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

Australia-Cambodia Resettlement Agreement Raises Concerns

Agreement calls for Cambodia to accept refugees in return for $35 million in aid and reflects Australia’s harder line approach towards asylum seekers and refugees More

India Looks to Become Arms Supplier Instead of Buyer

US hopes India can become alternative to China for countries looking to buy weapons, but experts question growth potential of Indian arms industry More

Earth Day Concert, Rally Draws Thousands in Washington

President Obama also took up the issue Saturday in his weekly address, saying there 'no greater threat to our planet than climate change' More

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.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
X
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.
Video

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.
Video

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.
Video

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs