Editor’s note: Foetus and Waterman asked to preserve their anonymity as a condition for speaking to Technology Review. Our rule is that sources should remain anonymous if their safety or the safety of their families demands it. In such cases, we ask the writer of a story to tell its editor the sources’ identities. Here, unusually, although the writer spent many days with Foetus and spoke to Waterman over Skype, he never learned their real names. But we interviewed people who know the two revolutionaries. We are confident they are persistent personalities, not noms de guerre assumed by different people at different times, and that they did what they say they did.
The street revolutions that overthrew the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia in January and February had no Lenin or Trotsky; but two secretive Tunisians known as “Foetus” and “Waterman,” and their organization, Takriz, performed a remarkable and largely unknown role. Many groups helped remove Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power—students, unionists, lawyers, teachers, human rights activists, and online dissidents—and Takriz has links with all of these. But its main audience is alienated street youth: the lifeblood, often spilled, of the rebellion in North Africa. That youth rebellion has since spread far beyond Tunisia and Egypt to enflame the entire region. The Arab Spring or Arab Awakening will smolder for years to come. And the combination of online and offline strategies and tactics that Takriz and others helped develop will be scrutinized for decades.
Takriz began as a tiny self-described “cyber think tank” in 1998. Although it has grown into a loose network of several thousand, the Takrizards, or Taks, rarely coöperate with journalists and carefully guard their anonymity. “Takriz” itself is an elusive word. It’s a street-slang profanity that expresses a feeling of frustrated anger: “breaking my balls” or “bollocks to that.” But what Le Monde called the group’s “irreducible insolence” belies a professional focus. Foetus, a technology consultant with an MBA and half a dozen languages, is a slight figure with a booming voice. He plays off his childhood friend Waterman, a big but more retiring man with a gift for writing. Takriz quickly got under the skin of the regime and has stayed there, even after the revolution. Hunted and exiled for years, many core Taks can still enter their country only with extreme caution, often undercover.
For Takriz, Ben Ali’s removal has changed little: the group believes that Tunisia’s interim government is cut from the same corrupted cloth as its predecessor. The situation is similar elsewhere in the region. Activists in Egypt are wary of the repressive Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that replaced Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. Meanwhile, founding members of Morocco’s February 20 movement, who seek constitutional reform rather than revolution, perceive changes recently proposed by King Mohammed as mere political theater. The elderly regimes of the Middle East and North Africa are unwilling to leave the stage, yet unable to satisfy the political and economic demands of a demographic youth bulge: around two thirds of the region’s population is under 30, and youth unemployment stands at 24 percent. Inevitably, the rapidly changing landscape of media technology, from satellite TV and cell phones to YouTube and Facebook, is adding a new dynamic to the calculus of power between the generations.
Takriz started with modest aims, including freedom of speech and affordable Internet access. Waterman recalls that the Internet was the only viable option for organizers in 1998, because other media were controlled by Ben Ali. Foetus, Takriz’s chief technology officer, a skilled hacker who started hacking because he couldn’t afford Tunisia’s then-exorbitant phone and Internet costs, saw another advantage online: safety. Takriz meetings “in real life” meant “spies and police and all these Stasi,” he says, using the term for East Germany’s secret police. “Online we could be anonymous.”
Anonymous, perhaps, but they soon caught the regime’s attention. The government blocked Takriz’s website within Tunisia in August 2000, around the same time it blocked several others, including those of Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders. Other Tunisian sites sprang up to take its place. A core Tak called SuX launched the first Arab-African social network, SuXydelik. Zouhair Yahyaoui, an older Takrizard then in his 30s, known online as “Ettounsi” (“The Tunisian”), started TuneZine, a humorous political webzine and forum that inspired many, not least with jokes such as this:
TuneZine is launching a competition for jokes, reserved for young people, about Ben Ali and his party.
First prize: 13 years in prison.
Second prize: 20 years in prison.
Third prize: 26 years in prison.
