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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book Review: "Egypt Unshackled"



It has been nine months since Hosni Mubarak’s departure from Egypt’s Presidential palace, and in that time a steady trickle of “Arab Spring” literature has seeped into the market. Now that the analysts, historians, pundits, journalists, regional experts, and other invested parties have had time to sort through their notes, gather their data, and conduct their interviews, the next wave in “Arab Spring” literature is now hitting the bookstores. Denis Campbell’s excellent book, Egypt Unshackled - Using social media to @#: ) the System

At its core, the book is a day-to-day history of the 2011 Egyptian revolution as told through the twitter feeds of several dozen Egyptians. Mr. Campbell begins the book with a chapter that provides a basic introduction on how twitter is used, a rundown of the primary Egyptian twitter voices, and a description of some of the particularities of twitter usage in Egypt and the broader Arab world. He follows this with a chapter outlining the sociopolitical conditions in Egypt at the beginning of 2011, the planning behind the first protests, and the events that ultimately triggered those protests. The subsequent 18 chapters cover the 18 day period beginning with the first large Egyptian protest in Cairo on Jan 25 and ending with Mubarak’s resignation on Feb 11.

The author describes the events of each day by building a narrative around specific clusters of reprinted tweets. He fills in some of the details with blow-by-blow accounts, punctuated with occasional maps and pictures, but his incident descriptions are relatively sparse; the real meat of the book is the twitter feeds themselves. This unique feature is also my favorite aspect of the book - it immediately takes me back to the manic wonder of the first few months of the Arab spring. Twitter is an ephemeral medium, and each post reflects the spirit of the moment when it was written. A great many of the twitter feeds reprinted in the book are ones that I was reading at the time, and several times while rereading tweets from the beginning of the year I remembered not just the original comment, but where I was when I read it, how it made me feel, and the conversations swirling around those events as they were happening.

In some respects this is a new method of writing history, and Mr. Campbell has done an admirable job of tying together the chaotic flow of multi-author social media text with more conventional historical accounts. In spite of that, the book does have some weaknesses. None of them are critical but a few of them deserve mention.


The book itself seems to have been rushed to press, as seen in the presence of several minor textual errors, an a few more serious (though easily corrected) factual errors. This will hopefully be updated in subsequent editions (I certainly hope it does well enough to be reprinted), and it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the book.

More serious, for me, was the tendency of the author to inject strong personal biases into his accounts. Although I don’t begrudge him his opinions (or even necessarily disagree with some of them), I feel that the highly individual nature of twitter as a spur-of-the moment medium demands a greater degree of deliberate objectivity on the part of the journalist/historian who is using it, otherwise he runs a risk of further distorting an already subjective account.

The third point is only a minor one, and may well have been beyond the scope of the author’s knowledge, but I felt that the introduction could have benefited from some mention of the precedent set by the Iranian election protests of 2009. Many of the methods used by and challenges faced by the Egyptian protesters were previously encountered by the youth in the streets of Tehran and the other Iranian cities.

Regardless, I think this book does an outstanding  job of incorporating twitter records into the process of historiography, and I highly recommend it for scholars of new media, as well as anyone interested in better understanding how the Arab Spring unfolded in Egypt.