The miracle generation

Read an excerpt from the second chapter of Marwan Bishara’s latest book, The Invisible Arab.

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Social media helped galvanise the pro-democracy movements, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia [GALLO/GETTY]

Editor’s note: This article is the third of a series of excerpts that Al Jazeera will be publishing from The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions. You can also read an excerpt from the preface, and from chapter one, L’Ancien Regime.

Social media for social justice

In the wake of Khaled Said’s death at the hands of the Egyptian internal security service, a Facebook group entitled “We are all Khaled Said” was created and maintained by geeks and bloggers. It soon became a rallying cry for a popular movement intent on bringing those responsible to justice, be they security men or political leaders. At the beginning of 2011, there were twenty-seven million Arabs on Facebook, including six million Egyptians, comprising just more than five per cent of the population. Within a few months, two million more Egyptians joined, underlining the centrality of the medium to the changes in the country. Indeed, the countries witnessing upheavals were also the same nations witnessing the greatest increases in social media membership [PDF].

More than sixty million people in the Arab world are online. In a poll conducted across nine Arab countries, 60 per cent of the youth said they had access to a desktop computer and a comparable number had email access. Likewise, among Arab youth, four in five owned a mobile phone and a quarter of these phones were web-enabled. Despite their digital access, one in two people surveyed (albeit probably in urban areas) said they also read a newspaper daily. The numbers rise with every passing day. The fact that two-thirds of the youth spend most of their leisure time in front of a TV means they could also see an alternative, real and fictional, to their lives of misery. All this also goes to explain why more than two-thirds claimed that global citizenship was either very or somewhat important to them.

The Arab youth increasingly comprise a modern, transnational tribe that bypasses borders, religion, and social strata. As a distinctly modern social construct, the youth transcend traditional hierarchy in favour of open and pluralistic characteristics. Thanks in no small part to the information revolution and its twin byproducts “new media” and “social media”, Arab youth have developed their own social and cultural codes and jargon. They share opinions and experiences freely, and, in the process, have established a diverse Arab community that is creative and innovative.

It is true that much of their time online was spent on entertainment and socialising, but even that has contributed to shaping a distinct national identity among the young. Even the banal act of voting for the best talent on a satellite television show through text messaging became the embodiment of free choice, for it was a vote that counted, unlike rigged general elections carried out by the ruling class.

Yemeni activist and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Tawakkol Karman describes the use of social media:

The revolution in Yemen began immediately after the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia on 14 January. As I always do when arranging a demonstration, I posted a message on Facebook, calling on people to celebrate the Tunisian uprising on 16 January. The following day a group of students from Sana’a University asked me to attend a vigil in front of the Tunisian embassy. The crowd was shouting: “Heroes! We are with you in the line of fire against the evil rulers!” We were treated roughly by the security forces, and we chanted: “If, one day, a people desire to live, then destiny will answer their call,” and “The night must come to an end” – the mantra of the revolutionaries in Tunisia. The demonstration was astonishing; thousands turned up, and Sana’a witnessed its first peaceful demonstration for the overthrow of the regime. “Go, before you are driven out!” we cried.

By no means has this been a unique case. In fact it’s been the norm in spreading the word among young bloggers and activists in various Arab countries.

Making and empowering individualism

The new media has had an important cultural, even sociological, role to play in patriarchal Arab societies. It helped young people break free from social constraints, it propelled them into uncharted territory, and it helped them mould a certain type of individualism. They began to enjoy an uninhibited space where they could share information and experiences, join chat rooms, and participate with one another.

Theirs is a newfound egalitarianism that contradicts the intrinsically hierarchal and inhibiting sociopolitical system. Paternalism was replaced with collegial relations; censorship was replaced by free expression. Internet citizens were not judged according to gender, ethnicity, age, or class – but on individual contributions, ability, and wit. Indeed, identities could be invented or tailored to fit personal taste or fantasy.

With no fear of retribution, Arab citizens set out to express themselves as free souls, as sovereign members of a community of individuals that is as real as the world they inhabit. They choose on the basis of free will, devoid of social and political pressures – joining, subscribing, sharing, reading, saving, deleting, working, investing, playing, as well as making friends, starting romances, joining global activism, speaking foreign languages, and communicating across borders with no limits and with no Big Brother watching over their shoulders.

They have taken routes beyond the neighbourhood alleys, have listened to music not played on local radio, have watched films not aired on local television, and have developed an imagination that went beyond the realm of the acceptable or the possible. It was only a matter of time until the free spirit that ruled the online world spilled over into the real world, putting technology at the service of people and moving the emerging diversity and consensus from the digital public space into the metropolitan square.

Geeks and dictators

For the last decade, bloggers and other citizen-journalists have gained prominence in the Arab world in relation to traditional state media and Western-dominated global media. They aimed at providing uncensored information and expanding the realm of public debate. Slowly but surely, a fusion of social media and satellite networks provided a revolutionary alternative to the dominant state and Western outlets. The improvised and occasionally misleading reporting can be traced to the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, through the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, the 2005 Hariri assassination, the 2005 Egyptian election, and the Israeli wars in Lebanon and Gaza in 2006 and 2008-2009.

