Egyptian Revolution: The Spread of the Arab Spring

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was one of a cluster of dictators controlling the Arab world who rigged elections and tortured dissidents (BBC, 2011).  He enriched himself at his people’s expense, much like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Muammar Ghaddafi of Libya, and Bashar al-Assad of Syria.  Through north Africa and the Arab world, there was a shared hatred for these dictators.  As the Jasmine Revolution of Tunisia spread throughout Tunisia, the rest of the Arab world watched in awe.  By January 12, 2011, Ben Ali bowed to the protests and fled the country for Saudi Arabia.  Ben Ali controlled Tunisia with an iron fist for 24 years, but it took a mere 24 days to overthrow his regime (BBC, 2011).

Inspired by the Jasmine Revolution, the Egyptians caught the fire of revolution.  Six months before Mohamad Bouazizi set himself on fire, Khaled Saeed was brutally beaten and murdered by Egyptian police for exposing the Mubarak regime’s corruption online (BBC, 2011).  Saeed’s brother took a picture of his brother’s disfigured corpse, and his family posted the picture online for the world to see.

Facebook had 5 million users in Egypt and hence Saeed’s story spread quickly. Emboldened by the events in Tunisia, a mass protest was organized through Facebook one day in advance on January 24, 2011 (BBC, 2011).  Since only 20% of Egyptians had access to Internet, a unique strategy was developed encorporating Cairo’s taxi drivers (BBC, 2011).  Since cab drivers were known to carry news, they were targeted to spread the word of the planned protest.  In addition, courageous dissidents such as Asmaa Mahfouz plead the Egyptians to unite and protest.  Great efforts were taken to confuse the Egyptian police by giving mixed signals as to where the protest was going to be held.  On January 25, 2011, more than 40,000 Egyptians took to Tahrir Square to protest the Mubarak regime, previously unimaginable.

Inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, and Syria soon joined the Arab spring with new ambition towards achieving democracy(Alexander, 2011).

Works Cited

Alexander, H. (2011, February 1). Jordan: revolution fears in Algeria, Yemen and Syria. Retrieved May 4, 2012, from The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/jordan/8297297/Jordan-revolution-fears-in-Algeria-Yemen-and-Syria.html

BBC. (2011, September 6). How FaceBook Changed The World The Arab Spring. Retrieved May 2, 2011, from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnPR90dJ3Gk

Arab spring: an interactive timeline of Middle East protests

The Guardian website provides a very neat interactive timeline of the Arab Spring, beginning from Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation and the Jasmine Revolution.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2011/mar/22/middle-east-protest-interactive-timeline

BBC Documentary: How FaceBook Changed The World The Arab Spring [1/4]

The Beginning of the Arab Spring and the Role of Mobile Technology, Social Media, and WikiLeaks

On December 17, 2010, a 27 year old Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after his fruit cart was confiscated by local police for nonpayment of bribes.  Mohamed did not have the means to pay the bribes and as his pleas within the town hall to release his cart fell on deaf ears (BBC, 2011). Humiliated and hopeless, Mohamed stood in front of the town hall, doused himself with fuel, and lit himself alight (BBC, 2011). The physical fire instantly transformed into a metaphoric fire of rage that spread throughout the Arab world through video captured by mobile phones and social media. Protestors gathered in front of the town hall, demanding justice. Fed up by the corruption of the government, joblessness, and touched by Mohamed’s plight, Tunisians took to the street (Reuters, 2010).

The Tunisian media was tightly controlled by the authoritarian government through censorship, and the great social unrest went unreported. Meanwhile, social media sites such as Facebook displayed the events that unfolded in an increasingly unstable country (BBC, 2011).

As discussed in Peter Walker’s Guardian article, Amnesty International hails WikiLeaks and Guardian as Arab spring ‘catalysts’ (2011), WikiLeaks’ role in the Arab spring cannot be understated. WikiLeaks is an international, online, non-profit organization that publishes submissions of secret and classified media from anonymous news sources, news leaks, and whistleblowers (About).  In particular, WikiLeaks’ revelations about Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s corrupt regime helped spark the protests in Tunisia (Walker, 2011).

Amnesty International’s secretary general Salil Shetty stated, “The year 2010 may well be remembered as a watershed year when activists and journalists used new technology to speak truth to power and, in so doing, pushed for greater respect for human rights. It is also the year when repressive governments faced the real possibility that their days were numbered” (Walker, 2011).

