent it were the new media who attributed to the scope of the revolutionary year 2011 and made a substantial contribution to the way people organised themselves politically.
´´ What makes this book so valuable, among other things, is that it teaches us the way virtual communities of activists responded to each other in real time during the revolution. Or, to rephrase it another way, it shows us the value of Twitter in the context of political, artistic and creative resistance. ´´
The ‘Twitter Revolution’ of the Egyptians
With Tweets from Tahrir we have at our disposal the tweets tweeted by thirteen English-speaking Arab activists during the Egyptian Revolution. Or, to put it more clearly, we should speak of the key tweets we have at our disposal, because of the refined selection of the most significant tweets compiled and edited by the editors Nadia Idle and Alex Nunns. These selected tweets can be considered representative for what happened on Twitter amongst activists and protestors who joined the revolution, and are also an intense coverage of what they tweeted to each other and the outside world in the heat of the battle, whereby we should not forget that at the time these clusters of people could not know that this book would come into being in the near future. For the most part, the revolutionary tweeters are well educated professionals with smartphones and laptops and belong to the young intellectual vanguard of Egypt. Cooperating in a coalition with the urban poor, the revolutionary tweeters put up a struggle against the authorities in the Tahrir Square for a democratic and free society.
In the book, the reader finds chapters consisting only of tweets of a maximum of 140 characters which are introduced with titles such as “The Million Man March”, “Bloody Wednesday”, “Momentum Regained” and “The Revolution Deepens”, to name a few. As readers, we find ourselves drawn to the experiences of the tweeters who describe the revolution from within, helping us to get a notion of how temporary virtual communities function and communicate online. What makes this book so valuable, among other things, is that it teaches us the way virtual communities of activists responded to each other in real time during the revolution. Or, to rephrase it another way, it shows us the value of Twitter in the context of political, artistic and creative resistance. And although the book purports to focus on the meaning and value of Twitter in particular, the book sure helps put things in perspective when it comes to a new and general understanding of political communication. Tweets from Tahrir is not so much suitable for a rational reading of the tweets, but is specially appropriate for the re-experience of something of the excitement that was felt during the peak days of the revolution.
The book breathes a certain electrifying intensity belonging to the revolutionary masses, and the editors present themselves overtly as supporters of the revolution. Their ambition is clear; they want to prove to the world how important the role of Twitter was, and they correctly state that the triumph of the masses would not have been possible without the actual influence of social media. With regard to this, we have to be aware of the extraordinary role media-activism has played in the Egyptian society, that is infamously known for its huge lack of press freedom and frequent assaults on journalists. Due to a lack of critical information, the Egyptian people turned understandably to alternative news sources set up by dissident bloggers and tweeters who utilize the opportunities provided by the internet and social media. However, of course, this situation of oppression by a state apparatus is not something exceptional for Egypt, it also exists in countries like China, Russia and Iran where the authorities block the access to alternative news sources on the internet, leading to the obstruction of the right of information as part of the universal rights and freedoms.
But was the Egyptian Revolution really a Twitter Revolution?
Soon after the Egyptian Revolution, polemic debates came into existence in the public and academic arena, questioning whether the influence of social media was as far-reaching as was believed. Roughly speaking, two opposite views were expressed in these debates. On the one hand, there were commentators who acknowledged the influence of social media. Sceptics however, criticized the influence and relevance of those same social media for the realization of the Egyptian Revolution. According to the first-mentioned group, social media helped activists coordinate inexperienced protestors and enabled media-activists to communicate with the international press. The sceptics, on the other hand, think that social networks created a facade that does not correspond with social reality.
The Egyptian historian Zeinab Abul-Magd, for instance, criticizes the western media’s representation of the protestors as if they were all members of a homogeneous group of modern and trendy young people who were all engaged in Facebook and Twitter. She disqualifies the tweeters as though they were no real revolutionaries but merely passive bystanders, and in contrast to this, she gives full credit to the ones who fought on the front lines in the streets. And to a certain extent Abul-Magd is right; it is beyond doubt that all the supporters of the revolution are indebted to the street fighters – a lot of them paid with their lives. But does this mean that the effort tweeters put into the revolutionary process can be put aside so easily? It is necessary to pay attention to the fact that a significant group of modern Egyptians are connected to the global culture and know how to speak the language of our time. We will come back to these matters later.