TuneZine made Ettounsi famous in Tunisia; it also led to his arrest and torture. He was sent to one of the worst prisons in the country, according to his brother Chokri, with 120 people in one room—”just one bathroom and hardly any water.” His sister Layla recalls that when he became sick and asked to see a doctor, “they beat him.” He went on several hunger strikes.
In 2003 the PEN American Center gave Ettounsi its Freedom to Write Award, and Reporters Without Borders awarded him its first Cyber-Freedom Prize. That year he was released, but in terrible shape; he could barely walk. As Ben Ali prepared to host the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), Ettounsi went to Switzerland for the pre-summit, remarking, “Maybe when I go back to Tunis I’ll be arrested again. It’s a risk, but I take it.” A few months before WSIS, he died of a heart attack, aged 37. It was a death hastened, in many eyes, by his treatment in prison. At the summit, Ben Ali imposed a local curfew. Activists and journalists were attacked, websites blocked, speeches and documents censored, and when a squad of plainclothes police turned up at a Global Voices meeting on “expression under repression,” the irony almost caused a diplomatic incident.
Even earlier, Takriz members had faced death threats and arrests. They call the early 2000s the “manhunt years,” when many members suspended their political activities as they forged new lives in exile. But the persecution of Ettounsi radicalized other Tunisians, like Riadh “Astrubal” Guerfali, a law professor in France. He made a parody of the Apple Macintosh “1984” video, with Ben Ali as Big Brother, and cofounded a collective blog, Nawaat, with a Tunisian exile, Sami Ben Gharbia. Guerfali and Gharbia found innovative ways to use technology: scouring plane-spotter sites for a video exposé of the reviled first lady, Leila, using the presidential jet to go shopping; “geo-bombing” the presidential palace by adding videos of human rights testimony that appear in the YouTube layer of Google Earth and Google Maps; and charting Tunisia’s prisons.
Another innovation is Takriz’s strong relationship with soccer fans. The mosque and the soccer pitch have been the only release valves for anger and frustration among the young under autocratic Middle Eastern rule, says James M. Dorsey, senior fellow at the Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, who writes a blog called The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. “Soccer gets little attention,” he says, “because soccer fans don’t bomb World Trade Centers.” They fight local battles instead, often against the police.
The inspiration for turning that spirit to political ends came after several Taks, including Foetus and SuX, were at a 1999 Tunisian cup match that erupted in violence. Scores were injured and several died. Ben Ali was appalled, but exiled Taks soon saw an advantage in working with Ultras, as the most extreme fans of soccer clubs are known. Over several seasons, SuX, who had a particular rapport with the fans on the terraces, developed a Web forum for Ultras from different teams, hosted by Takriz. A distinctive North African style of Ultra—one with more political character—spread quickly among Tunisia’s soccer-mad youth and then to fans in Egypt, Algeria, Libya, and Morocco. When the revolution began, the Ultras would come out to play a very different game. They were transformed into a quick-reaction force of bloody-minded rioters.
In 2008, protests focusing on corruption and working conditions broke out in Tunisia’s mining region, near the town of Gafsa. Six months of sporadic demonstrations peaked when security forces opened fire, killing one and injuring 26. There were hundreds of arrests. The unrest remained local, though, in large part because security forces cut the area off. Foetus admits it was “hard to build on these events” because “the technology wasn’t in place”: few Tunisians had camera phones or Facebook accounts. But Takriz sent members south, hoping to build networks on the ground by strengthening relationships with local union and youth activists.
Egypt, too, saw industrial protests in 2008, in this case in the city of Mahalla in the Nile Delta. Textile workers there planned a strike on April 6. Ahmed Maher, a 27-year-old civil engineer and activist, heard about it and decided to help by organizing further demonstrations in Cairo and a national shopping boycott.
