The easiest Egyptian revolutionaries for a non-Arabic speaking American to find are the young bloggers, wielders of camera-phones, YouTube uploaders, and social-network activists—”shabab al-Facebook,” as they are sometimes known, the Facebook youth credited with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. They are tech-savvy, cosmopolitan, often from elite origins, well-educated, and tend to speak excellent English—learned sometimes at school, sometimes from watching subtitled movies over the Internet.
One of the best-known bloggers in Egypt today is Mahmoud Salem, twenty-seven, who for several years blogged anonymously under the heading “Rantings of a Sandmonkey” and had accumulated 35,000 Twitter followers by February of 2011. He transmitted in English, partly to avoid the gaze of the security forces. He describes himself on Twitter as “Micro-celebrity, Blogger, activist, New Media douchebag, Pain in the ass!” His story illustrates how a young, educated elite lost confidence in Hosni Mubarak; how technological adeptness evolved into political dissent; and how dictatorial heavy-handedness backfired.
It’s beyond my competence, probably beyond anyone’s competence, to assemble fragmentary stories into a gestalt account, a description, either thick or thin, of the Egyptian uprising in its totality. There is such a thing as the fog of insurgency. It is especially thick in a society where estimates of illiteracy range from 28 percent upward.
Even in well-documented societies, decades after the events, doubt may remain about who did what, and in what sequence, during pivotal periods. In the case of the Chicago streets during the Democratic convention of August 1968, for example, the role of agents provocateurs remains opaque. In Egypt, one intriguing element involves bloggers who several years ago made contact with nonviolent activists in Belgrade—veterans of the student movement that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic—and through them made use of the highly sophisticated how-to-do-it manual written by a veteran American activist, Gene Sharp.
Still, judging from my limited experience, the least one can say is that the story of Mahmoud Salem is part of the story of what happened in Egypt, and it is not unique.
Toward the end of March, I met Salem in a Cairo bar. He is heavyset, talks fast, a storyteller, often unrestrained and ebullient. He was just back from Brussels, where he had gone to lobby for European pressure to compel an early trial for Mubarak and his family. His smartphone clamored every few minutes as he told me his story.
He graduated from Northeastern University in Boston, where he studied business (“of course,” he adds, the alternatives being medicine and engineering). After graduating, he returned to Egypt, worked in investment banking and marketing, and, at twenty-three, started to blog. Why? “It was all about, ‘Someone on the Internet is wrong, and I must correct it.’”...
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