Tanks vs. Twitter in Egypt

Sunday, February 13, 2011

It is hard to think largely about the sweep of events when one is reacting instantaneously to breaking . . . tweets.

Now there's a sentence one couldn't have imagined writing even a few years ago.

Translated to the more familiar vernacular, it is sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees. So it has been in trying to decipher the meaning of Egypt.

Since Jan. 25, we've been immersed in all things Cairo and Alexandria, watching as President Hosni Mubarak made it too easy to make jokes about "De Nile" being not just a river and seeing a revolution animated by social media.

Rarely has a generational schism been so vivid. The guns and old hardware of Mubarak's regime versus the new software and nebulous nature of a digitally inspired revolt. Even speculating on what might happen next was beyond our primitive ken. Who knew what the next tweet might suggest or what wave of human movement it might inspire?

Not even the Sphinx.

Superimposed on this unfolding drama were two generationally apposite faces - the brooding, sinister countenance of Mubarak versus the youthful, bespectacled Wael Ghonim, reluctant hero of the movement. The dark ages versus the enlightenment. The oppressive military-industrial complex versus nonviolent agents for freedom.

This conflict is familiar, both ancient and profoundly human. But the instruments shaping events are strikingly new. Of course the revolution's figurehead would be a 30-year-old Google executive.

Although we've been witnessing protests in the streets, and despite the hundreds who died and the thousands injured, this has been primarily a war of words. Even as thugs and police resorted to violence against protesters, Egypt's propagandist state TV slugged it out with tweeters, bloggers and Facebook friends on a virtual battlefield.

In this revolutionary revolution, the front lines were manned with typists. Less bloody, perhaps, but no less crucial to the endgame, and, sometimes, no less dangerous. Mubarak targeted Ghonim, who was arrested and detained for 12 days, held with a sack over his head.

Thursday night, when Mubarak announced that he wasn't stepping down despite all-day buzz that he was, we were reminded both how powerful and yet how fragile words can be.

Earlier in the day, Ghonim tweeted a celebratory message declaring: "Revolution 2.0: Mission Accomplished." On the other side of the world, CIA Director Leon Panetta said that Mubarak probably would be stepping down later in the day.

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