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This article was published on April 1, 2012

Sultan Al Qassemi: Tweeting revolutions, 140 characters at a time

Sultan Al Qassemi: Tweeting revolutions, 140 characters at a time
Nancy Messieh
Story by

Nancy Messieh

Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Fol Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Follow her on Twitter, her site or Google+ or get in touch at [email protected]

Sultan Al Qassemi introduces himself using his full name, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi. He says, “It’s always better if you use my late father’s name, because there are so many Sultan Al Qassemis.”

The United Arab Emirates-based businessman and writer is best known for his role on Twitter, curating and sharing articles from all over the Arabic and English Web, live tweeting significant events in Egypt and beyond, sharing all the news he can find on the Arab uprisings and news emerging from the Middle East, 140 characters at a time.

His activity on Twitter has landed him on several top 100 lists of Twitter users in the Arab region, including the number one spot on Forbes Middle East’s top 100 Arab Twitter users as well as appearing in the top 10 list put together by Arabic London-based daily, Al Sharq Al Awsat, alongside a mixture of Arab politicians, royalty, activists and entertainers.

He dismisses the lists quickly and modestly. “The lists are very subjective. It depends on who uses them. If you’re doing an Arabic list, I probably wouldn’t figure on that list because I tweet in English. I make a point of tweeting in English. It gets me a lot of criticism, but I feel there’s a market gap for tweets about the Middle East that are in English.”

Tweeting about and for Egypt

Despite being from the UAE, one of Sultan’s main topics of focus is Egypt, “90% of my tweets are about Egypt, and the rest are about Saudi, and the Gulf states.”

Explaining the reasons for his choice of focus, he says, “I feel that with Egypt’s demographic and cultural weight, and Saudi Arabia with its financial and religious weight, these are two pillar states. They are the two countries that affect the rest of the Arab world. If these countries are reformed, then I feel the benefit is exponentially multiplied to regional countries in the case of Egypt, and to Gulf states in the case of Saudi. So if Egypt is a success story, then all of us are going to benefit, including people in the Gulf, in the North Africa, in the Levant.”

It’s impossible to miss Sultan’s passion for Egypt, whether on Twitter, or when speaking to him. We walked down a street in downtown Cairo, a stone’s throw away from the now infamous Tahrir, and he takes in the graffiti that has become an intrinsic part of how some activists choose to express themselves.

Walls have been erected throughout Cairo’s downtown streets, and artists have come all over the country to paint them. The most striking of these is one that paints the scene of the street, as though the wall was not there.

We don’t reach these walls because there is more than enough graffiti adorning the walls of the American University in Cairo. We stop and take a few photos. An old Egyptian man with an unruly head of white hair, wearing a pinstripe suit, walks up to us, and asks us for a minute of our time. Sultan is more than happy to stop and listen for a few minutes before we head back to a coffee shop that has witnessed the best and worst that Egypt’s uprising has had to offer.

Sultan is a writer first, before anything else. He’s been blogging, and has been active Twitter user for about 3 or 4 years. He explains the appeal that Twitter holds for him, “I felt it was complimentary to my writing. If you write an 800 word article, it will be read by a certain number of people, but the reach with social media is so much greater.”

It’s not about opinion, but that doesn’t mean it’s not personal

There is a self-imposed limitation on his tweets:

“I purposely avoid tweeting my opinion, because I’ve never felt, and still don’t feel, that I’m capable of giving an informed opinion a few minutes after an event takes place. I feel that I need to absorb the event, and then maybe three or four days later, write an op-ed about it.”

He uses Twitter instead to share articles he’s reading, and to live tweet events as they’re happening, giving the facts and nothing more. “I used to translate speeches, and it was always easier to tweet the speech rather than blog about it. It would take you maybe 15 or 20 minutes to edit the blog, and punctuate everything, and by then it’s too late. People need to know the news instantaneously, especially during the uprisings in Egypt, and throughout the region.”

The convenience of Twitter has turned it into the ultimate broadcasting tool for the journalist, and in the process, has earned him over 100,000 followers, and at least three or four replies from those followers per minute. “Twitter was a tool that allowed me to broadcast in soundbites or in ‘text bites’.”

