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International Affairs Editor

Americans in Tahrir: For Whom the Bell Tweets

Le 25-11-2011

They say war is hell.

But revolution is often a close second, as the frenzy of tear gassing, rock throwing and (if eyewitness accounts are accurate) live ammunition firing in and around Tahrir Square this week attest.

If Dante had access to 21st century GPS technology, Egypt's revolt would likely be pinpointed to coordinates within the nine circles of hell - somewhere between limbo and treachery.

Yet the arrest - and announced release - this week of three US university students amid the upheaval on Tahrir Square suggests that for the young and spirited, revolution is often adventure first, and hell, second.

Derrick Sweeney and Gregory Porter, both 19, and Luke Gates, 21, were on an exchange program at the American University of Cairo when they were detained for allegedly throwing firebombs from a rooftop during the riots.

At the time of their arrest, Egyptian officials said they confiscated a bag filled with empty bottles, a bottle of gasoline, a towel and a camera.

The students denied the accusations.

Egyptian prosecutors, after initially making noises about a continuing investigation, appeared to relent as the detention went viral on US social networks.

A belief in 'American Freedom'

American media, meanwhile, latched onto the story, depicting the students as youthful innocents abroad, driven by equal measures of patriotic fervour and an aversion to tyranny - in this case, that of Egypt's ruling military council and its geriatric generals.

The Washington Post, which interviewed Derrick Sweeney's father, described the son as possessing "the youthful vigor of a conservative 19-year-old" and a "belief in American freedom".

Derrick's mother, Joy, told CNN her son is "a very bright kid with a good heart who believes in all the people in the world...he wanted to learn more about the Egyptian culture."

At this point, you may be thinking: 'So what's wrong with a few idealistically driven American students abroad taking up the revolutionary cause of the moment? Especially since they happened to be in Egypt, at the heart of the action?'

Joining because it was there

Nothing, of course. Except that I suspect that these students' actions were more knee-jerk, and less noble, than meets the eye.

In other words, they joined the revolution because it was there. And so, as it happened, were they.

(It's the same reason I once marched in Moscow's May Day parade, bellowing out "hurrah!" to Mikhail Gorbachev as he inspected the marchers from atop Lenin's mausoleum in Red Square: the parade was there, and so was I.)

Ditto for Chris Jeon, a 21-year-old UCLA student who suddenly popped up on the rebel frontlines near Gaddafi's last stronghold of Sirte this past summer.

"It was the end of my summer vacation," he nonchalantly told the Abu Dhabi-based National newspaper. "So I thought it would be cool to join the rebels. This is one of the only real revolutions."

Jeon had flown on a one-way ticket from Cairo to Tripoli, then trekked overland 248 miles from the Libyan capital to Sirte.

He was briefly embraced by the rebels, who taught him how to wield an AK-47, before he segued from entertaining oddity to military liability - and was kindly sent packing back across the desert.

Hobnobbing with Trotsky

These flash-in-the-pan student revolutionaries stand in stark contrast to Americans of a bygone age, such as the Bohemian journalist-cum-Bolshevik-sympathiser, John Reed.

Reed, a Portland, Oregon native and diehard Communist, and his wife, Louise Bryant, spent months in revolutionary Russia, hobnobbing with the likes of Lenin and Trotsky.

The book he wrote about his experiences, Ten Days That Shook the World, became a bestseller in Soviet Russia (I still have a hardback Russian-language copy purchased during my student days in Moscow).

Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, inspired by the writer's sojourn on the frontlines of the Spanish Revolution, reflected a similar American infatuation with other nations' historic upheavals.

Reed's Russian interlude was a product of his deep ideological devotion to a cause, rather than just a patriotic adrenaline rush.

Hemingway used the character of Robert Jordan to convey his own ideas about the perfidy of Francisco Franco's fascist forces.

'I feel so reckless'

Reed once wrote: "In the relations of a weak Government and a rebellious people there comes a time when every act of the authorities exasperates the masses, and every refusal to act excites their contempt."

Compare this with a tweet posted by one of the now-freed US students, Luke Gates, shortly before his release: "It's only scary cuz I feel so reckless, live bullets."

Derrick's mother, Joy, has said she hopes her son turns his detention into a learning experience. "He's a writer, he will write about this experience."

If he and his Tahrir buddies are looking for a title for their revolutonary opus, may I humbly suggest: "Ten Tweets that Shook the World"?