When I first encountered Twitter, I quickly became addicted to the kaleidoscopic stream of first-hand observations, reactions, emotions, humor and shared experience. This year, with the rush of events from the Middle East, being on Twitter is like stepping into the stream of living history. And just below the surface is another layer of links to smart and succinct analysis, as hundreds of knowledgeable commentators step back and apply their experience and insight to makes sense of what they are seeing and hearing.
The next layer will be longer pieces in monthly magazines and quarterly journals, where scholars and experts have more time to put the pieces together and take a longer view. And finally the books — we do still read and need books, even if we read them electronically — assembling the larger mosaic that we come to understand as history.
Revolution in the Arab World: Tunisia, Egypt, and the Unmaking of an Era, collapses two of those layers, allowing readers who are fascinated with current events but have no time or inclination to follow in real time both to experience the stream and to benefit from intelligent commentary while the lava of Middle East revolution is still flowing.
Edited by a very talented team of Foreign Policy editors and writers, Marc Lynch, Susan B. Glasser and Blake Hounshell, two of whom are also contributors, this e-book collects 45 short (most are 2-5 pages) pieces that have been written over the past year by journalists reporting directly from Tunisia and Egypt and other parts of the Middle East as well as commentators reflecting on events and interviewing participants.
Samples from the stream include Karim Sadjadpour's recitation of an old Iranian adage that the largest political party is "the party of the wind," at a time when the winds blowing across the Middle East are blowing sharply and suddenly.
Or a delightful essay by Issandr el-Amrani on Egyptian humor, which notes: "Making fun of oppressive authorities has been an essential part of Egyptian life since the pharaohs." A sampling of pre-revolutionary humor that captures just how convinced Egyptians were that their government was immovable features the archangel of death, who visits Hosni Mubarak and "tells him he must say goodbye to the Egyptian people. 'Why, where are they going?' he asks."
Accounts of Tunisia focus on the spark that ignited the revolution, proving to people across the Middle East that change could happen. Eric Goldstein chronicles the gradual growth of resistance to the government among Tunisia's middle class over the course of a decade. Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch argues that after years of ineffective private diplomacy, the most important contribution the U.S. made to the revolution was a leaked cable that exposed "what the United States really thought about the Ben Ali regime: a statement that was vivid, honest, raw, undiplomatic, extremely well-timed — and completely inadvertent."
Other pieces focus on Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan — virtually all of them make for lively reading that provides colorful context for the daily headlines. A few larger themes pop out. One is the recurrent note of pride — pride to be an Egyptian, to be an Arab once again. A young woman interviewed by Ashraf Khalil says: "I used to be almost embarrassed to be Egyptian; now at last I am truly proud." The majority of Americans assume that it is our birthright to be proud of our country, a pride that begins with our own revolution. These young people are making their own national stories, restoring a pride that goes back thousands of years.
The essay that will stay with me the longest is the one by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tina Rosenberg, called "Revolution U." It is the story of CANVAS, a group of young Serbians who brought down Milosevic and decided to teach their tricks to change-makers around the world. Their insights about how to turn a Facebook page into a revolution are fascinating, and often counter-intuitive.
Most important, revolution must be cool. According to one of the leaders, if wearing a protest movement's "fist-emblazoned black T-shirt makes you an insider in the revolution, getting arrested makes you a rock star. People who once thought of themselves as victims learned to think of themselves as heroes."
Revolution in the Arab World is actually described on the title page as a "Middle East Channel Production," produced by Britt Peterson. I thought visual media was produced and written media was published. This kind of an e-book is a somewhat ungainly hybrid. A full "production" would include multimedia streaming — video, still photographs, perhaps live interviews with some of the participants — alongside the text. The roles of journalists and documentary filmmakers would begin to fuse.
On the other hand, the deeper layer of analysis offered by authors like Tina Rosenberg, Robert Kaplan, and Marc Lynch doesn't need illustration; indeed, often the reader wants deeper research and reflection, old-fashioned as that may be. In a word, this format is in transition, just like the Arab world.