A paper presented at the IV Human Rights in the Mediterranean Symposium

Granada, Spain

31 March 2011

“My name is freedom. Born in Tunisia, raised in Egypt, studied in Yemen, fought in Libya, and I’ll grow up in the Arab world.”  @AliTweel, Twitter

“Around the globe, far beyond Egypt and Tunisia, we are witnessing a monumental generational rupture taking place around digital literacy, and the coming of age of Generation 2.0. They take for granted interaction, collaboration, and community building on-line.” – Linda Herrera

Preparing a presentation about Internet Communications Technology (ICT), political change, and human rights in the Arab world today reminds me of a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein: “imagine having to sketch a sharply defined picture corresponding to a blurred image.”  Globalized and transnational ICT exists in socio-cultural contexts and political matrices of great complexity and volatility. At this moment, the dynamic and dialectical interactions between ICT, social movements, and emerging political structures in the Arab world are dramatic and extremely newsworthy—as well as difficult to summarize or to predict. This may well be an historical turning point, a landmark moment in the information revolution. Few policy makers and political scientists forecast that this moment would dawn in the Arab World. Accustomed to viewing political phenomena in the Middle East through the lens of fundamentalism, Western pundits have been at a loss to describe what is happening and why.

What is happening now in the media and political spheres of the Arab world cannot be understood through conventional political science approaches alone. A more ethnographic, fine-grained, and qualitative approach is required, one that views communications technology and political action as cultural practices situated in particular historical contexts. A detailed view of events in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Libya will reveal that human rights struggles in the Arab world will likely reverberate far beyond the Middle East.  Western policy makers, scholars, and journalists are suddenly forced to reexamine their conventional views of the narrow political horizons and un-modern “cultural mentalities” of Arabs. News consumers in Europe and North America suddenly see democratization and human rights struggles in a new light, as surprisingly similar to their own concerns, rather than as the odd behaviors of exotic others. The Arab world has become less a zone of distant suffering, passive victims, and political violence, and more a familiar space of youth movements, political debate, and demands for freedom.

Malcolm Gladwell’s dismissal of new media’s transformative and revolutionary potential notwithstanding, the long-hoped for and oft-forecast information revolution-based empowerment of civil society, individual freedoms, and political change appears to have arrived in – of all places! — the Arab world. As Gladwell noted in a much-cited article entitled “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” in The New Yorker last fall:

[S]ocial media creates little more than “weak ties” between people…and weak ties seldom lead to high risk activism. By comparison, the activism of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, …required considerable mental strength and mutual commitment among the groups of black protesters who staged restaurant sit-ins and protest rallies, often under threats of violence and even death.[1]

Gladwell’s belittling comparison of Facebook and Twitter activism and the momentous struggles of the 1960s is not unfair, but in the short months since he penned these dismissive words, the ICT revolution has turned into a lively social movement of street demonstrations, pop culture efflorescence of creativity and humor, and the downfall of dictators. None of this would have happened without the strengthening of social ties and a deepening of political consciousness. And it is ICT, particularly the new social media formats, which helped facilitate this stirring transformation. When push came to shove, however, it was the dependable “analog” era phenomena of word-of-mouth communications, photocopied leaflets, and creative hand-made posters that made the difference and filled the public squares in Tunis and Egypt. Physical spaces and face-to-face interactions were of course the sine qua non of events in Egypt and Tunisia.

In the last three moths, hundreds of pundits and scholars throughout the world have tried to explain the fall of two Arab regimes and the continuing challenges to regimes in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Jordan, and now, even in Syria. In the West, the most-commonly cited explanation for these historic developments is the use of new social media such as Twitter, Facebook, blogging, SMS, and YouTube.  Clearly, the seismic impact of these new technologies in the Arab world cannot be ignored or dismissed.[2] We must view them, however, as tools that thinking and acting people have used to successfully supplement and amplify social processes and political coalition building that had been underway in much of the region for the last decade.

New social media’s effects in the Arab world have built upon, first, the phenomenon of satellite television, particularly that of Al-Jazeera, which opened up new spaces of discourse and debate about political and human rights issues in the Arab world, thereby undermining the legitimacy and validity of state-owned news programs and the power structures underpinning them.

