Analysis: Tahrir square had Twitter, Mubarak the muscle

Crackdown in Cairo reveals futility of much-vaunted social networking sites; media sympathy fuels a protest movement, not protection.

Bloodied Egyptian protester peace sign 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Bloodied Egyptian protester peace sign 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
CAIRO – Egypt’s January 25th movement has been a global media darling since it broke out over a week ago, riding the waves of the Tunisian uprising and inspiring millions around the globe, particularly in the Middle East.
The spotlight didn’t seem lost on the throngs in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, ground zero of the uprising, where there were enough foreign journalists, bloggers, tourists and Western observers on the scene to field an army.
Tahrir Square transforms into makeshift field hospital
Chaos spreads around Cario; looting gang fights rife
When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak gave his speech Tuesday night vowing to step down in six months, the mood in the square was both electric and defiant. The bone the regime was throwing the protest movement was taken as a half-victory at best, and even though on paper it was by all measures a major accomplishment for an unarmed, peaceful uprising, the square was emboldened. Again and again, protesters vowed to stay as long as it took for Mubarak to leave office, if not Egypt, entirely.
It’s hard to say why Mubarak’s concession didn’t placate the crowd. While it’s easy to understand how a people used to living under a regime run by intimidation, corruption and nepotism wouldn’t be quick to take the leader at his word, something else seemed to be at play.
The protesters, aware that they were the toast of the press and had the backing of untold millions watching on TV, live feeds and blogs, seemed to believe the hype: that people power could trump actual power, and that if they held out long enough, Mubarak would leave immediately. They seemed convinced that what happened in Tunisia would happen in Egypt, almost as if once they felt safe enough to open their mouths and face down riot police, they could face anything.
It seems they were wrong.
Things may change on Friday, if the protesters somehow acquire tanks and automatic weapons, helicopter gunships and maybe a few mechanized infantry units, but at the moment, it seems that sticks and stones and “having history on your side” will earn them nothing in the face of the well-armed suppression that will probably only get worse and more bloody and decisive until it succeeds.
That’s not to say that the army will necessarily fall in with the regime and begin using overwhelming force against the protesters, but so far, they have at least been guilty of turning a blind eye to the violence in the square. Maybe a sin of omission rather than commission, but decisive in its own way, nonetheless.
So far, the brunt of the bloodshed has been suffered by the anti-government protesters, but the violence and brutality cuts both ways. While it is true that they were set upon while trapped in the square, the anti- Mubarak crowds were quick to use violence when the time came, beating and lynching men suspected of being undercover police or paid provocateurs. These men were carried off on several occasions by the mobs, to God-knows-where.
While the protesters were acting largely in self-defense as the square came under siege, and the evidence against some of the men they dragged away was sound, in some cases, the breaking of their bones was audible even over the din of the crowds.
And will any of us in the press ask ourselves what our responsibility is when the inevitable purges begin? Will we ask what role we played in adding fuel to the protest, encouraging those courageous souls to stay in the square no matter the cost that they, not we, will pay? We all had a responsibility to cover the story, one of the biggest in decades, but sober analysis of the stakes at hand seemed few and far between. We talked about how it would affect Israel, America, even Iran, but few seemed to ask what would happen to the Egyptian Army officer paraded on the shoulders of protesters in images sent around the world, or the countless demonstrators who, in their incredible bravery, spoke to the cameras, to the world, and in the end, to the very people who will now be coming to find them.
Will we follow their interrogation and detention on Twitter? Will Facebook find a way to ensure they get proper legal representation? While social networking sites did galvanize the protest movement, as the world saw in Iran’s “Green Revolution,” when the hammer finally does drop, it doesn’t seem to matter if the world is watching, tweeting, blogging or hash-tagging.
As in Teheran, we are seeing in Cairo that while it’s great to have history and the media on your side, it’s better to have bullets.