You may think you've seen this movie before. Just two summers ago, in fact, in Iran. Never say never, but I'm saying never. You've never seen anything like what is unfolding today in Egypt
Just when it seemed humankind was doomed (pick your poison: pandemic, climate change, famine, drought, nuclear war) up pop Tunisia and Egypt. Overnight, it seems, the world has entered a new era
. As The New York Times put it:
It was a spectacle that would have been unthinkable less than two decades ago, when Middle Eastern governments strictly censored any subversive images. Now, it seems, all revolutions are televised.
Media love to use the word unprecedented, but for once, it's deserved. Before you start bracing yourself for a massacre of Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square, consider what may be the most game-changing weapon since the atom bomb: The Internet.
Like everyone else over the age of 25, I well remember the Tank Man
in Tiananmen Square, Bejing, in 1989. No one knows for sure who he was
, or if he's alive or dead. We do know that hundreds – perhaps thousands – of unarmed protesters and innocent bystanders died that night, and in the following weeks, by execution.
We also know that if you live in China and you Google Tiananmen Square, you get pictures and tourist information, but nothing about the momentous events of 1989. When a journalist traveled to China and showed a picture of the Tank Man to college students, they did not recognize it. One woman wondered if the photograph was taken during a military ceremony.
I well remember the protests in the streets of Iran
after the disputed 2009 election. What did Iranians want in 2009? A one-minute YouTube video
spells it out. This upload is dated June 19, 2009, but the message (subtitled in English) is clearly pre-election:
Defending civil rights... Acting against poverty and deprivation... Nationalizing oil income... Reducing tensions in international affairs... Free access to information... Supporting single mothers... Dealing a blow to violence against women... Education for all... Increasing public safety... Rights for ethnic and religious minorities... Supporting the work of NGOs... Public participation... We are asking for change... Change for Iran.
Doesn't seem like so much to ask, does it? The Iranian regime did not agree.
I remember Twitter avatars from every corner of the world tinted green in a show of support. Computer illiterates stretched their technical muscles and learned how to set up online proxy accounts for besieged Iranians blocked from the Internet.
And I remember the young, unarmed protester named Neda Agha-Soltan dying before our eyes. The video would later win one of the highest honors in journalism
– the Polk Award – for "anonymous."
In the days that followed, YouTube percolated with tributes to Neda and the other men and women murdered on the streets and in Iranian prisons. From the roofs of Tehran came cries for help from God, and the Poem for the Rooftops Suite
The most poignant moment for me was a blog post imploring America to come to the aid of the protesters. The writer assured Americans that Iranians had gotten over the whole Shah thing, and they would not assume Imperialist intentions on the part of the United States.
But no help came. Sympathetic Americans and Iranian ex-pats watched as the Green Movement withered in the face of merciless beatings and sniper fire. The crackdown by the military worked. According to historians
, live rounds fired into a crowd as often as necessary always
The worldwide protests in support of the Iranian people had no effect. Nor did the Twitter, Facebook and YouTube campaigns. Violence gets the last word.
Or does it?
Pessimists point to the Reign of Terror in France, the purges in Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution, and the iron grip of the mullahs in Iran to prove the point that revolutions take more lives than they save.
Enter the Internet. What seemed 20 years ago to be little more than an amusing toy soon became a wrecking ball in the economy (just ask workers replaced by cheaper, online substitutes) but also a potent force for democracy.
Seeing is believing. While we were playing video games, flirting with strangers and laughing at cats
, the world was busy reconstituting. No longer could the powers that be control the flow of information. When half the world carries a camera in its pocket and the ability to distribute images within the hour, the power shift is enormous.
On June 23, 2009, Columbia University's Hamid Dashi, professor of Iranian studies, wrote
It seems to me that these brave young men and women have picked up their hand-held cameras to shoot those shaky shots, looking in their streets and alleys for their Martin Luther King. They are well aware of Mir Hossein Moussavi's flaws, past and present. But like the color of green, the very figure of Moussavi has become, it seems to me, a collective construction of their desires for a peaceful, nonviolent attainment of civil and women's rights. They are facing an army of firearms and fanaticism with chanting poetry and waving their green bandannas. I thought my generation had courage to take up arms against tyranny. Now I tremble with shame in the face of their bravery.
Twitter, Facebook and YouTube can supply the tools for change, but it's real, live humans with red blood to spill who must supply the courage. Writes one New York Times commenter
: "Social media can inform, organize, and report in ways never before possible. [But] ... social media can not convince people to descend to the streets and risk brutality, arrest, death; only determination and belief in change can do that."
They are showing it now
. Estimates on the Egyptian casualties have already topped 100.
The protesters are not just brave. They are also savvy. They've supported the call for a secular government. When cries of "Allah Akbar" rang out, they were drowned out by louder chants
: "Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian."
Uploaded just three days ago, "The Most AMAZING Video on the internet
" has had more than a million views. "It's very bad for my government," says a middle-aged Egyptian to the camera. "I haven't food, I haven't anything." He mentions his sons, and adds, "I will die today."
Another man: "We will not be silenced. Whether you're a Christian, whether you're a Muslim, whether you're an atheist, you will demand your goddamn rights, and we will have our rights, one way or the other! We will never be silenced!"
In the description window appears a warning to the hall monitors of YouTube: If this video "gets flagged or removed, it will be uploaded 10 more times." Sure enough, like the mirror WikiLeaks sites already proliferating, copies of the video were lined up, ready to carry the torch.
Just like the Iran protests in the summer of 2009, women are everywhere
The solidarity is palpable. Writes one observer on the ground
: "Members of the police who strayed away from the back would be treated well and told, 'you are our brothers and fathers, you are from us and we are from you, we are all Egyptians, we are doing this for you too.' They replied, 'we are with you in heart, we are just following orders.'"
I'm not naive. I realize the roots of war go deep. The earth still holds a growing population competing for resources. That hasn't changed. What has changed is education and communication.
How long will Americans turn their backs on the people of Egypt once they read the WikiLeaks document revealing the "routine and pervasive use of torture by Egyptian police
? How long can Americans demonize people of a different faith or ethnicity when they can go online and see videos of women in hijabs dancing in flash mobs
to the beat of a British rock star?
Likewise, how can young Arabs demonize America when so many people here are asking: What can we do? How can we help? Among the comments online about the events of the last week in Egypt: "beautiful. This is what it looks like when people know they are not free. In countries where people think they are free they watch Oprah."
Another comment: "Every such protest in the Islamic world has turned the respective country into an Islamic republic.. But I have changed my opinion.. Because, I heard a guy scream in front of the camera 'Dimuqratiya.. jamahiriyat..' So, I understood what's happening."
The language is Azerbaijani, and the meaning is: "Democracy; rule by the people."
Finally, in the streets of the Arab world, we are seeing the answer to al-Qaeda for which Westerners have been waiting. Years ago Islamist extremists learned how to leapfrog over geographic boundaries and form a coalition. Well, two can play that game.
The invasion of Iraq was a disaster in many ways, but it did provide us with a lesson. We saw in dollar and body counts the unintended consequences of toppling a dictator. Change has to come from the people.
And, it seems, the people are ready. In a matter of days, we've seen a new Egypt emerge
. We've seen Egyptian pride.
I don't know how all this will end. I'm curious as hell. And I'm something else that feels new and strange. I'm optimistic.
If Neda could see all the commotion in the streets of the Arab world now, she'd be smiling. I hope I live long enough to someday visit Iran, and walk down a street that bears her name.
Follow Donna Trussell on Twitter.