While Al Jazeera instilled a powerful reformist spirit, blogs have been particularly crucial in advancing and fortifying Arab activism efforts. Blogs have attracted the unwanted attention of government censors and secret police, and have been important tools for building mass movements for reform, as witnessed in the lively demonstrations for election law reform in Kuwait in 2006.

Before blogs, there were chat rooms,  listservs, and email communication, all of which enhanced and expanded a cyber world of public discourse. Some Egyptian bloggers have called the Internet and social media “our lungs. If they cut them off, we will suffocate.” As a result of ICT, social isolation has given way to the formation of communities of conversation and debate, which has ultimately evolved into social movements that take to the streets and make history in the real world.

What we are now witnessing in the Arab world is the emergence of a public space, a zone of communication, contention, and creativity, in which increasing numbers of Arabs from all walks of life are demanding their rights and calling their governments to account for corruption, repression, and overall bad governance.  Such a public cannot be sustained in cyberspace alone.  On this point, Gladwell was correct. Embodied interactions of actual people in physical places are key to the revolutions we are witnessing in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya. Solidarity can be invoked, encouraged, and discussed through the multiple channels and modalities of ICT, but it can only be realized on the ground. We are witnessing new conceptions and enactments of power in the Arab world. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt eloquently described this modality of political power:

 Power is what keeps the public realm [of political action] in existence….Power is always a power potential and not an unchangeable, measurable, and reliable entity like force or strength. While strength is the natural quality of an individual seen in isolation, power springs up between people when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.[3]

It is important to note that the linking element between ICT and political power is the human actor– or, better yet, actors–brought together by new technologies. We don’t simply create technology; technology also creates us. ICT enables us to dwell in alternative social and political worlds within the new worlds it has generated. Virtual reality is a wonderful incubator for the birth of new political realities. Our “networked society,” to use Manuel Castell’s phrase,[4] connects us horizontally and allows us not only to communicate, but to self-communicate and self-create. We not only consume the news, we now evaluate, filter, and respond to the news. We not only read headlines, our networked actions can ripple out across countries and continents and make headlines.

Power’s location in this new world is not easy to chart, because it is not yet formal and institutionalized, and even when it is, power in the networked world is subject to constant contention by counter-powers. What is certain, though, is that this is not the kind of top-down and limiting political/military/coercive power that has long dominated the Arab world, particularly in the post-colonial era. The Arab world is teaching us something new about collaborative, and often leaderless, political power.

The transnational impact of this emerging new political reality will be considerable in the Arab world and beyond. It is a new day, but that day is not yet over. Human rights and democratization are not yet guaranteed in the Arab world, as old regimes and their beneficiaries attempt to reassert power and play regional and international political interests against each other and spark old fears to advance their goals.

This is what democracy looks like

 Democracy is always an inside job. Not only does it have to be indigenous, but it also has to be internal and internalized as well. It comes about as the result of changing mental and psychological frameworks, which only come about if there is communication. Transformations that are not only structural but also emotional and moral are required for a democratic order to take root where none existed before. Democratization does not entail “Westernization,” though.  Nor is liberation necessarily rooted in the ethnonationalist demands of identity politics. What is at issue throughout much of the Arab world right now is not a striving to actualize Egyptian, Tunisian, Yemeni, or Libyan national identity as much as it is a broad-based popular project to claim and defend human dignity, rights, and freedoms.

Rights are not something that you ask for, get trained to exercise at EU or USAID-funded conferences, or read about in legal documents and Euro-Mediterranean conference proceedings. Rather, rights are something that you take and demand in order to have and preserve individual and collective dignity. The people of the Arab world, and all of us watching on BBC and Al-Jazeera English, are witnessing the blossoming of democracy from the grass roots, which is a much more inspiring spectacle than the democratization-at-gun -point that the US and UK attempted to install in Iraq in 2003.

In the West, human rights and democratization discourses usually center on the needs of the individual. Democratization as it is unfolding in the Arab-Islamic world appears to be a more relational than individualistic project, though, more a matter of duties than rights, more about obligations than freedoms. In Arabic, you spell democracy “D-I-G-N-I-T-Y.” One cannot have dignity in isolation. Rather, dignity (karaameh, in Arabic) implies the existence of others because it is all about proper relationships with others. To treat another with dignity is to accord him or her full humanity, to respect the inviolability of his or her person, will, feelings, rights, and pride. One who has dignity is humane, and to show humanity, one must interact with others properly and sensitively, with care, respect and foresight. This is a conception of freedom to, not freedom from. It is a very new model of political legitimacy, and as such, will undoubedly inspire movements elsewhere.

