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..