Social media played a vital role in the the Arab world’s pro-democracy protests by creating activist networks and disseminating information. But the unrest is not driven by technology, but by real people’s grievances, demands and actions, a Washington meeting heard.
“Facebook and Twitter did not invent courage,” said Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian journalist and blogger:
I think we owe it to these incredibly courageous people. Look how many people are being slaughtered in Libya, to recognize that this courage has been there for decades,… Facebook allowed you to see it,…allowed them to connect. But at the end of the day, it’s their courage to go out on the street and topple those regimes that must be saluted.
Eltahawy was addressing a Capitol Hill meeting on democracy, dissent and digital media in the Arab world hosted by the National Endowment for Democracy and the Center for International Media Assistance.
Communications technologies are a valuable organizing tool, U.S. Congressman Adam Schiff told the meeting. But the same “vital platforms” can be used by authoritarian regime to identify activists and suppress dissent, he said.
“In Iran, authorities have used Facebook user accounts to shadow and capture members of the opposition,” he said. “These protests make it clear that digital media can be used to accelerate political and social change, but they also highlight the ability of authoritarian regimes to use the same tools to stifle it.”
The challenge for Egypt’s democratic forces and civil society is to channel the energy and commitment of the networked youth behind the Tahrir Square protests, converting virtual activism into political organization.
“A successful democratic transition will require a dynamic, independent and pluralistic civil society and one that includes and empowers the young catalysts for change,” said Amira Maaty, the NED’s program officer for the Middle East and North Africa.
“Given the level and quality of activism demonstrated during the protests in cities across Egypt, there is a lot to work with. It is essential that these youth ……..remain engaged in civic and political processes.”
There is growing concern that the Facebook fallacy may have seduced many of the new forces emerging from the upsurges in Tunisia and Egypt that virtual networking is a viable alternative to robust political organizations. While the democratic opposition in both countries remains disorganized and fragmented, their political rivals – the former ruling parties and organized Islamist groups – are forging ahead, forming political parties and preparing for elections.
View the event online here at the website of the NED, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.