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.