Cyber-liberty, Democracy and the Arab Psyche

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Reported by Kody Gerkin in Doha, Qatar

In a previous post I explored why the West doesn’t seem to fully grasp the political and social power of new internet communication tools such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. I argued that these tools are poised to have such amazing potential in places like pre-2011 revolution Egypt because citizens there lacked the physical space to organize and self-actualize or to practice dissent. So, they used cyberspace instead. Because we in the West are accustomed to having basic freedoms, such as freedom of speech or assembly, we fail to see just how important a tool like Facebook is in terms of an individual’s pursuit of meaningful self-actualization.

Another critical component that blinds Western academics and laypersons from understanding the power of social media in the Middle East (and likely the East in general) is the omnipresence of the sociological concept of face. The concept of face provides us with the understanding (within societies where it is important) that social appearances construct the self, that the self is delineated via the stance taken within a given social interaction. Furthermore, in a high context culture (like Arab culture) less needs to be said to convey a message; the culture does a lot of speaking for itself within social interactions. Combine these factors and you have an environment where the sort of public shaming that takes place in the United States (think Jerry Springer or someone yelling at someone else for cutting a line at your local Wal-Mart) is completely out of the question in the Middle East.

As I had written about in an earlier post, the Tunisian revolution was given a strong impetus by Mohammed Bouazizi, a man who lit himself on fire after being slapped and having his deceased father publicly insulted by a female police officer. In contrast to the United States and elsewhere in the West that kind of public humiliation and the associated loss of face that occurs was enough for one man to take his own life in a society where face is extremely important.

In a similar vein, the best argument I’ve come across during my time in the Middle East as to why democracy is incompatible with the Arab psyche is that in order for democracy to function some candidates would have to campaign tirelessly, make a variety of promises to the general public, and then lose the election. In a society wherein face is extremely important this political system isn’t likely to be adopted. As we know, elections can be brutal and embarrassing for the losers in a low-context culture with less emphasis on saving face such as the United States. Imagine transposing this political system to a high-context culture where face is extremely important.

If we understand a little bit more about how Arab society functions we might glimpse just how valuable a tool like the internet can be in a place without freedom of speech, assembly or press. Again, considering that Egypt was imprisoning or murdering dissenters for the last several decades, how beneficial might a tool that allows for anonymous political debate to take place via online avatars? What eventually happened in Egypt (and is happening elsewhere) is that citizens built a resistance network in cyberspace that was outside the violent reach of brutal thugs that Mubarak underpaid to police public spaces. These thugs and plainclothes police officers actually rode into Tahrir Square at one point on camels. Judging from this anecdote, we might be able to assume that they probably weren’t literate enough or tech-savvy enough to comb all of cyberspace looking for dissent. Where China heavily polices internet use, oppressive leaders like Mubarak lack either the funding or the technical know-how to do the same. In the vacuum left by the lack of capability to control cyberspace there became “cyber-liberty,” a liberty which savvy bloggers and millions of people using Twitter and Facebook used to their advantage.

While narcissistic peons in the U.S. and elsewhere were busy using the internet and tools such as Facebook to turn themselves into miniature celebrities, Egyptian citizens were busy building a cyber-network its Western counterparts have the freedom to build in reality but don’t. This cyber-network in Egypt used Twitter and other tools, not to keep up with Tiger Wood’s recent sex scandal, but as part of a network that eventually felt empowered enough (because of the available cyberspace for self actualization) to topple as deeply entrenched a leader as Hosni Mubarak.

Western academics dedicated to researching these topics approach the usefulness of the internet as a global communication tool without understanding that the capacity of the internet as a social tool must be viewed differently across disparate societies. This is particularly true where levels of free speech and other basic freedoms are enjoyed with extreme variety across the societies being compared. Take, for example, the point regarding the sociological concept of face. Consider, in a society wherein face is important, how the internet affects the importance of civil discourse by providing a sort of public/private forum, such as Twitter. Users on Twitter (and Facebook for that matter) often employ a moniker so that they can “publicly” make statements in cyberspace that they may not be able to make publicly in, well, in public. (When I refer to public in this sense I mean public as a physical space, Tahrir Square, for example.)

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine article Clay Shirky examines the political power of social media within the context of recent revolutions in the Arab world. He wrote, in part: Political freedom has to be accompanied by a civil society literate enough and densely connected enough to discuss the issues presented to the public. In a famous study of political opinion after the 1948 U.S. presidential election, the sociologists Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld discovered that mass media alone do not change people's minds; instead, there is a two-step process. Opinions are first transmitted by the media, and then they get echoed by friends, family members, and colleagues. It is in this second, social step that political opinions are formed. This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference. As with the printing press, the Internet spreads not just media consumption but media production as well -- it allows people to privately and publicly articulate and debate a welter of conflicting views.

