Thursday, 3 February 2011

Tahrir right here

I’ve been trying to work out for a few days how exactly to write about the situation unfolding in Egypt; after all every detail is already covered by intense round-the-clock reports and the situation is literally changing minute by minute. Just weeks ago Mubarak looked unmoveable – days later he looked set to become the second dictator to fall in what has already been termed the ‘Arab Spring’. Yesterday his thugs (many of them non-uniformed police officers) nearly quashed the demonstrations in a brutal onslaught of bricks, bars, knives and petrol bombs. This afternoon they were on the retreat. This minute troop-carriers are moving into Tahrir Square, numerous journalists have been dragged from the streets and rumours are flying around raising speculation of everything from an imminent military coup to an impending massacre. By the time I finish writing, this will already be old news.

And that is the amazing thing.

For blogs, facebook, twitter, news websites and video feeds have transformed media and activism to such an extent that we are now aware of events literally as they unfold. Put the hashtag #Egypt into Twitter and you instantly have access to scores of updates every minute from journalists, protesters and NGOs on the ground in Cairo. Log onto Amnesty International’s blog and you can read detailed first hand reports. Turn to the Al-Jazeera or BBC sites for more analysis, live video and incoming pictures.

Footage of every attack on the pro-democracy demonstrators is beamed around the world in seconds. The names of every journalist lifted by the authorities is re-tweeted thousands of times. The movement of police officers and pro-Mubarak thugs is blogged, e-mailed and texted in and out of the country. The flailing president and his government cannot hide the truth.

That’s not to say they haven’t tried. Journalists have been attacked, twitter blocked and blogs shut down – but for every hole that Egypt’s dictatorship plugs, another load appear. And this flow of information does make a difference: protestors contacting each other, either directly or through third-party sites, are able to organise and act effectively; journalists and activists reporting events to the international community are able to ramp up the pressure on foreign governments; and campaigners based outside Egypt are able to provide valuable updates as well as vocal support to those inside. The internet will also help transmit inspirational coverage of the demonstrations into states such as Syria, Yemen and Libya where further protests are planned in the coming days. And lets not forget- the original planning for the Cairo uprising first took place on facebook.

Of course, terming events in Tunisia and Egypt ‘twitter revolutions’- as some commentators have hastened to do, is both naive and wildly simplistic. The internet is just one of many factors in a complex web including economic situations, regime behaviour and long-term socio-political developments. However it is a crucial factors and its importance should not be overlooked.

For further evidence of this we only need to observe the affect of online activities on some of the world’s most powerful states. The video Collateral Murder –one of the first and most damning files released by Wikileaks is viewable throughout the world at the click of a button; much to the discomfort of the American government and armed forces. More significantly still, despite enormous financial and technical investment in internet censorship – the Chinese government is constantly undermined both internally through dissident blogs (excellent translations which can be found on High Peaks Pure Earth) and internationally through the online circulation of evidence demonstrating its brutality (video footage of the Nangpa La Pass Massacre is just one of many examples). Perhaps one of the most amazing aspects of the online-media and activism era however, is just how easy the international transmission of information and opinion is: within 20 minutes of publishing a piece on Vladimir Putin to this very blog it was being read in Russia.

Ultimately change will come from actions on the streets of Cairo, Beijing and Moscow; but the internet opens a whole new battleground where victory can genuinely assist those on the ground. For anyone with a computer and a router Tahrir is right here.


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