Cairo’s lesson: Twitter is mightier than the tank

Euphoria and a sense of wariness in Tahrir Square as Egypt’s army takes over from Mubarak

Column LAST UPDATED AT 19:16 ON Fri 11 Feb 2011

President Hosni Mubarak is down, out of office, but not out of the country as he licks his wounds in the opulent splendour of his seaside villa at Sharm-el-Sheikh. To the end he showed an appalling sense of timing, a military dictator out of touch with his people and the wiser heads around him.

Given several opportunities to jump, after 18 days of popular uprising, he was pushed - and by the people he thought would save him in the end, the Egyptian army.

With the Army Council now in charge, on the surface it looks like a military coup – but so far it has been a soft one, probably the first velvet military coup in the Arab world.

Announcing the sudden departure of Mubarak, Vice President Omar Suleiman spoke at the hour of evening prayers. He said the constitution and the parliament are now suspended – and the Army Council is now the authority running Egypt.

Suleiman looked visibly shaken, as well he might be, for he too is now out of a job and his career as the hard man of the old regime could come under scrutiny, particularly his involvement in Egypt’s role in the extraordinary rendition of CIA prisoners.

The new rulers in the army and public administration know they have to act quickly, to get a new parliament elected to draft a new constitution and to do something about the desperate poverty which triggered the spontaneous revolt – and which sees around 40 per cent living on the subsistence line or below.

In the euphoria of the announcement of Mubarak’s departure, even in Tahrir Square there were voices tinged with caution and apprehension. Alia, a student, was heard on the BBC speaking of her “euphoria – but also a sense of wariness,” as she put it. An Egyptian journalist and editor told the BBC reporter, “I have waited years for this, and I still cannot really believe it: the people of this country now feel they really own it.”

He then went on to explain that reforms “would need to take 10 years”, but first he said that the money the Mubarak clan had accrued should be recovered with all speed.

The novelty of the protest is the way it drew on old methods and new ones - the street and neighbourhood demonstrations, civil disobedience, the occupation of large public spaces like Tahrir Square, combined with the use of Twitter and Facebook and the mobile phone text.

That so much was achieved in front of a global audience by television and the internet may have reduced the violence. The line of electronic as well as physical protest runs directly from the ousting of President Zine al-Abidine Ben-Ali of Tunisia to the ending of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship.

A new political dynamic appears to have been born. The protesters in Egypt have received support over the net from the opposition in Iran – and, belatedly, even from the Tehran regime, wishing to claim ownership of what it chooses to see as an Islamic uprising.

The openness of the social networks may be the reason why, in Egypt itself, no ideological constituency has tried to hijack the revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen have been extremely cautious about the movement’s role in the coming months, and none has claimed it speaks for the Egyptian nation.

More surprising, perhaps, is that nothing has been said by al-Qaeda. Yet so much of al-Qaeda’s message and mission stem from events surrounding around the assassination of President Sadat in 1981, when Dr Ayman al Zawahiri - now Osama bin Laden’s ideologue - rose to prominence.

The ousting of Hosni Mubarak will have global and regional consequence, particularly to those regimes of an absolutist nature in the Arab world - Libya, Syria, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in particular. Perhaps the old maxim that the pen is mightier than the sword should be adjusted to ‘Twitter can be mightier than a main battle tank’.

There is also a warning for Europe. One of the more thoughtful demonstrators in Tahrir Square told the BBC from Cairo this evening: "If things go wrong, and there is more trouble and upheaval, then Europe can expect the pressure of migrants trying to escape from here to go up ten-fold." · 

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