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Marc Lynch asks us to be realistic about digital activism in the Middle East

(Notes from a talk by my friend Marc Lynch, in dialog with Mohammed Bazzi from NYU’s journalism school at Open Society Institute, Tuesday night. Not only am I late to posting these notes, I had to duck out early. But I found Marc’s ideas fascinating and provocative, so wanted to post a quick write-up.)

Marc Lynch has a unique perspective on the Arab blogosphere. He’s a leading expert on Arab media, the author of an influential book on Arab satellite television, and will be the director of a new center of Middle East Studies at George Washington University beginning next year. But his understanding of Arab blogs comes from being an “Arab blogger”, a role he describes as “an honorary status”.

Marc’s influential blog, Abu Aardvark, was begun in the fall of 2002 and rapidly found itself incorporated within the Arabic blogosphere, added to aggregators like iToot. This made sense – Marc was linking to a large number of Arabic bloggers and participating in these discussions. And at that moment, the phenomenon of “bridgeblogging” was a dominant force in the conversations. Arab bloggers saw themselves as part of a global conversation, and often wrote in English so they’d be more widely read and understood. While these conversations were interesting, they weren’t especially influential in terms of local politics.

Marc began to take blogs more seriously as a space for political discourse when they became one of the key tools for political activists. The Kefaya movement in Egypt flocked to blogs, building aggregators and using digital media both as a space to plan offline actions and a tool for promoting and amplifying their views. In this second wave, Marc feels the interesting bloggers were activists first, and users of online tools second. “If the internet were cut off, they’d find another way to organize and act.”

The Kefaya activists, a coalition of diverse anti-Mubarak voices in Egypt, including students, leftists and sometimes moderate members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were able to use a wide range of digital tools to exert a disproportionate influence over Egyptian politics. “Kefaya punched way above their weight in 2004 and 2005” – they organized protests that gained international attention, were covered by Al Jazeera and managed to drive the Egyptian political agenda for a time. The party was over, Marc argues, when candidates supported by Kefaya failed in elections, suggesting that the movement didn’t have widespread political support and was getting disproportionate amounts of attention because they were simply better at using digital media than anyone else in Egyptian politics.

“One intepretation is that Kefaya really was punching above their weight and couldn’t get sustained political change because they weren’t a big enough movement. Another is that they managed to do things they had no earthly reason to be able to do. They were fighting against extremely high odds, no reasonable reason to believe they could have succeeded in changing” one of the world’s most repressive regimes.

Marc sees parallel movements in Bahrain and Kuwait during this same period, where blogospheres became highly politicized. But he’s unconvinced that the internet was the independent variable in these equations. “There were other changes, openings in the political culture” that made the activist use of the internet possible.

A third wave of political blogging, often focused on organizing protests via Facebook, is less impressive and more worrisome to Marc. He notes that recent “Facebook strikes” in Egypt weren’t actually led by Facebook activists – they were conventional labor-led protests, with a small, parallel online effort. Marc’s concern is that the people participating in Facebook protests may not fully undertand the risks they’re taking.

This concern extends to citizen journalists as well. “Some people are getting involved in doing what the local press should do but don’t,” focusing on urban issues, schools and plight of the poor. But Marc worries that they’re “trying to do this in political systems with no legal protections, and no way to avoid consequences – formal journalists have few protections, and independents are even more vulnerable.” As friends have gotten involved with citizen media in countries like Egypt, Marc has gotten increasingly scared for them, and seen several get into serious trouble.

“I’m worried about things that seem like a good game to a 23-year old, who think that their western connections will spare them the vengence of an authoritarian state.” He worries that it may be a bad idea to train citizen journalists when we haven’t taken steps to protect them through making changes in the the legal environment that surrounds them.

