The Arab Spring, Egypt, and the Internet
Previous to 2011, few could imagine that a jobless college-graduate from Tunisia named Mohamed Bouazizi would start a revolution that would go on to sweep much of North Africa and the Middle East. He was a disaffected father of 6, a college graduate, as well as a vegetable seller at the local market in Sidi Bouzid, who on December 26th, 2010, after repeatedly having his vegetable cart confiscated by police, set himself on fire in protest (Mandel, 25). This is recognized as the literal spark which started the wildfire spread of the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring was a far-ranging protest movement seeking (depending on the country and phase of the local movement) economic, social, and political reform in their respective nations.
What makes the Arab Spring unique, though? Earth had protest movements long before the present, long before there were cell phones, fax machines, and Internet. The Internet, however, played a significant role in the Arab Spring, known for being the first movement where activists utilized social media significantly for organization, coordination, and communication. So it must be asked: Why is it known that way? What effect did social media, and the Internet more generally, have on the Arab Spring? Why is it that we note the Arab Spring as the very first to use social media in this way? Taking a close look at one of the Arab Spring movements in particular, Egypt, shows exactly why the Arab Spring changed significantly the balance of power in the world. To make it explicit: It was a confluence of factors that led the Arab Spring to be a successful revolution, including the widespread use of social media, often via smartphone, the stability of those platforms, and the realtime global coordination which that allowed. It is not only that social media platforms were mature enough to handle these revolutions, but that agents (of change) found the properties of these platforms reasonably-suited for their purposes.
Social media platforms provided space for those who would have revolution, to make it happen. These platforms act as digital extensions of Tahrir Square (Egypt) or Gezi Park (Turkey). Additionally, the Arab Spring led the rest of the world by example, giving observers tools for later revolutions (Occupy WallStreet, Occupy Gezi, Idle No More) which were coordinated via social media.
The #jan25 (January 25th, 2011) revolution in Egypt sought the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, and generally characterized an explosion of protests (violent and not), riots (violet and not), civil disobedience/resistance actions, and strikes, ending February 11th, 2011. Facebook was seen as the organizational tool of choice for the Arab Spring in Egypt, and Twitter the communications tool of choice. Egyptians banded together to throw out Mubarak, whose economic policies were not enough to prevent just over 1/5th of Egyptian youth from being unemployed. Over half (55%) of the unemployed youth were women with college degrees.
One of the more important structural factors in the #jan25 revolution was the lack of useful interest aggregation and articulation facilities in the Mubarak regime. He was “a president cut off from his people” (Hosni). Just as we in the USA go on about needing jobs, so too did Egyptians, but as there were no avenues for this dissent within the Mubarak regime, these conversations took place at markets and online – not being heard by the regime. Social media became the extended public square (Tahrir Square, during #jan25). For the government, this took on a more sinister tone during #jan25 because the public square conspired to oust Mubarak (and succeeded). The response from the government was to cut the public off from that extended public square by disabling Egyptians' access to the Internet. The international community stepped in to ensure that true silence was never heard, and launched Speak 2 Tweet on Twitter (and other stopgap measures), which allowed Egyptians to call a phone number and leave a message on an “answering machine” that would convert the audio to text and automatically tweet it. This allowed, even in the absence of Internet, the rest of the world to keep up with the situation on the ground.
Often the Egyptian revolution is framed as a pro-democracy movement seeking to overthrow a heavy-handed dictator, but reality is rarely so simple. In the West, we're somewhat invested in that version of the events because it fits our narrative surrounding peoples yearning for freedom, however the Egyptian military was who forced out Mubarak, ran the country for a year until elections could be held, and then supported Mohamed Morsi when he was finally brought into office. Morsi was a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood (considered moderate at the time, now considered radical), and he ruled with an iron fist. The effect this had on global politics was twofold: 1: that a dictator could be overthrown by a broad-based citizen-powered movement (with the assistance of an activist military, though that was not required in other Arab Spring nations), and 2: that information tools (theoretic and actual) for organizing, communicating, and coordinating against a government were ready for use.
