A few weeks ago, the Economist provided an interesting take on social media, the Arab Spring, and the Reformation era. The article, How Luther Went Viral, claims that centuries before Facebook and the Arab Spring, social media helped bring about the Reformation era. Led by Martin Luther, the Reformation was a period of religious revolt that led to the division of Western Christianity and the start of Protestantism. The developments of this period were propelled by the advent of the printing press, which the article describes in rich detail. But it begins by making an interesting claim about how Luther and his allies promoted the message of religious reform with the social media of their day—pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts. So basically, the central argument of the piece states that what happened in the Arab Spring is what happened in the Reformation era: a new form of media provided the opponents of an authoritarian regime an opportunity to voice their concerns, affirm their discontent, and mobilize their actions.
Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2011
Originally published on March 3, 2011
Is it possible to 'technocrat-ize' a revolution that is still roaring? The Arab Spring has been a spectacular surprise that so-called experts around the world failed to foresee, yet the same experts are now rushing to impose their favorite frameworks/paradigms on it. I call it the Explanation Olympics. There are experts who are tremendously certain the Arab Spring is all about social media. Others are quite sure it is all about the price of food. Still others say: it is the youth bulge, stupid. A New York Times columnist has just thrown a whole bunch of other explanations into the mix, some of them a trifle baffling. (See: 'This is just the start' by Tom Friedman).
Last week I went to listen to a talk by Philip Howard of the University of Washington. He spoke about the "Digital Origins of Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam." The story was mainly the one we keep hearing about ICT and the Arab Spring, although Howard cautioned that ICT don't actually topple dictators, they rather catch dictators off-guard. And while ICT don't cause political change per se, they provide "capabilities and impose new constraints."
Howard went on to show a table of Arab countries with a few characteristics that may or may not be helpful in predicting future civic unrest. The variables in the table were: country, years of ruler in power, approximate proportion of people connected through ICT, average age of the population, and next elections. This kind of collection of variables is seductive because it seems so easy to use them to predict civic uprisings in the Arab World.
These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
“In April this year Global Voices reported how social media was being used in India to power civil society's push for a proposed anti-corruption bill (popularly known as the Jan Lokpal Bill). There was, at the time, a lot of debate about the sustainability of the fledgling movement, which was being led from the front by a Gandhian social activist Sri Anna Hazare.
A lot has happened since then but what has been undeniable is that the anti-corruption movement, after having proved the nay-saying pundits wrong, has gradually managed to capture the imagination of a large section of the Indian public.” READ MORE
In a media landscape saturated with images of tweeting revolutionaries and blogging dissidents, it's easier than ever to assume a causal relationship between the spread of technology and political revolution. But take a closer look, and the issue begins to look a lot more complex.
An informative and timely new essay by Marc Lynch, an associate professor at George Washington University and prolific commentator on Arab media and political issues, deftly sums up the main arguments, contradictions and knowledge gaps surrounding the impact of information and communication technologies (ICT) on the phenomena collectively referred to as "the Arab Spring." Entitled "After Egypt: The Limits and Promise of Online Challenges to the Authoritarian Arab State," (subscription may be required), the piece implicitly argues for abandoning the usual "optimist/pessimist" trope that plagues such discussions, favoring instead a more nuanced and complex perspective on the impact of ICT in authoritarian states. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, I agree - see this previous post.)
These days, there is simply no avoiding the news. In a season of spectacular events coming one on top of the other -- revolutions, tsunamis, slayings of master-terrorists -- it is clearer than ever that we now have unparalleled means to follow what is going on, the very latest developments, even minute by minute updates. You no longer have to wait for the evening news or the hourly news on radio. There are now live-blogs and live-streams of visual images around major events. Your computer, even at work, can bring you the very latest news. Click on the Aljazeera live-stream, for instance, and you have a court-side seat in the arena of the Arab Spring. Tweets are updating global audiences on all kinds of issues. If you have a 3G or 4G phone, you can follow the news on the move in living color. And if you have a tablet device...ha, you are in news junkie heaven!
Without a doubt, we are the first humans to run the risk of drowning in a tempest of news. This has at least three interesting consequences.
Which comes first in the wake of revolution, bread or freedom?
A Reuters reporter asked about this during the embargoed press briefing last Friday to launch the World Development Report 2011: Conflict, Security and Development. What she wondered about was the tough choices of what to deal with most urgently in the throes of revolutions like we are seeing in the Middle East and North Africa.
In other words, should policymakers pay urgent attention to, say, food, jobs and the flow of cash or do justice and political change take precedence?
As the Arab Spring struggles not to return to winter - sometimes with a little help from powerful friends -- I came across this fascinating thought concerning one of the likely but entirely unintended consequences of the emerging political reality in North Africa and the Middle East. In a piece contributed to TIME Magazine, the articulate and insightful blogger, Issandr El Amrani, [I recommend his blog: the Arabist] wrote:
In these countries where leaders were long used to sycophantic interviews, they now face combative interviewers out to make a reputation for themselves. It will be a while before spin doctors come in to teach the politicians to stay on-message ---in the meantime, they are walking the tightrope without a net.
While it may take historians years to understand the historic conditions and political factors which triggered the democratic revolution in Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries in the Middle East, one thing seems to be certain. The political actor which has gained the most prominence in these political uprisings has been ‘civil society’. This term encompasses the large sector within any given society which sits between governments and the for-profit or private sector. As such it includes youth movements, workers unions, NGOs, political parties, and faith-based organizations among others. It is a term still little understood, often derided by authoritarian governments, and rarely heard in the Middle East until now. The term in Arabic is “mojtama'a madani” and has the same broad meaning as in English. It is said that when Egyptian ex-President Mubarak first heard the term he mockingly quipped, “So what’s wrong with military society?”
Talk of citizen agency and citizen power is all over the place these days - the media, the international community, academia and everybody else who cares about change and how it happens is looking in awe at current events. Civil protests have changed the political face of an important part of this world, and so far they have done so mostly peacefully. The persistence of protesters to not use violence is one of the most outstanding features of what we're seeing unfold in some Northern African countries. The rejection of violence may be one of the most important factors that contribute to the success of these uprisings.
- The World Region
- Middle East and North Africa
- Repressive Regimes
- Public Opinion
- Protest Campaigns
- Peaceful Revolution
- Maria Stephan
- Iron Curtain
- human rights
- Erica Chenoweth
- Civil Uprisings
- Civil Protest
- Authoritarian Regime
- Arab Spring