The Arab Spring

The Arab Spring has provided ample examples of how young generations use the Internet and other new ICTs to protest and conduct demonstrations. Often described as the “Arab Spring”, the “Arab awakening”, or the “Arab Intifada”, large-scale protests spread rapidly across the region.[1] As stated previously, new ICTs not the source or the cause of any social unrest. Demonstrations are triggered by frustrations arising from the lack of democracy, a feeling of injustice or inadequate access to food and sanitation. The path to democracy rarely goes directly from street protests to state office. The Arab Spring has its roots in the history of associational life in the region, where civil society groups, in particular in factories, mosques and universities, were the pre-requisite to the emergence of such large scale social movement that led to fundamental changes in many countries.[2]

Social protesters motivate each other through Internet, which provides them with a free window to the world. For instance, Egyptian, Algerian or Syrian protesters gained power and self-insurance by seeing social protests emerge in similar political and cultural contexts.

Across the Middle Eastern region, civil society has been quite active with a wide variety of organizations secular and religious, modern and traditional. In Jordan and Morocco for instance, youth women groups coexist with Islamic associations. Middle Eastern societies have a long tradition of civil society organizations, which coexist, cooperate, and compete among each other: Islamic organizations, secular NGOs, think-tanks, women’s groups, protest movements, labor union, bloggers and media outlet. [3]

Before a movement emerges, four elements must be present at certain threshold levels: resources, organization, opportunity, and grievances.[4] Mobile phones and Internet are new tools that could provide a surplus and offset the deficit of another element. For instance, mobile communication can allow to redistribute real-time scare resources, or share information in real-time about where the police is in order to continue the protest somewhere else.[5] In addition, ideas spread faster when individuals are socially linked.

New ICTs created windows of opportunities for young people to take part in the destiny of their country: by being computer and Internet savvy, the Net generation discovered its own way to make politics and build a new society. Traditional voting, where available was not satisfying for them. Thanks to new ICTs, Tunisian protesters accessed for the first time to effective means to put pressure on their governments and request changes.

“Tunisia seems the first of several revolutions that started on December 17, 2010 following the self-immolation by fire of Mohammed Bouazizi: he protested against the corruption he suffered from the police who stole fruits and vegetables to pay a bribe. Following his action, hundreds of young people demonstrated. The use of Internet helped this movement organize and gain momentum. The result was the flee of the Ben Ali family on January 14, 2011.”[6]

New ICTs enable individuals and their networks to stay more frequently and easily in contact. Although networks are old forms of social organization, they are now empowered by new ICTs, so that they combine at the same time flexible decentralization with focused decision-making processes.[7] Furthermore, mobile communications (call, SMS or web) are not tied up to a fixed location: communication is no longer from one place to another, but rather between people.[8]

Thanks to these new technologies, civil activists can easily take a snapshot with a mobile phone camera, record a short video, write a blog, send a tweet, or share comments on Facebook or Twitter. New ICTs enable them to propose new content to the general public and invite anyone who’s interested in the world to the heart of the conflict without any other interference or intermediary.

Internet and mobile-based communication campaigns enable causes to become more visible and create social ties between potential participants away from traditional and sometimes censored media channels. Contrary to before, when the government was controlling the press and showing only part of the information, social media and web 2.0 enable the production of new content by people directly.

“Yet, at the same time, it is essential to emphasize the critical role of communication in the formation and practice of social movements, now and in history. Because people can only challenge domination by connecting with each other, by sharing outrage, by feeling togetherness, and by constructing alternative projects for themselves and for society at large. Their connectivity depends on interactive networks of communication.”[9]

These civil society movements have some common characteristics: they are organized and function as a network and make intense use of new ICTs such as Internet based and mobile communications. They create multiple connections with peers, with other groups engaged for the same cause, with the media, and with society at large. To enable these unlimited local to global connections, civil activists need Internet.[10] These new forms of activism create a new global public domain:

An institutionalized arena of discourse, contestation, and action organized around the production of global public goods. It is constituted by interactions among non-state actors as well as states. It permits the direct expression and pursuit of a variety of human interests, not merely those mediated (filtered, interpreted, promoted) by states. It ‘exists’ in transnational non-territorial spatial formations, and is anchored in norms and expectations as well as institutional networks and circuits within, across, and beyond states.[11]

[1] Edwards, Michael (2014) Op Cit, p.31.

[2] Ibid, p.32.

[3] Ibid, p.31.

[4] Miard, Fabien, Op Cit, p.129.

[5] Castells, Manuel (2007) Communication, power and counter-power in the network society, International Journal of Communication, Vol.1, p.241.

[6] Ibid, p.232.

[7] Castells, Manuel (1998) End of Millennium, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Vol. III. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, p.154.

[8] Miard, Fabien, Op Cit, p.130.

[9] Castells, Manuel (2012) Op Cit, p.229.

[10] Ibid, p.240.

[11] Ruggie, John G. (2004) Op Cit, p.519.