Before the Arab Spring, discussing Arab media consisted nearly exclusively of describing the exceptional success of Al Jazeera. Since then, however, things have changed; the Qatari network and similar ones in the region no longer draw as much attention and the role they played through the live broadcast of events is at risk of falling into oblivion. The “new media,” on the other hand, have garnered enormous interest, whereas before there was hardly more than a small circle of specialists interested in them. For a long time, the region ranging from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean was considered by the majority of observers as a “digital desert” doomed to remain on the margins of the information revolution. With the only exception, perhaps, of the Islamic Internet (Bunt, 2003, among others), suspected of fostering the dissemination of dangerous ideas.
The Discovery of E-rabia…
Through the Arab Spring, a new image has replaced the former one. Throughout the first half of 2011, from the first demonstrations in Tunisia to the images of Libyan crowds celebrating their liberation on Tripoli’s Green Square in late August, global information actors, alternating with all sorts of discussions by experts who, in many cases, had just converted to a belief in the virtues of the digital world, built a new narrative, in which a premiere role was attributed to information and communication technologies: they had assisted the protesters in organising and gaining the upper hand against the forces of repression, and they had also allowed them to keep informed on the situation at hand while communicating with the rest of the world, which now sympathised with their struggle. Beyond the moment of insurrection, they had put an end to the omnipotence of the police forces by forging – relatively immune from censorship – the networks of a revolution that was thought to be impossible after years of political glaciation imposed by authoritarian regimes. “Facebook to plan the demonstrations, Twitter to co-ordinate them and YouTube to tell the world about it” – this remark by an Egyptian activist in praise of the social media was cited by Philip N. Howard, author of a noted work entitled The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy that had announced an Arab Spring whose sudden appearance nevertheless took the world by surprise.
In complete rupture with mainstream media discourse and its clichés, so often filled with Muslim crowds shouting in anger against the West, the protests of the Arab World have made a new continent emerge, E-rabia (Burris, 2011), with – echoing the romantic image revolving around the figure of Lawrence of Arabia – young rebel figures whose openness to globalised modernity has been attested to by all sorts of social and cultural practices: fans of syncopated music (in Tunisia, for instance, the phenomenon of El General, the “rapper of the revolution”), creators of ironic slogans graffitied in urban spaces, they could not but fraternise, through virtual social networks, with their European counterparts – the indignant youth – and even those in the US, determined to “Occupy Wall Street.” Following the arrival in power of actors who are not only akin to political Islam but also most often largely alien to the uprisings, spirits quickly came back down to earth. Politically naive, the discourse on the e-revolution also revealed an incorrigible “fascination with technology,” always capable of showing the same enthusiasm for the necessarily emancipating virtues of technological innovation (the transistor radio in the 1950s, then terrestrial hertz-wave TV followed by satellite TV, and now internet and social networks).
New technologies and their unpredictable social alchemy offered a ready-made, though not convincing, explanation of this absolutely disconcerting awakening of Arab populations
In essence, this “cyber-optimist” reading was conceived in the United States, which made the “free circulation of information” a primordial line of official diplomatic action, in particular under the impulse of Hillary Clinton. Just like Jared Cohen and Alex Ross, two young consultants who divide their time between the State Department and the major companies of the digital economy (Google, Facebook…), support NGOs whose mission it is to encourage political activism via internet, in particular in the Arab World, and encourage research centres on the political effects of internet, thanks to generous public funding, often in association with the military industry.
Inevitably, such a situation could not but orientate analyses. Or more precisely, “disorientate” them, in the sense that the dimension of digital practices as they appear in Arab societies has to a large extent escaped analysis, which have nearly always been based on quantitative approaches (from the linguistic point of view, for instance, a semantic analysis of Twitter activity, already less operative for Arab than for English, is totally inoperative for messages written in Arabzi, a hybrid language where Arab is written in Latin letters, which fails to be detected by conventional analysis methods). Alien to the cultural codes of “digitalisation” in the Arab World, those who considered social networks the powerhouse for change in the region often did not take into account the local practices that accompanied an activism that had actually been present on internet since the late 1990s and had become a decisive reality in political struggles, at least since 2008, with the call for a general strike launched in Egypt by the April 6 Youth Movement.
Just a few months before the advent of events in his country, an early hacktivist, the Tunisian Sami Ben Gharbia, had, however, discussed this discrepancy between theory and practice, between representation and reality. In a text that drew a lot of attention, he had not hesitated to condemn this “false promise” (Ben Gharbia, 2010) that internet activism could become for Arab activists. According to him, said activism, by gaining visibility in public space, was destined to become part of a political game more complex and more traditional at once, thus losing part of its authenticity and value in the eyes of the populations concerned. A good many other accounts by key players, in Egypt, for instance, followed the same lines and no-one, not even the most die-hard on-line activists, expected to see the Arab World break out in protests of such scope. Ultimately, new technologies and their unpredictable social alchemy offered a ready-made, though not convincing, explanation of this absolutely disconcerting awakening of Arab populations.
The Syrian Example: Truly “Social” Networks?…
Symbols of the success of the protest movements, Egypt and Tunisia nonetheless illustrate the limits of protest via social networking sites, once the thrill of the first victories is over. In these two countries – though we could expand the list to include Bahrain, characterised by a population with a high percentage of digital technology users –, the period of organised political action, once the uprising chapter closed, has revealed the fragility of virtual networks. Capable of producing the spark to ignite the revolt and propagate the flame of revolution, the social media have fizzled into the background now that ordinary politics have resumed. In Tunisia, for instance, none of the figures who had acquired an undeniable popularity on internet succeeded in winning the elections, and the few digital activists co-opted by the new political authorities, such as Slim Amamou, quickly resigned. But nowhere more than in Syria, particularly ravaged by the strife of an uprising that seems to be leading nowhere, can Arab activists feel betrayed by internet and its “false promises,” to use the expression employed by Sami Ben Gharbia in another context.
