A secret arsenal online: How young activists waged dissent against dictatorship

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

While no medium of mass communication can create the conditions and variables that compound into revolution, social media has served as the catalyst which has helped mobilize disenfranchised popu- lations to express their frustrations about the economic and political status quo.

In two cases, this has ultimately lead to populist dissent.

This has been no more valuable than in countries where state control of the media is inflexible and unwilling to cater to dissenting voices.

It is in the Middle East and North Africa that social media provides a much-needed platform for expression. In Egypt, the government capitalized on the emergency laws in effect after President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981 to thwart political opponents, stifle the media, and derail efforts for electoral pluralism. These laws provided the security apparatus with sweeping powers to detain and interrogate dissidents, and intimidate journalists, without judicial oversight. It was in such repressive environments that social media provided many Egyptians and Tunisians with the only unrestricted outlet to them.

And it was through social media that young Tunisian and Egyptian activists compared notes on how to subvert their regimes and push for reform. In recent weeks, this cooperation helped corrode the state of fear in both countries as activists gave each other advice on how to evade capture, defend against government mobs and deal with tear gas afflictions.

This cooperation has been in the works for the past several years.

Social media networks such as Facebook, Twit- ter and the various blogging facilities have since 2004 slowly been lifting the veil on societies once accustomed to conservatism and silence. It was through they disseminative power previously concealed issues started to inform societies of the malaise they were suffering. By 2007, blogging had effectively broken socio-political barriers and was beginning to irritate authorities from Morocco to Bahrain.

Authorities in the Middle East and North Af- rica were taken by surprise by blogger-activists and were unprepared how to deal with them. Critical of their governments and continuing to highlight state corruption, mismanagement and vote-rigging, these bloggers who were often accused of “harming the public interest”, were blacklisted, intimidated, de- tained, tortured, and in some countries, killed. Nev- ertheless, the popularity of social media increased exponentially.

The common yet indigenous, denominators – political and economic disenfranchisement and disdain at rampant corruption – between countries of the region were conveyed through social media net- works, helping to create a momentum that seized popular anger and provided it with a dynamic that produced mass mobilisation on the streets of such cities as Tunis and Cairo early this year.

It is in such incidents that Middle East journal ists, bloggers and activists are using Twitter and Facebook to not only continue to break cultural and religious taboos, discuss the social and political malaise afflicting their region, and explore sexual identities but also to create an entirely new paradigm in activist discourse.

While there is no consistent methodology that can accurately analyze the number of Twitter us- ers by region, the Internet Advertising Bureau es- timates that year-on-year growth of Twitter users in the Middle East and Africa surged by 142% to five million.

The number of Facebook users in the Middle East and North Africa reached 15 million in May 2010; in Egypt, there are more than 3.4 million users, says Spot On, an integrated communications company that also tracks social media use.

By publishing online – and dissenting in 140 characters or less – social media users in the Middle East and North Africa are challenging dominant state institutions. While the state retains the loyalties of the security apparatus and perhaps the military, activists have been fighting back through the Internet.

Some Western pundits have disparaged the importance of social media as a vehicle for reform in the Middle East and North Africa. However, ob- servers must be careful not to examine the socio- political conditions in the region through a Western prism. Studies of social media’s penetrability and impact in Europe or North America, for example, must not be used as the measure of conditions in other parts of the world.

While the government maintains and safeguards national TV services to distribute its message, activists use Twitter and Facebook to post images and videos which contradict state propaganda. The Middle East and North Africa are likely to witness a constant tug of war between media reformists and the public on the one front and repressive policy- makers and authoritarian figures on the other.