But first we have to bring into focus the way in which the western world responded to the Egyptian Revolution. It should be emphasized that the western media largely covered the developments in Egypt with great hesitation, amazed as they were by the use of social media for democratic participation that proved to be more modern than anything they had seen so far. It was hard to imagine for westerners that these so-called ‘backward’ Egyptians struggled for democracy, and pretty soon it became clear that the Egyptian Revolution in no way benefited the United States. The fall of Mubarak meant the fall of an American puppet and the western media saw the democratic developments in Egypt as a significant threat to American and Israeli interests in the region.
Resistance in the 21st century
The Egyptian protest movement attracted people from all ranks of society, and is clearly a movement that must be regarded as heterogeneous. When we focus on the significance of the social media activists – the revolutionary tweeters must be seen as just one part of it –, we must underline that we are talking here about a creative minority that took the responsibility for a substantial part of the organisation and communication of the revolution, which proved to be of the utmost importance for both the citizens of Egypt as well as the world community. It was this creative minority that supported the ideals of the revolution: the need for bread, freedom, democracy, human rights and equality. Tweets from Tahrir reveals that the revolutionary tweeters formed a vanguard group that operated in accordance with the principles of a guerrilla – or maybe we should use the word ‘media-guerrilla’. Extraordinary tactics on the level of language, creativity and communication, transformed and intensified the revolutionary events from the physical reality to the virtual field.
From this point on, we will incorporate in an eclectic and sometimes free-spirited way some Deleuzoguattarian concepts and notions (i.e. belonging to the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari) in our thinking, such as: eruption, swarm, rhizome, nomadism, minority, space-time, open space, closed space, state space, becoming, revolutionary becoming, deterritorialization and reterritorialization; and more specific Guattarian concepts and notions are: existential refrains, existential territory, singularities and human subjectivity. Some, but not all, of these concepts and notions will be clarified, taking into consideration practical concerns of readability.
Coming back to the subject matter – the “rhizomatic” features of the tweets uttered by the activists can be seen as an expression of “nomadism”, that is to say, they are individual subjects who do not want to be restricted by the state and try to avoid capture. As a ‘creative minority’ (i.e. in the sense of an unusual “minority” undergoing an unknown process with no clear end) the revolutionary tweeters refused to comply with the regime and set processes in motion, looking ahead at a new and unknown future, fighting in the front lines of a historical battle and operating in a virtual environment. They simply embraced the technology of our time that served as a prospect of modernity, because that was what they had yearned for for so long.
It is important to perceive the Egyptian Revolution as an “eruption” (the same goes for the whole of the Arab Spring), but also to view the revolutionary events as a kind of “process of becoming” for the participating tweeters. It is in this process of becoming that the creative minority of revolutionary tweeters were jointly responsible for the political future of their country. They proved to everyone that the process of “revolutionary becoming” – with its opportunities of “deterritorialization” and “reterritorialization” of the social field and new ways of subjectivity and connection – in our time comes from technological innovation like social media. We must stress that it was thanks to the opportunities offered by social media, that the new well-educated young people (who often work in the creative sectors), formed a variety of dynamic social networks. The tweeters found the inspiration for their activism mostly in their personal lives in which social media already played a central role for quite a time. With all of this, we should bear in mind, as a general rule, that art and creativity have the great potential to become an outlet of expression for those who suffer in society, because there is no denying the fact that social media provide one of the greatest sources of creativity of our time. So in essence, social media in their political context are all about the creation of a group of people and their practice of resistance in virtual communities; and this practice is always creative or artistic by its nature. This means that we should read the text-based messages as a resistance of words, but also as an expression of what Guattari for example called “existential refrains” which are expressed by individuals who want to expand their “existential territory”. In this regard, our attention should be drawn to the rediscovery of oneself in the way a real artist would do (which is, of course, a plea made by many theorists), and we have to keep in mind that the production of existence heavily depends on renewal and experimentation.
The revolutionaries displayed with their tweets the future of how people will be communicating in the twenty-first century, so in a way this tells us that the future will be all about global connectedness. With regard to this latter matter, Paul Mason – author of Why It’s Kicking off Everywhere, a sharply written account that explores the decisive events leading up to the revolutionary year of 2011 – emphasized correctly that a lot of contemporary Egyptian youth are well connected both with the global and the online world. And what applies for the awakening and modern youth of Egypt, also applies for the self-conscious but frustrated young people elsewhere in the world who struggle with a variety of problems such as: unemployment, underemployment, the effect of austerity measures, the crisis of capitalism, the political and institutional deficit of so-called democratic organisations, the obstruction of democratic processes from below, and the abuse of power by those in power.
