Here's my latest column for the Caledonian Mercury - the product of more than a few days spent obsessed with the current Egyptian uprising, via all the new media forms and continuous live feeds that exists to keep the armchair viewer of world history occupied. At the end, some rueful reflections on the comparative bathos of the coming Scottish Election. All comments welcome.
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Gil Scott-Heron once sang that the revolution will not be televised. The Tunisian revolution, and the continuing Egyptian uprising, would seem to refute the great man’s chorus. But it’s worth returning to the last lines of the original lyric: “the revolution will be no re-run, brothers … the revolution will be live.”
And indeed it has not been an edited package, “brought to you by Xerox, in four parts without commercial interruptions”, as Scott-Heron once growled. Via Twitter, BBC Online and the continuous live web transmissions of Al Jazeera English, it has been very easy to set aside my daily world of gigs, commissions and bills, and be an armchair witness to history.
Al Jazeera English, in particular, has been fascinating. With anchors and journalists from Britain, the US and the middle-East, it’s been like watching BBC and CNN liberated from the usual ideological manacles that contain English-speaking news discourse about civil unrest.
State heads like Obama, Mubarak and his hastily appointed new cabinet have certainly had their pronouncements dutifully covered. But it’s Al Jazeera’s prior and substantial presence in Egypt – with scores of journalists already in the bureaus, and (after the station was evicted from the country in the last few days) anonymously phoning in reports from the streets of Cairo and Alexandria – that has rendered the most extraordinary record of events.
Covertly recording footage from rooftops, combined with eyewitness accounts on satellite phones, they’ve captured the early joy and exhilaration of the occupation of Liberation Square, and the current slide into near civil war, as the anti-government masses desperately defend their occupation of this symbolic space.
The minute-to-minute reportage has been, to these eyes and ears, properly balanced. They’ve not just recorded the unpredictable miasma of events that a leaderless street revolution brings, but also allowed an impressive Egyptian intelligentsia to inform the agenda of what’s happening.
We should perhaps call them netocrats – so many are self-described as bloggers and social media experts. On a roundtable I watched in the early days of the uprising, Al Jazeera gathered together a youthful trio that exuded intelligence, charisma and a profound distrust of any vertical leadership, including that of the Nobel Peace Prize winning nuclear weapons inspector El-Baradei.
They sounded like a graduate generation, their awareness of better standards of democracy and development amplified by social media and the internet – all this building up a swell of impatience with the steely paternalism of the Mubarak regime. And let’s not forget their inspiration by the thoroughly cyber-spaced Tunisian revolution – which used Wikileaks’s leaked cables about Tunisian political corruption as the spark to mobilise a similarly educated and connected graduate class.
Some of these Egyptian netocrats are exiled in major metropolises. But they’re using both top-down and bottom-up information tools in order to become their own personalised news channels. They not only aggregate comment from friends, family and colleagues on the ground through social media, but also drive traffic to these aggregations through pugnacious tv interviews.
Foremost among these is Mona Eltahawy, currently all over US and UK TV and the Twittersphere, in which she assiduously re-tweets voices and accounts from the literal heart of the revolution (like Mosa’ab Elshamy, Sharif Kouddous, and Ramy Raoof). Follow these feeds, and you’re right at the core of the spectacle in Tahrir Square.
In this thoroughly reverberating net-world, you can also make direct personal connections with like-minded souls, through very simple and direct means. At the beginning of the uprising, I tweeted an image I found on the BBC website – a photo of protestors linking arms to protect the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo from looters.
The text that accompanied the image was: “The human wall protecting Cairo museum. So beautiful”. Which it was: a row of men, in civilian clothes, looking fearful but determinedly defending their heritage.
Since then, I’ve seen that my tweet has been distributed (or as they say, re-tweeted) thousands of times – my original text retained, and framed with several languages from both hemispheres. Yes, there have since been reports of museum lootings and destruction of artefacts, though with Cairenes and the army combining again to protect the treasures within.
But in the meantime, my text and image just keeps getting passed on from hopeful idealist to hopeful idealist around the world. People seem to want an idea that defies the narratives of chaos and destruction shaping most news reports on the Egyptian uprising.
It’s a subtle and moving image. What it communicates is that revolution isn’t just about unleashing the unruly masses, but also can be a wise and informed act of self-determination. That an uprising can be just as aware of what needs to be protected, as well as what must be overthrown. Does it misrepresent what’s happening on the streets of Cairo right now? Undoubtedly. But in the politics of the networked world, it can be just as important to transmit inspiration as information.
The multitudinous revolutionaries of the Egyptian street need as much help as they can get. As an image of national transformation conducted with civility and wisdom, I’d be more than happy if it helped to re-define the national brand of the new Egypt – where the soft power of reason and democracy triumphs over the hard power of Mubarak’s police state.
And one last thought, as the rocks fly across Liberation Square. Compared to these heroes, we in Scotland have such a tiny, peaceable distance to travel, in the journey from devolution to statehood. It would be a delight if the vitriol on both sides of this argument in the coming Holyrood election was thinned out, as we remembered the sight of millions of unarmed Egyptian citizens making light of army tanks and state police.
If it happens at least once, I’ll tweet it for you. Don’t expect it to go viral, though. And “The Devolution May Well Be Re-Revised” isn’t that much of a chorus line, either.