Online Activism in the Middle East

On Saturday the Libyan president (41 years in the presidential office and counting), Muammar al-Gaddafi, came out on Libyan TV to give one of his rambling speeches but this time it was worth listening to. He expressed what a lot of Arab leaders are probably feeling towards the revolution in Tunisia; fear. More importantly by speaking dismissively about Wikileaks, Facebook and Youtube, he gave them the credit they deserve.

Online activism in the Middle East is reminiscent of the printing press revolution in Europe. At the time European dictators were unable to get ahead of the spread of information but by the time these tools got to the Arab world, political leaders already knew how to keep a handle on things.

Now with technology, regular citizens are again ahead of the game. When I was growing up in Saudi, people were paranoid about being overheard complaining. Little kids had this ingrained in them and were told that “they” can hear you through the electricity outlets in the walls and that those nice neighbors next door are spies for “them”. People did not talk to each other and they did not complain because stories and rumors abound about some distant relative or acquaintance mysteriously and forever disappearing and about dark dungeons in palace basements.

Never before the internet could everyone and anyone who cares have gotten their hands on the piece that got Dr. Al-Abdulkareem imprisoned indefinitely and without trial. Nor could they have expressed their support in such huge numbers online that the government becomes powerless in quieting them.

What Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Youtube…etc do in the Middle East is that they confirm our hunch that our fellow citizens feel the same way. And this alone is a powerful realization, and now we’ve taken it a step further by connecting, forming online groups and contacts that occasionally develop into real meetings and groups on the ground. The division and isolation that was upheld and so valuable to Arab leaders has now become a thing of the past. And now Arab governments are struggling to get back in control but so far they only sink deeper. Like when Dr. Abdulkareem published his piece on his Facebook page, he was shortly later detained. If it weren’t for his detention, not many people would have read what he wrote. Only those politically involved would have sought it out, but after the widely shared news of his imprisonment, everyone wanted to know what it was that he wrote. It was Emailed, BBMed, and printed out and shared with those of us who aren’t online. So the government’s traditional approach actually caused the piece to become more widespread and for the offending writer to gain supporters in the thousands.

This is just the beginning, and we will soon outgrow the current online tools. Activist journalism is now catching on. People can no longer tolerate just being aware of what’s going on, they need to be able to do something about it. Right now the “happening” thing is petitions such as on Change.org and Avaaz.org. On Change.org, anyone can write up a petition about an issue they care about, and if it concerns an American politician there’s a drop down menu where you can click their name and automatically get it sent to their Email inbox. If it’s international, the writer has to find the Email address of the targeted politician for themselves. It’s a fantastic tool and it would be empowering if we could have a similar kind of website made by people of the Middle East and in Arabic. Even better, the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information could have taken up such a project instead of their flailing attempts at controlling the Saudi online community. To give citizens that kind of access and outlet where they can petition their issues online would help a lot in letting out the average citizen’s frustrations. It would be like a national council where every citizen is a member with a platform.

The only way anyone in this region is going to remain in power, is by adapting to this new internet age rather than sticking to the traditional methods of suppression; more transparency, more freedom of speech and above all more power to the people.

Recommended reading:

Tweeting Tyrants Out of Tunisia: Global Internet at Its Best

Reflecting On 2011 – The Year Online Organizers Got Real

23 Comments

Filed under Culture, Informative, Regional and International

23 responses to “Online Activism in the Middle East

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Online Activism in the Middle East | Saudiwoman's Weblog -- Topsy.com

  2. I agree that social networking is change and shaping Arab activities, but we still have a long way to go, people meed need to change before anything could change: what trigger the Tunisian revolution was an act of of dignity suicide, not a relegious one, by the way, any tweets about Saudi Arabia harboring a world criminal like the disposed Tunisian leader Ben Ali…

  3. Lots of tweets on that. There’s even a facebook page.😉

  4. Ahmed Fouad

    Very interesting topic. This is potentially an appealing rich area for more indepth research to clarify and measure the various effects it has on the decision makers and the whole community.

  5. Malik

    “People did not talk to each other and they did not complain because stories and rumors abound about some distant relative or acquaintance mysteriously and forever disappearing and about dark dungeons in palace basements.”

    You didn’t write for more than a month, Eman. We were a little woried that your outspokenness might have caused you to disappear in one of those “dark dungeons” 🙂🙂

    May Allah bring out goodness for the society you live through your writings.

