Cyberdissidence in the Middle East

No posts lately as this week has been a maelstrom of essay deadlines and (look away, mum) muesli for dinner. But last night I went to a talk on cyberdissidence in the Middle East and it raised a couple of extremely interesting points. Below, a summary of the event, and my thoughtz.

The talk began with an Iran expert who conducts anthropological research on Facebook, looking at Iranian youth and their use of social media. She spent a lot of time talking about something I knew very little about – the political space for women in Iran. Over the past decade, there has been a flowering of Iranian women’s activism. Taking as their starting point Iran’s conservative family laws, which reduced the marriage age and removed rights to custody and inheritance, they expanded their campaign to cover the whole of civil society reform. Magazines and websites brought together professionals from every field – even clerics – to write on rights reform. Although there has long been an extremely active student and teacher movement in Iran, the speaker argued that it was really the women’s movement that has been the driving force behind protest – and the space in which this movement has evolved has been the internet.

Iranian youth, she went on, are extremely Internet literate; apparently, Farsi is the 4th most popular language used for blogging worldwide. And it’s not just the capital cities where you see dissidence and cyberdissidence. The Iranian system of university student placing means that students go all over the country – Tehranis go the the provinces, and vice versa. Thus young people can share the urban space and exchange ideas on politics and on technology. I was reminded of a friend in Shiraz who bemoaned the lack of attention given to anywhere other than Tehran during the election protests last year. ‘We were out on the streets,’ he said, ‘but you didn’t hear about it. Only in Tehran.’ The government filtering system in Iran is, according to the speaker, highly effective, and has limited the use of the internet. A fascinating detail, about which I had no idea, is that the Iranian government are moving into the cybersphere themselves; they have been training youth on how to blog, encouraging them to begin pro-regime blogs, drawing not just on young men but on young women as well (many students at the only women’s seminary in Iran, in, you guessed it, Qom).

The first speaker was something of an internet evangelist. Arguing that the freedom of expression and organisation that it allows was crucial to the protests last year, she also pointed towards lesser-known but still impressive uses of the internet, such as the aforementioned women’s movement which was by no means confined to middle-class ladies with laptops; she described how women, brought together by the internet, would then go out into the provinces and organise women en masse. The second speaker was more sceptical. A professor studying the Egyptian opposition and its use of new media, she raised a couple of important questions.

The first was: how new is this? She recalled Egypt in the 90s when tape-cassettes of Sheikh Iman, an iconic dissenting singer, were passed hand-to-hand; a system, like the internet, that is very difficult for a regime to control or trace. There has been a continuity between analogue and digital dissident media. She told another story about a strike in Mahalla al-Kubra (sound familiar?) in 1948 – by the next day, the newspapers were reporting on solidarity strikes in other industrial hubs of Egypt. 1948! To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure what telecommunications were like in Egypt in the 40s, but you can bet they didn’t have YouTube. Despite high-profile social media-driven campaigns like that following the brutal murder of Khaled Said in June, we should not forget what people could achieve before social media, lest we let the means overtake the ends. This isn’t even something confined to some bygone era – think of Mahalla in 2008.

So she raised doubts (which I share) about how much digital media actually changes things. Hillary Clinton is convinced; she recently announced the creation of a fund for digital democracy in the Middle East. It’s a conviction that many in the West share, and many in the Middle East share, although I’m not so sure all would welcome Western involvement. Mohamed ElBaradei, perched uncomfortably and owlishly on the cutting edge of technology and new media, likes to make reference to his huge following on Facebook, as do many journalists. Yet 300,000 followers on Facebook does not a radical reconfiguration of Egyptian politics make. This, of course, is by no means the fault of those who use social media. It’s just that by focussing on social media trends we forget about those trends that have been ongoing; and by making social media an end in itself forget what the real ends are. I recalled a journalist friend in Cairo who complained that, whenever he wrote a story on the Egyptian opposition, he was asked to get the Facebook angle; social media makes things relevant, current, and exciting, but at what cost?

There’s a huge disparity in coverage (I speak mainly of Western coverage) of the different strands of opposition in Egypt, and I suspect this may have something to do with it. The social media-literate movements, like April 6 and Kifaya, get a lot of attention; a campaign like that for Khaled Said is extremely high-profile and effective. The workers’ movement, which (with notable exceptions, such as Karim ElBehairy) makes less use of Facebook, Youtube, etc, gets far less attention. On the other hand, most of the attention given to the Muslim Brotherhood, who are extremely web-literate and maintain a very slick English-language blog as well as their Arabic site and the blogs of individual activists, is negative; the narrative there is of Islamists ‘co-opting’ or ‘infiltrating’ the internet, as though what they are doing is in any way different.

An interesting question, as well, is that raised by Malcolm Gladwell in his recent essay for The New Yorker on social media and its uses for activism. He makes the point about devalorisation; that, paradoxically, as social activism has become democratised by new media, it has also been devalued. When you can just join a Facebook group, the very ease of such an action perhaps makes it worth less and say less. This links to the Egyptian government’s relative tolerance of cyberdissidence; it views the internet, I think, as a fairly safe space for the middle classes to let off steam, and lets it preserve a semblance of freedom of expression, just like its relative relaxation on freedom of the press (compared to, say, Syria). Whether this is a strategic move on the part of Mubarak’s government, or just technological ineptitude, is unknown. Yet despite the hopes of Hillary Clinton et al, I don’t think social media is the end, or even the means, of effecting real change in the Middle East. The revolution may be tweeted, but it will be happening on the ground.

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