This doesn’t mean he believes that all bloggers are ineffective in the Middle East. He’s particularly optimistic about “public sphere bloggers”, a group who’ve written in Arabic, not about politics but about social issues. Their work, he tells us, is about the play of ideas and the shattering of taboos – it was aimed locally, not at a foreign audience, and didn’t attempt to directly engage politics or journalism. “These blogs are ways of engaging in a society that had no place for the authors.” Marc expects to see the impact of these blogs not on media or elections, but on the bloggers themselves – in the long run, this form of expression will change expectations about the societies the bloggers live in. That said, we might not see the impact for ten to fifteen years, and even when we do, their impact will be subtle. “This sort of change is not very sexy – you don’t see it in the streets, you don’t see revolutions or changes in government. We want to see immediate payoff – I don’t think we should. We’re talking about groups of 100-200 young people with very little social and political capital, confronting some of the most authoritarian regimes in the world.”

When we consider the role of new media in the Middle East, Marc argues that politics have to come first. “It’s easy to be overly impressed with impact of media technologies, used for their own sake.” We can lead ourselves astray if we don’t pay attention to underlying political structures, especially in authoritarian regimes like Egypt. The failure of Facebook activism in Egypt shouldn’t have been a surprise – it would have been a surprise if those protests succeeded.

Again, I missed most of the questions put to Marc – friends tell me that over an hour’s worth of discussion followed his talk. But the first couple focused on the role of organizations like OSI, which have been interested in finding ways to support activists in countries like Egypt. Marc recommends that we focus not on training users on particular tools and strategies. Instead, “we should pressure governments to respect basic human rights, freedom of speech, freedom not to be tortured. We should create a framework to enable all sorts of protest.” But we should be wary of starting either from a particular set of individuals we want to support, or from a technical perspective. And most of all, we need to be patient: “Mubarak is never going to get voted out, but we might be able to change the speech environment in the country.”

7 thoughts on “Marc Lynch asks us to be realistic about digital activism in the Middle East”

  1. Thanks for digesting a talk that I wish I could have attended. I’m perhaps a bit out of my depth here, but as a digital and social media trainer of civil society actors in Lebanon, I’m concerned that, as he is described as an expert on something few Westerners can claim to be, Mr. Lynch’s assertions will be repeated and amplified without much criticism, so I feel compelled to offer another point of view.

    One, I don’t think I know of any Arab activist or blogger or Facebook user that takes action thinking that his or her Western connections will give them the political influence they need to be sprung from detention or prison. Yes, they are aware that Western journalists can raise the profile of a detention or a blocking of a YouTube account, but as real political influence, I doubt it, and what is achieved is understood to be a one-off, not a change in practice or policy.

    Also, when self-censorship is a way of life; to break that pattern by going online, creating an account, and posting something in public is not something that happens by mistake. Is it possible Mr. Lynch underestimates the savvy of the union leaders and others to whom he refers. Can they possibly see it as a “good game”?

    Perhaps I misunderstand the premise, but more worrying to me is the idea that we shouldn’t focus on training in favor of pressuring governments to change their ways–ways that haven’t changed for decades. In 2009, how can we separate the tools from the pressuring? These regimes, repressive or not, do not live in the dark ages when it comes to technology and the Internet. Their advisors and telecom ministries will hire every Cisco and use every media at their disposal to control this resource, push their messages, entrench their rule.

    How can we favor setting aside the training of activists, civil society actors, union leaders, and ordinary citizens in how to use new media in favor of advocating for more open governments? Advocating with what means and by whom? Diplomatic talks, NGOs? Can he, or we, really expect people to wait until dictators die to begin experimenting and taking risks with the tools at hand?

    When asked, we should provide training, which includes addressing risks and following up on your work about blogging anonymously and the work of Tor and wikileaks, and others, and then we should probably get out of the way, and as Mr. Lynch suggests, wait patiently.

    We also must remember that these tools aren’t only being used to advocate for free speech and political gains. They are being used to talk about the environment, to dispel myths about people infected with HIV/AIDS, to promote peace. They are providing a place where people can talk about issues that don’t get covered in the traditional state- or party-owned media. It’s again Western myopia that forgets sometimes that, like everywhere, there are other issues to deal with in the Arab world. And these tools are useful for them as well.

    Let’s go back to cute cats. The more people using the tools, the more open the environment for speech might become, and the more unpopular government intervention will be. It’ll still take years, decades. No, it’s not sexy or immediate. But to advocate that the tools are for the people who know how to use them, and then say not to focus on training, troubles me.

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