Democracy, dissent, and digital media in the Arab World

"Τhrough the Western Looking Glass" Revisited by Spiros Derveniotis. (CartoonMovement.com)

An expert panel convened on Capitol Hill yesterday all agreed that digital media have been central tools in toppling autocrats in the Middle East and North Africa, but they do not replace the human agency and courage that are the true forces underlying change in the region.

The Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) recruited a panel of two conventional media journalists, an information technology expert, and NED’s own program officer for the Middle East and North Africa. Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Representative Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Representative Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) were honorary co-hosts for the event. Rep. Schiff delivered a brief statement for the occasion.

“One need only walk the streets of Tunisia to see graffiti on the walls saying ‘Merci Facebook’,” Schiff remarked.

NED President Carl Gershman introduced the panel, noting how social media made it possible for once-distant and isolated bastions of dissatisfaction to connect and mobilize against common problems.

Amira Maaty, NED program officer for the Middle East and North Africa, painted a broad context of youth-led civil society in the region, some of whom are NED grantees. Youth-led organizations aren’t very many, but they are very dynamic, Maaty said. Some are affiliated with older human rights organizations, some are student groups, and there are others. What intrigued Maaty most besides their energy and courage was how they have been using social media as place to find and exchange ideas and best practices for activism through training videos, notes, and messages through Facebook or YouTube.

Maaty also detailed how digital media allows new groups to challenge traditional media as sources of independent and grassroots reporting, and also allows new groups to challenge traditional civil society as outlets for self-expression and sources of personal and organizational support. She stressed the importance of supporting, through NED or other channels, the human backbone of emerging digital media-driven civil society, as digital media are just tools and authoritarian forces can make just as much use of them.

Egyptian Journalist and Blogger Mona Eltahawy emphasized the much overlooked traditions of both dissent and digital media usage in the region. She hearkened back to 2005, when she spoke publicly on a number of occasions about digital media in the region and how Al Qaeda’s ability to make use of it dominated conversations, yet at the same time she repeatedly encountered examples in Bahrain and Tunisia of individuals who had early on tapped the power of digital media tools to share stories of yearning and struggling for human freedom. Though digital communities in 2005 were small – she gave a figure of 280 bloggers in Egypt in 2005 – they learned quickly and grew even faster, as authoritarian governments kept a tight hold on the real world.

“In the virtual world, they could build the world that they wanted,” Eltahawy described. Activists could influence each other and share stories that could not have been shared otherwise. Eltahawy cited an example of LGBT groups forming among Saudi Arabians on digital media that had no origin in the real world. “Facebook and Twitter are tools,” she distinguished. “But they did not invent courage.”

“The human need to rise up against a regime has always been there,” Eltahawy went on. Digital media allows people to see others acting on impulses they have long shared and yet suppressed for sheer lack of real or virtual networks that can support and facilitate human agency. “Digital media didn’t invent courage,” Eltahawy continued, but it allowed people to gain a broader sense of just how many others shared the same concerns and thoughts and to find out where they could join each other in protest.

Georgetown University Visiting Professor of Internet Studies Michael Nelson picked up where Eltahawy left off by comparing the Middle East and North Africa’s current wave of change to the Reformation. Martin Luther’s ideas and dissent spread so much more quickly than ever before thanks to the printing press, which according to Nelson cut the cost of sharing information by 99 percent. “Today digital media has cut the cost of sharing information by 99.9 percent,” Nelson said.

The hunger for information sharing manifests itself in some unexpected but unsurprising ways, Nelson elaborated, such as the desire for online pornography that helped drive the process of creating and sharing ways to circumvent blocks and controls imposed by authoritarian governments. Nelson also told of group organizers using dating site profiles and messages as a means of disguising coded information about meetings and gatherings.

Of course, Nelson warned, autocrats can certainly find ways to stop or worse hunt down those they suspect of using digital media to subvert their grip on power and might even elicit the passive support of corporations that could supply them with tools to block content or track dissidents.

“Ninety percent of the people won’t be able to find what they want,” Nelson summarized. “But all it takes is for that 10 percent to find what they’re looking for and to share it with their own social networks,” and suddenly what had been just conversation fodder becomes fuel for change. They could be looking for pornography, for stories from other countries about LGBT experiences, for reformer training materials, for WikiLeaks cables, or for news about their childhood friends who have moved abroad and started their own businesses.

AlJazeera’s Washington Bureau Chief Abderrahim Foukara spoke last, emphasizing that, “We still don’t know why it happened when it happened in the region.”

He spoke about a recent trip to Iraq, where he was compelled to ask Iraqis whether social media would have made a difference in the 1990s when Saddam Hussein crushed multiple rebellions in horrific and violent ways. Foukara said he could not get a consensus on anything other than that Saddam was certainly a more deranged leader than even Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi, who has hired mercenaries to slaughter his fellow Libyans.

Foukara also reiterated the role of digital media in allowing people – especially youth – in the region to see more and more of what life is like outside of their countries where so many have only ever experienced repressive autocracies. Such connections created ‘dots,’ according to Foukara, and in turn conventional media could play the role of connecting dots, where such outlets have been open to new media. Conventional media, Foukara said, can provide a broad context around individual stories, photos, and images shared via Facebook or Twitter.

Foukara also emphatically predicted that if democracy emerges successfully in the region, a debate is certain to emerge over the underlying forces that allowed so many to live under such harsh leadership for so long.

In responding to audience questions en masse, panel members agreed on the quality and durability of digital media-driven commitment to following through on democratic reforms. In a region where autocrats had long maintained a near-perfect monopoly on public political discourse, the virtual world has captured and reflected back so many thoughts, conversations, and desires for change.

“It’s now a process of cleansing and a process of accountability,” Eltahawy concluded, referring to the ability of Middle East and North Africa residents to obtain information from a diversity of digital media sources tracking what is happening in each country and what they can learn from watching each other. “But saying WikiLeaks or Facebook or Twitter caused revolutions takes away agency from the real human beings who have long been demanding freedom.”

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