Although my presentation is meant to look at the transnational social and political dimensions of ICT in the Arab world, I’d like to ask whether the nation state is the operative unit in the emerging political constellation of that world.  The Arab individual has shown the world – and him/herself – that power lies with the people. As Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google executive who spearheaded the “We are all Khaled Said” blog noted after being released by the Egyptian Internal Security forces: “The power of the people is greater than the people in power.” Because of the public participation enabled by new social media, the political actor no longer has to have an institutional role in a formal political structure, be that the state, a political party, a non-profit organization or even a trade union, in order to realize his or her power.

What is being transcended here is not simply class stratification or political units’ borders and prevailing ideologies as much as psychological boundaries. Over and over again, from one Arab country to the next, activists of all ages and genders have repeated the phrase: “We have transcended the barrier of fear.”  Arabs have recognized that their fear is the dictators’ power. Sharing experiences online and transforming personal, subjective emotional realities of pain and frustration into objectively public discourse generates a potent solidarity that only grows stronger as the old powers-that-be attempt to crush it. By invoking nationalist pride, proper respect for elders and the elite, and threatening punishment for popular uprisings, dictators have only drawn attention to the sterility and oppression of the national project of Arab states in the post-colonial era. People have demanded the downfall of regimes not primarily as Egyptian or Yemeni nationalists or anti-Imperialist activists, but as human beings desiring their rights, freedom, and dignity.

The primary transnational impact of this ICT-enabled revolution is that it is spreading not only to other Arab countries, but even to countries as far afield as Zimbabwe and China. (The Chinese government has blocked any mention of “Jasmine Revolution” from the Internet for fear that Yemen’s revolution could spark demands for democratization in China.) We have even witnessed American citizens in the state capitol buildings of Wisconsin and Ohio holding up signs that declare their demonstrations as “Tahrir Square” struggles. A global rethinking of what democracy means and how power is to be utilized is one possible transnational effect of the Arab Spring.

Another possible transnational effect is increasingly evident in the countries long thought to hold ultimate power in the Arab world: The United States, Israel, and Iran. The Arab spring is calling attention to the democratic deficiencies of these societies, as well as the role of media in sustaining stale and oppressive systems of thought and projects of action in the Middle East. As people question their state’s leaders, they also illuminate inconsistencies and confusion in the policies of the great powers and that of their clients and adversaries.

Perhaps one can argue that the Arab Spring has sprung not only from ICT but also a growing realization that the US might not be the reigning world superpower or hegemon for decades to come. The power of local dictators has been buttressed by the military and financial power of Washington, either directly in the case of Egypt, or indirectly in the case of Syria (which maintains its stability partly as a function of its assumed role in a future “peace process”). In the United States, a new perspective may be emerging about the sustainability of a world economy based upon fossil fuels. Does our need for oil really outweigh our supposed democratic values and support for human rights? And if it does, what does this say about the US role in the world as the “indispensible country” or an “exceptional” power?

The role of the media has also shifted considerably in the West and the Arab world over the last decade. After the al-Qaida attacks of September 11, 2001, US news coverage became more narrow and nationalistic.  The limits of thinkable thought and critical debate shrank. During the same period Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyya widened their audiences and opened spaces for new publics and lively debates in the Arab world. In the US, news from Al-Jazeera was, in effect, censored or even criminalized as a threat to America’s post 9/11 “War on Terror” narrative and military interventions.

One of the most notable transnational effects of the Arab spring in the West has been a popular hunger for more Al-Jazeera English news coverage—not only about the uprisings in the Arab world, but also about protests in London and the impact of the tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan. Millions of Americans watched the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes collapse on-line, and many have begun to ask why Al-Jazeera English is not available in most of the United States. And recently, even US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has praised Al-Jazeera’s news coverage, in comparison to which US news media seems immature and even unprofessional.