Juxtapose these notions with the following image, taken from

If you want to contest the importance of the internet (or more specifically something that, perhaps rightfully so in the West, is as utterly stupid as Twitter) within the Egyptian revolution, this is a difficult image to swallow. The blue dots represent people who were tweeting about Egypt in English, the Red in Arabic. Purple or a shade somewhere in between the blue and the red represent an individual who had a mixture of tweets in the two languages. The closer one dot is to another the more likely that that persons tweeting is influenced by those dots that are nearby, the biggest dots are being “followed” by larger segments of the Twitter grid. Take note of the large purple dot in the lower half of the diagram just right of center. This dot represents the cyber network of Wael Ghonim, a well known e-activist who, since January of 2011, has been the head of marketing for Google’s Middle East and North Africa division. Wael had been active in online dissent since well before the revolution. A native Egyptian, Wael had slowly been climbing the corporate ladder as a tech-engineer whilst leading a double life as an (occasionally anonymous) online activist. Wael is now credited as one of the originators of massive online dissent in Egypt. Wael, under an alias, was the moderator of a Facebook group entitled “We are all Khaled Saeed.” Khaled Saeed was arrested in Cairo (in a cybercafé no less) by Egyptian police in June of 2010. He was cited for a myriad of charges, cyber-activism not among them, even though he’d (allegedly) recently captured footage of corrupt police doing deeds with drug dealers and had posted it online. The police claimed he died swallowing a plastic bag of hashish he didn’t want to get caught with, but eye witnesses at the cyber cafe reported otherwise. They claimed to have seen police beating him all the way outside of the cyber café and into the back of a police car. When his family members snapped pictures of him (reportedly on a mobile phone - are we seeing a pattern here?) in a morgue and posted the images on the web Khaled Saeed quickly became a martyr. His badly beaten face, teeth missing from a bloody, misshapen head, was all it took for the Facebook group set up by Wael to attract hundreds of thousands of users, all in a matter of mere months.

The name Khaled Saeed is synonymous with the widespread agitation and increasingly bold dissent practiced in Egypt during late 2010, early 2011. Wael, working for Google in Dubai at the time, returned to Egypt in early 2011 and was subsequently arrested. He was released in time to be in Tahrir Square during the revolution itself and has made media rounds since calling the Egyptian revolution a “revolution 2.0”.

Critics are quick to point out that many of these Facebook group members and tweet freaks aren’t from Egypt and were never in Egypt at any point during the revolution. More than likely this is at least partially true. But that isn’t my point. I don’t have a stake in the argument that this was an internet revolution, a “revolution 2.0” anymore than I have a stake in the argument that blogs and Twitter will crush newspapers and television news media and contribute to the - pardon the Bush-ism - “stupefying” of the general public (I laid out my arguments as to the absurdity of this claim in an earlier post). These arguments detract from the actual importance of the web as a tool for self-actualization when oppression and social pressures dictate what can and can’t be said in public spaces, in the physical space around us. When you look at the Twitter-web image above, you see the network of people who are connected to one another and whose online activity stimulates and affects the behavior of others in cyberspace. This is the link missing from Sharky’s analysis in Foreign Affairs, when he writes that “Opinions are first transmitted by the media, and then they get echoed by friends, family members, and colleagues. It is in this second, social step that political opinions are formed. This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference. As with the printing press, the Internet spreads not just media consumption but media production as well - it allows people to privately and publicly articulate and debate a welter of conflicting views.” What I feel he misses (or at least leaves unsaid) is that the internet isn’t just a place of media production; it is also a likely space for self-production where and when appropriate spaces don’t exist physically. Because of legal systems such as those created under Hosni Mubarak’s emergency law, or social landscapes that have been formed by the importance of saving face, cyberspace becomes extremely important as space for self-actualization and, in recent months, dissent and revolt.

Would Wael have disgraced his family by creating his Khaled Saeed memorial Facebook group using his real name while publicly criticizing Hosni Mubarak? Would his friends and family have been harassed? What if Mubarak hadn’t been toppled? Would his criticism of the regime stunt his public career as a media specialist in a broader Arab society? Precisely because the internet gave him the tools to organize massive numbers of empowered dissenters these questions never need to be answered. Cyber-liberty grew in a vacuum of liberty as it is traditionally understood. Cyber-liberty gave individuals the collective impression that there were many like minded dissenters in Egypt and abroad. When the dissenting Egyptian citizens each made their own decision to take to the streets it was at the end of a long process of network building which, as per the Twitter image above, took place online, in blogs and on Twitter and in Facebook groups.