He goes on, “And I don’t just tweet everything I agree with. I tweet a lot of articles I don’t agree with – because I tweet my reading list. Ultimately everything I tweet are articles that I read. When I’m back home, I read four to five hours a day. That’s my job. I read. Out of the five hours, four are about Egypt.”

While it might not be about his own personal opinion, it’s still very much a personal experience. Asking Sultan what his most exhilarating and most difficult moments have been, tweeting through the Arab uprisings, both moments are firmly entrenched in the 18 days of Egypt’s movement.

“The most exhilirating moment on Twitter was when Hosni Mubarak stepped down. The most painful was Wael Ghonim’s interview [after he was released].”

Sultan doesn’t elaborate on the night that Mubarak stepped down, but chooses to focus instead on the interview with the Google Executive Wael Ghonim, who was the administrator behind the Facebook page that played a role in mobilizing protesters, the same day he was released from prison.

He says, “It was about 13 days after the uprising started, and I had a lot of emotions built up and I didn’t let any of them out, and then in the interview, they showed him photos of the martyred protesters, and he broke down, and I broke down. I remember crying for the first time since my father died. I said, I’m sorry I’m going to stop tweeting, and I did. I stopped tweeting for the next 12 hours so I could regain my composure. On a personal level, that was probably the pinnacle of my emotional attachment with Twitter.”

Citizen journalism meets The New York Times

Aside from a strong following, and earning the reputation as a credible and highly cited source, Sultan’s tweets have been the very basis of other professional journalists stories. He tells us about two examples.

“The New York Times wrote their article about Wael Ghonim based on my tweets. Time Magazine wrote their Gaddhafi exposé based on my translations. That’s when I realised that someone sitting in a small apartment in the Arab world can make a difference. His or her work can go to these huge media corporations that are 100+ years old, and can be used by these professional journalists to educate the rest of the world about what’s happening.”

Much has been said about the future of journalism and Twitter, and we’ve seen the effects, with major networks like CNN letting go of photojournalists in favour of citizen journalists. Sultan sees his own personal situation in a positive light. “For me it was ok, as long as they cited me. I liked that. As long as you were given credit for your work. I still think that people should be paid for their work as well, but in those days, we were all cheering the revolution, and weren’t thinking of ways to make money out of it.”

It all comes down to one thing, and it’s clear that as long as the story was getting out, that trumped any other concerns he may have had. He explains in one short sentence, “I felt that it was making a difference.”

The real role of social media in the Middle East

Speaking to one of the Middle East’s most prominent social media users, it seems impossible to avoid the question, what was the real role of social media in the uprisings? Egyptians loathe the expression The Facebook Revolution, and with good cause, but that doesn’t mean that social media didn’t play some sort of role in the grassroots movement that burst out into Egypt’s streets, nor in the countries beyond, from Tunisia to the Gulf.

“It’s an enabling tool,” Sultan says.

“It allows us to find each other. It’s a very democratic tool – everyone is equal, and this is something we lack in the Gulf. So it was nice to see royalty from the Gulf and ministers and even rulers coming onto social media where people can ask them questions, and sometimes criticise them. It’s a very democratizing tool.”

Rather than focus on Egypt as an example, Sultan turns to his second favourite topic – Saudi Arabia. He refers to International Women’s Day, when Saudi women took to the streets for a different kind of protest. Instead of walk the streets of their city, these women did the one thing they are expressly forbidden from doing – they drove.

Twitter played a significant role on that day. He explains, “Men and women in the streets in the Saudi cities, were warning the women drivers which roads to avoid while driving. They would tell them, there’s a police vehicle here or there’s a security check point there. And the women drivers had a passenger and the passenger would read the tweets, and say, ‘Don’t turn here, there’s a police officer.’ That was a great example of the community coming together to help a cause.”