“We didn’t think about Facebook in the beginning because [to us] it was very new,” says Maher. Instead the Egyptian organizers relied on leaflets, blogs, and Internet forums. When they did set up a Facebook page, they were amazed to see 3,000 new fans a day. At that stage, Maher saw little hope of immediately ousting Mubarak. “The main target was to inspire and encourage people to say no,” he says. “It was like training. The day was a rehearsal.”
A month after the April 6 protests, Maher was arrested, beaten for hours, and threatened with rape. On his release he called a press conference, where he spontaneously announced that he was starting the “April 6 movement.” He set out to find a cadre of independent-minded young people to join him. April 6 would become the core of the secular youth movement of the Egyptian uprising—a counterpart to the youth movement of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The first thing the April 6 leaders did was study. They started with the Academy of Change, an Arabic online group promoting nonviolent civil disobedience. Its inspiration was Optor, a youth movement cofounded by a Serbian revolutionary, Ivan Marovic, which helped overthrow Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Miloševic in 2000 by means of a “Bulldozer Revolution” that was remarkably peaceful: only two people died. Marovic later cofounded the Center for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies (Canvas), which has since trained activists from more than 50 countries. In the summer of 2009, April 6 sent an activist named Mohammed Adel to train with Canvas in Serbia. He returned with a book about peaceful tactics and a computer game called A Force More Powerful, which lets people play with scenarios for regime change. Taking advantage of the game’s Creative Commons license, April 6 members wrote an Egyptian version. “We used it to help train our activists,” says Maher.
In Tunisia, meanwhile, Ben Ali’s online censorship had been growing increasingly draconian. (In 2009 Freedom House would rank Tunisia below China and Iran on measures of Internet freedom.) Dailymotion and YouTube were blocked in 2007. A technique called deep packet inspection (which is much what it sounds like) was used to stop e-mail deliveries, strip read messages from in-boxes, and prevent attachments to Yahoo mail. Reports about Gafsa on Facebook, which then included just 28,000 of some two million Tunisians online, led the regime to block Facebook itself for two weeks. By October 2009, with national elections approaching, over 800,000 were on the social-networking service. (As Ben Ali fled more than a year later, the number would reach 1.97 million—over half of Tunisians online, and almost a fifth of the total population.)
For Takriz, Ben Ali’s 2009 reëlection was the last straw. Foetus could imagine another decade of “Ben Ali and his mafia” looming, but he believed that people were too scared to act. “So we turned up the heat in the stadiums and started boiling the Internet,” he says. “We decided to fuck everybody.” On Facebook the activists called out the opposition for its timidity. “We had to ‘electroshock’ them to get people to do that last step,” Waterman says. “Then we built momentum, momentum, momentum.”
This was just one of various tactics, from serious political analysis and leaked documents to scabrous polemic, that Takriz deploys to reach multiple audiences. Its leaders use street culture, slang, and obscenities to fire up street youth. As Takriz got harder and angrier, it lost goodwill with some bourgeois Tunisians. It was not just the bad language that troubled: to some, they seemed to be hooligans. August 11, 2010, marked 10 years since the regime had begun censoring the group’s website. Takriz commemorated the occasion by posting a video of a Tak urinating on Ben Ali’s photo. The youth minister was incensed, calling Takriz “black-hearted monsters hidden in dirty places and online.” The group had spoiled a pet initiative Ben Ali proposed to the UN: the 2010 International Year of Youth: Dialogue and Mutual Understanding, which began the next day, on August 12.
Takriz also tweaked Ben Ali’s paranoia about a coup d’etat. It created a fake Twitter account and a website, KamelMorjane.com, that featured pictures of Morjane, Tunisia’s foreign minister, meeting world leaders. Official photos of such meetings would usually include Ben Ali or at least his portrait in the background. Takriz chose photos without Ben Ali, says Foetus, “to mess with his head.” It was psychological warfare on the inner circle.
