Reflections on the Arab Spring
All over the Middle East and Arab world, violent and non-violent civil resistance was forming. In 2010, a new term was coined for this regional revolt- “The Arab Spring”. Arguably, the most famous demonstration and movement of the Arab Spring was the Tahrir Square Protest (“Tahrir”, “The Revolution”). The Egyptian people flooded the streets in numbers that broke history, singing songs of revolution.
Tahrir was driven by hopes of regime change, and societal restructuring: a democratic state, free elections, and basic human rights. For the first time in history, Internet activism proved to be a vital player in the stimulation of Tahrir. But, the Revolution was not just stimulated, it was successful. It produced ongoing civil resistance, strikes, demonstrations, and marches. The Internet, specifically social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were key in the organization and execution of Tahrir’s success.
The Internet played a role in the Revolution
It is popular knowledge that the Internet played a role in the Revolution. This, however, gives rise to expanding on the importance of the use of Social Media in modern social movements. The first online spark of the Egyptian revolution took place on Facebook, “Rashed” started the movement in Egypt along with a small group of tech-savvy Egyptians on April 6, 2008. Activists designed the “We are all Khalid Said” Facebook page, condemning and revealing Egyptian police brutality. “We are all Khalid Said” quickly acquired over 70,000 followers. And, within a short time and with the example of other Arab countries, Egyptians started gathering in the streets- resulting in what we refer to today as “the Revolution”. Theories of resource mobilization, and intersectionality, will allow for a deeper analysis of the necessity of the Internet for modern activist purposes.
Thanks to the technology of the 20th century, the ability to connect, share, and research has been made available to individuals across the World. And, because of these advancements in technology, activists and radicals are more easily able to create and recruit individuals, quicker, and in more significant numbers, to stand in solidarity. Tahrir is a great example of technology, and human willpower, merging for the first time in history. A unique and powerful combination, of technology and willpower, enabled normal citizens and individuals around the world to play a central role in leading the Tahrir movement.
But, the role of social media in the rising of Tahrir, birthed questions in political communication and media research. The questions that were being asked included, how have these new technological tools of communication been able to spark such impressive social political mayhem? Or how is it possible to claim that Tahrir was a social media revolution when in fact it would have been impossible to achieve without a stable body of individuals standing in solidarity? These are not ground-breaking issues, since they are common topics in the historical development of all new communication technologies. But, they remain a pressing topic in social media’s role in the fundamental transformation currently taking place in many Arab societies.
The web, a forum for Arab emancipation
Tahrir has also brought forth ideas about the Internet’s role in speeding the pace of political and social transformation in Arab societies. As activists in different parts of the Arab world chose the web and social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to organize and publicize the overindulgences of the authoritarian Arab regime, the need to understand these modes of Internet-aided activism, and its role in social and political change.
Scholars agree that technology and social media will permanently influence political procedures by engaging and mobilizing otherwise stagnant populations. Some studies concluded that social media revived the public sphere. Social media has also been shown to enhance civic engagement. And, in addition to reviving the public sphere and enhancing civil engagement, social media builds stronger global social movements (Della Porta Mosca, 2005). Not only has technology helped speed the process of equality and human rights, but it has also had an impact on social, political, and cultural transformations.
After “We are all Khalid Saif”, and the initial protests in Tahrir, President Mubarak decided to shut down the Internet. Social media sites, television, and newspapers were put on hold and Tahrir had no access to the outside World. Mubarak’s decision to “switch off” the country’s Internet connection happened in less than three days after the Revolution. This action by Mubarak is enough evidence to stand on its own. Mubarak’s behavior shows that the Internet, uncensored social media, and the freedom of connection it provided, to Egyptians across the country, were a major threat to the government.
The “switch off” was another first in human history. Because of technology and social media, communities are now liberated from state television monopolies. Countries have a history of censorship and regulation, so most vectors of free speech, are regulated and censored by government authority. TV and news stations censor and skew information, which leaves people gullible and longing for the truth. Social media provided an alternative to censorship. People can now tweet, post, and share anything, and everything, they want, when they want, without government regulation.
