NEW YORK – It is hard to think largely about the sweep of events when one is reacting instantaneously to breaking … tweets.
Now there’s a sentence one couldn’t have imagined writing even a few years ago.
Translated to the more familiar vernacular, it is sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees. So it has been in trying to decipher the meaning of Egypt.
Since Jan. 25, we’ve been immersed in all things Cairo and Alexandria, watching as President Hosni Mubarak made it too easy to make jokes about “De Nile” being not just a river and seeing a revolution animated by social media.
Rarely has a generational schism been so vivid. The guns and old hardware of Mubarak’s regime versus the new software and nebulous nature of a digitally inspired revolt. Even speculating on what might happen next was beyond our primitive ken. Who knew what the next tweet might suggest or what wave of human movement it might inspire?
Not even the Sphinx.
Superimposed on this unfolding drama were two generationally apposite faces – the brooding, sinister countenance of Mubarak versus the youthful, bespectacled Wael Ghonim, reluctant hero of the movement. The Dark Ages versus the Enlightenment. The oppressive military-industrial complex versus nonviolent agents for freedom.
This conflict is familiar, both ancient and profoundly human. But the instruments shaping events are strikingly new. Of course the revolution’s figurehead would be a 30-year-old Google executive.
Although we’ve been witnessing protests in the streets, and despite the hundreds who died and the thousands injured, this has been primarily a war of words. Even as thugs and police resorted to violence against protesters, Egypt’s propagandist state TV slugged it out with tweeters, bloggers and Facebook friends on a virtual battlefield.
In this revolutionary revolution, the front lines were manned with typists.
Thursday night, when Mubarak announced that he wasn’t stepping down despite all-day buzz that he was, we were reminded both how powerful and yet how fragile words can be.
Earlier in the day, Ghonim tweeted a celebratory message declaring: “Revolution 2.0: Mission Accomplished.” On the other side of the world, CIA Director Leon Panetta said that Mubarak likely would be stepping down later in the day.
These were, alas, premature pronouncements. Instead of stepping down, Mubarak chastised foreign governments, reminding them and his fellow Egyptians that he was the leader of a civilization dating back 7,000 years (not a mere 200-plus), and that he was sticking around.
In the cable world where I dwell in my other life as a CNN anchor, we were preparing for a live news show around Mubarak’s surrender. Suddenly, discussion shifted to: Why didn’t the U.S. know this? Where was the intelligence on the ground?
While the White House scrambled to respond appropriately, Egyptian TV was busy managing Mubarak’s message by distorting Ghonim’s. The official spin was that Ghonim’s declaration by tweet of mission accomplished, along with comments on TV urging people to go home, followed rather than preceded Mubarak’s speech.
Rumors that Ghonim had betrayed the movement quickly erupted and he retreated from his never-wanted national pedestal to his private Twitter bunker. On Friday he fired a couple of parting shots, one to Mubarak (leave) and one to Western governments (stay out of our business).
To those sentiments, we might add a note to tweeters and speechwriters: Scratch “Mission accomplished” from the lexicon.
Now that Mubarak has stepped down, what happens next is anyone’s guess. And we will continue to guess, not only because we are voyeurs to history, but also because this is irresistibly fascinating. Beyond the political repercussions rooted in the here and now are other timeless themes. The transformation taking place isn’t only for Egypt but for mankind.
Perhaps we are not doomed after all.
This possibility is suggested by a single vignette from Thursday night when protesters reacting to Mubarak’s profoundly banal speech raced to the palace and stood in front of tanks. Unarmed men and women inspired by tweets of freedom stared into the bullying armaments of dead ways.
It was a stark image of the prolonged battle between good and evil that humans apparently have been fated to fight. This time, enabled by what we casually call social media, evil finally may be outgunned.
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