The summer of 2010 also marked the beginning of Egypt’s revolution. On June 6, 2010, a young computer programmer named Khaled Said was at a cybercafé in Alexandria when he was dragged out by two plainclothes policemen and beaten to death in the street. The police claimed he was resisting arrest. His family says that he had compromising videos showing the police dealing drugs, and that the authorities feared he would use a tactic that had become popular in Egypt: uploads on YouTube and Facebook.
Said became a revolutionary icon when ghastly post-mortem photos, taken on his brother Ahmed’s cell phone, were posted to Facebook. We Are All Khaled Said emerged as an enormously influential Facebook group; it now has almost 1.5 million members. Hassan Mostafa, a burly local activist, first saw the photos on his cell phone and immediately used his own Facebook page to call for a protest outside the police station. More than a dozen protesters were arrested and severely beaten. Mostafa would later be jailed for six months, after several more protests including a mock trial of the Mubarak regime performed outside the Said family home. “It was a fiction that has become a reality,” he says. The April 6 founder Ahmed Maher calls Mostafa “a movement in himself.” He adds, “He is a man worth a complete movement!”
The revolutions cooked over a long, hot summer. The global financial crisis bit, food prices rose, and a baking August Ramadan brought a month of days without food and drink. Neither Tunisia nor Egypt had much to celebrate.
Days after the Egyptian parliamentary elections, described as the most fraudulent ever by some human rights groups, Tunisia’s revolution began as it would end, in flames. On December 17, Mohamed Bouazizi, a poor vegetable seller, set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid in protest of a series of humiliations suffered at the hands of petty officialdom. Peaceful protests that broke out in response met with heavy-handed reaction, as reports online made clear, but the country’s tamed media kept quiet. Bouazizi’s death galvanized hitherto isolated pockets of resistance. “People realized it was now or never,” says Haythem El Mekki, who hosts a TV show about Internet society in Tunisia. They had to “go to the streets and scream and shout.” A Tak in Sidi Bouzid contacted the Takriz Facebook page admin about the first protests. He was directed to e-mail Foetus, who didn’t know him personally. Foetus decided on the basis of a Skype call to trust the source. Takriz leaders knew that Ben Ali would cut off the area as he had during the 2008 protests in Gafsa, so they rushed more Taks in to get there before road and Internet access was severed.
This poor interior region, far from the wealth of the capital and coastline, is hardscrabble territory. The people are tough: when one Tak was killed there, his mother, who has half a dozen sons working the fields, responded on a Takriz video by saying, “Even if I lose all my sons, I don’t care.” Protests and riots there have traditionally focused on issues such as unemployment. But Takriz tried to redirect them toward a particular end: removing Ben Ali.
Molotovs and Stuff
“We were online every day,” says Foetus, “and on the streets pretty much every day, collecting information, collecting videos, organizing protests, getting into protests.” Some met in person, in and outside Tunisia. Others logged in to an emergency online space. “We met using Mumble [which is open-source, uses digital certificate authentication, and is regarded by Takriz as more secure than Skype]. We had minutes so people who couldn’t make the meetings knew what was going on. We gathered information, bypassed censorship, channeled it on Facebook, scanned articles in the foreign media. We were in touch with the labor unions. We worked with everybody, we filled protests with people.” Takriz also helped on the ground “with Molotovs and stuff,” says Foetus. When the group put an instructional video for making a Molotov cocktail online, many thought it had crossed a line; but Foetus, though he does see a role for peaceful marches (not least to counter claims that protests were simply the work of “violent elements”), remains unconvinced that nonviolent methods alone would have expelled Ben Ali.
At a protest in Sidi Bouzid on December 22, Houcine Falhi shouted “No to misery, no to unemployment!” before fatally electrocuting himself. Two days later, a protester was shot and killed in a small town between Gafsa and Sidi Bouzid. As the troubles spread, the regime attempted to steal all the Facebook passwords in the country. On December 27, thousands rallied in Tunis. The next day Ben Ali sacked the governors of Sidi Bouzid and two other provinces, as well as the ministers of trade and handicrafts, communication, and religious affairs. He also visited Mohamed Bouazizi in a burn unit, in an attempt to display compassion. Addressing the nation, Ben Ali threatened to punish the protesters.
