The year of the protester

In 2011, protesters and dictators alike have built global solidarity networks – in part thanks to online tools.

In 2011, protest movements around the world have shared more similarities than differences [GALLO/GETTY]

Reminiscent of their 1957 cover honouring the Hungarian Freedom Fighter, TIME Magazine has bestowed its highest honour – 2011 Person of the Year – upon “The Protester“, an amalgamation of 2011’s freedom fighters, occupiers and social justice advocates from all over the globe.

Indeed, the decision to honour the world’s protesters is a significant one. While perhaps one cannot compare the Egyptian fight against Mubarak’s tyranny with, say, the Spanish “Yes We Camp!” movement, the fact is that young people around the globe have taken 2011 by storm, standing up for their rights – and their beliefs – with a fervour the world hasn’t seen in more than two decades. And despite the wildly differing conditions from country to country, this global generation is more alike than any before it. As TIME journalist Kurt Andersen notes, “It’s remarkable how much the protest vanguards share”.

Perhaps that is the most remarkable element of 2011’s protesters. Despite their differences, the solidarity displayed between the demonstrators in Tahrir Square and Madison, Wisconsin; Madrid and Oakland; St Paul’s and Zucotti Park is palpable. But beyond the ordering of pizzas across international lines (something which, apparently, has become so commonplace that pizza joints near protest hotspots have started offering protester specials), and even beyond the solidarity marches (Cairo marching for Oakland, Istanbul marching for Syria) something special has occurred, something made possible by 3G speeds and broadband: a true, global solidarity movement.

Enabled by online networks

Much, perhaps too much, has been said about the role of the internet in this year’s protests. By now, we have a decent understanding of what Twitter or Facebook did or did not do. But behind the frontlines, in Google Groups and Skype calls, a global network, made up of strong ties, has formed. And though it started long before 2011 and will undoubtedly continue onward, its role this year in supporting protesters seems, somehow, unprecedented.

Take, for example, the case of Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah. Five years ago, he was arrested for his part in a peaceful protest in Cairo calling for an independent judiciary. Already well-known among followers of Egypt’s nascent blogosphere, Alaa’s arrest sparked a global solidarity campaign. Activists and bloggers from all over the world joined together, creating a “Free Alaa” website and strategising around a “Google bombing” campaign. Alaa’s case, among the first high-profile blogger arrests in the region, sparked a meme: Moving forward, many campaigns would replicate the same techniques. It also played a role in the development of other networks, as many of the campaign’s early supporters would go on to join the global cabal of free expression advocates. 

In Syria, digital spaces have created a new public sphere where activists connect across political and sectarian lines, often at great risk. Razan Ghazzawi, a Syrian blogger and free expression advocate who lived for several years in Beirut while pursuing her masters degree, was recently arrested on her way to a conference in Jordan. Upon learning of her arrest, a global contingent of friends, from Tunis to San Francisco and everywhere in between, quickly banded together, locked down her accounts, created campaign pages and lobbied government officials. In the week that has followed, that network has grown beyond friends – most of whom had met Razan at conferences in Budapest, Beirut and Granada – to encompass citizens of countless countries, all shouting for Razan’s release. Last week, a group of Iranian football fans braved the wrath of authorities to wave the Syrian revolutionary flag. And just the other, a group of Palestinian supporters issued a touching statement citing Razan’s support of the Palestinian cause and consistent support of human rights. In it, they write:

“Not only do we stand in solidarity with Razan and the other prisoners, but we also affirm that our destiny is one, our concerns are one, and our struggle is one. Palestine can never be free while the Arab people live under repressive and reactionary regimes. The road to a free Palestine comes with a free Syria, in which Syrians live in dignity.”

In a region where political lines often run along sectarian and national ones and infighting between disparate groups has at times been more troublesome than persistent outside interference, such statements can be seen as revolutionary in and of themselves.

But once again, it must be said although digital tools enable the formation of such networks, allowing us to join forces with individuals whose existence would otherwise have been a mystery, it is because of our shared ideals and our global thinking that we venture to try in the first place. It is this that has allowed the formation of a new global solidarity movement.

Dictatorial solidarity

Unfortunately, the same interconnectedness that has enabled a global movement has also enabled governments in their efforts to oppress, surveil and persecute activists. The Syrian regime’s surveillance apparatus was being built by Italian and American companies (until the Italian company in charge recently backed out), while their techniques – greatly “improved” in the past year – appear to be influenced by Iran’s. The Chinese government has used the UK’s consideration of blocking social media tools during periods of riot as justification for their own crackdowns. Tunisia, for years the region’s leader in online censorship and surveillance, was used as a testing ground for Western companies seeking to perfect their software for nearly a decade, according to the Tunisian Internet Agency’s Moez Chakchouk. And most recently, an Egyptian state television anchor lauded the US crackdown on Occupy protests, hailing it as an inspiration for Egyptian authorities.

Of course, Western countries are not immune to these tactics. Beyond the sale of sophisticated surveillance and censorship equipment to countries like Syria, Bahrain and Tunisia, liberal democracies are engaging in new forms of online oppression that could have devastating effects on global networks. There’s the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the United States, a bill that would for the very first time allow the US government to censor websites using the same technique as Iran and potentially outlaw the same censorship circumvention tools promoted by the Department of State. There’s a growing bevy of so-called “three-strikes laws”, threatening internet users from France to New Zealand with disconnection from the Internet if they violate copyright laws.

With an ever-worsening culture of surveillance and looming threats of censorship from the West, a global movement, aligned in its fight for human rights, free expression and justice is more needed than ever before.

Jillian C. York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and Internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.

Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.