Culture, Social Media and the Arab Spring

The established narrative among many political observers is that the Arab Spring initially represented a Maghrebi desire for democracy and freedom. Summing up the mood of the western liberal intelligentsia Brian Whitaker, writing in The Guardian in early 2011, declaimed boldly that “Arabs now have a shared, unstoppable drive for freedom”. Prima facie nothing appears off about such a statement. We hear the word “freedom” all the time. Yet in this context it demands analysis.

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Mohamed Bouazizi: the Arab Spring’s Franz Ferdinand

The Project on Information Technology & Political Islam (pITPI) published a paper in 2011 entitled Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring? and the same baseless assumptions about North Africans’ desire for liberty and democracy were made. According to the report, Egyptians and Tunisians used digital technologies “to spread ideas about liberty” and to have conversations about democracy and revolution. But what do these words mean, really? The American linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir theorised that “no two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality”. So when a Tunisian demands “liberty” does he want the same thing as, say, a Californian?

Revolution itself is easy enough to define, and the Merriam-Webster definition is provided below. If you kill the king and announce the establishment of a republic you can be quite certain you had a revolution. The Arab Spring ultimately failed in its ambitions (which were vague to begin with), but that’s not to say the movement wasn’t revolutionary.

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If the immense crowds of protestors weren’t enough to convince you that the movement was indeed revolutionary, then its ubiquitous motto surely does the trick: Ash-sha`b yurid isqat an-nizam (“the people want to bring down the regime”).

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A call to revolution: “The people want to bring down the regime”

But what about “democracy” and “freedom”? Are their meanings as easy to agree on? Unfortunately not. Democracy is famously hard to define. Generally speaking there is “no consensus on how to measure democracy, definitions of democracy are contested and there is an ongoing lively debate on the subject”. From the same article (in The Economist) we read that “although the terms ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are often used interchangeably, the two are not synonymous”. Yet both concepts appear together, conflated, throughout the pITPI report.

For consistency’s sake let’s look at Merriam-Webster’s definition of democracy. file_000-2When we talk about the kind of democracy desired by those who protested in the Arab Spring (and there are multiple democracies) what was it they wanted? Rule of the majority? Representative government? The removal of corrupt, tyrannical elites? Most likely they wanted all of these things.

Yet the western understanding of democracy is somewhat different, and crucially absent from Merriam-Webster’s list of definitions is the idea that the protection of minority rights is now an essential element of democracy. John Stuart Mill, one of the most important liberal thinkers of all time, warned against ochlocracy (or mob rule), stating that “the tyranny of the majority is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard”. Certain information in pITPI’s report hints at this kind of liberalism’s absence in the region.

The report mentions the role Tunisian and Egyptian women played on social media during the protests. It informs us that 41 per cent of Tunisian Facebook users are female while in Egypt the corresponding figure is 36 per cent. This is in stark contrast to the Facebook gender gap that exists in the United States, where women have an eight point lead over men in their use of the social network. So what gives? Well, there is a proven gender gap in social media participation in the Arab world.

women-cyberactivism-arab-springRacha Mourtada, a research associate at the Dubai School of Government, says that “female users in the Arab World constitute one third of Facebook users, whereas on a global level, they represent 50% of Facebook users”.

Fadi Salem, a director at the same school, says that a regional survey found that “the cultural and societal limitations and barriers that exist for women in the region, for participation in general — political, economic, and civic — these cause the number of women users to be less than men. So access, education, the sense of empowerment, all of these are factors”. In other words, many women are treated as second-class citizens. Women are not technically a minority, but if we view democracy as being essentially liberal in the Millist sense, then these findings are disheartening and suggest a fundamental misunderstanding in the region of what modern democracy actually constitutes. If women can’t participate equally in something as innocuous and accessible as social media, on what basis can anyone believe they would see equality in a successful, Arab Spring 2.0?

Certainly Iraqi voters “have tended to follow the decisions of clerics, tribal leaders and political leaders since 2003”, and “cling to their collective identities, leading to chauvinistic, sectarian and tribal divisions”. Many of Iraq’s problems have their roots in European colonial ignorance, but the consequences may have drained Middle Easterners of their tolerance for pluralism and the sanguinary aftermath of democratic, post-Saddam Iraq indicates that the average Iraqi’s understanding of democracy may not go beyond the superficialities of inked fingers, ballots dropped in boxes and voting for one’s tribe. Similarly, it is hard to believe that when Egyptian and Tunisian men protest for “democracy” that it is in any way related to the kind of democracy found in Ireland or the United States or Sweden.

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So if these protests for democracy weren’t about democracy as the west understands it, what then? As in Petrograd or the Bastille, anger at prevailing economic conditions was surely a factor: Tunisia’s GDP per capita was a mere $4,200 when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010. For a nation just a stone’s throw away from a Europe perceived as having streets paved with gold, the result can be what Victor Davis Hanson calls an “unhealthy stew of envy, anger, and desire for the west”. It is easy to understand why some would look to France or Spain and assume that it is the simple machinery of democracy that makes a nation prosperous.

The Austrian socio-political theorist Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn has written about this assumed causal relationship between democracy and prosperity. “The only monument to democracy I have ever seen I found in Bangkok. This is lip-service in stone to the ideological American export drive to the ‘imperialism’ inherent in American political thinking. The force of this drive lies in the expectation that the material living standards of the United States might be the natural reward for accepting American political ideals. This superstition is quite common”.

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Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn

It seems altogether likely that the superstition still exists in much of the world today, and causes people to ignore the kind of environmental reasons for prosperity put forward by Jared Diamond, the civilisational “killer apps” posited by Niall Ferguson, and other highly developed theses that explain the “European miracle”.

In a previous post I pointed to the high level of support for harsh punishments that exists in Egypt. Four out of five Egyptians favour death for those choosing to leave the Islamic faith. This indicates an overwhelming absence of liberalism in Egyptian society, and when words like “liberty” and “freedom” are used by protestors we must be confident that their understanding of liberty matches up with that found in the west, and that both civilisations aren’t experiencing different social realities.

Freedom means many things to many people. The neoreactionary philosopher Mencius Moldbug had this to say about freedom:

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To a young westerner, freedom might mean the ability to marry someone of the same sex or smoke marijuana or drink alcohol on public transport. Social media may be opening the eyes of many young Egyptians and Tunisians to attractive (yet ill-defined) concepts like equality, liberty, democracy, etc., but freedom as understood in Egypt may simply represent a desire for political change and not a de facto acceptance of the fundamental social changes that go hand in hand with modern European liberal democracy.

Bibliography

Howard, Philip N. et al. “Opening Closed Regimes: What Was The Role Of Social Media During The Arab Spring?”. SSRN Electronic Journal n. pag. Web.

Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Erik von. Leftism Revisited. 1st ed. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1990. Print.

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