Twitter in Egypt and at home

I started writing about Egypt because I was moved by an email we received on January 27th, with only a subject line, “Re: URGENT: Egypt blocks text messaging as well” and no body. It was from a Canada-based Egyptian, Mohamed El-Zohairy who was trying to get the word out about what would eventually be a complete Internet blackout in Egypt on that day.

The two screen-captures above show twitter posts: one by me and one by my dad. We aren't really twitter people. At least, I'm not, and my dad has only been on a computer since Christmas. Still. I wanted to say something here. Actually, I wanted to say many things, about Egypt and learning and literacy and... stuff. But let me start with this:

Twenty-five years ago, there was a revolution in the Philippines.

The beginning of the end for the dictator and U.S. ally, Ferdinand Marcos, came three years earlier with the murder of exiled leader Ninoy Aquino. Over the next few years, civil disobedience, quiet plotting within the military, international criticism (in those days, the world media didn't smply repeat whatever the U.S. government said) and growing economic problems put pressure on the Marcos dictatorship. The Catholic Archbishop of Manila openly rejected the government line on the assassination.

National elections, held in February of 1986, suffered from the usual violence and tampering, and, as usual, Marcos was declared winner. But no one believed it. The national Catholic Bishops' Conference issued a statement condemning the fraud. In fact, by this point, even the U.S. government began losing faith in Marcos. The U.S. Senate repeated the bishops' condemnation, and President Reagan, reluctantly, called the reports of election tampering "disturbing".

When Marcos was proclaimed the winner, all 50 opposition members of the parliament walked out. Marcos' main opponent, and the likely winner of the election, was Aquino's daughter, Corazon Aquino. She called for strikes and mass protests. A group of armed forces officers attempted to overthrow Marcos, but fumbled badly and Marcos ordered the leaders arrested. The officers sought help from the national police, under command of Lt. Gen Fidel Ramos, and the national Catholic church headed by the Cardinal Archbishop of Manila. These three groups issued statements through the radio station Radio Veritas, mobilizing nearly a million protesters. At this point, mainstream media in the U.S. also began broadcasting the story with regular updates. I remember listening to it on the all news radio station WCBS 880 out of New York.

In the early spring of 1986, I was in at our family's cottage - now my mom and dad's home - working my way through German Lutheran Wolfhart Pannenberg's writings on history as revelation; reading him in tandem with German author Jürgen Moltmann's 1964 Theology of Hope, and two works by Latin American liberation theologian Juan Luis Segundo. Those were books with terrible long sentences and ridiculous subtleties that - these days - appear more like sheer silliness. Still, it was hard to resist the mix of stern German doxological truth and a teología de la liberación from below what with bishops talking revolution on my radio.

Troops still loyal to the government knocked down the main transmitter of Radio Veritas, limiting its range of broadcast. But by then, citizens were in the streets. On February 23, military tanks and armored vans were sent in against the protesters. They were halted by Catholic nuns holding rosaries and kneeling in front of them. Ground troops were also sent in, and then blocked by men and women who linked their arms to hold them back. That night, the transmitter of Radio Veritas failed altogether, but the rebels began broadcasting from a secret location named Radyo Bandido.

At dawn on Monday, February 24, marines shot tear gas at the demonstrators, and helicopters were ordered to attack them. Instead, the pilots joined with the opposition movement and, that afternoon, attacked the only significant airbase still loyal to Marcos. By now, the majority of the armed forces supported the protesters. By nightfall, they had captured television station Channel 4.

On the morning of Tuesday, February 25, the rebels - with army and church support - swore in Corazon Aquino as President of the Philippines. An hour later, Marcos was also sworn in by his supporters. But the television broadcast of this event was cut off, and protesters massed outside his presidential palace. That evening, the Marcos family was evacuated by four US Navy helicopters to Clark Air Base, a U.S. military base north of Manila. From there, they escaped to Hawaii. Meantime, demonstrators were finally able to seize the presidential palace for President Aquino.

The fireworks above are from Egypt, not the Philippines, but the story has been much the same. Military and religious leaders sided with their countrymen against a dictator (Hosni Mubarak) who held power through election fraud and torture. Western governments backed the dictator, but the protests continued. Government and rebel forces fought for control of mass media broadcasts. The rebels won, and the protest spilled across the airwaves (though now as wireless signals read by laptops and cell phones). The citizens marched on the palace, and the dictator fled.