On December 30, a protester shot by police six days earlier died. Lawyers gathered around the country to protest the government and were attacked and beaten. On January 2, the hacking group Anonymous began targeting government websites with distributed denial-of-service attacks in what it called Operation Tunisia. As the academic year started, student protests flared. A flash mob gathered on the tracks of a Tunis metro and stood, covering their mouths, eloquently silent. On January 4, Bouazizi died of his burns. The next day, 5,000 people attended his funeral.
January 6 brought the regime’s response to the Anonymous attacks: several activists were arrested. Seven cars of police in balaclavas arrested the prominent student activist and former bodybuilding champion Sleh Dine Kchouk, a member of the Tunisian Pirate Party, which is part of an international movement that seeks to reform copyright and patent law. Another target was rapper Hamada Ben Amor, known as El Général, whose song “Head of State” (sample lyric: “Mr. President, your people are dying”) had been released online a week earlier.
Cyber-activist Slim Amamou was also arrested, and he used the location-based social network Foursquare to reveal that he was being held in the Ministry of the Interior. Both Kchouk and Amamou were interrogated about Takriz. The next day, 95 percent of Tunisia’s lawyers went on strike. The day after, the teachers joined in. The following day, the massacres began.
Turning Protests into Revolutions
Over five grisly days starting on January 8, dozens of people were killed in protests, mostly in towns like Kasserine and Thala in the poor interior. There were credible reports of snipers at work. These deaths would turn the protests into outright revolution. One graphic and deeply distressing video was highly influential: it shows Kasserine’s hospital in chaos, desperate attempts to treat the injured, and a horrifying image of a dead young man with his brains spilling out.
“It was really critical,” says Foetus. “That video made the second half of the revolution.” Posted and reposted hundreds of times on YouTube, Facebook, and elsewhere, it set off a wave of revulsion across North Africa and the Middle East. Like thousands of Tunisians, Rim Nour, a business consultant, was “online almost 24 hours a day,” spending a lot of time identifying government stooges on Facebook groups. She remembers the video vividly: “A friend put it up and wrote something like ‘You don’t want to see this, it’s horrible, but you must. You have a moral obligation to look at what is happening in your country.’”
“A medical-school student took it,” says Foetus. “The doctors said ‘Don’t film,’ and he said ‘Fuck off’ and filmed it. The regime had cut Internet service to Sidi Bouzid, so according to a Tak who asked to remain anonymous, Takriz smuggled a CD of the video over the Algerian border and streamed it via MegaUpload. Foetus saw the video and found it enraging. Takriz then forwarded it to Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera reaches a global audience, and populations Facebook cannot: the poor, the less educated, the older. The network’s Tunisian correspondent Lotfi Hajji recalls broadcasting live from his house “while the police were in front blocking me from going out to cover events.” To him, Al Jazeera gained a competitive advantage by being “flexible,” especially when using “fertile sources of content” like Facebook and other social media.
What the streets lacked in strategy and organization, they made up for in bravery. When someone was killed in a neighborhood, others “would turn and go ‘what shall we do?’” Foetus says. “It’s like a decentralized direct response. So they’d go burn something. Then the day after were the funerals. Then they’d fire some gas bombs. Then we’d fight again. Then the night would come, and it would go on.”
Facebook meets the Street
“Facebook is pretty much the GPS for this revolution,” says Foetus. “Without the street there’s no revolution, but add Facebook to the street and you get real potential.” During the revolution, Takriz had about 10,000 friends on Facebook. These were the active members, who didn’t care about the risk of befriending Takriz in public. Before the revolution, others were afraid to “like” certain pages or found that some people would unfriend them for having “liked” a dissident page. Today, Takriz has over 70,000 Facebook friends (perhaps one in 30 of the Tunisians on Facebook), even though it continues to attack the interim government. The government response to those attacks: censoring the Facebook page and sending the interior minister on national television to denounce Takriz (without, of course, using its unacceptable name).
