Why democracy will win

By Philip N. Howard
March 25, 2011


Philip N. Howard, an associate professor at the University of Washington, is the author of “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy:  Information Technology and Political Islam”. The opinions expressed are his own.

The Day of Rage in Saudi Arabia was a tepid affair, and Libyan rebels have suffered strategic losses. Only two months ago, popular uprisings in Tunisia inspired Egyptians and others to take to the streets to demand political reform. Will the tough responses from Gadaffi and the Saudi government now discourage Arab conversations about democratic possibilities? It may seem like the dictators are ahead, but it’s only a temporary lead.

Ben Ali ruled Tunisia for 20 years, Mubarak reigned in Egypt for 30 years, and Gadaffi has held Libya in a tight grip for 40 years. Yet their bravest challengers are 20- and 30-year-olds without ideological baggage, violent intentions or clear leaders. The groups that initiated and sustained protests have few meaningful experiences with public deliberation or voting, and little experience with successful protesting. These young activists are politically disciplined, pragmatic and collaborative. Where do young people who grow up in entrenched authoritarian regimes get political aspirations? How do they learn about political life in countries where faith and freedom coexist?

The answer, for the most part, is online. And it is not just that digital media provided new tools for organizing protest and inspiring stories of success from Tunisia and Egypt. The important structural change in Middle East political life is not so much about digital ties between the West and the Arab street, but about connections between Arab streets.

Research has demonstrated three clear democratizing effects of the Internet, especially among young people in the region: more individuals are using the Internet to openly discuss the interpretation of Islamic texts, more people are forming individuated political identities online and creating their own media, and more citizens are actively debating gender politics and pan-Islamic identity. Satellite television has fed a transnational Middle East identity for several decades. But it is only in the last decade that people have started transnational conversations about politics and shared grievances.

Some experts thought the Internet was going to be a boon for radical voices and fundamentalist Islam. But it turns out that digital media more often push such extremists to the side, and bolster the networks of civil society groups over terrorist groups. Individuals learn that they can become sources of information, and that Dropbox accounts, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Google and a host of other tools provide ways for people to spread information beyond the reach of their despot.

Last week, several major protests against authoritarian rule fizzled. But women’s groups across 10 Arab nations staged high profile, coordinated events to celebrate International Women’s Day. They organized online and had a savvy digital media strategy for garnering national and international headlines.

Perhaps the best evidence that digital media has had a positive impact on the long-game of democratization comes from both activists and dictators. Civil society leaders across the region report that the Internet and mobile phones have become a fundamental information infrastructure for political conversation, especially in countries where there are few face-to-face opportunities for such interaction. Women, who have minor roles in formal politics, increasingly maintain active political conversations over networks of family and friends.

In times of crisis, desperate dictators make clumsy attempts to disable communications. Attempts to disable digital networks slow communications but do not stop collective action by civil society groups. These attempts, however, do destabilize the economy and cripple the organizational capacity of the state. But it is usually too late: key social elites have diversified news diets, practiced having open conversations, imagined policy alternatives, and interacted with citizens in functioning democracies such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey.

Not every country in North Africa and the Middle East has experienced political turmoil. But all regimes in the region are coping with increased levels of civic conversation they cannot dominate. Digital media is creating new cultures and networks of political discourse. This is why things are looking good for the long game of democracy.

Photo: Women take part in a rally supporting coalition air strikes in Libya at the rebel-held city of Benghazi, March 23, 2011. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly


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“Democracies” can be a very broad range of governments. The word “Democratic” appears in the names of countries western liberal semi socialist democracies would consider autocracies or anti capitalist societies.

The countries that claim to be democratic are not necessarily going to be best friends or agree on fundamentals. .

The big disadvantage of the Internet is that it is most accessible to the affluent and techno-savy segment of society. It is also easy to post false and misleading information. There is little “quality control” and that is almost impossible to define. But “repressive” regimes seem to be those that exercise censorship of any media content. Freedom of the press is a commonly accepted belief at the UN level and is one of the principles of Human rights, but it is also subject to interpretation.

The large principals of human rights and good government are being established by agreements made in the UN and the administrative affairs of one’s native country are being subtly and not so subtly guided into conformity of global standards of practice and belief.

The US and Euro zone will be happiest with democracies that allow them the greatest opportunities to cross invest. The fundamental goal of all the governments of the world – of living, not failed states – is to provide the best possible standard of living for themselves. They want to profit from their relationships. They disagree internally on how that standard of living is distributed.

The west sells a market oriented way of life. All values are subservient to the market or appear to be. And ideally everyone has access to it on as equal terms as possible. During most of my life the west has even been characterized as libertine by not only puritanical communist regimes, or arch conservative Islamic parties but also the Catholic and fundamentalist Christian Churches. Israel and the Palestinians both have their under worlds, as do most all the countries on earth. And even religions have their living black markets or underworlds. There are such things as the governments of the ungovernable.

One could almost suggest that what the western Democracies want is the right for as much liberty shading into underworld activities as it can maintain without loosing itself in its own luxury and vice. The regimes it fears most are those that want to tone the “party” down too much. They tend to be depressing, brutal and bland. They tend to be systems that speak louder than those than live within them. The advanced economies don’t like things “sub-standard”. The UN also does not like substandard but its terms are broader than what is commercially defined.

But lets not fool ourselves: societies can be totally controlled by a few when they are most full of people distracted from the main sources of influence and power. And no political system can entirely protect its citizens from that. In fact the elites of all types of governments like as few hands stirring the pot as possible. Why else are elite schools so expensive?

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Lets define DEMOCRACY-the illusive,often mis-interpreted,blindly worshiped by a number of people,useful political tool against societies viewed as un-democratic,thought by some to be the only rightful or ligitimate(delusional) forms of government,and the one and only system that suits every society the World over(wrong to the bone). The answer to this illusive terminalogy can best be explained by the quality of life,stability(peaceful),basic liberties(down to Earth day to day life),rules of laws to maintain social cohesion,and security which currently exists in a surprising place called the People’s Republic of China(a nation often viewed or characterized as un-democratic,oppressed communist state). So be practical,a terminalogy or word only represent what it sounds,appears,or writen.

Posted by Haung | Report as abusive

Tunisia, Egypt, Libya revolt going on in these place and now it is spreading to the East. It sounds good. People coming out into street and chasing the autocrats out, wow what a wonderful view to see. Or is it so? Isn’t this a Déjà vu? Haven’t we seen this happening in Soviet Union last century? What happened there after that? People with no experience of democracy came to power and all got lost to Organized criminals. Now women in those countries are prostituting all around the world and online to earn a living. No safety for anything. It is true and is needed the autocrats should be gone but that should be a systematic transfer not chaos which will only lead to anarchy. In a place that is already saturated by violence and terror. This will only lead to more confusion and chaos. I don’t know what should be a solution to this confusion I think people or anyone with any political experience should suggest a way out for these monarchs and autocrats. Maybe give these guys an Island to and live. Maybe they will accept that to save their lives. Take all the money from their bank accounts and extradite them there. Then a UN panel should conduct democratic elections. Easier said than done though, well what if the winners of the elections are something like Hamas? Okay enough is already there for paranoia what is going on there can only add fuel to the already burning fire.

Posted by bulldancer | Report as abusive