Economically, the US is hurting. Militarily, it is stretched thin. Morally and psychologically, it has entered an era of unprecedented doubt and insecurity about the future. Although the US news media has not devoted enough attention to the transnational effects of the Arab Spring on Tel Aviv, Israeli observers have noted that Israel views the Arab Spring and its actual or likely repercussions with alarm. What happens to the discourses and rationales for the status quo in the region if Israel is no longer “the only democracy in the Middle East”? What happens to the Palestinian Authority and the Oslo process if democracy is born anew in the Arab world? How do opposing Palestinian factions cope with this new constellation of political forces? How do Israelis relate to Palestinians and the Arab world if the “peace” treaties with Egypt and Jordan come up for review by democratic Arab polities?

Furthermore, what happens to Syrian and Iranian political leaders who wish to focus only on American or Israeli violations of human rights while ignoring their own oppressive political systems? What happens to the reputations and legitimacy of the US and the EU in the eyes of the rest of the networked world of political actors if a dictator in Libya is to be bombed, but oppressive royal families in the Arabian Gulf are to be excused or even coddled? Unless Arab people and governments are supportive of struggles for justice and human rights that concern them so profoundly, if they are not willing to take the risk of confronting impunity in a region deeply scarred by mass graves and full of torture facilities, then why should Europeans or Americans care, let alone assist in their struggles? This question has had to be reconsidered as a result of the empowering Arab uprisings against dictatorial regimes.

Too often in the West, human rights discourses and policies have depicted struggles for freedom in the Middle East as dubious and unlikely to succeed, burdened as the Arabs allegedly are by pre-modern, tribal, or religious mentalities, sclerotic political institutions, and brutal regimes. For years, human rights progress in the Arab world was thought to be dependent upon Western pressure and intervention. To accomplish this, media in the West would have to give more detailed and contextualized attention to the downtrodden and brutalized people of the Arab world. As Abdullah An-Naim noted in a 1999 interview about the dynamics of dependency that characterized human rights struggles in the Arab world,

What I call dependency is the idea of generating pressures in the North to persuade governments in the South to protect the rights of their people, because that is not how human rights are protected in the North itself. There, human rights are protected by local constituencies organizing around their own priorities, enlisting political support within the own communities, and pressuring the own governments, legally and otherwise. . . . The problem is that this approach disregards the fact that human rights dependency is possible because of other dependencies. . . . Human rights dependency legitimizes other dependencies and perpetuates dependent relationships. . . . The problem is our failure to appropriate the human rights paradigm for our own objectives…[5]

On of the results of this dependency has been the silencing of indigenous narratives and the emphasis by outsiders on humanitarian rather than political needs. Luc Boltanski has discussed the media’s role in evoking compassion and international responses to the “distant suffering” of the undeservingly unfortunate.[6] Viewing the political crises of the Arab world through a Western media lens can foster complacency and apathy. If Arabs are irrational or medieval terrorists incapable of democratic governance, if they have been fated to war and chaos since Biblical times, then why should anyone care or intervene?

Crucial to the nurturance of supportive relationships of solidarity between Arabs and the rest of the world, which is a profoundly political as well as a moral project, is the engendering of spaces and moments of empathy between diverse peoples. ICT and new social media are crucial in this process, but not the only ingredients. Clearly, there are political limits of Internet activism, which cannot replace the instantiated, embodied relationships of empathy, solidarity, and conviction that only real-life encounters and cooperative endeavors can provide and sustain. Such relationships are key to building a transnational and political will to defend human rights and democratic freedoms anywhere and everywhere in the world.

Whether or not the democratic domino effect causes more Arab regimes  to fall, a new appreciation for the commonality of human struggles and  emerging configuration of power within the Arab world and between the Arab world and the West is likely to be an important transnational effect of the Arab spring. Empowerment is likely to be the leading transnational effect of the ICT revolution on the Arab streets


[1] Simon Mainwaring, “Egypt, Malcolm Gladwell and Social Media as a Life or Death Proposition,” accessed at http://socialmediatoday.com/simonmainwaring/267467/egypt-social-media-life-or-death-proposition on 29 March 2011.

[2] As of early 2011, approximately 20 million people in the Arab world are using Facebook, available in Arabic, with over 5 million in Egypt alone.

[3] The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press: 1960), p. 200.

[4] “Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society.” In International Journal of Communications 1 (2007) 238-266

[5] “Problems of Dependency: Human Rights Organizations in the Arab World.” Interview with A. An-Na‘im conducted by Lisa Hajjar. Middle East Report 214 (Spring 2000): 20–23, 46–47.

[6] Luc Boltanski. (1999) Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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