In a paper published in the North Africa Journal, Tunisian virtual-reality scientist Samir Garbaya of the Paris Institute of Technology looked at Facebook posts during the revolution. He wrote a script, using semantic search techniques based on keywords related to ongoing protests, to measure how much time it took for posts to result in responses like comments. In November, the average was four days. The day after Bouazizi burned himself: eight hours. On January 1: two hours. As Ben Ali left: just three minutes. Garbaya uses the term “Streetbook” to refer to “the transfer of the interaction from social networks to manifestation in the real world, on the street.” That transfer, too, was speeding up.
On the street, the revolution was now intensely real. “Our motto,” says Foetus, “was ‘Don’t talk, don’t fucking analyze; get to the street, go fight.’” In real life, dozens were dying, hundreds injured. The street fighters included battle-hardened Taks and Ultras. “You had these old people who went for peaceful protests that last 30 minutes each day, then the tear bombs start and they go home,” he says. But the Takriz guys stayed: they knew that Ben Ali had to go, “or we’re dead.”
The revolutionaries wanted to “fuel the rage” until the entire population was protesting on the street; they knew that even the biggest protests measured in the tens of thousands. “To overcome that deficit,” argues Foetus, “you had to get the police to surrender.” Takriz uploaded pictures of burning police stations to Facebook. Many police handed their arms to the military and stayed at home. But not all: those who remained at their posts were loosed on the population. For three days they shot from cars while snipers shot from rooftops. The government now denies that these snipers existed, but witnesses remember seeing protesters with neatly drilled heads, and there are videos.
On January 13, Ben Ali threw the dice one last time. Speaking in dialect instead of formal Arabic, he expressed “very, very deep and massive regret” about the people his regime had just killed, and he offered to stand down in 2014. The opposition cautiously welcomed this. It wasn’t enough. Takriz uploaded a carefully drafted formal resignation letter by Morjane, in three languages, to KamelMorjane.com. Several international media outlets, and many Tunisians, took it seriously.
The next day, a massive crowd gathered in Tunis. Takriz hoped to use the size of the protest to help seize the Interior Ministry, but as the tear-gas bombs exploded, a lot of protesters melted away. A couple of hundred Tak Ultras tried to push on, without success. TAK Kram, a particularly hard-core Ultra group, split off and headed to the presidential palace—but Ben Ali had already fled to Saudi Arabia.
Three hundred Tunisians had died—considerably more, proportionately, than would die in Egypt.
Copy, Publish, Share
Twelve hundred miles to the east, in Alexandria, Hassan Mostafa was “hysterically happy” when he heard the news. He started texting: “Ben Ali gone. Possibility.” Recipients understood the possibility he had in mind. He reached out to some of the hardened criminals, “murderers and drug dealers,” he had met while imprisoned for his Khaled Said protest: their skills would prove useful in stealing police riot helmets and guns. Through them, Mostafa recruited an army of toughs from the poorest areas. The city of Alexandria is “like a cobra,” he says. “Mubarak always feared us.”
Mostafa knows technology has played a crucial role. “Before this social-media revolution, everyone was very individual, very single, very isolated and oppressed in islands,” he says. “But social media has created bridges, has created channels between individuals, between activists, between even ordinary men, to speak out, to know that there are other men who think like me. We can work together, we can make something together.” He recalls the April 6 movement spreading content via blogs and Facebook with the note “Copy, Publish, Share.” He knew it was working when people he didn’t know passed him printouts in the streets. Text messages were also used to call for protests, instructing recipients to “send to 10 people.”
Deep in Karmouz, the slum on the spot where Alexander the Great first docked, no one is on Facebook. But a group I interviewed there—including an ex-convict named Sparky, an Ultra named Gamel, and Ahmed Rahman, known as “the Groom of the Revolution” because he rushed from his marriage to the protests—all recalled texts reaching their phones. Some of these messages called for protests, and others specified where to meet. They forwarded the messages.
