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Should we give social media networks credit for facilitating the revolutions in the Arab world? Certainly the networks operated as a mobilising tool. The people were ready, the political moment came and they used it. Some 3.6 million Tunisians are connected to the internet; 20 per cent of the Tunisian population is on Facebook. We are talking about a highly new media-literate population. They had access, they knew how to use it and they did. The success of the Tunisian revolution encouraged the youth of Egypt to be persistent in their call for change and political reform.
Little did Wael Ghonim and the friends of his ‘Kolinah Khaled Said’ Facebook page (‘We are all Khaled Said’ – the young man who died under torture by Egyptian police) know where their call for demonstrations on 25 January would lead. In the wake of the Tunisian victory, the page garnered 100,000 supporters, who showed willingness to go onto the streets, and that was where the Egyptian revolution started.
Egyptians were the first Arab youth to use the internet as a political platform and potential tool to mobilise people for change. The Egyptian bloggers were the first to reveal corruption and initiate calls for reform. Only a few victories were achieved, such as firing a police officer here and there, but the bloggers stood their ground in the face of jail sentences and prosecution. Several movements were mainly orchestrated via Facebook, including the 6 April youth movement, and they persevered despite persecution and more oppression.
The 25 January uprising took the regime by surprise. In response, Mubarak and his entourage, including state media, declared that Egypt was not Tunisia, but the youth of Egypt were determined to prove them wrong. Mubarak’s first reaction was to block Twitter, then Facebook, then the internet as a whole. Satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera Arabic picked up on the events and initiated live coverage from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which resulted in Mubarak’s blocking Al-Jazeera’s transmission in Egypt and withdrawing its operation licences. One joke exchanged with Tunisian activists was that in Egypt they too had ‘Ammar 404’, which was the nickname activists gave the government censor in Tunisia after the ‘404 error’ screen that came up on blocked web pages.
Al-Jazeera’s role in supporting the Egyptian revolution led some Arab analysts to dub it the ‘channel of revolutions’, but it soon came under criticism for its lack of coverage of pro‑democracy protests in Bahrain. The killing of peaceful protesters there did not gain airtime in the way the Egyptian protests had. As the Wikileaks revelations exposed, Al-Jazeera’s coverage of Bahraini protests is influenced by Qatari foreign policy and it mainly abides by Qatar’s commitment to Gulf Cooperation Council security treaties. Al-Arabiya, the channel’s Saudi-based rival, followed the same editorial guidelines, influenced by the shared policy of its host government.
There are clear limits to what satellite channels in the Arab world can do to be part of democratic political change and reform in the region. Arab media in general are certainly not free from the political and economic influence of governments, owners and political parties, a phenomenon that is not unique to the Arab world in this global media age.
But is it the age of online social media? Could the internet be a free space for Arab citizens to express their opinions and fulfil their democratic role in bringing freedom of speech and political freedom? Could it form the new Arab public sphere?
The potential is there. The events in Tunisia and Egypt saw people taking the power to overthrow dictators and autocratic regimes, to bring in democratic change from within and not have it imposed by foreign powers. The political scene in Tunisia was receptive; the army refused to respond violently to the protests and members of Ben Ali’s government rose against him. The political and social scene in Egypt became receptive after its citizens felt empowered by the Tunisian revolt.
The new media has proved to be a dangerous tool in the hands of Arab citizens. So will Arab regimes clamp down on it or use it for their own interests as they did with the satellite channels? Maybe they will try, but online media technology is moving quickly, and I am sure those regimes will be taken by surprise by another wave of revolutions facilitated by new online tools.