Middle Eastern governments are trying to catch up

Governments in the region have had a rocky start on social media, and while some appear to continue to have a hard time with the tool, others have learned to manipulate the platform to their advantage. “They’re becoming more savvy now,” Sultan says, “But they’re also hiding behind trolls. In the Gulf, and in Syria, and other parts of the Arab world, you see regimes using a number of people who work with them. Either they sympathise with the government, or they’re employees. They go around and troll, intimidate users, they spam them. Bahrain is a great example of this.”

The trolling methods are varied – from flooding hashtags to the point where they become unusable to attacking activists online, questioning their patriotism and loyalty to their country, in what Sultan describes as an online form of McCarthyism.

“They use it to defame people, and in the Gulf recently, they use it to threaten people on social media. Sometimes the authorities say that they will arrest you.”

He cites an example when the Chief of Dubai Police told a UAE citizen on Twitter that he had a warrant for his arrest. “Does this indicate a future trend or is that an anomaly?” Sultan asks, and quickly answers his own question, “That is something we have yet to find out. It could be abused, which is worrying.”

That is not the only concern when it comes to governments and their growing awareness, and grasp, of social media. Sultan says, “I think that the legacy governments of the Arab world will probably start to wake up to the ‘dangers’ of social media and start legislating laws about its use, and we’ve seen Swaziland legislate that they’re going to enforce lese-majesty laws against insulting the leader.”

He points also to recent developments in Egypt, “We’ve seen it over the past few weeks, with Islamist parties slowly imposing their understanding of what media should look like. Verbally in the beginning, and legislatively like we’ve seen with the banning of pornographic websites. That’s the beginning. You can then find sites that are anti-Islamic, or seem to be promoting other ideologies like anarchy or atheism. So where do you stop? With pornography, does that mean banning anatomy, or biological websites? Or that educate you about male and female biological make up?”

Do we need a localized platform?

Sultan is quick to dismiss the idea of a localized social media platform for the Middle East. “Young Arabs are like youngsters all over the world. We are as special or as ‘unspecial’ as anybody else. I’m kind of biased towards young Arabs these days, but Twitter has been great at adapting – allowing hashtagging in Arabic in the past couple of weeks. So Twitter is adapting, but there’s much to go.”

While Twitter works out the kinks, after having added support for right-to-left languages including Arabic, there is one matter which is of far greater importance – translating Twitter’s Terms of Service into Arabic.

“Right now, very few websites have terms and conditions in Arabic,” Sultan says. “This does not allow people to know what their limitations and rights are. They don’t know that social media websites will not protect you. People assume that if governments demand your information that social media websites will not hand over the information, but the truth is that sometimes they are obliged to.”

A power Twitter user’s setup

His set up consists of two phones, three or four laptops, a TV with 2 different decoders. He’s subscribed to three or four breaking news services online, several email alert services, and is on private mailing lists.

“Twitter, obviously, is a huge resource,” and Sultan has one interesting use for his favourites. He explains, “I don’t tweet about the UAE, because it’s not as interesting, to me as Saudi Arabia or Egypt. There’s no politics. There are no political parties, but whenever there is a Human Rights Watch or Amnesty Statement, or any kind of report, I will tweet it and favourite it.”

The method hasn’t gone unnoticed by his followers, “I had someone tell me, I’ve never seen anyone favourite their own tweets, as in that it’s very arrogant of me. I explained to her that I don’t favourite them because I like what I tweet, I favourite them because I can direct people who ask me, “How come you never tweet about your country?” I tell them, go to my favourites, and you’ll see them all saved there.”

While Twitter is his social media tool of choice, Sultan is also active on Facebook, but he’s had to employ a few different tactics. “I started hiding people on Facebook – my friends. I care about them, and they’re great people, but I was so concentrated on the news, that I found myself hiding regular friends’ updates like their holidays, which also remind me of what I’m missing out on, and I read more about what other journalists post.”

I ask him, if he feels he’s missing out on a lot. Without a moment’s hesitation, he says, “This is exactly what I want to be doing. I don’t want to be doing anything else today. This takes me to other countries, and the best thing of all is that it brings me to Egypt.”

➤ Follow Sultan Al Qassemi on Twitter.