Right now I’m watching pretty much non-stop coverage of the situation in Egypt. As of about 4.00 am our time, the military is in charge. President Hosni Mubarak – after 18 days of stubborn refusal – finally stepped down and retreated with his family to their summer home at Sharm el-Sheikh. Nearly two million people are in Tahrir Square, celebrating.
Leaders from President Obama to the Danish PM to our own PM and Foreign Minister have fronted cameras, talking about how pleased they are to see that the ‘will of the people’ has been heeded, and that now the work of building a strong, free democracy starts.
Iran, as part of their annual Islamic Revolution celebrations, claims full credit, taking a bit of time to make sure their ‘Death to America! Death to Israel!’ sentiments are clearly heard. No one’s listening, though.
In Tahrir Square people are waving – not burning – the Egyptian flag. They’re climbing on tanks – not to fight the military, because the military are right in there with them, and there are no guns in sight. You can hear singing, clapping and cheering. It’s been nearly ten hours since they learned Mubarak was gone, and people just keep coming to join the party.
It’s not a revolution without bloodshed. Nearly 300 people are estimated to have been killed, most peaceful demonstrators who were set upon by police and thugs bussed into Cairo to break up the protests. They’re considered martyrs. Countless others were injured, including many journalists.
At the height of the protests, and Mubarak’s attempted crackdown, journalists were targeted to be harassed and terrorised. Al Jazeera’s hotel room was raided, and all their communications equipment confiscated. Possibly the most well-known blogger in Egypt, Sandmonkey, was detained and his blog suspended. One by one, the internet providers in the nation were shut down.
But an Al Jazeera journalist, after his release, obtained a mobile phone and went back to Tahrir Square. His press credentials were revoked, so he started phoning in ‘citizen journalist’ reports and tweeting. Sandmonkey followed suit. Journalists sent their stories via satellite. Facebook and Twitter – the catalysts for this action – ran hot with people in the middle of the protests determined to be heard and to let the world know what was happening. Google and Twitter co-operated to set up Speak to Tweet, so that people without access to the internet could make a mobile phone call, speak their message and have it translated to a tweet. It even automatically attached the most common hashtag for the crisis – #egypt – to allow for maximum exposure.
The protesters tweeted about where they were due to meet, what medical supplies they needed, how everyone was feeling, and – perhaps most crucially – what was happening to them.
And everywhere, people joined in the scrutiny. The calls for Mubarak’s resignation were repeated by people in hundreds of countries. All those voices, all saying the same thing, all crying out for support and freedom for the Egyptian people.
Without those people with their phones, the world would not have known about the deaths and arrests. We would not have heard about the police threats to rape men who stood on the barricades to protect the injured and those resting inside.
Without them, we might have believed that pro-Mubarak demonstrators had triggered aggression from the protesters in the Square. We might have suspected, but would not have known that they were carrying police-issue riot shields, batons and tear gas.
Without the hastily cobbled-together satellite links, we would not have seen how those same thugs threw Molotov cocktails into the crowds.
This was not a mediated revolution. Sure, CNN edited together some fantastic packages of footage, and every news service had its pet expert. But from Facebook and Twitter we could hear the voices of people on the ground, people who were willing to risk their lives for an ideal of freedom and who felt they simply couldn’t wait any longer.
We could click on the links to the photos taken with mobile phones in poor light, showing protesters being carried in bleeding.
We could read the grief and anger from those who believed, and fought, and came close to despair.
Now, finally, we can switch around the channels and see the mainstream media showing us the celebrations. And they are wonderful.
But I will never forget the words of the people who were down there in the Square, or out in Alexandria – not spoken into a microphone and edited by a news service, but raw and emotional, typed at white heat. And the way the world slowly turned its attention to something that – only a few years ago – would have happened at one remove, presented to us with commentary and neatly-edited footage.
And it’s not over yet. This is the first step. Something could still go horribly wrong, as it did in East Timor after the 1999 referendum. The difference is that this time, everyone will be watching.
A post that scrolled by on Twitter almost too fast to read (as hundreds of messages poured in every minute) caught my eye. It said, ‘There are no journalists and people. Everyone is a journalist today’.
Next time Facebook annoys the hell out of me with Farmville requests, or Twitter seems full of nothing but trolls and inane Foursquare messages, I’m going to remember Egypt, and the signal that couldn’t be stopped.