For three weeks, I watched history unfolding in Cairo’s Tahrir Square from a sofa that looked out onto a flat landscape by Sony. Then, President Mubarak made his dismal and rambling speech vowing (again) to stay on. With a heavy heart, I ended my vigil with BBC News 24 and returned to real life.
And so it was that, when the final unfolding took place, I was in Waitrose stocking up on the staples of a democratic, free world: lightbulbs, loo paper, dog food. When I entered, the headlines in the store’s newsstand warned of dangerous times ahead. By the time I loaded my Volvo, Mr Mubarak was gone, given the push by his ageing generals, who saw the future and realised that it didn’t include the corrupt autocrat who had ruled over their ancient country for nearly 30 years.
It’s now being called the January Revolution. But another name is competing with that name: the Facebook Revolution, the revolution started on Facebook by a young Google employee, Wael Ghonim. Articulate in English, Mr Ghonim created the Facebook page that first brought the pro-testors to Tahrir Square. He spent most of the January Revolution imprisoned, emerging in time to appear on television where he spoke about the frustration of Egyptians, the young, the educated, the intelligentsia, the professionals and the poor.
But when the history of the Facebook Revolution is written, it might begin with WikiLeaks, which published a secret cable written in July 2009 by the American Ambassador to Tunisia, Robert Godec. In it, he described the court of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, leader for two decades. ‘Whether it’s cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumoured to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants. Corruption… is the problem everyone knows about but no one can publicly acknowledge.’ WikiLeaks published the cable in early December. On January 14, the Ben Alis boarded their private jet and fled to Saudi Arabia.
But before the Nobel Prize is awarded to Julian Assange, the egomaniacal founder of Wiki-Leaks or to Mark Zuckerberg, the Aspergic genius who created Facebook, the real hero must be remembered. In Tunisia, a 26-year-old fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi could no longer endure the poverty, the corruption, the demands for bribes from the police. On December 17, he set fire to himself, triggering a reaction in the street and online that spread throughout the country like the flames that had enveloped him. When he died two weeks later, the beginning of People Power in the Arab world began.
In one of those small ironies in life, the DVD of The Social Network, the film about the founding of Facebook, arrived the day that Mr Mubarak resigned. It’s a useful reminder of what really brings about revolutions. History unfolded without storm@thebastille, bolshevicks@winterpalace or down@berlinwall.
History erupts after years of corruption and grotesque inequality-when 40% of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day; when a rising middle class works for wages too low to house or feed a family; when a network of secret police keeps the people, rich and poor, in a state of fear. Mobile phones and Facebook may now be the Paul Revere, but the cause of revolutions is old, old: ‘Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.’ Oliver Goldsmith wrote that in 1770.
Meanwhile, the founder of WikiLeaks is residing on a Suffolk farm half an hour away from here. All around me, lifting potatoes, pruning vines, sowing in the garden, running the restaurant and shop, is a network of young people who are all on Facebook. The world has changed, and George Orwell was right when he said that ‘to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle’. I hope the name Mohamed Bouazzi isn’t lost in the twittering cyber-rush of history. I pray that the story he began has a happy ending.