News / Middle East

    Can Social Media Bring Democracy to Middle East?

    Egyptian-born columnist, Mona Eltahawy, writes about Middle Eastern political affairs for a number of international newspapers
    Egyptian-born columnist, Mona Eltahawy, writes about Middle Eastern political affairs for a number of international newspapers

    Multimedia

    Audio

    Today, we continue looking at the question of whether new media - Facebook, blogging, tweeting - can bring democracy to the Middle East.   We've heard from those who are critical of U.S. attempts to train Arab youth to be political activists.   They argue that new media function merely as outlets for venting opinions but have had no significant impact on authoritative regimes, particularly those which are supported by the U.S. and other Western countries.  Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born columnist who writes about Middle Eastern political affairs for a number of international newspapers:

    Eltahawy: "I find social media to be one of the few tools in the Middle East that keep me optimistic about the region.  Social media have given the most marginalized groups in the region a voice.  And those most marginalized groups are women and minorities of various kinds - religious minorities, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, you name it.  They have always been marginalized from the various levels of discourse, and you rarely find them in mainstream media.  

    So they finally have a place now to express themselves, and it's not just for 'stress relief,' because there are many examples I could give you from the region of how social media, for example, have helped convict police officers of torture; of how social media were used to organize the victims of police torture within Egypt; of how social media were used to help a hunger strike in Saudi Arabia in support of political dissidents; of how social media - again in Egypt - were used to raise awareness about sexual harassment against women in public, to the extent that the Egyptian Parliament is discussing a draft law that would both define and criminalize sexual harassment; and, in a country like Morocco, social media have been used to expose police corruption. 

    So in all those cases, social media are much more than just about stress relief and venting.  They are about people who have been marginalized and finally have the chance to say quite loudly and publically, 'Enough' and 'This is how I feel.'   And I think the people who criticize social media for just being vents for stress relief are asking the wrong question."

    Hilleary: "What should they be asking, then?"

    Eltahawy: "The question isn't, 'How many regimes have social media overthrown,' because the obvious answer is 'None.'   The question should be, what kinds of changes are social media engendering in the region?  How are social media enabling those most marginalized groups in the Middle East to mature and go into the realization that their opinions count and that they have the ability to bring about change in a region that is largely run by dictators?  That alone is worth the price."

    'Inconsistencies in U.S. foreign policy'

    Hilleary: "How do you respond to those people who argue that because of what they call 'inconsistencies' in U.S. foreign policy, the U.S. is in no position to promote democracy?"

    Eltahawy: "Well, that's a contradiction in that many people in the Arab world, for example, recognize clearly that various U.S. administrations have supported dictators in the region.  My country of birth Egypt, for example, has had the same president for 29 years, and President Hosni Mubarak has been supported by various U.S. administrations. 

    But the thing to do in this case is to encourage the U.S. Administration to encourage, in turn, its ally, President Hosni Mubarak, to open up politically, because as we saw in 2005, sometimes when there's pressure internally in Egypt and externally from its allies - mainly the United States - some small opening, albeit small, happened.  And we saw that in the change to the Egyptian constitution that allowed multiple presidential candidates.  

    But it wasn't enough of a change because it still makes it almost impossible for an independent candidate to run.   So yes, I recognize that contradiction of an ally or a dictator then turning around and saying, 'We support democratic efforts.' But this isn't what social media are about.  I think we need to separate the two issues."

    We need to say to the U.S. Administration, 'Your support of dictators makes you incredibly unpopular and makes it very difficult for the people of those dictators[hips] to bring about change.'  That's Issue One.

    But Issue Two, independently, is social media are an incredibly effective tool that help marginalized people in the region, and I don't think we need to connect the two.  I think that we need to encourage both of those issues to help create a greater opening in the Middle East that will help those marginalized groups have a say."

    Consequences

    Hilleary: "I've read arguments that say the United States government and certainly NGOs have certain ethical responsibilities, knowing that there are consequences - and we've seen those in many countries.  We've seen it lead to arrests, torture."

    Eltahawy: "There are absolute consequences, often very dire.  I mean, Egypt convicted and imprisoned a blogger three and a half years ago on charges of insulting Islam and insulting the President, and he was given four years [prison sentence].   And we're not really sure what's going to happen to this young man when he's released at the end of his sentence towards the end of this year.

    Bloggers in various countries across the region have been intimidated, have been beaten up, have been arrested, have been imprisoned without charge.  We have a Bedouin blogger from Sinai, Egypt, who was just released a few weeks ago after spending at least two years in Administrative detention that was allowed by the emergency law in effect in Egypt for 29 years now. 

    So blogging is not a light thing, by no means whatsoever.  But I think what we need to do is we need to hear the voices of those groups that want to continue blogging and ask them, 'How best can we support you?'  Because they don't want to be patronized.  They don't want to be told, 'This is really dangerous, you know, we don't know if we should support you and put your life in danger.'  They want the freedom to express themselves. 

    There are various NGOs and human rights activists in the region who know very well the environment and know very well how to help these young people.  For example, they give workshops on how to use proxies to avoid firewalls and how to kind of keep your footsteps online anonymous.  We can reach out to those groups and ask them, 'How best can we help you help the bloggers and the social media activists?'"

    You May Like

    California Republicans Mull Choices in Presidential Race

    Ted Cruz tells state's Republican Convention delegates campaign will be 'battle on the ground, district by district by district,' ahead of June 7 primary

    Video Kurdish Football Team Helps War-Torn City Cope

    With conflict still raging across much of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, many Kurds are trying to escape turmoil by focusing on success of football team Amedspor

    South African Company Designs Unique Solar Cooker

    Two-man team of solar power technologists introduces Sol4, hot plate that heats up so fast it’s like cooking with gas or electricity

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensionsi
    X
    April 29, 2016 12:28 AM
    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensions

    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Bangladesh Targeted Killings Spark Wave of Fear

    People in Bangladesh’s capital are expressing deep concern over the brutal attacks that have killed secular blogger, and most recently a gay rights activist and an employee of the U.S. embassy. Xulhaz Mannan, an embassy protocol officer and the editor of the country’s only gay and transgender magazine Roopban; and his friend Mehboob Rabbi Tanoy, a gay rights activist, were hacked to death by five attackers in Mannan’s Dhaka home earlier this month.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.
    Video

    Video West Urges Unity in Libya as Migrant Numbers Soar

    The Italian government says a NATO-led mission aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Libya to Europe could be up and running by July. There are concerns that the number of migrants could soar as the route through Greece and the Balkans remains blocked. Western powers say the political chaos in Libya is being exploited by people smugglers — and they are pressuring rival groups to come together under the new unity government. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Russia’s TV Rain Swims Against Tide in Sea of Kremlin Propaganda

    Russia’s media freedoms have been gradually eroded under President Vladimir Putin as his government has increased state ownership, influence, and restrictions on critical reporting. Television, where most Russians get their news, has been the main target and is now almost completely state controlled. But in the Russian capital, TV Rain stands out as an island in a sea of Kremlin propaganda.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora