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

    Candidates' Comments Fly Like New Hampshire Snowflakes

    Four days ahead of the country's first-in-the-nation Republican and Democratic party primary elections, surveys show the parties' contests tightening

    South Korea Says North Korea Moving Closer to Rocket Launch

    In phone call, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agree that Pyongyang's move would be 'provocative'

    Australian Commander: IS Changing Tactics

    Head of Australian forces in Middle East talks with VOA about training Iraqi troops, countering evolving Islamic State efforts and defeating extremism

    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.
    German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibiti
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 05, 2016 4:30 PM
    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video Former Drug CEO Martin Shkreli Angers US Lawmakers

    A former U.S. pharmaceutical business executive has angered lawmakers by refusing to explain why he raised the price of a life-saving pill by 5,000 percent. Martin Shkreli was removed from a congressional hearing on Thursday after citing his Fifth Amendment right to stay silent. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Super Bowl TV Commercials are Super Business for Advertisers

    The Super Bowl, the championship clash between the two top teams in American Football, is the most-watched sporting event of the year, and advertisers are lining up and paying big bucks to get their commercials on the air. In fact, the TV commercials during the Super Bowl have become one of the most anticipated and popular features of the event. VOA's Brian Allen has a sneak peek of what you can expect to see when the big game goes to commercial break, and the real entertainment begins.
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Solar Innovation Provides Cheap, Clean Energy to Kenya Residents

    In Kenya, a company called M-Kopa Solar is providing clean energy to more than 300,000 homes across East Africa by allowing customers to "pay-as-you-go" via their cell phones. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Kangemi, customers pay a small deposit for a solar unit and then pay less than a dollar a day to get clean energy to light up their homes or businesses.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Apprenticeships Put Americans on Path Back to Work

    Trying to get more people into the U.S. workforce, the Obama administration last year announced $175 million in grants towards apprenticeship programs. VOA White House correspondent Aru Pande went inside one training center outside of Washington that has gained national recognition for helping put people on the path to employment.
    Video

    Video New Material May Reduce Concussion Effects

    As the 2016 National Football League season reaches its summit at the Super Bowl this coming Sunday (2/7), scientists are trying to learn how to more effectively protect football players from dangerous and damaging concussions. Researchers at Cardiff and Cambridge Universities say their origami-based material may solve the problem. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Saudi Arabian Women's Sports Chip Away at Stereotypes

    Saudi Arabian female athletes say that sports are on the front line of busting traditions that quash women’s voices, both locally and internationally. In their hometown of Jeddah, a group of basketball players say that by connecting sports to health issues, they are encouraging women and girls to get out of their homes and participate in public life. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
    Video

    Video A Year Later, Fortunes Mixed for Syrians Forging New Lives in Berlin

    In April of last year, VOA followed the progress of six young Syrian refugees -- four brothers and their two friends -- as they made their way from Libya to Italy by boat, and eventually to Germany. Reporter Henry Ridgwell caught up with the refugees again in Berlin, as they struggle to forge new lives amid the turmoil of Europe's refugee crisis.
    Video

    Video Zika Virus May be Hard to Stop

    With the Zika virus spreading rapidly, the World Health Organization Monday declared Zika a global health emergency. As Alberto Pimienta reports, for many governments and experts, the worst is yet to come.