The Arab Spring and the Role of ICTs (1-3)
The wake-up call for millions of people in Arab countries is now. It began with the events of the Tunisian uprising in December 2010 and proliferated, leading to similar revolts later, in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and other Arab nations. This article was written by Ilhem Allagui of American University of Sharjah and Johanne Kuebler of European University Institute
While resistance movements and confrontations between the state and the rebels are ongoing in most of these countries at the time of this writing—namely in Libya and Syria—the focus of this feature section is limited to Tunisia, the initiator of this revolutionary wave, and to Egypt. Both revolutions happened almost simultaneously, and they share a number of similarities regarding communication technologies’ role in shaping the outcome of the uprisings. In Tunisia and Egypt, we have witnessed a new genre of revolution whose distinguishing feature lies in its organization by networks and particularly in social networks, which played an important informational and organizational role. Neglecting the complexity of these transformations, the media first attributed the overthrow of Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak to digital media, particularly social media and Facebook. Claims and attributions such as “This is a Facebook revolution” were common in the media and in the street, whereas deep problems of corruption and dysfunction in most of the Arab states were toxic. Tunisians and Egyptians decided to put an end to years of humiliation, corruption and deprivation. Having used Facebook, mobile phones, YouTube, or just word-of-mouth, a number of people—computer literate and analphabetic alike—gathered in the streets, protested, and some eventually died. But they won their peaceful and unarmed uprising; they won their revolution.
If we learned political leadership and coalition building from the Russian Revolution and popular initiative from the French Revolution, the Arab revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrated the power of networks. People did not assemble in the streets to espouse their political views or opinions nor to demonstrate solidarity with their political parties, the leaders they followed, or the gatekeepers they trusted. Instead, they mobilized for two other reasons, the first being the pain they shared due to difficult socioeconomic conditions: Unemployment, the high costs of living, inequalities among classes, censorship, and so forth were at the root of people’s humiliation and frustration. Deplorable economic conditions, political deprivations, corruption, and social repressions are ubiquitous among most Arab countries and represent the motivating factors for these revolutionary actions. The second reason, as important as the first, is the flow of networks to which people belong: networks of friends, family, work, school, and others of interest (such as the media). These networks create a space, or in Bowles terms, territories for interaction and strong reciprocity based on an altruistic sharing behavior. The Arab movements proved the motivating power of social relations for social activism. The solidarity among members of networks challenged dictators, their online censors, and the offline police. Members of networks created revolutionary content on their mobiles and digital media, and they distributed this same content to their friends, families, and members of other networks. This content distribution reached the mainstream media and satellite channels, some of whom, namely Al-Jazeera, played an important role in redistributing this content to the majority of the Tunisian people who had no access to the Internet.
These people aligned themselves against their enemy, the president, and their attitudes and beliefs changed due to their political engagement. Suddenly, old and young found or discovered themselves to be both patriotic and in revolt. Some did so through the power of the communication technologies they used for informing and freeing themselves; others by responding to the call for taking to the streets. Communication technologies empowered citizens, some of whom used these technologies spontaneously and not strategically.
Looking at the virtual organization of these events from Castells’ network perspective helps to understand the structure of this cyber revolution and emphasizes an examination of the links that structured Tunisian or Egyptian cyber activities. Social networking pages that were used to help distribute information and content did not work independently; they were supported by blogs, networking sites, and media institutions. For instance, shadow groups such as Anonymous provided strategic assistance in the protection of the virtual territories of struggle. When the Tunisian government—through the Tunisian Internet Agency and its 2,000 online police officers—practiced censorship by massively blocking Facebook pages, curbing the distribution of videos and photos, and blocking the websites of foreign media that were covering the events, Anonymous and Hacktivism (Reporters Without Borders, 2011) attacked government websites, relayed antigovernment information, and provided fax bridges to enable news to spread despite online censorship. When governments blocked and censored opposition websites, Internet hosts were moved to other countries; for example, Tunisians offered hosting to Egyptian pages and sites. Castells argues that this helps in shifting the power from the state to the network society and Howard notes, the power to control information no longer resides exclusively with the institutions of the state; it resides in media networks; and media networks are constituted by social relations and communication technologies. So Castells argues that in contemporary network society the power residing in media networks is stronger than that residing in states.
This network perspective should be subject to empirical research that would help us to understand the different roles in this cyber mobilization, as well as the linkages among the different actors—be they individuals or organizations, within countries or outside. This would put an end to the fuzzy claims that Facebook made the revolution.
In Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Philip Howard argues that democratic change in Islamic countries is conditional upon the use of communication technologies. He refutes claims that say the low connectivity rates in these countries preclude communication technologies from reaching enough of a mass audience and thus curb their transformative role. He explains that Internet use is rapidly increasing, whether that usage is from the home, school, work, or cybercafés. Rather than via mass communications, content is being distributed, he contends, between networks of family and friends.
By Alula Berhe Kidani, 24/06/2012