Digiactivism Alive in Mideast

26 07 2010

Doesn’t  Sound “Passive”, eh?

Every now and then, someone in the West comes to make some outlandish claim about the use and potential of Social Media in the Middle East, hint: the Iran Twitter Revolution. This time, it comes from the Middle East from Rami Khouri who writes for Lebanon-based Daily Star. His central claim, in his piece picked by the New York Times (..) is that Arabs who are using social media tools are largely spectators:

Blogging, reading politically racy Web sites, or passing around provocative text messages by cellphone is equally satisfying for many youth. Such activities, though, essentially shift the individual from the realm of participant to the realm of spectator, and transform what would otherwise be an act of political activism — mobilizing, demonstrating or voting — into an act of passive, harmless personal entertainment.

This claim does not stand the test of reality, take for example the recent anti-censorship protest in Tunisia reported on this blog, or even closer to Mr Khouri’s levant, the case of Egyptian citizen Khaled Said whose killing at the hands of Egyptian police officers became a rallying point for those same “passive” Arabs. Khaled Said’s murder was quickly picked up and relayed via twitter, Facebook where a group for him quickly grew to include over 200000 users. Later on, those same “passive” youth took their online virtual activism to the real world by organizing protest demonstrations, sit-ins- flash mobs. Now, hold your breath, just last Sunday the latest protest demonstration took place thousands of miles away from Khaled Said’s native Alexandria, it happened here in the US in New York.

Many of us have grown so used to seeing this cycle unfold in the Middle East over the last few years, however, what is remarkable is that the time it took in 2005 to start an advocacy campaign  has been considerably shortened, primarily, due to the scale of users and the growing skill pool: thousands and thousand more Arabs are in fact using Social Media tools. For instance, the Khaled Said tragedy broke out in June, we’re now in the end of July and protest has already been exported outside of the Middle East.

So, it would not be very hard to see why Khouri’s claim here seems bizarre:

We must face the fact that all the new media and hundreds of thousands of young bloggers from Morocco to Iran have not triggered a single significant or lasting change in Arab or Iranian political culture. Not a single one. Zero.

if we only considered the full impact of the Khaled Said campaing (which is just the newest of many): it allowed Egyptian activists to force the government’s hand, the killers are facing trial, and there is an entire new discourse emerging in Egypt crystalizing young Egyptian hopes for their civil rights to be respected: a demand to stop police brutality.

Interestingly, the protest and the sit-ins that happened in Egypt itself were largely driven by young activists without any implication of the existing political parties, thus, it is interesting how new media is giving these activists a voice. Consider for example this new tactic used by young Egyptians to identify  police officers who are involved in torture and compiling their names. See the growing “piggipedia” archive on Flickr tracking those police officers. Talk about crowd-sourcing justice..

Without belaboring the point here, Rami Khouri misses the mark entirely on the realities of Middle East Digiactivism.

On the geopolitical side of Mr Khouri’s piece, chiefly his complaint, heard ad nauseam in the region among those very same activists he dismisses so lightly, about the “hypocrisy” of American government’s interest in social media while it supports the very same dictatorships that crush liberties:

One cannot take seriously the United States or any other Western government that funds political activism by young Arabs while it simultaneously provides funds and guns that help cement the power of the very same Arab governments the young social and political activists target for change.

My answer is very simple, these activists might actually NOT, I repeat, NOT NEED US government’s funds or support. They have done fine for themselves so far and grew their skills tremendously. most of them factor already in their game plans that there is no cavalry that will be forthcoming from DC to do a job they already figured how to do for themselves, thank you very much!

Otherwise, check for yourself the scores of Arab bloggers and  journalists who are rotting in jails or facing harassment without a peep heard from Washington about them.

That is the unspoken code many of the shakers and movers of Mideast Digiactivists agree on, and Mr Khouri completely ignores: “we don’t care for what you want, we’re doing our own thing, leave us alone.”, I heard that for myself while attenting the Arab Bloggers conference back in December 2009 where I ran a session precisely discussing the issue of funding.

As of now, it looks to me like Washington DC politicians need Middle East activists a heck lot more than Middle Eastern activists need them..


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12 responses

26 07 2010
Hisham

While I agree with most of what you say about the impact and the driving force that Internet carries for MENA digiactivists, we must acknowledge, as Khouri says, that the significant and lasting impact is yet come. I’m pretty sure this crack in the wall of Arab authoritarianism will occur one day but let’s not foul ourselves by thinking that online activism alone will achieve that. Forces on the ground and online will have to join forces and coordinate to make that much desired dream come true. How will they do that is a matter for us as people of the region to decide, and you’re absolutely damn right “They have done fine for themselves so far and grew their skills tremendously, most of them factor already in their game plans that there is no cavalry that will be forthcoming from DC to do a job they already figured how to do for themselves, thank you very much!”

