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

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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?'"

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