Shirky seems to grasp these notions in his piece on social media. Ultimately, he argues for what he calls an environmentalist approach to advocating for what I call (and has undoubtedly been called elsewhere) cyber-liberty. He contrasts this environmental view with what he contends is the U.S. government approach, the instrumental approach. “The instrumental view is politically appealing, action-oriented, and almost certainly wrong. It overestimates the value of broadcast media while underestimating the value of media that allow citizens to communicate privately among themselves. It overestimates the value of access to information, particularly information hosted in the West, while underestimating the value of tools for local coordination. And it overestimates the importance of computers while underestimating the importance of simpler tools, such as cell phones.” He writes that “A slowly developing public sphere, where public opinion relies on both media and conversation, is the core of the environmental view of Internet freedom. As opposed to the self-aggrandizing view that the West holds the source code for democracy -- and if it were only made accessible, the remaining autocratic states would crumble -- the environmental view assumes that little political change happens without the dissemination and adoption of ideas and opinions in the public sphere. Access to information is far less important, politically, than access to conversation. Moreover, a public sphere is more likely to emerge in a society as a result of people's dissatisfaction with matters of economics or day-to-day governance than from their embrace of abstract political ideals.” I think his analysis is strong on this point. However, and again, academics and the general public typically refrain from couching international insights in anthropologically or even culturally sensitive ways.

Stylizing arguments for or against the role and importance of social media tools in a given culture or context is of fundamental importance. Broadening our understanding of social and cultural concepts in foreign lands, such as the concept of face, would undoubtedly prepare the West to act and react to events unfolding in an increasingly important Arab world. On an individual level, understanding the complex relationship Egypt enjoys with the Middle East has helped me understand the long term psychological ramifications of Egypt’s revolution on the Arab world. Just a few days ago the New York Times published an article entitled “Exiles Shaping World’s Image of Syria Revolt.” Anthony Shadid wrote the following: For weeks now, the small number of activists, spanning the Middle East, Europe and the United States, have coordinated across almost every time zone and managed to smuggle hundreds of satellite and mobile phones, modems, laptops and cameras into Syria. There, compatriots elude surveillance with e-mailed software and upload videos on dial-up connections. Their work has ensured what was once impossible. In 1982, Syria’s government managed to hide, for a time, its massacre of at least 10,000 people in Hama in a brutal crackdown of an Islamist revolt. But Saturday, the world could witness, in almost real time, the chants of anger and cries for the fallen as security forces fired on the funerals for Friday’s dead.

That is to say, it ain’t over in the Middle East. Social media will without a doubt play a role in power brokering and transparency in the region, much as it did in Egypt and elsewhere. What is in doubt is the Western world’s ability to understand or respond appropriately to the situations arising in the Middle East. Whether or not most people know or care about funeral processions being fired upon in Syria is not the issue. My country of origin has shown an incredible lack of sympathy with regard to civilian causalities, unless of course they are of U.S. origin, and usually then only if they have the right skin color and socio-economic background. Will the West be able to grasp the importance of the events unfolding in the Middle East? Will civilian populations in the West and their political and military leaders be able to adjust to the new geo-political landscape once the dust settles? Will the United States continue its regional economic hegemony that it maintained via subsidizing the genocide of Palestinians and propping up brutes like Mubarak? Not without a smirking acknowledgment of the poetic justice involved. The sentiments many residents in Egypt and the broader Middle East and North Africa region are beginning to voice are a delicate mixture of “let’s hope not,” and, more importantly: “Who cares?”

Update: Judging from an article that just came out in the New York Times (U.S. Underwrites Internet Detour Around Censors, Sunday, June 12th, 2011) Obama is working on a “shadow” internet that dissidents can use when the web is being censored or, as during Mubarak’s final days, access to the web has denied altogether. Not to be overly dramatic about Obama’s greatness or to credit him in what I am sure was a lengthy process, it’s stories like this internet idea that remind me why I was so happy to see him elected, especially after nearly a decade under, all joking aside, the most useless and despicably evil moron we may ever see in the White House.

Kody M. Gerkin has spent several years working and studying oppression and economic disparities around the globe. He lived, worked and studied in Guatamala for several years before returning to the U.S. to earn an M.A. inInternational Human Rights from the University of Denver. Currently he lives in Doha, Qatar where he teaches, studies Arabic, bakes bread, and is now mainly occupied with reporting on the Arab Spring Revolutions. He would like to hear from his American readers.

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