A social media revolution?


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Today’s post comes from Professor Annabelle Sreberny, of the Centre for Media and Film Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Her latest book, “Blogistan: The Internet and Politics in Iran” (with Gholam Khiabany) warns against stereotyping bloggers as dissidents, and argues that the Internet is changing things in ways which neither the government nor the democracy movement could have anticipated.

So the joke goes that Mubarak dies and meets Nasser and Sadat in the afterlife. They ask him, “were you poisoned or shot?” Mubarak shrugs and answers “Facebook!”  Actually, an Egyptian family did recently name their newborn daughter Facebook.

There is no doubt that we’re witnessing a world-historical moment.  The insurrectionary wave that started in Tunis in December and is still unfolding across the Maghreb and Middle East has raised important questions about the role of new media technologies and platforms in contemporary political mobilizations. There has quite possibly never been such a dramatic set of political changes in contiguous or close state formations ever in history.  The revolutions of 1848 in Europe were supposed to be inspired by each other; how much more is that the case in a 24-hour transnational news environment and world-encircling Internet. As Lenin said,  “sometimes decades pass and nothing happens; and then sometimes weeks pass and decades happen.”

It is evident that both new and old media have played significant and fascinating roles in the recent insurrections to topple autocratic regimes from Tunis to Cairo and beyond. New media can no longer be considered the epiphenomena of political movements but are rather significant tools of political mobilization. This is NOT to repeat the fatuous claim that Tunisia was a ‘twitter revolution’, as had been claimed for the Green Movement in Iran after the June 2009 election, nor that such tools are indispensible for political change. Clearly people have made revolution without such tools. But in repressive regimes where face-to-face public politics is extremely curtailed, a platform such as Facebook provides a space where silence and fear are broken and trust can be built, where social networks can turn political, and where home and diaspora can come together. Whatever the intentions of their developers, social media are being used to provide news and information hard to come by from regime channels; to plan and coordinate action; and to tell the world what is going on.

But the conditions and mix of platforms differs from country to country. Tunisians faced a more pervasive police state than the Egyptians, with less latitude for blogging or press freedom, but their trade unions were stronger and more independent. The Kefaya movement had been blogging for many years in Egypt and numerous YouTube videos circulated about police torture and bread riots. Libyans have limited internet access but mobile telephony is widespread. The Egyptian Facebook pages We are All Khaled Said, set up by Wael Ghonim,  and 6th of April Youth Movement became important nodes in a growing movement; at the end of March 2011,  they each have over 100,000 ‘followers’.

Even the Egyptian military interim government announced the resignation of Shafiq and his replacement on their Facebook page. Twitter was another way to keep in touch and share useful suggestions across national borders, as the Tunisian who tweeted “Advice to the youth of Egypt: Put vinegar or onion under your scarf for tear gas” or like the Egyptian feminist, Mona Eltahawy, telling the world what is going on across the region. These platforms provide the power of instantaneity, immediate diffusion of and access to information, and extensiveness, crossing national borders and addressing diasporic and foreign populations.

But perhaps as significant as the new social media platforms has been the role of broadcasting, especially Al Jazeera Arabic and English. The Arabic channel and BBC Arabic played a multiplier role in articulating the diverse events across the region.  Al Jazeera English kept the rest of the world enthralled, with strong on-the ground coverage and moments of brilliant television direction. These included the use of split-screen to broadcast Mubarak’s last speech live whilst showing the response in Tahrir Square, the scores of shoes being thrown in the air an unmistakable sign that his end was fast approaching. A sympathetic global public opinion may have played a role in the unanimous UN resolution to instigate the no-fly zone over Libya.  In the US, Hillary Clinton has berated the US media for poor coverage which was delivering audiences to Al Jazeera.

We know that the demographic across the region is youthful and, as everywhere else, where possible they have embraced new technologies to download music and film and keep abreast of events around the world. These movements are about the rising expectations and rising frustrations of unemployed young men and the social obstacles encountered by increasingly better educated young women, and ring with an optimistic universalism for human rights and economic opportunities.

