Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bullets, batons and fear

It has been an out of the ordinary start to the year for Social Media and platforms – chiefly Twitter, Facebook and YouTube -- and their contribution and role in the upheavals and clamor for change in Tunisia, a country I grew up in, and Egypt. The earth-shattering events in both countries consolidated the authority of these platforms as well as of bloggers into mainstream media.

The communication revolution and technological innovations played a major role in both events and will continue to do so. The ability to almost live happenings in Cairo and Tunis evoked in me memories of the 1975-1990 Lebanon civil war when we hardly had a telephone line, let alone the Internet.

Even now, we don’t stop complaining the Internet connection is slow, the Twitter “whale” has popped up on our screens because of overload. We feel cut off if we forget our mobile phone at home or in the car; if the Internet is sluggish or down; if a café or a mall has no Wi-Fi, if we can’t tweet from work... So can you imagine how it felt, and still feels, in Egypt without Internet and phones?

"Cairo with love" by Naeema Zarif (
With access to “field” information mostly denied, except for a few television stations, we were supporting the people in Egypt through a hashtag -- #Jan25 -- and by conveying ways to get around the shutdown and creating aggregators, as in the case of this image aggregator site created by Mireille Raad (@migheille) and Layal (@Nights) in Lebanon.

What got me writing about this was a tweet by @th3shad0w (Ryan Copeland), who said on Saturday (January 29): “Social Media has its role in these revolutions but we're really just a bunch of armchair pundits. It will be decided in the streets.”

Ryan added: “Curious how many Tweeps would/have ever protested, let alone braving batons & bullets. Not many of you, methinks.”

I couldn’t agree more with both statements.

We held our breath on Friday and tuned in to the television channels with the most credible reports and watched the events in Egypt unfold on our screens. We then tweeted what we were seeing to each other. Remember, Egypt proper was in a technology “black hole,” so it wasn’t much good to lift people’s spirit there.

Regarding how many of us would have braved the batons and bullets, I was immediately transported to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Some memories, even 29 years later are as vivid as the present moment, as I am sure the Egyptians out in the streets will never forget what they are doing and facing.

The morning of June 6, 1982 started as many others. Yes, Israel had invaded Lebanon. There were no landlines, no mobile phones, no Internet, no Twitter or Facebook to let us know the tanks had smashed their way through the borders first and into East Beirut by end-June.

On Wednesday 15 September 1982, the Israeli army thrust into West Beirut. I recall wearing a favorite yellow summer dress with red kitten heels that day and walking down to Monday Morning, the English-language weekly I worked for in the Wardieh district of West Beirut, not far from where the French Embassy was located.

After about five minutes I noticed that the streets were more deserted than usual; there was an eerie silence everywhere. I stopped at a grocer to buy a friend a bottle of J&B whiskey being sold with Hebrew lettering on the label as a joke. I kept walking. Then I started hearing a loud rumbling noise while people I was crossing were hurrying and looking anxious. The closer I got to Wardieh from Hamra, the louder the rumbling got, until I was finally told to take cover, “the Israelis have arrived.”

I hurried as much as possible, oblivious of my high heels, very anxious by then. But as I got within sight of our offices, I could see the tanks moving slowly towards me. I rushed into an apartment block where, luckily, a friend’s mother lived. Together, and with a handful of tenants, we went down to the parking that served as a shelter.

A few hours later, when the friend living opposite the French Embassy did not appear, anxiety set in. I spontaneously said I would go and check on him and see what was happening. The distance between the two flats is about seven minutes on foot.

I went out into the building’s courtyard and started walking towards the French Embassy, and then my legs froze. It is an inexplicable kind of fear. It is so all-consuming the body just goes rigid. I felt paralyzed. I couldn’t do it!

It’s nothing like covering the war with a media pass or as an embedded journalist… I don’t know. But it is one of the few past incidents that I regret in my life and cannot forget. How do you come to terms with such gripping fear, with being a coward, even at the expense of helping someone?

So would I be able to brave the bullets and batons? Somehow, I doubt. I’m thus full of admiration of every Egyptian man, woman and child out in the streets.