|T-shirts sold in Cairo recognise the role of social media in helping 18 days of protest in Egypt [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]|
Every revolution has multiple narratives – from city blocks to city halls, from the streets and from the state. But what tends to survive is the official version – often shaped by whatever state or government either survives or is formed after the dust has settled.
Even though the shape of things to come remains quite blurry in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, it’s far too soon to tell what the power structures will in fact look like, what level of reform they deliver and if those reforms will satisfy the cries of those who took to the streets calling for change.
One thing, however, is clear: The recollection of these revolutions, uprisings or periods of unrest (call them what you will) will not be left to official, state records – they have already been chronicled, largely by the people themselves.
This might well be the first time that people living under autocratic rule have managed to document their struggles and movement on almost the most micro level imaginable, leaving a long digital trail of Tweets, Facebook posts, Audioboo recordings, YouTube videos, blogs and so much more.
Moreover, while official versions tend to appear fully formed, Jimmy Wales, founder of online encyclopedia Wikipedia (a popular first stop on any online search) points out that a Wiki entry changes as new information comes to light over time – such as when the US government said that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in the lead up to the war in 2003.
As more reports came in on the story – and it became quite clear that then President Saddam Hussein did not have a massive stash of chemical weapons – the entry grew and shifted to reflect that.
“It would be a great fertile ground for future historians to look at,” said Wales. “As the news is emerging, how do you go from one position to another?”
These shifts are happening faster, as what Wales calls “the frontline role of Twitter and Facebook” kicks into ever higher gear, bringing more detail into light minute-by-minute. This is then supported by the work of a trusted blogging community producing longer pieces, fact-checking each other as well as social media, putting their reputations on the line with each post they produce.
The official version versus what really happened
In the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia – and to a lesser extent, Syria – so much of the actual first-hand records are there for people to see for themselves. After all, “Tweeting the revolution” became a common catchphrase as journalists and activists seemed to jockey to be the first to post breaking news on the microblogging site. “Influential Tweeters” are even ranked by some media.
Ed Bice, CEO of Meedan, a non-profit organisation aimed at increasing online exchange of media, especially between Arabic and English-language users, calls each of these Tweets and posts an “artefact”, and said that telling the history of these revolutions would be a matter of weaving a narrative through these durable references or artifacts.
And unlike certain historical events, which remain in hot dispute – consider the difference between how the Armenians see what happened to their population in Turkey starting in 1915 (genocide) – compared with how the Turkish state see it (deportation) – there will be far more points of reference as a means of confirming or debunking any particular take on events.
“There are now durable artefacts to point these narratives against – when Al-Ahram runs an absurd frontpage on January 26 – say events had gone differently – there’s no chance that would have become an accepted part of the narrative just because we’ve got not 1,000, not 10,000, but hundreds of thousands of publishing points that contraindicate the official lines,” said Bice.
But the question of what will endure remains tricky.
“What version of history gets kept? My answer is that I think all versions get kept. What becomes socially dominant is a totally different question and that has to do with power and who controls the media and other such issues.”
But this doesn’t mean that people will necessarily always seek out the unofficial version of things.
Wales tells a story of a recent visit to China where he showed a group of students a photo of a tank at Tiananmen Square, where in 1989, several hundred unarmed civilians died after the Chinese army open fired on them during a pro-democracy protest. contact
He said many of the students said they’ve never seen the image, but one student, whose parents had been there during the June 4 massacre, at least knew of the event.
“The way she reported it was just astounding. She said that it was really unfortunate, that it was a bit of a misunderstanding between the students and the government, but fortunately, no one got hurt,” said Wales, adding that her response was especially odd, given that even the Chinese government has admitted that people were hurt that day.
The future of activism
Regardless of what history books or public records will look like in decades to come, one thing is already clear: The future of activism in the Middle East is unlikely to resemble its past.
After all, it’s hard to imagine what sort of country Syria would be today had there been a means of documenting what really happened during the Hama Massacre of 1982.
If there had been thousands of Tweets, photos and videos recording exactly what unfolded – when as many as 40,000 people, by some accounts, were slaughtered at President Hafez al-Assad’s request – would those images have prompted a sustained popular uprising then? Would Syria have gone down a different road?
It’s not just a matter of current records serving as a playbook for future activists and civic groups. It’s also a matter of empowering a population to record – on their own terms – what transpired on their streets, something being documented in some measure now in Syria.
In Egypt, it’s already clear that people know that taking to the streets yields results, which is why the protests against their ruling military are still ongoing, even as the country braces for parliamentary elections.
“One of the things I suspect we’ll see in the places where there is now transitional state or transitional government [is that] the people are quite excited,” said Wales.
“That alone will mean in two or three years time, when there’s some sort of a stumble or an error – and there always is – people will be quite willing to go out and demand change again, which could be a good thing, or it could be difficult for a well-meaning government that’s just having a struggle.”
Building citizenship skills
While the protests, graffiti and volume of written matter online speaks to an engaged and active population, it highlighted the shortcomings in the educational systems in, say, Egypt, where many protesters didn’t seem to realise that some of their demands were not possible under their country’s constitution.
There’s a chance, some say, for this swell of activism and its documentation to shape education in countries where the system for decades has been tightly controlled by authoritarian mandate.
“When you have different versions of history, you are creating an atmosphere of freedom – it’s more like an element of democracy. And this is not characteristic of most Arab countries. You are not expected or allowed to have more than one version of history,” said Muhammad Faour, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre.
“Take other countries too – can the student in class discuss different versions [of history] with the teacher?”
Faour feels that the Arab Spring might provide opportunities to improve what he calls “citizenship skills” – a term used to describe not just a knowledge of government or political institutions – but the participation in civic community and the understanding of a certain set of values.
“You want to develop respect for diversity, respect in human dignity, belief in freedom and equality – all these things are concepts that become part of the value system,” he said.
This is key, added Faour – who specialises in education reform in Arab countries – because, if done right, using all the information that has already been gathered and consolidated on and via social media could have a major, positive impact on the future of the region.
“We’re not only talking about a small group. We’re talking about one-third of the population of Arab countries, which is under 15 years of age,” said Faour.
“This is a school-aged population, so if we have education for citizenship in schools, then we’re educating millions of people, and this will be very important in consolidating emerging democracies or to help transform societies into democracies.”
Wales, Faour and Bice were in Doha, Qatar, at the Word Innovation Summit for Education