There were also e-mails with attachments describing how to deal with the military—”an Ultra thing from Tunisia,” remembers Kotb Hassaneen, another Alexandrian activist. Activists in Bizerte, a coastal port north of Tunis, confirm that the Egyptian revolutionaries sought their help via Facebook. Some of the tactics they shared, says Foetus, have roots in long-standing contacts with anarchist and international protest groups like Indymedia, the Antifascist Network, and CrimethInc. For example, the technique called “Black Bloc”—having protesters wear black clothing en masse for impact and anonymity, with padding and protection to reduce injuries—dates back to 1980 in Germany.
Activists also used social media to deceive the security forces, says Hassaneen. They would post meeting points online, then change them by phone shortly beforehand. And on the street, Mostafa’s army sought to tie up the police by protesting continuously in poor areas. “They never got sleep for four days,” he recalls. Mostafa was shot in the abdomen by security forces—some throwing petrol bombs—while storming the security service’s building in an effort to stop the destruction of documents. (He recovered.)
Meanwhile, Alexandria’s hackers set out to hack their own side, says Hassaneen. They probed the social-media and Facebook profiles of activists, testing for vulnerabilities. Facebook’s administrators took steps to increase the security of Egyptian activists’ profiles, according to a report on Newsweek’s Daily Beast website that cited Richard Allen, Facebook’s director of policy for Europe.
The most vital Egyptian Facebook page was We Are All Khaled Said. In the run-up to the revolution, its hitherto anonymous admin, Wael Ghonim, who was Google’s head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, flew from his home in Dubai to Egypt. In Cairo he was kidnapped off the streets by the regime and held incommunicado for 11 days. On his release, he appeared on Egypt’s Dream TV and said, “I am not a hero. I only used the keyboard; the real heroes are the ones on the ground.” Shown photos of protesters who had died, he wept. Overnight he became an international figurehead for the revolution. “Wael’s role was to help market the revolution digitally,” says Ahmed Maher, “but my role was in the streets. So we were sharing roles: one online, one offline.”
Fighting the Fear
The Ultras were also on Egypt’s streets. On January 24, the day before thousands planned to protest the Mubarak regime, the Ultra Facebook pages for Al-Ahly and Zamalek (Egypt’s biggest teams, traditional rivals) sent out a message saying, in effect, “We’re not political, we’re not part of this as an organization—you as individuals are free to do whatever you want.” The message was clear, says James Dorsey, the soccer blogger: “Go out and kick ass.” Ultras received other signals, too. Zamalek Ultras, for example, got the private message “This is what we’ve been preparing for.”
Ultras brought organization to the ensuing protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, says Dorsey. It was there, he says, that tens of thousands of people reached “the limits of technology”: they may have gathered in response to online communications, but once there, “they had no organization, they had no experience.” Two groups did have experience, though: the Muslim Brotherhood and soccer fans. “[The Ultras] fought battles, they understood organization, they understood logistics and they understood fighting a street battle with the police,” Dorsey says. “And in that sense they played a very key role in breaking the barrier of fear.”
It’s difficult to grasp that fear: you have to live it and breathe it. Asmaa Mahfouz, a 26-year-old protester, fights her fear with religious faith. A week before January 25, she organized a protest in Tahrir Square to mark the death of the first of four Egyptians who burned themselves in imitation of Bouazizi. She announced her protest online, even giving out her phone number. Just three people joined her—before three armored cars of riot police arrived. Released but still furious, she went home and made a vlog that went viral. In the video, she says: “If you think yourself a man, come with me on January 25 … Come and protect me, and other girls in the protest.” She added, “Sitting at home and just following us on the news or Facebook leads to our humiliation … go down to the street, send SMSs, post it on the Net, make people aware … Never say there’s no hope! Hope only disappears when you say there’s no hope.”