The Politics of #jan25
The case of Egypt is most interesting because depending on whom you ask, you get opposing answers to the question about whether or not social media played any real role in #jan25. A primary criticism about a the role social media may have played is that the Internet to Egypt was literally off for a quarter of the revolution. The whole of #jan25 was from Jan 25th to Feb 11th, and the Internet was completely off by the 28th, and service wasn't restored until the 2nd.
Additional wrenches that can be thrown in the common understanding of Egypt's revolution are the fact that the Internet in Egypt was heavily monitored (but not censored) under Mubarak, with the express purpose of surveilling and arresting agitators. This was done using Narus (a subsidiary of Boeing) surveillance hardware, a US-based company.
For the slightly more social, #jan25 also demonstrated to the world that social media could be a force for change, and not just for cute cat photos. Governments are not blind to this shift and have variously attempted to adapt accordingly, either through heavy surveillance (like Mubarak), through censorship (as in Saudi Arabia) (Countries 2010), or through discourse control mechanisms (as in the US). This has created an extended space online for activists, citizens, and anyone with an Internet connection, to participate in the politics of the world. This is a vast extension of both the public and private spheres, with important consequences (positive, and negative) for the political systems in the world. Both activists and governments (and peoples of many other stripes) are now locked in a sort of arms-race over the Internet, centered on issues such as what sort of dissent is legitimate online, how to manage interest articulation and aggregation, and whether or not sovereignty/nationality has any place on the Internet.
There are additional issues relating to governance of the Internet, and the role that potential governing institutions can play in the balance of power (if they're state or non-state actors, or from some other sort of organization) between those who would use the Internet (and social media) as a platform for political speech, dissent, and organizing, and those who would quash any such actions, or further use the Internet as a tool of mass manipulation and propagandizing. It's important to note that most of the organizations that have governance authority are not currently broad-based, and do not have many (if any) non-Global-North board members. This presents real challenges of representation going forward for the 2 billion additional people that will gain access to the Internet by 2020 (bringing total access to 3-4bn).
An additional issue that comes up is the control sites like Facebook are able to exert over content distribution within their sites via algorithmic curation. Many are at this point familiar with the fact that you don't see absolutely everything your friends post on Facebook, but the algorithm that those content decisions are made by has huge consequences for you if the information you're trying to disseminate doesn't fit Facebook's definition of “fit to disseminate”. This curation can be very damaging and problematic because the way you'd elevate a post on Facebook is by paying to do so – it is an advertising platform after all. This curation, too, is a more subtle form of censorship than the very obvious block pages nations like Myanmar or Saudi Arabia employ. You'd never know your message has been suppressed because nobody ever saw it.
The final issue the case of Egyptian's social media usage during the #jan25 movement alights are debates over whether or not Internet is a human right, what exactly such a right would look like, and how that would be enforced. Internet access has already been declared a human right by the UN, and further the right to privacy in this digital age has also been affirmed (re-affirming the privacy rights in the original UN Declaration of Human Rights). It's now up to the UN General Assembly (and internal organizations) to uphold these standards.
With all of these discussions and issues, mainstream analyses leave a few things undiscussed: What does it all mean? What does it mean that the Internet now plays an important role in both revolutions and censorious behavior? What does it really mean that Internet is considered a human right, and that non-Internet privacy rights are affirmed as being just as relevant on the Internet? Why is it that the tool we've created which has the potential power for the greatest social uplift in human history, also contains the power for the greatest repression?
The Internet has shaped everything on earth, and probably a few things off-earth. Though #jan25 has been covered as some sort of discrete event, separable from its greater context, it is not. It is but one set of events where we move towards both greater freedom and greater tyranny through the continuing utilization and development of the Internet. The current broad issues surrounding the Internet cover everything from surveillance, to governance, to politics (global, national, local, identity), to questions of nationality and citizenship. None of these are to be disregarded, as they all play important roles in the development of the future.
