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World Development book case study: the role of social networking in the Arab Spring

Illustration: Sarah John
Illustration: Sarah John
  • How useful was digital technology, particularly social networking sites, to democracy protesters in Tunisia and Egypt?
  • How important are the democracy protests in the Middle East and North Africa to world development?

The overthrow of long-term autocratic governments in Tunisia and Egypt at the start of 2011, the battle by rebels to defeat troops supporting the 42-year rule of Muammar Qadafi in Libya and the civilian unrest in Syria and Bahrain calling for democratic change: all of this represents the biggest change in Arab politics for decades. The start of the unrest was in Tunisia and the spark was the self-immolation of a market stallholder, Mohammed Bouaziz, on 10 December 2010. Unrest spread quickly through Arab countries in North Africa and the Middle East and the impact of the political changes is likely to be profound and difficult to predict.

Western countries have generally supported the ‘spread of democracy in the region’ and a lot of attention has been given to the positive influence of technology in promoting the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. In fact the first reported use of social networking websites by dissident groups taking part in a civil revolt was in Moldova, a small country between Romania and Ukraine, in April 2009. After events in the Arab world in 2011, many political and media commentators have predicted that the modern widespread availability of the internet, satellite communications and mobile phones will encourage the growth of similar movements in other African and Arab countries.

Each element of the digital technology used in communication has a particular function. The internet is useful for information dissemination and news gathering, social media for connecting and co-ordinating groups and individuals, mobile phones for taking photographs of what is happening and making it available to a wide global audience and satellite television for instant global reporting of events. For dissident groups, all of these digital tools allow them to bring together remote and often disparate groups and give them channels to bypass the conventional media, which is usually state controlled and unwilling to broadcast any news of civil unrest and opposition to the government.

Rapid internet interaction through Twitter and Facebook gave information to the protesters about how to counteract the security forces as they tried to disperse the protesters, maps showing locations for protest meetings and practical advice about such things as what to do when teargas is used against groups of protesters. All of these things increased the pressure that the protest movements were able to exert on their governments. The governments in Tunisia and Egypt were very unhappy about the often brutal images of repression of the protests by government security forces and both governments tried to block the social-networking sites. In Tunisia, the effect was to increase the size of protest demonstrations and the Tunisian president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, was forced to change his strategy. He apologized for blocking the sites and reopened them. He offered to open talks with the dissident groups but by that time it was too late to save his government. He resigned on 16 January and an interim coalition government was set up.

The Egyptian government’s decision to cut all communication systems, including the internet and mobile phones, on the night of 27 January was widely perceived to be a watershed moment in the overthrow of the Mubarak government. The decision was instantly condemned by human rights organizations across the world and many other governments. Egyptian protest sympathizers were unable to watch events on their computers and televisions and joined the demonstrators in Tahrir Square instead. The Mubarak government stepped down on 12 February and was replaced by a military council purporting to support democratic change.

Photo by: Ahmad Hammoud under a CC Licence
Photo by: Ahmad Hammoud under a CC Licence

There is considerable disagreement about the importance of digital technology in determining the outcomes of civil unrest in Arab countries at the start of 2011. Amnesty International acknowledges the importance of digital technology in the success of the civil uprising in Tunisia and Egypt (in its April 2011 report) but it also warns that the same technology can be used by threatened regimes to suppress civil unrest. Dissident groups can easily be infiltrated and the same technology has not been so successful in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. Although President Saleh of the Yemen was eventually forced to leave the country after being injured by a rocket attack (4 June 2011), it appears that the most important factor in his overthrow was the turning against him of previously supportive powerful family groups. China has taken much firmer control of its internet as a result of events in Arab countries, fearing a contagion effect. After an internet call for popular revolt in February, over 100 activists are reported to have ‘disappeared’.

International organizations that supply internet and other services in countries where the government feels threatened can come under intense pressure to block access to the internet, cut mobile phone networks or carry out spying activities on suspected dissidents. Human rights organizations will claim that the freedom and independence of the internet is vital to the successful spread of democracy and there are others who will argue that too much freedom is dangerous. The debate will rage on for many years.

There is an argument to be made that the role of technology in these events has been overstated. The frequent cry is that it was not laptops that marched on Tahrir Square but people with a common cause that they had already identified. As far as they are concerned, revolution is nothing new and the impact of the new technology in the Arab Spring has mostly been reported by people who are using the technology themselves. Its importance, they say, has been exaggerated.

The debate is complex and worthy of much more research. Technology can provide solutions to many problems but its use can also vary from one culture to another. In the Western world, Twitter is a device that is most frequently used to comment on relatively minor media or personal events, such as the behaviour of a particular celebrity. In Egypt and Tunisia its use proved to be much more political and effective – not social networking, just networking.

Photo by Frame Maker under a CC Licence
Photo by Frame Maker under a CC Licence

How important was the role of technology is one key question that has to be answered in examining the consequences of the Arab Spring. The other question is probably even harder to answer – what will be the impact on world development? One of the fundamental criteria for examining progress in world development is the spread of democratic, accountable government in countries around the world. There are some who argue that global governance has undergone a negative change in recent years as governments in Russia, Bangladesh, the Philippines and other countries have become more repressive. Events in the Middle East and North Africa should therefore be seen in a more positive light – as a change for the better. The opportunity must be taken to support the new governments chosen by the people of those countries, financially and politically, to help them stabilize and show the benefits of democratic government. The IMF has already undertaken to provide funds to help both Egypt and Tunisia to improve their impoverished economies.

Successful countries with expanding domestic and international economies would immeasurably improve the region’s chances of a stable and peaceful future. The difficulties are immense: regional poverty, tensions over the use of resources such as oil and water, religious divisions within countries, rapid population growth and, more threatening than any of those, relationships between Israel and its Arab neighbours. It is difficult to be too optimistic but democratic change offers the only solution. The biggest impact on world development may in the end be the encouragement these events have given to people in other countries in their own pursuit of democratic change.

Useful articles on this subject

Word of Click: Social Networking and the Arab Spring Revolutions Kody Gerkin

Facebook and Twitter are just places revolutionaries go. Cyber-utopians who believe the Arab spring has been driven by social networks ignore the real-world activism underpinning them Evgeny Morozov

Social Media and the Arab Spring, by Andy Williamson, Hansard Society

Social Networking and the 2009 revolution in Moldova. An article on the Radio Free Europe website by Ron Synovitz

This is a good topic where there are a range of interesting articles to compare for the coursework item.