Social Media Revolution?
The Middle East is no stranger to national demonstrations and civil unrest. The massive anti-government protests that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and spread throughout the Middle East have widely been referred to as social media revolutions. In Egypt, Google executive and Internet activist Wael Ghonim became the face of his country’s protests after gaining fame for Web pages that bashed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In Libya, journalists are currently under attack, making it difficult to cover the violence within the nation’s borders — luckily, viewers took footage and uploaded it to YouTube, but it’s difficult to get access outside of the Middle East. But many academics think attributing the revolutions to social media simplifies the issues at hand. Is social media fueling these fires, or is it simply acting as a new medium for protesters and political supporters to get their message across?
Matthew Kushin, a professor of communications at Utah Valley University, has done extensive research on social media in democracy. Kushin believes the role of social media in the Middle East has been significantly overstated throughout its coverage.
“My personal opinion is that social media can foster democratic discussion. But did it cause this to happen? I wouldn’t go that far,” Kushin says. “I think we as a society are looking for a simple explanation to a very complex situation.” One Egyptian scholar agrees with Kushin — social media was not the driving force that spread discontent across these Arab regions.
“I think opposition has been building up. Some people will say, ‘It’s Facebook.’ Some people will say, ‘It’s young people with new aspirations.’ Some people will say, ‘It’s new liberal economic reform.’ It’s really a collection of these things,” says Cairo native Mohamed Alaa.
Alaa, an adjunct faculty member at American University, teaches a course on issues surrounding the contemporary Middle East. He has been watching the events in his home country closely, but argues that one of the most overlooked factors of the revolutions is the inheritance of power. Today, planned inheritance of power has either been rumored or has already occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen and Syria. Many of these countries have experienced uprisings in 2011, and several of them overthrew their own monarchies during the 1950s. Alaa believes it’s no coincidence that people are again upset in these same nations.
“Before the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, there were always plans for inheritance of power from the president to his son,” says Alaa. “These issues are issues of dignity and respect and a collective memory which says, ‘We sacrificed a lot for a republic, so they cannot take this from us.’”
But just as Alaa agrees the role of Facebook and Twitter has been overstated, he thinks the importance of Pan-Arabism cannot be understated. Pan-Arabism is the idea of a shared identity among Arabs in all countries. People who are Pan-Arab consider themselves of the same race and ethnicity, regardless of their native country.
“If you attended the protests in D.C. or watched them on TV, you would have seen the Egyptian flag and the Tunisian flag flying. And why? Because people still think they are similar,” Alaa says. “You can speak as much as you want about divisions among Arab people, but there is still some feeling of common heritage, common language and a sort of common destiny.”
For countries like Egypt and Tunisia, these Arab ties are truly ties that bind. Although social media has helped to bridge the gap between individuals in different nations and inspires individuals to act, its most essential role is to foster nationalism between countries with shared values and ideals.