The use of cell phone images, videos, and documents to provide an alternative view of the occupation of Iraq opened the floodgates of information in its later years through Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and other multimedia forums. Some of the most dramatic footage was provided by US soldiers in Abu Ghraib. In Israel’s assessment of its wars in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-2009, the military admitted its failure in the information war in the former, but boasted of learning lessons and applying them successfully two years later. The Palestinians, who kept feeding Arab media with images and information, disagree.

At any rate, the popularisation of technology introduced new tools of empowerment and motivation that went beyond standing armies and armoured vehicles. An activist or an average protester could demonstrate during the day, circulate video clips in the evening as citizen journalists, and watch themselves at night making a difference. Armed with smart phones and laptops, protesters fought on two fronts at the same time: the global information front and the domestic political front. This was citizen-journalism [PDF] at its best.

Like the Tunisian youth, young Egyptians were more than ready when they started “revolutionary dissidence”, kicking off what amounted to a countdown toward the end of the regime. Not only were Egyptian bloggers very politically active, but they also comprised the largest blogging force in the Arab world, occupying a third of the regional blogosphere. 

Young Egyptians had prepared multiphased plans and backups that anticipated the security forces responses. For instance, they calculated how long and how far from a police station they needed to demonstrate in order to avoid arrest; how to manoeuvre in a way that would destabilise the security forces; how to secure multiple entries and exits; and how to devise a division of labour that would ensure that requirements from first aid to blankets were secure for the long January nights. All of that was to be coordinated and implemented online and on modest street corners. And no function was as important as spreading the word in real time in order to guarantee a maximum, orderly show of peaceful people power. This was a reenactment of events in Tunisia. The events were soon duplicated, with less intensity, in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria, where YouTube video clips destroyed the regime’s propaganda, showing the regime’s thugs attacking peaceful protesters.

Cyber warfare

New media has been essential for social and political organisation. But just as it earned the admiration and interest of the people, it also drew the contempt of dictators determined to monopolise the flow of information. Tech-savvy youth became a threat, bloggers were seen as dissidents, and hackers were considered insurgents who brought down firewalls and broke barriers of fear.

The circulation among Tunisian youth of the WikiLeaks documents that revealed Ben Ali’s corruption drew the attention of the Ben Ali regime, especially the damning information and reports about the crimes and excessiveness of the ruling family that were written by US diplomats, some of the regime’s closest friends. Despite its despotism and nepotism, the United States saw the regime as an important regional ally and client, information that infuriated Tunisians trapped between a dictator and his cynical Western patrons.

Unable to control the spread of the leaks that were evidently blocked by the Tunisian media, government security services accelerated their assault on the internet, stealing passwords, hacking accounts, spying on activists, and blocking access to some of the more vocal opposition figures, journalists, and so on. Sofiene Chourabi, a journalist for Al-Tariq al-Jadid magazine and an outspoken blogger, was one of many harassed by authorities. He told Al Jazeera that his personal account on Facebook, which included around 4,200 friends, was hacked, and a few days later he was locked out of it completely.

As Tunisian and Egyptian governments started to treat these bloggers as political dissidents, online activists began to see themselves as such and started to act the part. Blogging was no longer a mere hobby indulged from the safety of homes but a political act that came with possible retribution. None of this was new for the Tunisian government, which for years blocked YouTube and Facebook.

These digital crackdowns were by no means specific to the Tunisian regime. As the internet sceptic Evgeny Morozov argues in his book The Net Delusion, governments, like the youth, have also learned how to use the internet in their favour. From Belarus to Israel, governments have used the internet to spy on dissidents, paralyse their movements, and build firewalls to block information, connectivity, and organisation. Indeed, some US lawmakers and political leaders argued that hackers and distributors of government electronic records, as in the case of WikiLeaks, should be treated as terrorists.

During Iran’s 2008 “Green Revolution”, which followed that country’s rigged elections, the government used the internet against the opposition, either shutting down certain services or breaking into networks of dissident bloggers and making mass arrests. Similarly, the Egyptian regime tried to shut down the internet for a few days, but soon discovered that it was also obliged to take down the mobile phone service used to send out videos and Tweets through alternative networks. This, in turn, paralysed the economy and hurt the country’s international standing. With the outbreak of the Syrian revolution on March 15, 2011, the regime tried to learn the lessons of Egypt and Tunisia by forcing young people on the streets to give out their social network names and passwords in order to check for any anti-government sentiments.

Tunisia’s besieged bloggers were helped by the hacker collective known as Anonymous, whose global activists launched “OpTunisia” to overthrow the Tunisian censor regime and, in the process, succeeded in taking down at least eight websites, including those of the president, the prime minister, the ministry of industry, the ministry of foreign affairs, and the stock exchange. By attacking these sites from outside the country, hackers were able to avoid the risk of arrest.