The power of technology in the service of the power of the people
Many global bridges have been built through the power of technology. By mobilizing and sharing information, this acted as a tool to defeat power authorities. In the realm of political/global activism, the use of information in this offensive sense becomes social information warfare. The exchange of free thought and ideas was a threat to the Mubarak regime and will continue to be a threat to governments facing revolt- leaving the shutting down of the Internet as the only viable solution to end the exchange of free thought.
Another vector Mubarak was likely threatened by, and a way that technology influenced Tahrir, was in how YouTube became an effective tool in the battle waged against the region’s entrenched authoritarianism and the oppressive state contraption (Douai, 2012). YouTube became especially successful in spurring domestic and global public opinion against police officers and military’s abusing and torturing of citizens in Egypt. These documented human rights violations attracted media attention and the attention of activists and citizens around the world.
The availability of video evidence allowed Arab satellite television channels, and people around the world, to take seriously the issues of police abuse, torture, and corruption. And, because social media is much less regulated than broadcast television, people to see, for the most part, the raw and bloody truth. Additionally, the viral nature of YouTube made the meshing together of traditional media and new media a forceful technological achievement challenging the power of Arab regimes. In addition, the Internet and technology connected people not only in Egypt and Tahrir but also all around the world, which gives people an advantage in numbers.
Reconnecting the Internet, reconnecting the revolution
On January 28th President Obama ordered that Egypt reconnect Internet access allowing people admission to social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. And, On February 2nd Twitter helped support protestors on the ground by creating a voice-enabled posting system called ‘Speak to tweet’. Google announced this change through its blog, in a post titled “Some weekend work that will (hopefully) enable more Egyptians to be heard.” Speak to Tweet means that protestors can have their voice messages sent out as tweets with the Egyptian hashtag added, though they had no Internet access.
Speak to tweet, along with other movements, became very helpful tools in allowing protestors to continue communicating with the international public, and with each other. And, arguably, one of the core accomplishments this provided for in the future following the switch off of the Internet, was that it made it much more difficult to conceal the corruption of the police and the authoritarian (Seib 2007). In Egypt, revolutionaries found a safe space to voice their concerns against the excesses of Arab Authoritarianism Blogging as a medium of expression became a means of seamlessly interweaving the personal with the political (Lynch, 2008; Douai, 2009).
In this respect, the Internet has presented matchless opportunities for individuals to connect with global movements (Hofheinz 2005). Online activists and youth movements have found the Web a more welcoming and fruitful ground for stimulating global public opinion, even on subjects like police brutality and an authoritarian military regime. By Mobilizing and sharing information, a tool was created to defeat powerful authorities. For Egypt, and in the realm of political and global activism, the use of information became social information warfare.
On February 11th Hosni Mubarak stepped down. Thousands of Arab citizens flocked outside of the Presidential palace in Heliopolis Cairo, waiting for Hosni Mubarak’s announcement that he had stepped down from authority. The Egyptian people, and the use of social media, acted as a strategic and tactical tool. As a strategic tool, social media helped organize and mobilize the people on the streets. As a tactical tool, social media messages served to discredit the regime’s narrative and assemble wider public support for the revolutionary cause.
Even today, ongoing announcements of Mubarak trials are being streamed and shared on multiple websites. This stream allows Egyptian, and non-Egyptian activists to stay connected. Being able to access trial footage also means that protestors can challenge Mubarak’s statements. “Online streaming technology helps create some transparency in a Government still marked by corruption and secrecy.”
New advancements in 20th-century technology, came with the widespread use of social media. Websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were introduced and acted as exceptional tools. Social media was used in Tahrir to organize millions of demonstrators, which consequently bought down the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and other head powers and dictators. By looking at theories of resource mobilization, and intersectionality, one can conclude that the Internet, specifically social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were key in the organization and execution of Tahrir’s success.
You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu
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