A recent article Mubarak steps down. But let’s be clear – Twitter had nothing to do with it published recently by the Telegraph, had me incandescent with rage. And now that I have had time to reflect, let me tell you why.
In December last year I saw some Tweets about unrest in Tunisia, but stupidly I ignored them. Then round the January 10th I noticed more Tweets and I started paying attention.
A lot of the Tweets from Tunisia were in Arabic and French, but via Quora, I found the editor of Read Write Web France, who was intimately involved with hackers such as Slim Amamou (now Minister for youth in Tunis) in fighting the government hacking of Facebook.
Summary is this – it was largely Facebook that done it. On the 15th when Ben Ali fell I started seeing more Tweets from people in Egypt. Facinated, I found a gathering in Egypt celebrating the Tunisian success. Most of the Twitter logos already had the date 25 January on them, I only later learned of the significance. Oddly enough this celebration had present many of the people that would feature prominently throughout the uprising.
I did more research and found out that the date 25th January was announced as a massive day of protest on the We are all Khaled Said Facebook page. Many were sceptical including hardcore Egyptian activists and Newsweek .
I then learned that there was an earlier April 6th movement lead by ‘Facebook girl’ Issra Abdel-Fattah and Ahmed Maher (an engineer). Both had used Facebook and the streets to bring about a strike in April 2008. Both were arrested, she twice, for their Facebook efforts.
Back to the 25th. Even (Google executive) Ghomim says he was surprised at the turnout on that day. He was the secret administrator of the largest Facebook page of more than 300,000 members strong. There were at least five other copycat pages with more than 30,000 members.
I was already following him on the 25th but I did not know how significant he was until four days later when people started to ask what has happened to him. Another person I had been following since the 15th at the Cairo Tunisia celebrations was arrested on the 25th and Tweeting from the back of a police van.
The day after Ghonim’s release, Ahmed Maher and Abdel-Fattah, other April 6 leaders, and Sandmonkey (a blogger) agreed that Ghonim should lead the youth.
It’s true that the Ghonim broadcast reenergised the protestors, but not because it was on TV. Only a small group of people saw it there. I heard an Egyptian print journalist exclaim surprise the next day at the size of the protests, while 30 Egyptians I follow on Twitter had predicted it the night before as a fait accompli.
I watched as bloggers such as Sandmonkey and Ramy Yaacoub organised the capture the video and spread it to Facebook. That night Ghonim’s new Fanpage on Facebook grew with 50 ‘Likes” per second. It was like watching a volcano build up a head of steam.
During the final days Ghonim was meeting with people such as Sandmonkey – who I had followed for weeks for advice. It felt like I was privy to the inner workings of a revolution.
During the time I tweeted profusely and received a great thank you from a couple marrying on Tahrir Square. I sent them articles and chatted with some of them. It felt like I got to know them. I was anxious when access to the internet was cut, but was pleasantly surprised as most of them found a way back onto it within 24 hours.
Lastly I would just like to mention the irony of it all. Facebook as a company did zero to assist the Tunisians or the Egyptians. In fact they made it hard for them, at one time disabling the Khaled Said page.
* Wessel Van Rensburg (@wildebees) was editor of South Africa’s biggest student newspaper when apartheid came down and has first-hand experience of state expression and regime change. He was also an investigator for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)