26 07 2010
Nasser

I think we are already living the beginning of that impact by seeing these activists and campaigns emerge. For instance, what I feel Khouri misses the mark on most is the reality of these young activists who unlike the 80′s when they either had to remain silent or express their frustration by joining armed group, the learning curve here has been nothing short of spectacular. Clusters of activists all over the Arab World are leveraging the limited space of freedoms they have and making the most of it. Look how the Egyptian government tried to cover up the Khaled Said case and failed miserably. It wasn’t the intervention of any foreign power that put the government’s efforts to check but it was young egyptians.

On the larger picture i.e “change”, I am one of those who don’t believe in maximalist goals such as bringing down regimes, I believe, and in fact, I see more the slow and incremental change youngsters are pushing all over the Arab world through issue-targeted advocacy, rather than playing the game political parties have failed miserably at.

26 07 2010
Nasser

Oh I forgot to mention Hisham, activists in Tunisia and Egypt have made that jump from the virtual world back to the real world. The model is sound, it just needs more time, and more hands in my opinion.

26 07 2010
Hisham

Right. For some reason in Morocco progressives fail to material the tremendous energy that is boiling out there on social media. Islamists on the other hand through institutional organizing and military-like discipline are making the best of it.
As for the evolution of it all, I couldn’t agree more. Shine on! (You should be blogging more frequently.)

27 07 2010
ircpresident's Bookmarks on Delicious

[...] Digiactivism Alive in Mideast « Dekhnstan SAVE [...]

27 07 2010
Robbery in skies, Routes of Arabia, Weddady’s response to Khouri « Saudi Jeans

[...] Nasser Weddady offers another fine rebuttal to Rami Khouri’s op-ed in NYT. At the end of his blogpost, Weddady comments on a part of Khour’s article that I chose to ignore, which is about the “hypocrisy” of US government’s interest in social media while it supports the very same dictatorships that crush liberties. This is an old and overused argument, and something I have touched on in my op-ed in the same newspaper last year. This entry was written by Ahmed, posted on Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 13:14, filed under Arab, Asides, Blogging, Human Rights, Media, News, Politics, Saudi Arabia and tagged activism, air france, louvre, nasser weddady, new media, nyt, rami khouri, routes d'arabie, routes of arabia, saudi arabian airlines, saudia, social media. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL. « Blocked in UAE? [...]

7 08 2010
Jillian C. York » Digital Activism, the U.S. Government, and the Arab World

[...] U.S. government support? Again, the pundits are torn. Fellow blogger and activist Nasser Weddady believes that Arab activists are just fine without it: My answer is very simple, these activists might [...]

17 09 2010
The Internet Freedom Fallacy and the Arab Digital activism « sami ben gharbia

[...] Weddady, from Mauritania, who serves as HAMSA-AIC Civil Rights outreach director, also blogged about the problems posed by foreign funding of Arab digital activism (see also Jillian York’s blog post) and has run a workshop on that topic [...]

18 09 2010
SAMI BEN GHARBIA-L’ACTIVISME ARABE NUMERIQUE

[...] from Mauritania, who serves as HAMSA-AIC Civil Rights outreach director, also blogged about the problems posed by foreign funding of Arab digital activism (see also Jillian York’s blog post) and has run a [...]

20 09 2010
No Internet freedom in Arab world-Sami Ben Gharbia « FACT – Freedom Against Censorship Thailand

[...] Weddady, from Mauritania, who serves as HAMSA-AIC Civil Rights outreach director, also blogged about the problems posed by foreign funding of Arab digital activism (see also Jillian York’s blog post) and has run a workshop on that topic [...]

14 01 2011
Les cyber-activistes arabes face à la liberté sur Internet made in USA (2) » Article » OWNI, Digital Journalism

[...] Weddady, de la Mauritanie, responsable de la promotion des droits civils à HAMSA AIC, a aussi blogué sur les problèmes posés par le financement étranger du cyber-activisme arabe (voir aussi le post de Jillian York) et a organisé un atelier à ce sujet [...]

18 01 2011
Les cyber-activistes arabes face à la liberté sur Internet made in USA

[...] Weddady, de la Mauritanie, responsable de la promotion des droits civils à HAMSA AIC, a aussi blogué sur les problèmes posés par le financement étranger du cyber-activisme arabe (voir aussi le post de Jillian York) et a organisé un atelier à ce sujet [...]

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