Sultan Al Qassemi

The twitter king of the Arab Spring talks to Burhan Wazir

The World Today
2 minute READ

Burhan Wazir

Editor, Coda Story

Photo: The National, Abu Dhabi

Photo: The National, Abu Dhabi


You’ve established yourself as a one-man news agency covering the Arab world. How did that happen?

When the uprising in Tunisia erupted I knew that Ben Ali was finished and tweeted on January 5: ‘Avenue of Martyr Mohamed Bouazizi, 1985-2011’ Soon afterwards there was indeed an Avenue Mohamed Bouazizi. Then Egypt broke out and I shifted into tweeting gear again. I took time out from work and was tweeting over 20 hours a day with intermittent sleep. When a family friend was getting married I tweeted from the wedding. I felt I had a responsibility to keep the information coming.

But what about the professional news agencies?

There was a niche in translating entire speeches by Arab dictators. The Western newswires would usually come out with just a two-line sentence after a three-hour rant by former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. But there was much more of interest for the public. A week before Time chose my Twitter feed as one of the “140 Best Twitter Feeds” the magazine relied on my translation of his speech to write an entire feature about Gaddafi. I was honoured to have contributed, albeit in a small way, to making people around the world more aware about the region.

What role has modern technology played in unearthing news about unrest in the Arab World?

Social media were a tool used by activists who paid for their opposition to entrenched regimes by being jailed or even killed. The Arab uprisings of 2011 would have occurred anyway due to the flagrant injustice, entrenched corruption and brutal dictatorships throughout the Arab world.

In the old days all you had to do was switch off the printing presses to kill bad news. Did Ben Ali and Mubarak underestimate the power of Twitter and Facebook?

The internet was indeed switched off in Egypt in what must be one of the most notable events, not just of the Arab uprisings, but throughout the world in 2011. Yet the revolution continued and gained momentum. Keep in mind that the coup of 1952 in Egypt occurred without social media.

Describe a typical day in your life.

I wake up and read the printed edition of Gulf News, a regional daily that I have read for 20 years. I then exercise on the treadmill while watching the news for one hour. I go to work, a family business that involves investing in regional markets. I follow developments in the Arab world closely. Issues such as corruption and who has been appointed to head whichever government authority overlap in the business and socio-political worlds.

What will happen in Egypt, Syria and Libya?

I am very hopeful of Egypt and Tunisia. I think the situation in Syria will deteriorate due to the delusional dictatorship. Libya is really on the fence and can go either way.

Are you optimistic of progress?

Despite the recent gains of Islamist parties I remain very positive about the region’s political future. For several decades these parties have been sidelined and some people assumed that they hold the key to all their troubles. As soon as the Arabs realise that Islamic parties aren’t the magic solution, they will start voting more with their minds and less with their hearts.

Lastly, what do you think about the anti-austerity protests in Europe and America?

Tough love is needed in Europe. Many countries over-spent and must now face the music. It is essential that investments are not withheld in areas that will potentially create jobs such as technology and infrastructure.