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.