Opinion

The Great Debate

Digital media and the Arab spring

By Guest Contributor
February 16, 2011

BAHRAIN-CLASHES/

By Philip N. Howard, author of “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam,” and director of the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam at the University of Washington. The opinions expressed are his own.

President Obama identified technology as one of the key variables that enabled and encouraged average Egyptians to protest. Digital media didn’t oust Mubarak, but it did provide the medium by which soulful calls for freedom have cascaded across North Africa and the Middle East. It is difficult to know when the Arab Spring will end, but we can already say something about the political casualties, long-term regional consequences and the modern recipe for democratization.

It all started with a desperate Tunisian shopkeeper who set himself on fire, which activated a transnational network of citizens exhausted by authoritarian rule. Within weeks, digitally-enabled protesters in Tunisia tossed out their dictator. It was social media that spread both the discontent and inspiring stories of success from Tunisia across North Africa and into the Middle East.

The protests in Egypt drew the largest crowds in 50 years, and a second dictator fell from power. The discontent spread through networks of family and friends to Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen. Autocrats have had to dismiss their cabinets, sometimes several times, to placate frustrated citizens. Algerians had to lift a 19-year “state of emergency” and are gearing for demonstrations over the weekend. Even Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi has had to make concessions to activists brave enough to raise street protests against government housing policy.

But perhaps the most important casualty in terms of global politics is the U.S. preference for stability over democracy in North Africa and the Middle East. This preference, expressed in different foreign policies, seems untenable when groundswells of public opinion mobilize for democracy.

What are the lessons for the West? First, Islamic fundamentalists may terrorize parts of the region, but a larger network of citizens now has political clout, largely because of social media. The Muslim Brotherhood is no longer the only way to organize political opposition. In a digital world, older ideologically recalcitrant political parties may not even be the most effective way to organize effective political opposition.

Second, democratization has become more about social networks than political change driven by elites. The U.S. needs to spot when a dictator’s social networks fragment to the point that he is incapable of managing his regime. More urgently, the U.S. needs to take serious note when networks of family and friends align — increasingly through digital media — on a set of grievances that political elites simply cannot or will not address.

So what are the lessons for Tunisia and Egypt’s neighbors in the region? In this global, digital media environment, it is going to be increasingly difficult for the strong men of North Africa and the Middle East to rig elections. It will also be increasingly difficult to suspend democratic constitutions and pass power to family members. In the West, we may not think of these things as significant steps. But historically, closing options for authoritarian rule has been an important part of democratization. Giving a dictator less room to maneuver is as much a part of democratization as is running the first successful election.

Finally, what does it all mean for democratization? The Arab Spring has already brought down two dictators. Regardless of whether others will fall in the next few days or weeks, terms and conditions for authoritarian rule in North Africa and the Middle East have changed. With even a modicum of outside support, democracy in these countries can be home grown.

The West has a significant opportunity to help people across these regions enshrine the democratic norms we value and they seek. America should issue the right kinds of rhetorical and practical support, such as working hard to keep the Internet infrastructure open and publicly accessible. Taking advantage of this opportunity means understanding the ingredients for democratization — especially digital media.

Photo: People gather at a Shi’ite village cemetery in Sanabis, west of Bahraini capital Manama, February 15, 2011. Thousands of Shi’ite protesters marched into the capital on Tuesday after a man was killed in clashes between police and mourners at a funeral for a demonstrator shot dead at an earlier anti-government rally. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

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