The information revolution and the popularisation of technology has helped level the battlefield between dissidents and dictators, while opening it up to the rest of the world to the disadvantage of rulers that obsessed about national boundaries and sovereignty. The Syrian regime attempted to black out all information from the cities and towns invaded by its forces but failed to stop the footage made available through mobile phones, which played a major role in weakening the al-Assad regime. Ironically, it was the al-Assad family, which monopolises the cell phone market through the president’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, that ensured most Syrians had a cell phone in hand during the protests.

Media clichés

Shortly after the beginning of the Arab revolution, the media began to fixate on the role of social media, ignoring other social and political factors. While important, there is no need to sensationalise the role social media played, treating it as if it were a silver bullet.

Namedropping social media networks became a cliché that reduced the totality of the transformation into revolutionary software. Though both the 2008 Iranian revolution and 2011 Egyptian revolution used new media to their advantage, only the latter succeeded in toppling the regime, while the Green Revolution failed. Why? Because of the many other factors that come to bear. Facebook doesn’t organise, people do. Twitter won’t govern, people will.

Western media’s constant referencing of the “youth” in the abstract, all the while ignoring other components of the revolution, became a cliché intended to fascinate and entertain, not inform. Indeed, packaging youth with Western technology became a media construct devoid of all social and political components. So while the young did encompass the majority of the protesting population, women, the unemployed, blue- and white-collar labour, the middle and upper classes, and activists were all pushed into a generational pigeonhole. Such categorisation, while fascinating, doesn’t say enough about the forces behind the revolution and how they would manage the future.

Regrettably, the fascinating David versus Goliath story of the people taking on oppressive regimes was translated by the Western media into a Hollywood narrative.

Enter the ‘Google executive’

US officials and media executives inflated the role of a Google employee who was designated as the “hero” and brain behind the people-power demonstrations. Wael Ghonim was a young Egyptian blogger, writing under a pseudonym, who was arrested on suspicion of anti-government activity. Along with others, he helped mount the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page. When the authorities released him, long after the demonstrations and sit-ins were underway, he was allowed to appear on television where he was emotional, sobbing, and denying responsibility for the death of young Egyptians. The appearance backfired as the youth movement shrugged off the government’s coercive tactics. But the emotional “executive” continued to sob his way to Tahrir Square where he joined a massive rally that took him in as one of its own. Ghonim, like his peers, deserve praise. He has earned his place in modern Egyptian history, but US President Barack Obama’s special citation of the “Google executive” gave him, or more implicitly Google, too much credit.

In a rather flimsy attempt to highlight Google’s role, aides to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested to Al Jazeera a town-hall gathering between Clinton and Egyptian bloggers and activists to be aired on the network. They were specific about how they would like it to be produced, including choosing the names of the guests and the order in which they would appear in the programme. Topping the US list was the Google executive, Ghonim. Alas, the town-hall programme never aired because Al Jazeera responded with its own journalistic prerogatives to balance the programme by putting “the town” back in the hall.

We understood that the revolutions would not have been possible without the active participation of a wide network of mobilised labour, civil society organisations, opposition parties, neighbourhood associations, those attending Friday prayers, football fans, tribes, extended families, and entire communities. However, many have embraced an overly simplistic explanation regarding the events, finding it easier to give credit to a handful of websites than to study the more complicated Arab reality from which the youth emerged. And we overemphasise the importance of online activity at the risk of downplaying the sacrifice of the all-too-often invisible activists, intellectuals, union members, and artists who died unknown and unrecognised.

Satellite media, which has been present in the Arab world for the past two decades and which covered the revolution extensively, has also had a great influence on public awareness, communication, and the mobilisation of millions across the region.

Throughout history, youth have stood at the forefront of popular upheavals and revolutions, where their active participation has been indispensable, helped by one form of connectivity or another. Since the days of word-of-mouth and pigeon-post, communication and connectivity have been prerequisites for change. People mount revolutions the way they do business, and the way they live their lives.

In his important work, History of the Arabs, Philip Hitti traces how the “Arab awakening” at the turn of the 20th century evolved thanks to the fresh participation of the relatively young, along with the help of the printing press, and the networks of trains that brought new blood into metropolitan areas. While it has become fashionable to talk about the role of the youth movement, often in simplistic and clichéd terms, the younger generation has had their influence on the course of the revolution. Some of these representations might be false, but the resulting euphoria is real and affects reality no less.

The youth have sparked a revolution not only in the public squares, but also in the minds and hearts of those long subdued by repression, broken by oppression, domesticated with proverbial carrots, or deterred by sticks. But if these old warriors were down, they weren’t out. In no time, people of all types and age were awakened by the calls for change and encouraged by the will of the youth to go all the way.

Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst and a former professor of international relations at the American University of Paris.The above excerpt is from his latest book, The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions, now available in bookstores.

Follow him on Twitter: @MarwanBishara