This Spring Breeze Did Not Arise in the West
(JB Note: The below important article on the Arab Spring rings true to me; I am not a Middle East expert, but I recall that during my three-year diplomatic posting in Belgrade in the mid-90s, when anti-Milosevic demonstrations broke out, foreign journalists (and particularly American ones) tended to attribute these "we-can't-take-it anymore'' manifestations to the then-new communicative powers of the internet, specifically e-mail. Indeed, western media reporters chararacterized these expressions of popular dissatisfaction with the "Slobo" regime as the first "internet revolution." But anyone who stayed in Belgrade for more than a few days realized -- as many press luminaries parachuted there to "cover" the ground-breaking events there did not -- that Serbs took to the streets for far more basic reasons than having shared e-mails. Sure, young computer-savvy Serbs used the Internet to throw "electronic eggs" at the authorities, and the dissident radio station B-92 turned to the internet as a broadcasting tool when it was banned from the airwaves. But use of new media was only the tip of an iceberg of deep dissent: Serbs in the capital were angry with social, economic, political conditions that few foreign journalists, understood, including Serb antI-Americanism. And, as anyone who actually witnessed the demos could tell, the most meaningful communication among protesters took place not in the virtual world, but in the streets of Belgrade, in face-to-face discussions, at meetings and rallies. It was, above all, a human, rather than electronic, rebellion, at a time when, granted, the distiction between "human" and "electronic" was sharper than it is today.
PALO ALTO, California, U.S., Dec 23 (IPS) - So here I am, an Arab journalist in Silicon Valley, where four out of every four people I meet believe Facebook invented the Arab Spring. Three more weeks here and I may start to hallucinate that Mark Zuckerberg was a Cairo-slums native named Hassouna El-Fatatri, who rotted in a Mubarak prison for advocating personal privacy rights.
I understand that some Western institutions that feign Middle East expertise were brutally debunked when they miserably failed to predict the wave of changes in the region from early December of last year. Western intelligence, think-tanks, diplomats, TV pundits and certainly some journalists were at a loss for words.
To compensate for that, some Western connection had to be conjured up. The inaccurate role of different Western establishments in the Arab Spring, this time social media, was conjured up.
The smart marketing gimmick was so powerful that some 10 months later, Western circles now give little or no credit to the indigenous Arab social change mechanisms that have so far kept Arab revolutions raging for a year now.
The tools Arabs used were not mainly Google, Facebook or Twitter. They were simply their own I-Revolt apps.
One of the most potent native tools in organising mass protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen and, occasionally, in other Arab countries was not Facebook or Twitter but "Friday-book dot come rally now".
If that doesn't ring a bell, just Google "Friday of Rage," "Friday of Liberation" or the "Friday of Departure" among many other Fridays.
Friday noon prayers where hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people customarily gather every week, have been the most shared feature of the Arab Spring uprisings. The weekly congregations were in fact the main hub for bringing protesters out to the streets – not because of their spiritual value but because of their ability to gather people with no or little extra effort.
Facebook, Gmail, Twitter and the internet in general may have helped with some of the initial rallying calls in the 85 million people nation of Egypt for the Jan. 25 protest. But it was Friday Jan. 28 that saw the birth of the real revolution in Egypt and the subsequent domino effect in other countries.
Fridays were not a reason. They were just an I-revolt app – a good handy one.
A second ergonomic, user-friendly Arab-gadget was the good old A-4 white-paper flyer, handwritten or on rare occasions typed, designating places to assemble and protest. That one was a favourite for leaders of the labour movement in Mahala Al-Kobra, home of Egypt's important textiles industry, and for disgruntled maritime workers in the Suez Canal.
Threats of labour strikes were instrumental in bringing the military – which was fearful of a complete national shutdown - to eventually side with the people in Egypt.
Another tool I saw used to keep the fervour going was the simple word of mouth over landline telephones from mostly panicky family members reporting to their loved ones how unfit Mubarak's brutal ways had become.
You add to that mix the role played by the 24-hour pan-Arab TV news, especially from the Mubarak-bashing Aljazeera, BBC Arabic, Al-arabiya and even the U.S.-funded Al-Hurra, in spreading the word and you'll get a realistic sense of what a limited role social media outlets had on the ground.
In fact, the entire internet was made useless when Mubarak cracked down and cut off all communications - without that denting people's ability to plan and organise one bit.
The Facebook claims also do not explain why, for example, there is no sign of revolt or even political activism in the United Arab Emirates, which, according to the Dubai School of Government, in December 2010 had the highest Facebook penetration rate in the Arab region, with more than 45 percent of the population having Facebook accounts. On the eve of the revolution, Egypt had a rate of only five percent.
Now, in Syria and Yemen – which have much lower Internet penetration and exposure to Western influence - protests are raging like wildfire. And it is not Facebook that's gathering them. It's the local naturally automated software such as Friday congregations, word-of-mouth, flyers, telephone landlines, family relations and TV.
The videos on YouTube and the many pictures posted on other networking sites were, and still are, important indeed, but only for documenting what was happening and letting the outside world get the word. And did that help during the early days of the Arab Spring? Well, no.
Western capitals had originally slumbered through the Tunisian revolution until ousted president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was almost at the door. And when Western powers finally noticed, in a way thanks to social media, their initial knee-jerk reaction was to try to keep Stooge 0.1 Ben Ali and Stooge 0.2 Mubarak from crashing.
So for now, to get accurate analysis and, subsequently helpful policy recommendations towards the Arab Spring, Western institutions need to take a deep breath, read about courage in admitting failures, stop trying to take credit for something they didn't do, and look hard and deep into what really happened in the Arab region.
Maybe for a change they will be able to see things in the Middle East for what they really were. In that case, it was for sure their Friday-book, not Facebook.
*Emad Mekay is a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. He worked for The New York Times, Bloomberg News and Inter Press Service in the Middle East. He is the founder of America In Arabic News Agency. He covered most of the initial protests of the Arab Spring for The International Herald Tribune and for Inter Press Service.