by Nina M. Riccio, M.A.’09
When the first protesters took to the streets and city squares, it was so sudden that most of us in the West were caught off-guard. But as Tunisia’s Ben Ali, then Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, fell in rapid succession from their entrenched dictatorships, Fairfield’s faculty pulled together a symposium – held just five days after Mubarak’s sudden resignation – that would shed some light on the issues rolling through the Middle East.
“Our goal was to inform students about what was happening, look at the spillover from one country to the next, and examine the implications for the rest of the Middle East,” said Dr. Marcie Patton, professor of politics in the College of Arts and Sciences, who spearheaded the conference, titled “Political Turmoil in the Middle East: The End of Authoritarian Regimes in the Arab World?”
Participating faculty members included Drs. Eunsook Jung (politics), Martin Nguyen (religious studies), Ali Yaycioglu (history), and Gisela Gil-Egui (communication). “We discussed the uprisings in light of history and geopolitics,” Dr. Patton continued. “Why are the people of this region so frustrated? What did their colonial experiences have to do with their situations today? What are the ramifications of the Iraq invasion, the Palestinian situation? All these issues create a context for these uprisings, and there’s an undercurrent of similar frustration among all Arab youth regardless of the country.”
While some in the audience brought up the oft-quoted theory that social networking fanned the flames of revolution, Dr. Gil-Egui was quick to caution against “easy causalities.”
Internet penetration for the region as a whole is about 25 percent, she noted, and while a few countries such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have a higher rate of Internet use, they are not the nations with the greatest unrest. “Yemen, for example, is far less ‘connected’, yet is still boiling,” she said.
“While it’s flattering for the West to think that technology developed in this part of the world has been a decisive factor in recent uprisings in the Middle East, many other forces must be considered when analyzing these events,” Dr. Gill-Egui said.
In the case of Egypt and Tunisia, “Broadcast TV distributed via satellite, not Twitter or Facebook, has played a more important role in ‘spreading the revolution’ in the region, and Al Jazeera dominates that broadcast news activity in the area,” she said. Al Jazeera is not perceived as serving an American bias, and its reporters can understand nuances that give them an edge over American reporters. “Not surprisingly, Al Jazeera was the only foreign news outlet that was completely shut down by the government during the early days of the turmoil in Egypt.”
Adding their voices to the panel were students with some first-hand experiences of life in the Middle East.
Recently back from a semester in Amman, Jordan, Julianne Whittaker ’11 admitted she could never have predicted the upheavals among Jordan’s neighbors, though it was clear that there was simmering discontent in every country she visited. While overseas, she was struck by the fact that all of the young people she spoke to laughed when she asked if they were going to vote in an upcoming election. “To a person, they all said their votes don’t matter, whether because of corruption or because the same people from the same tribes get elected over and over. They were sick and tired of the wasta culture,” a slang word for “the idea that who you know gets you your job, your position, everything.”
Iraqi student Ali Abdul-Majeed ’12 described his feelings of pride as he watched the revolutions from afar.
“It was a movement begun by the youth, and they were so persistent. I have great optimism for the future,” he said. Abdul-Majeed, a biology and math major, was also able to dispel some common misconceptions. “Most people [in the region] don’t want to be divided by religion. In Egypt, you saw Muslims and Christians marching and praying together. We dream of and demand the same things that everyone wants – democracy, freedom of speech – not a government run by religion. Most Americans don’t understand that.”
Preparing students to navigate the cultural differences and geopolitical realities of the world is one reason that the University has been engaged in a year-and-a-half long focus on global citizenship. The events in the Middle East this spring have been a fertile area of exploration with that focus in mind.
In March, students were treated to a weeklong visit by Carroll Bogert, deputy executive director of Human Rights Watch, who was on campus as a visiting Woodrow Wilson Fellow.
Bogert, a journalist and activist, visited a number of classes throughout the week and spoke to the greater community at an Open VISIONS Forum lecture about Human Rights Watch as an advocate for those who have no voice because of political oppression, violence, or their social standing. She stressed the U.S.’s leadership role in advocating for human rights.
Dr. Renée White, professor of sociology and coordinator of the University’s global citizenship focus this year, said her class was quite impressed with both Bogert’s message and her approachability. “She told students to open their minds to learning about the world and to finding out what they don’t know,” said White. “After listening to her talk, they really understood how and why the rest of the world perceives problems differently than Americans do.”
Because a global understanding is more important than ever, the University’s Study Abroad office has been trying to encourage more students like Whittaker to spend a semester in less traditional locations. While political realities have limited these programs (a possible program in Egypt was recently put on hold), “We definitely have more student interest in the Middle East,” said Christopher Johnson, director of International Programs, who listed several students who have gone to Jordan and Turkey. “The numbers are still small, but for those students who want to be challenged, the opportunities are there.”
Social Media and the Arab Spring
by Michael Serazio, assistant professor of communication
Riding in the back of a cab in Boston recently, I witnessed up close the giddy rush of cyber-utopianism that has accompanied this year’s “Arab Spring.”
Asked about the unfolding unrest in his homeland, our driver, a Syrian immigrant and, as it turned out, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad loyalist, kept one hand on the wheel and the other on his laptop in the passenger seat as he eagerly queued up Facebook paeans and YouTube odes he’d uploaded on behalf of the repressive, embattled leader.
Such effusiveness over the participatory potential of Web 2.0 calls for a note of caution – and not just in the case of cab drivers careening across late-night roads to exhibit their user-generated accomplishments.
Technologies do transform societies in ways as profound as they are nuanced; yet technologies are not, in and of themselves, a guarantor of democracy or autocracy, despite our aspirations and anxieties that often cast them as such. Social media in particular is, without question, ushering in dramatic changes to our world, yet its role in the political uprisings of the past year is, as yet, a more mixed bag than we new media enthusiasts might care to admit.
To cite but one example, even as Western pundits and media outlets breathlessly touted 2009’s “Twitter Revolution” taking place in Tehran, later analysis found that only .03% of Iranian population had Twitter accounts registered there. Moreover, the theocratic regime proved as cyber-savvy as its dissidents in utilizing the Web to identify and track down protestors in addition to disseminating propaganda and counterrevolutionary fervor.
Our Syrian cab driver-cum-digital activist is but one anecdotal example of how social networking need not be intrinsically aligned with democratic agitation.
If anything, a slightly older technology – transnational satellite television – probably deserves as much praise or blame (depending on your penchant for regional stability). The revolution has, by and large, still been televised – namely by Al Jazeera, which has been a thorn in the side of many a strongman since its inception and has helped foment the tide of upheaval in contrast to the servile state broadcasting systems of the Middle East.
None of this is to say that, when the history of the Arab Spring is definitively written, social media will not play a starring role. Web 2.0’s capacity for self-broadcasting and decentralized group organization is breathtaking. But history is only a foregone conclusion in retrospect; we would be unwise to assume, despite our best hopes, that the devices of digital disobedience are inherently and inevitably democratic.