  6. As usual, Eman, you are spot on with this issue. The hurdle I see is that petitions DO sometimes come back to haunt people here in Saudi. It wasn’t too long ago, you’ll recall, that a father brought his grown daughter up on disobedience charges after refusing to let her marry. His “proof” of her disobedience? Her signature on a petition. The basis of paranoia may have changed, but there is still (at least some) validity to it.

    Social media is truly changing the ME and Saudi especially – thanks in large part to folks like yourself who have found their voices. Keep up the good work you are doing, and take care.

    Lori

  7. Countrygirl

    Internet, Facebook, Twitter for sure are helping the middle east (Iran and its own activist to name one) but on the other hand and it helps also terrorists….sadly in some part of the world the mentality of some people is on the stone age era while the net is helping the majority…i remember that a couple of years ago in KSA a father murdered his own daughter because she used facebook!

    But thanks to the net people are more informed of is happening around the world

  8. well written. And glad you are back…I was wondering too. Not that I don’t trust your government but….

  9. Great post as usual😉

  10. Sameena

    Hello Eman, this is a funny video on Saudis that hopefully you will see the humor of… its not mean, just goodnatured fun… the guy who made this video is a muslim arab

  11. Nora

    Interesting piece enjoyed reading it. However not everyone in Saudi is lucky enough to have access to the internet. The more educated and privileged people with the availability of these tools have the chance to speak out. However the unfortunate one that maybe suffer the most how will they speak up? Some are not allowed internet or even a TV at home, either because its religiously prohibited or because of its financial burden. Just a thought that came to mind while reading. Thank you

  12. Pingback: Last Minute Upheaval | nowe peryferie

  13. Pingback: Saudi Arabia: Online Activism in the Middle East · Global Voices

  14. Noor

    After the revolutions, IF they come, there will be one, single democratic vote in the Arab world, voting the islamists in and never another for generations.

    Look at what happened in Iran. The same fate awaits the Arabs. Unless Muslims throw off the yoke of medieval religion there will be no freedom, no democracy, no equality — only tyrannical theocracy.

    • Bart

      Turkey and Indonesia are nations with a muslim majority and democracy works there just fine, why wouldn’t it work in Arab nations?

    • this argument is not valid at all and it these kinds of opinions that gives justification for western countries to support oppressive and authoritarian regimes in the middle east. how can you know what the majority will do if they are not allowed to participate in the decision making process? also if it is the will of the people to elect an Islamic government then why is it so wrong?

      theblackribbonsociety.net

    • Alicia

      First, if I have it right, Iran didn’t vote for an islamist government exactly. They wanted to get rid of the US imposed government of the Shah and Khomeni said he would be an advisor, not the ruler of Iran. Furthermore, from what I can read in english, Khomeni promised a government that would be for the benefit of Iranians not America and the British (the coup was originated after the prime minister planned to nationalize the oil fields, shutting out western companies-sound familiar?). The Taliban gained support in Afghanistan by bringing law and order, they loose support when they become the source of lawlessness. Hamas gains support by helping the people of Gaza. My point being that muslims appear to vote for those who they think will bring prosperity, justice and the like to their country just as westerners do. And they seem to suffer the same fate as we do: we constantly vote for change and get the same thing. So, is it fair to say that we would be better off under a dictator chosen by outside elements because our attempts at a good government keep failing? or that we should get rid of our religion (No president yet has been able to be elected without proving what a Christian he his.) I would say not. So, neither does it seem fair to say muslims shouldn’t try to get a better government, and they have to leave their religion under the bed when they vote, just because those attempts might fail.

      • Alicia

        I said Khomeni would be the advisor, I should have said the clerics would be in that role. From what I understand, the people of Iran thought they were getting a democratic, more or less secular, government with islamic clerics in the role of council.

      • i agree and disagree with you. i believe that every single nation have the right for self determination, no matter if they’re Muslim or not. we should stop classifying things in term of religion. all “muslim” nations should act in its own interest regardless of what other Muslim countries are doing. i don’t believe Somalia suffers in the same way that saudi arabia does. i agree with you in that the rules and the law should stem from what the people think is appropriate, but Islam or any other religion has nothing to do with the process of capturing the peoples will. and not because the majority of a society is of a certain religion means that all the “laws” should be reflection of that religion… in other words, it is the people who should make and enforce their choices religion not religion

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  16. Said

    Hello, regarding the happenings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere I would like to recommend to you and your readers an article about the mass uprising in Tunisia and the perspective of permanent revolution.

    It exists in english and
    and arabic.

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