Above and beyond the risks of an alteration of concrete forms of involvement to the benefit of a sort of “clickism” where people would limit themselves to offering their support in the form of approving likes, the Syrian experience demonstrates to what extent virtual networks can turn into real death machines, destroying any possibility of political negotiation
This was not the case at first. On the contrary, the first protests in Damascus beginning in February 2011 were circulating via Facebook – which, by the way, has once again been authorised – as well as through the main social networking applications several weeks later. One could thus consider it a possible gesture of appeasement on behalf of the government, desirous of defusing tensions by opening a window to freedom of expression, locked up as we know for at least four decades now. The subsequent months reveal a more sombre reality, however, already emphasised earlier by such “cyber-pessimists” as Evgeny Morozov. If the Syrian authorities agreed to relax their censorship, it was in order to better track the networks of the uprising, even if they will never admit it. Having learned from the failure, namely in Egypt, of attempts to abruptly shut down internet, they managed to implement more sophisticated policies that show how repressive machines can not only accommodate the existence of an on-line space for expression, but likewise use it to their benefit, both to quash opposition and to make virtual attacks, carried out primarily by the volunteer brigades of the “Syrian Electronic Army.”
The Syrian conflict also quickly revealed the risks associated with manipulating information circulating on internet. Hence, during the first weeks of the conflict, world opinion was caught up by the stories told by a courageous blogger escaping the pursuit of the regime’s henchmen to deliver her testimony of the repression suffered by the pacific opposition. Unfortunately, it was discovered a short time later that the figure of Amina, the Gay Girl of Damascus, had been entirely concocted in Edinburgh by a US citizen… Beyond the personality of this mythomaniac, whose profile hinted at some quite shadowy areas, it is unfortunately the work of an entire community of citizen-journalists who were suddenly called into question. All the more so since the difficulties of media coverage of the conflict and its internationalisation also embroiled a number of institutional actors in the same trend. Even at Al-Jazeera, presented as a model of professional coverage of events in the region, protests multiplied and there were even resignations to denounce biased coverage, in particular through the use of documents taken as is, directly from social networks.
Since the beginning of the uprisings, the latter have, in fact, played a considerable role, which also raises a good many questions; regarding the very existence of these networks, to begin with, since their rise from a relatively little-developed internet scene at the time of the first protests is so manifestly tied to a wealth of foreign support. Justified by the severe repression exercised by the Syrian regime, this outside assistance likewise raises the question – as it has in other countries in the region – of foreign interference in a domain that has become strategic.
Being a place of confrontation – in the strict sense of the term, since digital flows also allow the detection of targets to be destroyed –, can social networks embody this public agora of the third millennium, this new virtual space in which exchanges strengthen democratic nature? Whatever the outcome of real-world confrontations, there is no denying that the painful Syrian experience challenges these readings. Above and beyond the often-cited risks of an alteration of concrete forms of involvement to the benefit of a sort of “clickism” where people would limit themselves to offering their support in the form of approving likes, the Syrian experience demonstrates to what extent virtual networks can turn into real death machines, destroying any possibility of political negotiation. In this context of civil war, it is easy to observe how the “domino effect” so dear to theoreticians of the political Web above all fuels the worst violence: black lists of presumed collaborators, which are equivalent to a death sentence; dubious videos that are nonetheless appalling enough to sow terror in people’s hearts… On Facebook, “communities” are formed, though on the basis of the most sectarian affiliations, to carry out debates that are not exchanges but rather anguished and hate-filled monologues.
The Real Digital Promise
After having lent too much credit to their liberating powers, social networks are frightening today for their power of destruction, even more so now that the threats of an “Islamist Winter” have replaced the promises of the Arab Spring. Debates between cyber-pessimists and cyber-optimists are thus far from over in this chaotic time characterising an undeniably difficult transition period. The former are evidently right to point out the limited role of internet once conventional political life resumes, dominated by those who impose a discipline based on vertical hierarchy. Yet one can also agree with the latter when they assert that the direct democracy experienced on a daily basis on virtual social networks is the best weapon against the return of authoritarianism; in sum, this is the real promise of the digital world.
1 The philosophical criticism developed by Jacques Ellul (Le bluff technologique. Paris: Hachette, 1988) was transferred to the domain of the media in particular by Dominique Wolton (L’autre mondialisation. Paris:Flammarion, 2004).
 Gonzalez-Quijano, Yves, Arabités numériques. Le printemps du Web arabe. Paris:Sindbad Actes Sud, 2012, in particular Chapter 4.
Ben Gharbia, Sami. “The Internet Freedom Fallacy and the Arab Digital Activism”, Nawaat.org, 27 September 2010, http://nawaat.org/portail/2010/09/17/the-internet-freedom-fallacy-and-the-arab-digital-activism/
Bunt, Gary R. Digital Islam: E-Jihad, Cyber Fatwas and Cyber Islamic Environment. London: Pluto Press, 2003
Burris, Greg. “Lawrence of E-rabia: Facebook and the New Arab Revolt”, Jadaliyya, 17 October 2011, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/2884/lawrence-of-e-rabia_facebook-and-the-new-arab-revo
Howard, Philip. N. The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam. Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2010
Morozov, Evgeny. The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. New York:Public Affairs, 2011