There is evidently more to come, in Bahrain, in Yemen, in Syria where the Facebook page The Syrian Revolution has 87,000 followers.  And new policies to support a free press and internet access have to be written in to the new constitutions in Egypt and Tunisia.  Small, alternative media (neither controlled by states nor by big business) are not a simple answer to political repression as Clay Shirky style cultural optimists and Jared Cohen would have the Washington beltway believe. But neither are they so controlled and monitored by strong states that nothing can be achieved, as the pessimists like Evgeny Morozov would argue.

When used creatively within a rich mix of local face-to-face politics, configured in the languages and symbols of national traditions, and in contexts where the older generation simply doesn’t want to give up power, it is evident that small media can punch way above their weight.

Useful links

OECD work on the Middle East and North Africa

OECD work on the Internet economy

Egyptian plan to evacuate cities

The primary concern for Egyptian firms is ...

As regular readers know, that headline was a cheap trick to get you to read this. It actually refers to the 2010 laureate of the International Transport Forum’s Young Researcher of the Year Award.

Hossam Abdelgawad, a 27-year-old Egyptian PhD-candidate from the University of Toronto, won the prize for a novel approach to the mass evacuation of major cities in case of a catastrophe.  

Whether you think what’s happening in Egypt just now is a catastrophe, a festival of the oppressed, or something else, depends on your personal point of view. What’s clear is that what started as protest movement inspired by people from similar backgrounds to Hossam Abdelgawad now has major economic and geopolitical repercussions.

It’s striking how many of those first protesters were fluent in English or French, in stark contrast to the situation in the 1970s and 80s I described in this post. Even back then, though, everybody in Egypt knew at least two English expressions: import-export and fat cats. Sadat’s “open door” policy had opened the country up to foreign trade and investment, but very few people benefited.

The OECD’s Business Climate Development Strategy for Egypt shows that although the overall economic situation has improved, many of the frustrations summed up in those two bits of English persist. The report assesses 12 key policy areas, ranging from investment and trade policy to tax, anti-corruption, infrastructure and human capital development.  

Presented in Cairo in November 2010, it concludes that: “the promised ‘trickle-down’ effect of positive growth into the poorer strata of the population has failed to materialise. At present, 20% of Egypt’s population remains below the World Bank’s poverty level.”

The unrest goes far beyond the poorest and a disaffected elite though. The Egyptian people’s legendary patience has finally snapped, even if they’ve kept their equally famous sense of humour. One sign seen in Tahrir Square said “Please go soon, my arms are getting sore holding this thing”. Another said “My name is Ahmad. I’d like to get married”.

In fact, Egyptians would read a lot into Ahmad’s sign. He may well be looking for a sweetheart, but even if he found one, it’s not sure they could get married. For that he’d need a job and a flat. Both are hard to come by. Officially, just over 9% of the workforce is unemployed, but as the OECD  report says, “the official rate of unemployment is likely to conceal considerable hidden unemployment and under-employment”.

In April 2009, Property Wire enthused that “The real estate sector in Egypt continues to perform well as there is a large gap between supply and demand”. Not everybody would agree with their definition of the prospect of continuing homelessness as a “positive outlook”, but some people at Moody’s might.

The ratings agency has just downgraded Egypt’s debt (and others will surely follow), because of the political instability of course, but also because of “concern that the policy response could undermine Egypt’s already weak public finances.” What that means is they’re afraid that as part of a deal, whatever government is in place maintains subsidies on energy and basic foodstuffs (5% and 2% of GDP, respectively), thereby making the budget deficit worse.

The OECD recommends moving away from subsidies too, and replacing them with direct income support. The main reason is clear – subsidies help even those who don’t need them, at the expense of the poor and other social programmes. But, “this requires a better performing population registry, a way to means test households and a more sophisticated payments system” and these are costly to create.

I’ll finish with some self-congratulation, followed by some self-criticism (self here being the OECD).

Don’t say we didn’t warn you. Page 50 of the report couldn’t be clearer: “Despite rising macroeconomic stability, the primary concern for Egyptian firms is – by far – political instability”.

Stop now if you don’t want to hear me whingeing.

I wish we wouldn’t use “trickle down”. It gives the impression that it’s OK for those at the top to stuff their faces as long as the poor can lick whatever dribbles down their chins. And another thing while I’m at it: nobody has ever been “lifted out of poverty” . They work damn hard to earn a bit more money.

Useful links

OECD work on Egypt