AUTHOR: DEBORAH AMOS of NPR
During the social-media-driven revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, many Americans discovered the social network Twitter for the first time.
One of the most popular and prolific Twitter reporters is Sultan Al Qassimi, who tweeted minute-by-minute updates of the events in Egypt and Tunisia.
Qassimi is in constant motion. His body language matches the pace of his tweets. The 33-year-old businessman wrote the first draft of Middle East history in short sentences tapped out on his computer and his cell phone.
“At the height — at the very peak — it was one every 45 seconds. The first two weeks of Egypt, so if you’re looking at Jan. 25 to Feb. 8 or so, I slept for three hours a night,” he says.
But Qassimi wasn’t even in Egypt. He covered the story from his home in the United Arab Emirates. He watched Arabic broadcasts, clicking through dozens of satellite channels at lightning speed. He got tips from his followers — by e-mail or tweet. He read Arabic news services. He translated interviews from Arabic to English, including an interview with Libya’s leader, Moammar Gadhafi, word-for-word in real time.
“For instance, with the Qaddafi interview, I think I added 2,000 or 3,000 followers at the end of the hour because people wanted to know,” he says.
Qassimi wanted to tell them, so he added new followers with every live translation.
“And I didn’t seek to do this,” he adds. “It just happened naturally. I thought — I wanted to tell my friends, I want to tell people what’s happening now in the Arab world, this is important. People must know what is going on, they must know what Arabs are saying, so that they speak for themselves rather than going through other media channels.”
As the wave of the protests picked up in Egypt, his tweets were picked up by major news outlets from NPR to Wired magazine and 30 newspapers around the world. He offered something new for non-Arabic speakers — translations without editing or delay. He developed a loyal following of Americans who only knew Egypt as tourists. They learned about Egyptian politics from reading his posts.
“I have Americans who sent me poetry, very powerful poems on Egypt, and they said that this is something that inspired us, this freedom that people are trying to achieve is something that we all believe in,” he recalls.
But how does one passionate young Arab with bundles of energy become a one-man news service far away from the heart of the story? He watched television — the dominant news source for Arab audiences — at home and on his cell phone.
And on one of the most dramatic nights of the uprising, when millions of Egyptians waited for Egypt’s president to resign, Qassimi continued tweeting in a formal dress suit.
“I was able to get someone to drive me to a wedding, and during the wedding I was able to tweet,” he says. “I had to carry on with my life. At the wedding I was still watching television, I had my iPhone, and I had this headset in one ear. I was shaking people’s hands, congratulating the groom, congratulating his family, but I was listening to the breaking news from Egypt.”
Before Egypt and Tunisia, Qassimi had dabbled in journalism, writing editorials for U.S. and Gulf newspapers. He’s a businessman by training, having founded an investment firm. However, when his generation took to the streets in Cairo, he defined a new kind of journalism. He wanted to tell the story in the words of the people themselves, hundreds of miles away in Tahrir Square, living a revolution in one of the most important countries in the Arab world.
“I think Egypt — the weight that Egypt carries with 80 million people — Egypt is a planet in the Arab world. It’s not even just a country. Egypt is huge,” he says. “There will be a knock-on effect whether we like it or not. I think the Middle East will never be the same.”
This article originally appeared in NPR on February 17, 2011.