A debate is underway among international scholars and policymakers on just whether new media is an effective tool for political change, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. The majority of Arab governments maintain strict controls over media, books and cinema. The internet has opened up new possibilities for political debate and activism. But is this information revolution actually moving governments any closer to democracy? And what are the ethics of encouraging activists where the consequences for speaking out can result in harassment, imprisonment or worse?
Rami Khouri is the Director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. He's also editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper. Khouri is skeptical over whether the internet has any power as a tool for significant political change in the region. He also questions U.S. programs to promote Arab activists.
Khouri: "I question two things - the role of social media in political change and the role of the United States and other Western governments in trying to promote that kind of dynamic among young people of the region for political change.
The reason I'm skeptical is I've lived through the last forty years in the Middle East watching the different kinds of new media develop over the years, way back, starting in the 1960s with the cassette tape, and then the fax machine, and then the internet, the telex, and all kinds of different media that every time something came along - satellite TV, blogs and tweets every time something like this came along, people, especially in the West, said, 'Oh, this is going to revolutionize the region, it's going to give people a voice, it's going to empower people, it's going to break down the controls by governments, it's going to promote more open, liberal, maybe democratic societies!'
Well, the fact is, it hasn't happened. What the new media have done is they've the young people and the older people and everybody more access to information, especially through the internet and satellite TV, and they've provided a wider range of views that ordinary people can listen to that governments can't control as they used to. But they haven't brought about any significant political change.
So I think we have to differentiate between new media that inform people but don't empower them, and new media that are essentially a form of escapism or stress relief for people who, you know, express and opinion or write something on their blog or website or write a letter to some editor, or they just watch vicariously as people on satellite TV in the Arab world voice opinions that they agree with.
And, you know, these opinions may be critical of Arab leaders, Israelis, Americans, British, somebody else, and there's a vicarious thrill of saying "Oh, yeah, that's what I feel, you tell them!" So the proliferation of these new media is really interesting, sociologically. But it's completely, as far as I can tell, politically, without any significant impact.
Now, maybe the impact will come in the years ahead. But I think that we've watched this going on now for twenty or thirty years, and nothing really has happened."
A change and not a change
Hilleary: "You've said in your commentary Aid the Jailer or the Prisoner, not Both, in Daily Star, Wednesday, July 21, 2010, that authoritarian regimes have learned to tolerate this kind of exchange of information as long as nobody is getting up and picketing. Is that not a form of change?"
Khouri: "Sure, it's a change, but it's not a change in the political control and governance systems. That's what I meant. People debate things. They criticize their government. There's change.
But the only place where there's zero change is in the political governance systems, their control of power by the governments in these regions, except in places where the central government has essentially withdrawn and other groups have taken over. In different parts of the region you have this going on.
But that's not because of the social media. It's because the central government collapsed or there's an invasion as in the case of Iraq or internal problems like Lebanon or occupied Palestine, and there's different reasons for that."
'Controversial Western policies'
Hilleary: "You also make the point that Western governments - the United States - there's a kind of contradiction in terms, and until policies change, anything they try to promote won't be believable."
Khouri: "Right. I think it's a problem when Western governments - the Americans, Europeans and others - spend money and implement programs to promote the use of new media by young people in the Middle East or promote democracy, promotion among youth or accountability or any of these issues which are wonderful issues. I mean, I have no problem with that. I've been fighting all of my life for democracy and accountability.
But when Western governments say they want young Arabs to use the media for greater accountability, greater expression, greater pluralism and promoting democratic society but at the same time, those same Western governments provide the money and the military support and the diplomatic cover to keep the authoritarian Arab governments in place, there's a contradiction that you're feeding the jailor and the prisoner at the same time. And there's something not credible in that.
So I think the United States has to really make some fundamental decisions about. If it wants to promote democratic change in our region, which is a good thing, I mean, I would definitely like foreign governments to promote democratic change, it needs to do that in a credible way. It can't keep the governments strong and then try to get the young people to be more pushing against them. So this is a problem the U.S. and other Western governments have to address at some point and figure out a more consistent and more credible and therefore more effective way to engage in our societies."
Hilleary: "What would you like to see different?"
Khouri: "I'd like to see the U.S. to be consistent in how it deals with issues in this region. I think that would be very productive. And what consistent means is being consistent, say, across the Arab world, and also among the Arabs and Israelis and others.
So if, for instance, the U.S. says it promotes the rule of law and the implementation of U.N. resolutions, as it says it was trying to do in invading Iraq, I would like the U.S. to also implement U.N. resolutions that call for Israel to stop Judaizing East Jerusalem or building colonies and settlements in occupied Arab land.
So consistency is very important. If the US is not consistent, if it picks and chooses where it supports democrats and where it supports autocrats, where it supports liberation and where it supports occupation, it has no credibility.
This is what's going on. And that's why you have huge movements - Islamist movements, tribal movements, progressive democratic movements, all kinds of movements in the Arab/Islamic world - and Iran and Turkey that are critical of the United States. And this is a bad situation for the U.S. and it's not very nice for the local people either."