A quarter of the population of Tunisia had broadband, and 90% of Tunisians had mobile phones (BBC, 2011).  Hence, the Tunisians had access to one of the most advanced internet infrastructures of the Arab world.  Ben Ali censored political web sites, but was not bothered by Facebook as he saw only its value as a source of entertainment (BBC, 2011).

Works Cited

About. (n.d.). Retrieved May 2, 2011, from WikiLeaks: http://www.wikileaks.ch/About.html

BBC. (2011, September 6). How FaceBook Changed The World The Arab Spring [1/4]. Retrieved May 2, 2011, from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnPR90dJ3Gk

Reuters, T. (2010, December 19). Witnesses report rioting in Tunisian town. Retrieved May 2, 2011, from Reuters Africa: http://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/idAFJOE6BI06U20101219

Walker, P. (2011, May 12). Amnesty International hails WikiLeaks and Guardian as Arab spring ‘catalysts’. Retrieved May 2, 2012, from The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/13/amnesty-international-wikileaks-arab-spring?

Professor Walid Phares at the Heritage Foundation: Green Movement, Orange Revolution, Cedar Revolution, and the Arab Spring

Walid Phares is an American scholar of Lebanese origins. He is a professor and commentator on global terrorism and Middle East affairs. In the video, Professor Walid discusses the connections between the Green Movement of Iran and its predecessors: the Orange Revolution of Ukraine and the Cedar Revolution of Lebanon.  In addition, the linkage between the Green Movement and the subsequent Arab Spring is clearly delineated.

Roots of Internet-organized Revolutions: The Cedar Revolution of Lebanon

The Cedar Revolution or Independence Intifada (shaking off), was the culmination of a series of events ending in the car bomb assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri along with 21 others on February 14, 2005.   The Lebanese had grown increasingly weary of the Syrians, since their military occupation of nearly 30 years.  Hariri’s assassination, widely seen as the work of the Syrians, was the boiling point for the Lebanese public.

Just a week after the attack, tens of thousands of Lebanese citizens gathered at the site of the bombing, to protest against Syrian control of their country. The protesters held the pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, and Syria itself, accountable for the murders; they began shouting anti-Syrian and anti-government slogans— an unknown occurrence in Lebanon previously.

Two hundred fifty thousand people came to the funeral at the Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut, the largest public space in the city. Opposition parties began organizing street mobilizations.  Marches took place near Hariri’s grave every night as well as open demonstrations and vigils around Beirut. The protestors wore red and white scarves, held placards with the image of the Lebanese cedar tree, and chanted slogans.  The Christians and Muslims of Lebanon were united in cause.

Despite Lebanon’s bloody political history, the Cedar Revolution chose a path of nonviolent civic engagement to achieve four main objectives: 1. resignation of the ruling Lebanese government 2. military withdrawal of the Syrians 3. resignation of the heads of the intelligence services, and 4. an international UN tribunal to investigate Hariri’s death.*

The protestors used cell phones, email, and public announcements to mobilize people to attend the demonstrations and vigils that took place at various locations around Beirut every day. This activity reached a climax in late February and early March as many businesses shut down to join the marches. The government banned the protests but they continued on, and the troops and police were unable or unwilling to enforce the bans.

According to Phil Seib in Reconnecting the World: How New Media Technologies May Help Change Middle East Politics:

Regional/international coverage—such as is provided by Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, among others—could provide information to Lebanese audiences with less concern about political repercussions that might deter some indigenous media organizations. By showing the size and energy of the protests, such coverage helped fuel the demonstrations and encouraged broader pressure for Syrian withdrawal.

Patterns of ICT Usage in Lebanon (2004)**, indicates that “Nearly 65 percent of all individuals surveyed indicated some level of use of computers…and over 79 percent of computer users in Lebanon use the Internet to some degree. At this rate, Lebanon ranks highly among developing countries and especially among its peers in the Middle East and North Africa region.”

