The social media’s finest hour: journalists and activists in Egypt are capturing the uprising as it happens, on Twitter, Facebook and image-sharing sites like Flickr. Some of the journalists are part of the uprising itself - sharing news, cross-checking facts with other activists, exchanging messages of support and solidarity with sympathisers elsewhere in the Middle East (now headlong into their own political confrontations) and in the West.
One way into this material is through the Twitter accounts of prominent opinion leaders inside or outside Egypt, such as journalist Mona Eltahahawy (@monaeltahawy), Sandmonkey (@sandmonkey) or the more radical Hossam el-Hamalawy (@3arabawy)
Here’s some of what I’ve learnt from them. The uprising has put a sudden stop to routine torture by Egyptian police. The movement's violent opponents are in fact mainly these same police, out of uniform, instigating looting and destruction. The protesters are not the confused, rumour-driven mobs portrayed in some of our mass media - rather, they have accomplished a miracle of self-organisation, protecting homes and each other from the mob violence of government thugs. They have been restrained and all too forgiving under extreme provocation (handing captured plain-clothes police over to the army, for example). Women are a major part of the protests, and finally feel safe from sexual harassment within an Egyptian crowd. The movement celebrates each new act of unity between Muslims and Christians.
Some newspaper reports are backing up these messages. "I constantly asked women and Coptic Christians whether a democratic Egypt might end up a more oppressive country," writes US reporter Nicholas D. Kristof. "They invariably said no — and looked so reproachfully at me for doubting democracy that I sometimes retreated in embarrassment."
The speed of the online media panicked the regime into temporarily severing Egypt from the Internet, wearing the economic damage. This unprecedented stunt has drawn appalled attention from geeks and Internet luminaries worldwide, including Clay Shirky, and even Tim Berners-Lee.
And certaintly the Internet is an endless headache for dictatorships: it's so hard to quarantine business and cultural usage from social protest. The Egyptian regime's monopoly of the media had already been eroded by western satellite TV and, after 1996, by Al Jazeera. Political blogs emerged in 2003-4 as the USA briefly pushed the regime toward reform, and gathered strength in 2005-2007 alongside presidential and local elections, civil rights campaigns, and the Kefaya democracy movement. These alternative sources fed each other: Al Jazeera has a wide reach, while the bloggers and other social media activists captured and uploaded text and images local events images (often about police brutality) usable on TV. Facebook introduced new opportunities for local coordination and was decisive in helping to organise a key strike in 2008. The social media has been used elsewhere by social activists such as Indymedia, the Electronic Intifada and the Zapatistas and by campaigners against US bases in South Korea.
For all that, the Egyptian uprising is far more than Revolution 2.0. The online activism has merged with high-stakes struggle on the ground. The Guardian has referred to the leaders of the uprising as ‘the so-called "300" – the loose coalition of online activists who were behind last month's call for the "day of rage" on 25 January’.
The mix of youth, freedom fighting and geekdom is heady stuff. Here you have tech-savvy 20- and 30-somethings, the West's most desired demographic, dodging tear gas cannisters and even live bullets. Amidst the political tweets there are jokes, anecdotes and musings, disclosures of personal fears and frailties. Will these bravehearts be profiled in the western media - getting guest columns, or featured in the weekend colour supplements? If so, they might touch a few raw nerves.
They could well call for Palestinians to be released from the concentration camps of Gaza and the West Bank, and have the vote, civil rights and economic equality in their homeland. They might agitate for democracy in the Gulf states.
Or they may harp on what The Economist has called "a certain amount of indulgence for the Mubarak government's repression" by the west. Just to be clear: an estimated 3 million people are employed by Egypt’s security agencies:
"Systematic" is how Amnesty International has described the use of torture by Egyptian security forces in annual reports for the past two decades. In 2007 it reported "beatings, electric shocks, prolonged suspension by the wrists and ankles in contorted positions, death threats and sexual abuse". In 2008 it suggested that as many as 20 people had died in Egypt from the effects of torture. In 2009 it said that impunity "continued for most perpetrators, exacerbated by police threatening victims with rearrest or the arrest of relatives if they lodged complaints". There was good reason why under the Bush administration Egypt was a favoured destination for "rendition" of terrorist suspects. ...The ruling National Democratic Party... is not especially democratic but it is ubiquitous, with branches in every village and on every college campus.
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