Why democracy will win

By Philip N. Howard
March 25, 2011

LIBYA/

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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