On February 28, pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami resigned turning the tide towards democracy.  Days later on March 2, Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad announced the complete withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.  Hezbollah, the largest Shi’ite party in Lebanon and a supporter of the Assad regime, organized a demonstration on March 8, attracting half a million supporters.  Five days later, the opposition gathered an estimated 1.2 million Lebanese, more than a quarter of the country’s population, to Martyrs’ Square. They used the Internet, television, and SMS to create the mass mobilization.***

*https://tavaana.org/viewcasestudy.jsp?pageId=2071502000341264606266439&lang=en&restrictids=nu_repeatitemid&restrictvalues=2071502000341295633894832#_edn3

**http://www.pca.org.lb/docs/FINAL%20-%20Patterns%20of%20ICT%20Usage%20in%20Lebanon.pdf

***http://www.lokashakti.org/encyclopedia/movements/710-lebanons-cedar-revolution

Roots of Internet-organized Revolutions: The Orange Revolution of Ukraine

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Information Communications Technology (ICT) played a critical role in the Iranian Green Movement, by mobilizing protestors and facilitating communication with the rest of the world.  Thanks to websites such as Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter, people across the world bore witness to the murder of Neda as well as many other protestors.  This active role of ICT in a major uprising has its roots in the Ukraine and Lebanon.

The Orange Revolution of Ukraine in 2004 and The Cedar Revolution of Lebanon in 2005 are early examples of Internet-organized revolutions.  These revolutions were heavily driven by citizen journalism, which involves members of the public actively collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information through the internet and social media.  Such news was previously limited in scope and depth due to the presence of media filters- news was available through journalists from the foreign press who sometimes risked their lives for their daring coverage of civil unrest.

The Orange Revolution is strikingly similar to the Green Movement of Iran in its cause and its use of ICT.  Joshua Goldstein, a graduate research assistant at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, examines in The Role of Digital Networked Technologies in the Ukranian Orange Revolution (2007) how the Internet and SMS technology influenced the outcome of the political process in Ukraine, and in broader terms how these technologies can be utilized to achieve democracy.

In November 2004, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets in peaceful protest of massive presidential electoral fraud.  The incumbent authoritarian president Leonid Kuchma’s hand-picked successor Victor Yanukovych won against a widely supported Victor Yushchenko.  As Prime Minister in the 1990s, Yuschenko had a strong track record with the public.  He developed measures to keep down inflation and stimulate economic growth, while delivering various social services to public servants who neither had been paid nor received pensions.

The roots of the Orange Revolution lie in the murder of  Internet-based opposition journalist Georgiy Gongadze.  As a radio and television journalist, Gongadze had refused to participate in self censorship and lost his job several times.  In April 2000, to circumvent the government’s suppression of freedom of speech, Gongadze co-founded the Ukrainian Pravda (truth), the first popular online news web site in Ukraine.  Gongadze mysteriously disappeared in September 2000, and two months later his headless body was found in a shallow grave outside Kyiv.  Soon after the body was discovered, Socialist party leader Olexandr Moroz, while speaking on the floor of parliament, accused President Kuchma of orchestrating the murder.  The government’s reaction to the Gongadze incident was the first time that many Ukrainians had heard of the Internet.

According to Goldstein, “One of the most fascinating questions about the Orange Revolution is how the Internet became such an influential tool when such a small percentage of the Ukrainian population was online.”  In 2004, it is estimated that only between two to four percent of the Ukrainian population of 48 million had access to the Internet.

The Two-Step Flow Theory (1955), developed by sociologists Katz and Lazardsfield, portrays a “two step” information path.  The first step is the direct path between mass media and the general public, while the second path is among the elite opinion makers who strongly influence the opinions of the general public.  It was found that the citizens with access to online media were very well-connected, allowing an effective flow of information.  The Ukrainians online were more active in not only seeking, gathering, and disseminating information than their American counterparts, but also more influential in organizing locally based fund raisers and events.

It is important to note that the Ukrainian legal system at the time viewed the Internet as a peer-to-peer communication tool rather than a mass media platform.  While traditional journalists faced the threat of defamation charges, many online journalists were free from this threat.  The government had not reached a consensus on how to silence journalists on this new medium.  The status quo party was unsophisticated in their use of the Internet, mostly limited to paid supporters who disrupted message boards.  Lastly, the Ukrainian youth who greatly comprised the effective online network were generally too young to remember Soviet brutally against the Ukrainians.  This probably added to the effectiveness of the Internet as an influential instrument.

The Orange Revolution, named after the color of Yushchenko’s “Our Ukraine” campaign, resulted from the Internet as a means to inform, communicate, and organize,  in addition to a combination of other variables, in this case weighing on the side of democracy.

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