[Air-L] Assessing Arab Social Media

John Paul Laprise j-laprise at northwestern.edu
Thu Feb 17 01:55:52 PST 2011

Here are some initial thoughts that I have assembled with the help and insight of some of my students here in Doha regarding the ongoing political turmoil

First it was Tunisia and then Egypt. The view from Doha, Qatar is instructive. As one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the problems of other Arab nations often sound remote and even alien. Poverty, corruption and brutality resonate distantly here. However, many Arabs make Qatar their home and their voices offer some surprising insights about the nature of the changes now engulfing the region.
Social networking technologies are important, but not always for the obvious reasons. It is certainly true that these technologies enable individuals to communicate and coordinate action with others and this facilitates group action. They also provide support to commonly held beliefs that are not so confidently held. In Tunisia, Wikileaks's revelations of the low US diplomatic opinions of the Ben Ali government assuaged the concerns of the people who were worried that the US government might not share their opinions of Ben Ali. Knowing that diplomats were all too well aware of the corruption in Tunisia strengthened the resolve of the demonstrators.

In Egypt, the government took a different approach and tried to shut down technologically aided social networking by switching off mobile networks and the Internet. This course of action while not unprecedented was surprising. There are significant costs to a country that disconnects itself. Only the most repressive of countries like North Korea choose this option. Notably, even they allow some highly supervised access.
The government's choice to disconnect Egypt from the Internet had a series of unforeseen and largely detrimental side effects, from the government's point of view. First, some demonstrators took the technology embargo as a sign of weakness on the part of the government. Such an extreme move, they reasoned could only indicate that the government felt legitimately threatened by the demonstrations.  This encouraged them to continue to take to the streets.

The Internet disconnection and shutdown of the mobile phone network also ironically pushed people into the streets, protestor and non-protestor alike. Turning off these technologies activated an older and more established social networking technology: the Arab Street. Egyptians are avid consumers of information. More than 16 million Egyptians use the Internet and over 53 million use mobile phones.  When the government shutdown these communications networks, Egyptians hungry for information left their homes to seek out information from their neighbors, providing protestors and activists the opportunity to persuade and encourage the participation of citizens in face to face conversation.

In the days that followed, a series of "low tech" solutions emerged to work around the information blackout. Modems were hauled out of storage to take advantage of free dial up service offered to Egyptians by sympathizing ISPs in other countries such as France.  In a telegraphic inversion, "retweeting" services sprang up allowing Egyptians to call individuals outside of Egypt and have them tweet on their behalf.
"High tech" solutions soon followed. The Speak2Tweet application was quickly made available by Google, Twitter, and SayNow enabling users to tweet by voice directly. The TOR Project which produces software that facilitates online anonymity saw a large spike in download requests from Egypt. Governments and citizens have joined battle over modern communications technology leading to an accelerated pace of innovation. Unfortunately for authoritarian governments, geeks tend to side with citizens and are likely to continue to innovate on behalf of the repressed.

Shutting down the Internet was also a transparent effort to control damaging images. Since the demonstrations began in Egypt, Al Jazeera has been providing live footage of the demonstrations. Al Jazeera reporters located in Cairo, Suez, and Alexandria-three of Egypt's largest cities reported on peaceful anti-government demonstrations and violent pro-government reactions. Anecdotal evidence suggests that citizen journalists reporting from other cities captured even more striking imagery reflecting the desperation of demonstrators and government forces in these smaller and more remote locales.
For those 53 million mobile users, however, capturing those moments on mobile phone cameras for future uploading would be natural and probably was. The ongoing Internet blackout may well be an attempt to stem what might be a flood of damning images from all across Egypt. With the collapse of the internal security forces, this might include graphic images taken in abandoned prisons and police stations.  Taken to an extreme, this might lead to the Hague Tribunal opening up investigations on various members of the government.

Finally, outside of Egypt various governments have taken a variety of positions on the demonstrations in Egypt. Many commentators have noted how the crises in Tunisia and Egypt have shaken the thinking of authoritarian governments around the world.  This is a good thing.  Perhaps the most telling reaction is the addition of "Egypt" to the list of banned search terms in China. China, too, is dealing with growing economic inequality, poverty, unemployment and police brutality. At present, popular unrest in China has largely been directed at corrupt individuals and local government. Tunisia and Egypt are instructive cases on the consequences of allowing the concerns of citizens to fester unaddressed in the Information Age.

Addendum: The ongoing political turmoil erupting in the MENA region continues to afflict more states. At last glance only Oman, the UAE, Palestine and Qatar have escaped. All other MENA countries have begun coping with popular protests in one form or another. Oman does not rely on an extraction economy and has been comparatively responsive to citizen needs. The UAE and Qatar are both blessed with small populations and enormous wealth. The state offers citizens an array of benefits that redefines the idea of welfare state while avoiding the callous brutality that characterized Egypt and Tunisia. As for the Palestinian Territories, I suspect that it is only a matter of time before Israelis find peaceful mobs of Palestinians at checkpoints and border crossings heading to rally in Jerusalem at Al Aqsa. Just as in Egypt, security forces will be offered the stark choice to either shoot or be bypassed. As long as the demonstrators take their cue from previous protests, what is the Israeli government going to do? Shoot them? Images of Israeli troops shooting unarmed peaceful protestors would inflame anti-Israeli feeling globally.

This is the domino of all dominos.

As a post-script, I would like to add that I am open to research inquiries.

Best regards,

John Laprise
Visiting Assistant Professor in the Communication Program
Northwestern University in Qatar

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