Perhaps more than any one issue (though those will be covered), what the Internet does for the global political environment is it allows people to figure out what they want. This great platform has been created that allows realtime communication with anybody, anywhere on earth. With translation tools, people need not even speak the same language. This leads to a fast and furious exchange of ideas (good, bad, and otherwise). No longer must anyone wait for information to be packaged up via mainstream interpretations and meted out via journalists or official state organs, people can just go chat with someone in Russia or Mali or Liechtenstein. They need only be awake (and not even, if they're willing to wait). This is where the Internet's power to (continue to) change the world comes from. North Africa and the Middle East learned a lot from the Arab Spring about activism, advocacy, and many other things, and it's absolutely on-point that during the recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri (following the killing of an unarmed black man by a white police officer), where the police showed up in riot gear, armored personnel carriers, and firing teargas into the crowds, activists from the Middle East stepped up to provide advice on how to mitigate the effects of teargas and tactics for police avoidance that had been recently battle-tested during the Arab Spring. A meme, “hands up, don't shoot”, created by the actions of those protesters in Ferguson has been replicated a month later in Hong Kong, where there is (at the time of writing) a pro-democracy movement burning the midnight oil.
One broad issue with the Internet is the question of governance, namely who and how. Presently it's governed by committee of primarily Americans and Europeans, but there will eventually be most of earth on the Internet and those two groups are a small but not insignificant percentage of the earth's population. They're also the Global North, which without broader inclusion easily leads to critiques about imperialism (or colonialism) on the Internet. More inclusive organizations include the UN International Telecommunications Union (which represents primarily the Internet Service Providers), and the very recently launched Internet Governance Forum (within the United Nations), which is attempting to answer these questions of governance (who, and how). Counter to those questions are those who believe in the anarchic system we already have on the Internet, those who support the distributed nature of the Internet, and who abhor any centralization of power in relation to it. Groups such as Telecomix fight to preserve what we already have, and resist attempts to centralize any part of the Internet. They believe decentralization is what lead to the current success of the Internet, and that that should continue.
Additional questions about surveillance (surveil what, how much, how often, and whom (target, and surveillant)) have surfaced at the prompting of a former National Security Agency contractor, Edward Snowden, who released to journalists many internal agency documents detailing the what, how, how much, and whom, of the NSA's surveillance programs. This release has sparked debates at the national and international levels about these questions, and some nationalism as well (with movements to keep local's data jurisdictionally local). These debates are important for everyone on Internet and off, and certainly not yet settled. As more former colonies get online, these debates will intensify because the surveillance that is pervasive now will likely increase, and will seem very much like the surveillance of the colonial powers to those new Internet users. Because it is, and it's still the same countries doing it.
As for the broader changes this will bring to politics, faster communication than at any previous time in history enables a faster exchange of ideas, information about the goings on around people, and increased awareness of both successes and problems locally and globally. The Internet brings benefits to the procedural part of politics as well, such as the potential to have voting anywhere in the world, and different technology-enabled voting modes (such as Liquid Voting). It has also closed the information gap somewhat between rulers and those being ruled. Secrecy in government (and various “state secrets” policies) continue to be strengthened, but the capacity for that information to get out and be duplicated globally within seconds has never been so great. This pushes our government systems towards transparency, though perhaps kicking and screaming. Additionally, these communication modality changes lead to a reification of identity differences between people, towns, states, nations, and the globe. Optimistically, they can also lead to recognition of the shared traits, the so-called shared human condition we all experience.
Last, and also important as it relates to identity (and the politics thereof), are the debates surrounding nationality and citizenship, and what those mean in an ever technologically-accelerated globalizing world. It's almost an example in itself to ask what it means to be a citizen of the USA in a world where one can communicate in realtime with someone anywhere on earth. And, on the other side, what does national identity mean in a world so pervasively surveilled by private corporations? These are not easy questions, and certainly are not answered in mainstream discussions about the Internet or globalization. These questions of identity (personal, community, national, global) will continue at a fever pitch as globalization (and Internet penetration) increases. I foresee a continuing identity crisis as people who are already online meet those who are recently online, and those who have never been online finally get there.
The main takeaway from all this is that the mainstream discussion of the Internet (and social media usage) as it relates to the Arab Spring is too narrow. The question can be easily answered as to whether or not social media had an effect on the Arab Spring, but that's a very narrow perspective on what the changes were. To focus solely on Facebook or Twitter's role is facile. To attempt to look more broadly at the changes the Internet can enable (good and bad!), is a more useful goal. The changes are not merely limited to an additional communication medium, but a new set of organizational and societal tools, and a global infrastructure to support them.