But the story has also been different - not least in how irrelevant the older Western worldview has become.

First, there are the religious-cultural differences. The churches in the West don't champion real revolution much these days. Of all his books, I found Juan Luis Segundo's Theology and the Church: a response to Cardinal Ratzinger and a Warning to the Whole Church (1985) the most compelling. But, as it turned out, the cruel and dishonest Cardinal Ratzinger became present day Pope Benedict XVI, and Segundo's voice has been lost. Liberation theology did not liberate Latin America or Europe.

So too, Pannenberg seems to have lost all sight of history as revelation. There was already a softness in his work in the 1980s. For example, in the journal Christian Century, in March of 1981, Pannenberg wrote, without apparent irony, "the more insecure the future of a liberal, secular society appears to be, the more confident I feel about the future of religion." We who have seen the replacement of secular liberalism with an unrestrained fundamentalist Islam - the beheadings and stonings and planes crashing into office towers - might wonder why anyone would chose a revival of religion over liberalism.

Nor are we much comforted by his qualification: "the only serious challenge to Christianity will not be secular society, which is badly in need of religious support in our days, but rival religions." If the Tea Party gang and other right-wing Christian organizations are an improvement over al-Qaeda , it is only because secular Western law still forbids the worst religious excesses.

Evidence that Pannenberg remained unable to learn from history came in March 2003 when he wrote, "Cultural reclamation included affirming Germany’s specifically Christian heritage, which was helped by the fact that the churches had been less morally compromised than other institutions during the Third Reich." He goes on to write of the the "ominous implications of demographic decline combined with massive Muslim immigration." Ominous. That's just the way European churchmen of the 1920s might have written about Jews.

I don't know where the West's Christian voices were with respect to Egypt. They may have made statements. If so, I didn't hear them, and I doubt many cared - certainly not many Egyptians. Egypt is a mostly Muslim country. That's partly why the West worried aloud that the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood would take over, bringing in a fundamentalist Islam (but only partly). While it's true that police and protesters stopped to pray at appointed hours, there has been no sign of a theocracy, of rule by religious leaders. Instead, there have been signs of Islamic leaders promoting democratic and nonviolent policies and values. See, for example, their defense of Coptic Christians in early January of this year:

In the days following the brutal attack on Saints Church in Alexandria, which left 21 dead on New Year’ eve, solidarity between Muslims and Copts has seen an unprecedented peak. Millions of Egyptians changed their Facebook profile pictures to the image of a cross within a crescent – the symbol of an “Egypt for All”. Around the city, banners went up calling for unity, and depicting mosques and churches, crosses and crescents, together as one.

How much more hopeful that sounds than Pannenberg's "ominous implications." This is, as I say, a shift in the relevancy - for democracy and human rights - of our older Western view of the world and its workings. Sadly, in my classroom, it is Pannenberg-like thinking that dominates; a measure of the continuing influence of the prejudice and falsity on Western TV.

The other major difference between the two affairs - and forgive me if I'm stating the obvious - has to do with modes of communication and motivation.

Consider the way the internet and related technologies replaced the radio and television stations seized by Marcos' opponents. Nobody cared what the Egyptian dictator Mubarak displayed on the state television - we were all watching Al Jazeera on Youtube and following along with twitter. A crisis point was reached, I think, when Mubarak tried to shut down the internet in Egypt, and the people found work-arounds with the support of sympathetic groups and companies outside Egypt. At that point, the only question left was which way the army would go.

There are smarter people than I writing about social media and politics (try this or this), though I gave it a try during the G20 affair (see Adult Literacy and #g20). And, anyway, this is supposed to be a blog about community literacy. So let me just wrap this up, temporarily, by coming back to my dad, sitting in the same room I sat in a quarter century ago, watching a revolution unfold halfway around the world via a changed medium.

Media matters to literacy workers. You want to learn to read better? Great! But read what?

In my table of "functional learning goals for adults" I list things everyday things like being able to "find numbers in phone book" or "read a newspaper" or "read a magazine" - all very sensible, but maybe a little out of date?

At least, maybe it's past time I added a new choice.

Something like, "read or write twitter messages from the front lines of a democratic revolution."

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