Mason highlights the fact that many young people experience the global culture in itself as an almost self-evident truth and are well-informed about the current political and economic problems of the world today. He does so by portraying the background of the youth, setting out the consequences of the economic downturn and the social crisis behind it, and by explaining and exemplifying the impact that the internet and social media technology has had on young people worldwide. Having taken all this into account, we can deduce that it was not so much the West that intervened in Egypt’s internal affairs (let us say by means of a forced ‘regime change’ allegedly in the name of democracy, as was the case, for example, during the war in Iraq in 2003); what really made the difference in 2011 was the immense effort of the common people of Egypt who overthrew the old regime and tried to establish contacts with the democratic world. Within Egypt’s protest movement the creative minority of revolutionary tweeters operated as a vanguard, and the best way to visualize this is to think of a “swarm” – ‘swarm behaviour’ is known to be a disruptive force for conventional powers. Various vanguard groups dedicated to social media activism made an important difference to Egypt’s protest movement due to their global contacts and respondents in the realm of the virtual, and it should be recognized that social and political life in the era of the internet is simply unimaginable without these virtual social networks. The task for dissident and creative subjects is to adapt to the actual technological environment in order to contribute to the democratisation of the social relations; this means that one must be willing to adopt a pragmatic approach towards social media technology, because, partly, the future of our human potential depends on the adaptation to the technosphere (and, of course, social experimentation and technological developments cannot be seen separated from each other).
So when it comes to a more pragmatic adaptation of social media in activism, we can see that dissident subjectivities – visible in the discourses of various vanguard groups – are already aware of this, considering the many short narratives expressed through the selected tweets we find in Tweets from Tahrir. It learns us that social media content helps the activation of “singularities” and the development of “human subjectivity”, which are useful for social and political practices, but also that this social media content is all the more effective when combined with the spirit of defiance as seen in the context of political turmoil, such as was the case during the Arab Spring. In short, the internet transmits messages in a split of a second, activating various nodes and galvanizing people for action (it has at least this potential).
The revolutionary tweeters did not create models for a distant future – like classical Marxists waiting for the right conditions to act – instead, they came up with instant ideas, sensations (emotional, mental and positive intellectual), perceptions, living in the moment, doing things spontaneously, believing that things can be changed and that everyone of us can make a difference. As such, the revolutionary tweeters created an immediate “space-time” in which opportunities were seized, leading to a collective process of writing (one can think of a kind of “stream of consciousness” and “spontaneous writing” – literary notions we inherited from various beat writers – that occurred on a collective level). All in all, this collective process of writing (that of course did not pretend to be literary or anything else) and united endeavour of narrativization of a political experience, made writing dangerous again. In any case, we have to remember that words as memes are more effective than mindless acts of violence.
But coming back to the importance of existential refrains – in the end it were these existential refrains that dismantled the structures of the society as ruled by Mubarak’s men. Twitter’s “open space” proved to be stronger than the “closed space” of the state (i.e. “state space”), and in retrospect it is important to endorse the viewpoint that both the virtual space and physical space (with the Tahrir Square as the natural focal point of Cairo) were equally important for the Egyptian Revolution; the one cannot be considered without the other. In the new constellation the two spaces of the virtual and the physical are interdependent, and the only thing that one can do – especially from the perspective of the authorities and security forces – is try to adapt to the new layer of meaning that social media activism has added to the politics of social movements.
The physical occupation (including the ‘encampments’ that set an example for the Occupy Wall Street movement and the movement of the Indignants) of the Tahrir Square by the revolutionaries bear fruit, but, again, the processes of deterritorialization and reterritorialization for what happened in the virtual field (the layer above the physical reality) were just as decisive. What it comes down to is that reducing the Egyptian Revolution to its physical reality does not do justice to what really happened during the struggle. In the new protest culture, ideas about social reform go hand in hand with engagement in technological developments, and Tweets from Tahrir testifies about this. This book is a source of inspiration for everybody who wants to think about social upheavals in the twenty-first century, but one needs to abandon a too rational and hyper-historical understanding of revolutions and political events, just as one needs to see the human presence in the fluctuating virtual. Activists found a safe haven within the internet in self-created webs and without these there would have been no Egyptian revolution as we have seen in 2011 – a revolution, by the way, which is still ongoing.
Abul-Magd, Zeinab. (2012) ‘Occupying Tahrir Square: The Myths and the Realities of the Egyptian Revolution’, in: South Atlantic Quarterly, 111, nr.3: 565-572.
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