The Great Debate

Why democracy will win


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.

An Egyptian song for all

By Mohamed A. El-Erian
El-Erian is the CEO of PIMCO. He spent part of his childhood in Egypt where his father was a professor of international law at Cairo University and then served as an Egyptian diplomat and was elected to the International Court of Justice in 1978. The opinions expressed are his own.

For centuries, songs have provided populist narratives of historical movements. And, every once in a while, a song comes along that also succeeds in capturing forcefully the raw emotions of the moment. This is the case today with “Sout el Horeya,” or the “Voice of Freedom,” sung by Hany Adel and Amir Eid.

Coming out of Egypt, this song skillfully encapsulates the strong drivers behind the ongoing transformations impacting the Middle East and North Africa. It is a “must hear” for all those trying to understand previously-unthinkable developments in the region, including western governments whose sophisticated intelligence services have been caught flat-footed and are now playing rapid catch up.

Digital media and the Arab spring


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.

from Bernd Debusmann:

Egypt, America and a blow to al Qaeda

These must be difficult times for Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The uprising that swept away Hosni Mubarak after 18 days of huge demonstrations, none in the name of Islam, does not fit their ideology. In the war of ideas, al Qaeda suffered a major defeat.

Its leaders preach that the way to remove "apostate" rulers -- and Mubarak was high on the list -- is through violence. Al Qaeda's ideology does not embrace the kind of people power that brought down the Berlin wall, forced Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines into exile, and filled Cairo's Tahrir Square with tens of thousands of peaceful protesters day after day.

They waved the red-white-and-black flags of Egypt, not the green banners of Islam, in peaceful demonstrations that amounted to "a huge defeat in a country of central importance to its image," in the words of Noman Benotman, the former leader of a Libyan group often aligned with al Qaeda. "We are witnessing Osama bin Laden's nightmare," wrote Shibley Telhami, an Arab scholar at the University of Maryland.

The experts were wrong, again

By David Keyes, who is the director of CyberDissidents.org, an organization that highlights the writings and activities of dissident bloggers. The opinions expressed are his own.

Moments ago, Egypt’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, stepped down after 30 years in power — following on the heels of Tunisia’s dictator who fled his country after ruling for 23 years.

At this remarkable moment in Middle Eastern history, it is worth recalling what scholars, diplomats and pundits said in years past about stability in Egypt and Tunisia. This jog down memory lane is one of those delicious moments where the experts are yet again proved ignorant of the present and incapable of predicting the future.

Sharansky: The link between Egypt and freedom

The time has come, Natan Sharansky says, for the leaders of the free world to link their cooperation and their demand for democratic reforms to their aid to countries like Egypt. Currently, the U.S. provides Egypt with almost $2 billion a year in aid.

This moment in time is incredibly pivotal because, as the famous former Soviet dissident said in a phone interview, “from the years of Laurence of Arabia, the free world has been supporting the dictators and supporting the squashing of any democratic movement.”

In his speech yesterday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he will not listen to any outside demands though. Instead, he will hand over his powers — he has held power for 30 years — to Vice President Omar Sulemain. How much of his powers and which powers will be transferred was not stated.

Resetting Egypt’s economy


By Mohamed A. El-Erian
El-Erian is the CEO of PIMCO. He spent part of his childhood in Egypt where his father was a professor of international law at Cairo University and then served as an Egyptian diplomat and was elected to the International Court of Justice in 1978. The opinions expressed are his own.

While Egyptians are yet to specify the final destination for their revolution — and only they can, and should do so — there is little doubt in my mind that the country is now on a new, bold and uncertain road toward greater democracy and individual freedoms. The next few days and weeks will be critical in determining the journey for a country that is central to the stability of the Middle East.

Undoubtedly, domestic political developments hold the key to what will happen. Egyptians need to converge on a common understanding and vision of “managed change”. And this vision must satisfy the millions of Egyptians — from all ages, religions and walks of life — that unite in Tahrir (Liberation) Square and elsewhere to better influence and improve their destiny.

Egypt’s turmoil leaves Israel silent and worried


By Alan Elsner, who is the communications director for The Israel Project. The opinions expressed are his own.

The uprising in Egypt that looks like it may sweep away President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-old regime threatens to deprive Israel of its most important strategic ally in the region.

Israeli leaders have been silent about the events in Egypt and are powerless to affect the outcome. But they and the entire Israeli population are gravely concerned that the turmoil will ultimately bring to power a new government hostile to the Jewish state.

How digital media enabled the protests in Tunisia and Egypt

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

It’s time for the State Department to stop backing individual leaders in the Middle East. Instead, the State Department needs to back networks.

The cascading impact of social protest in Tunisia and Egypt, triggered by desperate citizens and enabled by digital media, needs a new kind of response from the State Department. Not the State Department 1.0 version that exists today, which was woefully short on features when Bush left office. Secretary Clinton, her Innovation Czar Alec Ross and her Special Representative Farah Pandith have been working hard on a State Department 2.0. Now is the opportunity to roll it out.

The Middle East’s “Black Swan”

By David Keyes, who is the director of CyberDissidents.org. The opinions expressed are his own.

Who would have believed that the immolation of a single fruit vendor would spark nation-wide protests and lead to the precipitous downfall of the Tunisian dictator who ruled for 23 years? Who could have imagined that these protests would spread almost immediately to Yemen, Jordan and Egypt? This has been the ultimate Black Swan, a term made famous by economist Nassim Taleb, meaning a cataclysmic event that was entirely unpredicted.

The past two weeks in the Arab world are unprecedented in recent history. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets protesting corruption and dictatorship. When Ben Ali was forced from power, Arabs throughout the region looked at each other and said collectively “Why not our dictator too?”