The persistent fear base of authoritarianism

Social media sites have become conduits for real political change where censorship is prevalent.

“Trying to kill the internet and the mobile phone networks is like putting tanks on the street – it is a drastic move that tells everyone just how threatened a government feels and is” [Getty]

In her initial call for the January 25th demonstration, Asmaa Mahfouz used Facebook and YouTube as the conduits for a message that went viral, but the jist of her call to action was for the youth of Egypt to tear themselves away from their Facebook accounts and take to the streets. 

While this rapidly growing and ever more youthful population, compressed by rigid national and international structures has found itself energised by every new communicative technology, turning them in to forms of public expression, new social media certainly were not sufficient in themselves to spark an awakening or bring about real political change.

I suggest that perhaps it is the pulsating effect of an entire media ecology faced with inconsistent and stuttering state censorship that has driven people into the streets. Mubarak’s surprising success in turning off the Internet as the protests built up, and Gaddafi’s successful jamming of Al-Jazeera did not help them; on the contrary they took the media seriously enough to give the opposition a critical momentum.

Media Ecology

The current media ecosystem is composed of a number of complementary elements, which permeated the Middle East over the last two decades. The overall effect is the emergence of an interactive and dynamic transnational media infrastructure that is beyond the reach of most Middle East governments, but not for want of trying.

First, transnational satellite television has near total reach in Arab and Middle Eastern societies. Channels like Al Jazeera and BBC Persian TV deliver relevant reporting in the language that hundreds of millions of ordinary people can understand, but which also remain independent of most governments.

The Internet now embraces a host of powerful services; Youtube serves as a public record of far more than dogs on skateboards, documenting everything from state torture to demonstrations of every size. Facebook serves as a place to gather, rally, memorialize while WikiLeaks shed light on the very specific and colorful minutiae of the ruling class’s MO and lifestyles described with sardonic understatement by US diplomats whose cynicism added insult to injury. Twitter serves as the gateway to the new, more fluid incarnation of the blogosphere, both feeding and circulating mainstream reporting.

Mobile telephony with its camera phones, texting, and now increasingly, internet access serves as the most versatile and pervasive bi-directional gateway to this ever-expanding digital sphere, allowing people to consume and produce and circulate information both publicly and privately. 

Each and every element in this ecology has faced repeated attempts at suppression by Middle Eastern governments in the years prior to 2011, but most failed for a variety of reasons. For the most part bans driven by political concerns highlighted the vulnerability, Luddism and a general lack of strategic vision of the regimes in question. Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE filtered the internet for sexual content on the other hand found a much greater level of social and religious consensus backing such policies.

This is not to say that such this ecology can not be tamed or neutralised; the Iranian Green Movement brought millions out on to the streets in 2009 and was literally beaten back, while Syria and China have yet to see substantial disturbances thanks to  a combination of fear and isolation that has kept millions censoring themselves.

Listening autocrats versus stone deaf dictators

Just as the new popular mobilisation involves decentralised deployment of television and internet resources, defensive state anti-coup, anti-revolution drills all revolve around taking control of key physical infrastructure and expelling challengers from public spaces – squares, streets, but also TV, computer and mobile phone screens. Trying to kill the internet and the mobile phone networks is like putting tanks on the street – it is a drastic move that tells everyone just how threatened a government feels and is.

All authoritarian regimes require control over telecom infrastructure to be able to hit the ‘kill switch’ on the internet. Governments still think (and they may be right) that beating up, expelling or killing foreign journalists like murdered Al-Jazeera photojournalist Ali Hassan al-Jaber is part of the key to nipping revolt in the bud. ‘Old media’ is still media to the mobilisation of  hundreds of thousands or millions on the street, as opposed to hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands.

The majority of the Middle East is not on the web; they are watching television. Television and newswire reporters also generate content that feeds new media. For fifteen years Middle Eastern states and the US have tried to control Al-Jazeera. They have jailed bloggers. They have blocked Youtube. But ISP based shutdowns and slowdowns in the uprisings of 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain were clear “supersignals” and reminders of the fundamental weakness and fear base of authoritarian states.

My argument is that a harsh state response to popular mobilisation in the new public spheres created by communicative technology evolution is part of the “recipe” that gets real segments of the people into the real streets. The fitful and mistimed attacks on noisy, fun but elitist and politically ineffective public fora like Facebook actually mobilize the medium and puts it on political high alert by sending a “supersignal” of regime fear and weakness. An effective shutdown using a kill switch pushes people into faintly remembered old style mass politics as in Egypt this January 25th.

Interestingly a hardline “internet enemy” like Syria, with a much more sensitive internet policy finds itself in a better position than more liberal but tone deaf Egypt in controlling the cascade of events by through more sophisticated manipulation of the new social media and the use of old survival tactics.

Leila Hudson is Associate Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Anthropology, and History and Director of the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle Eastern Conflict (SISMEC) at the University of Arizona. She is the author of Transforming Damascus: Space and Modernity in an Islamic City (2008) and Middle Eastern Humanities: An Introduction to Cultures of the Middle East (2010). Johann Chacko is an MA candidate in Near Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona and Research Assistant in SISMEC.

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

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