Mahfouz clearly remembers the moment she left her apartment to head to Tahrir Square on January 25. Her father asked her to stay, fearing he would lose her. Crying, he took her in his arms and said, “If I don’t see you again, remember I love you so much.” As she walked, friends called her mobile phone to tell her no one was protesting. She told them not to call her until after 2 p.m., the time when they had agreed to act. At exactly 2, people around her reached under their clothes and pulled out Egyptian flags. “I screamed, ‘Oh my God, I’m dreaming!’” she recalls.
In Alexandria, reporters got caught up in the excitement. Activists borrowed their connections to upload videos, says Hassaneen: “We used their Thuraya satellite phones. We uploaded videos, sent them to Tunisia, and they uploaded them to Facebook and to the Net.” There were activist control rooms in London, Dubai, and Tunis. Mubarak shut down the Internet and mobile connections for five days, but that was an “idiot procedure,” Hassaneen adds, “because all the people who felt digitally paralyzed marched into the streets. They were curious to know what was happening.”
In summary, people used not only all the technology they had, but all the technology they could borrow.
A Youth Revolution
The Arab Spring has sharpened an acrimonious debate in the United States and Europe about the uses and importance of technology in regime change.
Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University, is one notable optimist about the capacity of technology to foster social change. In his book Here Comes Everybody, he writes, “When we change the way we communicate, we change society.”
The journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who called Shirky’s book “the bible of the social-media movement,” strongly disagreed in a story in the New Yorker titled “Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.” Later, contemplating the protests on the streets of Egypt, he returned to his theme: “Surely the least interesting thing about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented.” The new testament of the skeptics is Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, which decries the “naive belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication.” The particular tenor of Morozov’s critique derives from his unsuccessful experience as a digital activist in his native Belarus, which Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. secretary of state, called “the last true remaining dictatorship in Europe.”
The dispute is highly polarized, but understanding what Takriz, April 6, and similar organizations actually did, and how they did it, makes the argument between cyber optimists and pessimists less academic. Indeed, the fact that regimes go to such trouble to monitor, identify, capture, beat, torture, and jail young people using online tools suggests that they, at least, see the power of new media. Egypt’s new regime, a military junta, feels sufficiently threatened by young bloggers to keep jailing them.
The young make up the bulk of these movements, and inevitably they bring youth’s character to their fight for change. Youthful protests can feel messy and chaotic. They are sometimes fun. They are often innovative. Organizing or attending protests gets fitted between flirting, studying, and holding down a job. Action for this generation is as likely to be mediated through screens—whether on a cell phone or a computer—as face to face.
But for Nizar Bennamate, the 25-year-old cofounder of Morocco’s February 20 movement, the street is where history happens. Like thousands of young Moroccans, Bennamate, who has often been beaten at protests, is unhappy with the corrupt Makhzen, the elite centered on King Mohammed V’s court. The streets, he says, are where the action is, and where “the real change” occurs: “On Facebook and Twitter and social media we just speak [about] what happens. If nothing happens, Facebook and media have no utility.” For Foetus, too, the street is of primary importance. He now wishes Ben Ali had not been toppled quite so quickly, “so we could have built stronger ties on the street and got more organized there.”
Thousands of lives have now been lost, and many more people have been injured. Real change remains elusive: those replacing Ben Ali and Mubarak are mostly members of the same stale regimes. But something deeper and more universal has been achieved: voice. New ties are being made both virtually and on the street. Social and mainstream media have connected people to each other and to the world. The youth of an entire region are speaking out with whatever tools they have, from social media to feet on the ground. The buds of the Arab Spring are young and still in need of nurturing, but George Washington’s observation may still hold true: “Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth.”
John Pollock is a journalist who writes mostly about Africa. His article “Green Revolutionary,” a profile of Norman Borlaug, appeared in the January/February 2008 issue of Technology Review.