The YouTube Revolutions

Twitter and Facebook have received all the attention, but it's the popular video uploading site that provides the best window into what's happening on the Arab street.


Location: Homs, Syria

Description: The number one rule for autocrats clamping down on an uprising, whether you’re talking about Tehran in 2009 or Philadelphia in 1776, has always been the same: Muffle the press. The upheaval across the Middle East in recent months has provided some particularly vivid and disturbing examples of this phenomenon: Egypt’s "day of hunting journalists," the arrest of Syrian bloggers, or the four New York Times journalists’ harrowing tale of being captured by Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s soldiers. Understanding the visceral power of images to shape emotions and opinions in distant countries, the dictators have been particularly attentive to television stations: During Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s final days in office, while government thugs battled with protesters in the streets of Cairo, the state TV station blared the national anthem and picturesque images of the Nile River.

Into the void has stepped an unlikely hero: YouTube. Over the last three months, the video posting site has turned into an aggregator for homemade videos of revolution. Revolutionaries all across the Middle East, filming with the video recorders in their phones or other rudimentary technology while dodging bullets or racing through angry crowds, have created an online visual archive of the uprisings: urgent, jittery videos, punctuated by gunshots, shouts, and moments of breathtaking horror. Unfortunately, they’re not easy to find — nobody is in charge with organizing this massive amount of information, and the videos tagged solely in Arabic can be hard for English-speakers to track down. Once seen, however, they are difficult to forget — exactly what the dictators feared.

Here, a protester in the western city of Homs tears down a poster of Hafez al-Assad, the father of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The writing on the gate establishes that this video was taken in Homs, but many other videos do not possess such obvious landmarks. In those cases, viewers have to take the uploader at their word that the video was shot where and when they say it was.


Location: Latakia, Syria

The video: At least 12 people were killed in the northwestern city of Latakia over the weekend after anti-government protests broke out in the port city. This grainy video purportedly shows Syrian citizens dragging some of the victims to safety. Another video, not for the faint of heart, shows a more graphic illustration of the Syrian crackdown in Latakia on March 30 following Assad’s speech, in which he blamed the unrest on foreign "conspirators" and presented no timetable for long-promised reforms to Syria’s political system.

Location: Cairo, Egypt

The video: A wave of protesters pushes back Egyptian security forces on the Kasr al-Nile bridge in this Jan. 28 video. The security forces respond by shooting tear gas into the crowd — an ineffective response that foreshadowed Mubarak’s eventual fall.

Location: Cairo, Egypt

The video: In another Jan. 28 video, a white van drives through a group of angry protesters, accelerating as it flattens dozens of people.

Location: Misurata, Libya

The video: Despite the international intervention in Libya, the western city of Misrata remains a warzone, with 18 people killed on March 30 in fighting between rebel and government forces. This video provides a dramatic, firsthand view of the urban warfare. Rallying cries of "God is great" accompany the passage of the rebels’ ubiquitous pick-up trucks-cum-anti-aircraft missile launchers, and the sound of small arms fire echoing across the shell-littered city.


Location: Libya

The video: Not all of the videos are documentary. This cartoon, made by the Jordan-based cartoon collective Kharabeesh, begins with a "Loony Tunes" opening to parody Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s more rambling speeches. In the video, cartoon Qaddafi recites some of his infamous lines — calling his people "rats" and asserting that he cannot resign because he holds no official position ("I’m a legend … I’m a dinosaur!") — before being tossed in a straitjacket by doctors in white jackets.

Location: Tunis, Tunisia

The video: Activists have found relatively simple, but effective ways of using YouTube to convey their message. This video juxtaposes Tunisian TV footage from the first birthday party of former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s son with the song "Arabian Nights" from the Disney movie Aladdin (including the infamous line, "It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!"). The video paints a picture of excess: A clown in a rainbow wig juggles for the assembled children then is pirouetted by another clown on stilts in a lavishly decorated ballroom. In a country where unemployment runs in the double digit and much of the population lives hand to mouth, who can watch this without feeling a twinge of resentment?


Location: A plane off the coast of Tunisia

The video: Other videos trade moral outrage for ridicule. This cartoon, also a Kharabeesh production, imagines the awkward conversations Ben Ali must have had with formerly friendly world leaders following his hasty departure from Tunis. He is brushed off by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (who is unable to come to the phone because he is receiving a "pornographic delegation"), U.S. President Barack Obama, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Finally, and just as he is about to run out of phone credit, Saudi King Abdullah offers refuge to the deposed autocrat — under the condition that he’ll play on the country’s soccer team.


Location: Bahrain

The video: In this scene, from the unrest in Bahrain, masked youths set fire to a police car. The uploader blames the Shia for the act of vandalism — a sign of the rampant sectarianism that has pitted the country’s majority Shia population against the Sunni monarchy.


Location: Manama, Bahrain

The video: This video, which was uploaded on Feb. 18, indicated the lengths that Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa family would go to in order to retain their grip on power. As Bahraini protesters peacefully march down one of the capital’s main thoroughfares, the crackle of automatic weapons fire suddenly breaks out. The cameraman seeks refuge behind a tree, and there is a brief flash of him clutching prayer beads. When the video swings back to the protesters, some are laying on the ground, blood streaming onto the street.