Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Digital Activism, the U.S. Government, and the Arab World

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an op-ed by respected journalist Rami Khoury, entitled “When Arabs Tweet.”

In the piece, Khoury questioned the State Department’s role in promoting digital technologies in the region. Anyone who has ever spoken with me at length about this topic knows how I feel: that the U.S. government cannot be taken seriously in promoting digital tools for democracy until it stops supporting dictatorships and policies that undermine their work, such as export controls.

Khoury, in the following statement, echoes my feelings on the matter:

One cannot take seriously the United States or any other Western government that funds political activism by young Arabs while it simultaneously provides funds and guns that help cement the power of the very same Arab governments the young social and political activists target for change.

When the United States government upholds the tyrannical rule of the likes of Moubarak while simultaneously implementing programs in Cairo to help young activists on the ground, that, my friends, is what we call hypocrisy. When the government implements export controls on Syrians and Iranians that prevent their ability to tap into important communications tools whilst simultaneously sending young State Department employees to Damascus to promote the influx of American business, we know we should be questioning their motives. And when the United States government helps young Iranians undermine their government by urging Twitter to stay open at crucial moments but ignores the pervasive online censorship and myriad protests against it in secular ally Tunisia, you know we have a problem.

At the same time, Khoury’s statement that “all the new media and hundreds of thousands of young bloggers from Morocco to Iran have not triggered a single significant or lasting change in Arab or Iranian political culture” is patently false.

There are various examples to choose from: Iran’s Green Movement might not have sparked a Twitter revolution, but it’s an undeniable fact that Twitter, and the media that covered it, helped create awareness of the nascent movement amongst Americans. In Tunisia, offline protests against online censorship rely on the networks available because of social media. In Morocco, each blogger arrested has been released soon after, undoubtedly with the help of online activists, whose loud online protest most certainly sped up their release. Even the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement could not possibly have gained the ground it has globally without the power of new media.

In Egypt, where bloggers and activists can easily be arrested under emergency law, the beating of young businessman Khaled Said by police sparked an online protest that garnered support from around the Arab world and beyond, resulting in real change. As Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy stated in a recent Washington Post piece:

Thanks to social media’s increasing popularity and ability to connect activists with ordinary people, Egyptians are protesting police brutality in unprecedented numbers. On July 27, the two police officers connected to his death stood trial on charges of illegal arrest and excessive use of force. If convicted, they face three to 15 years’ imprisonment.

Of course, protest and civil disobedience were around long before the onset of ubiquitous social media. But what social media offers is the ability to more easily connect–not just with people in one’s own community, but with people outside of it as well. Though Egyptians deserve the credit for the tangible results that came from protesting Khaled Said’s death, the mobilization of fellow Arabs–and others–on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs spurred the media into reporting on it.

Another question remains: Do these activists truly benefit from U.S. government support? Again, the pundits are torn. Fellow blogger and activist Nasser Weddady believes that Arab activists are just fine without it:

My answer is very simple, these activists might actually NOT, I repeat, NOT NEED US government’s funds or support. They have done fine for themselves so far and grew their skills tremendously. most of them factor already in their game plans that there is no cavalry that will be forthcoming from DC to do a job they already figured how to do for themselves, thank you very much…

…As of now, it looks to me like Washington DC politicians need Middle East activists a heck lot more than Middle Eastern activists need them…

Sami Ben Gharbia, Global Voices Advocacy Director, echoed Weddady’s sentiments at the Global Voices Summit in Santiago, Chile earlier this year, stating that some U.S.-backed initiatives, such as those by Freedom House, actually do more to endanger the lives of local activists than they do to help. I’m inclined to agree; in some places, collaborating with the U.S. government, even on an initiative you believe in, is to wear a scarlet letter, often T for traitor.

I’m also inclined to agree with Weddady, at least in part. I attended the the session on funding in Beirut that he ran, and heard the same sentiment: “We’re doing our own thing, leave us alone.”

Native initiatives, meaning those launched by local activists or NGOs, are in most cases the ones most likely to gain local support and succeed, certainly. But, in many cases, such initiatives lack funding. So is there room for funding from foreign governments, particularly the U.S.?

For me, it all goes back to my first point; there is perhaps a place for U.S. funding to back democracy-related initiatives, but first the contradictions in policy must be lowered or eliminated. More efforts must be made to protect the safety of those who take part in U.S.-backed initiatives. And funding must be prioritized for native (or native-partnered) initiatives, rather than those implemented by outsiders.

But in the end, we need to accept that digital activism is real. It may not have effected long-term change just yet, but it has made short-term strides, and in any case, with Facebook celebrating its sixth birthday and Twitter barely a toddler, it’s all too soon to tell.

9 Comments

  1. I think Sami was right: governments ideally should stay out of it. On the other hand, traditionally, local philanthropists and non governmental foundations are always wary not to be seen to support movements that oppose the establishment, hence the difficulty faced maybe by activists to look for funding exclusively from “native” sources.

    I think, as far as the question of funding and personal security of activists is concerned, it is as much a problem of double standards from the part of the US government as it is a problem of mentality in the region. Whilst activists are doing a wonderful job in raising awareness about the ills of their countries, they don’t find enough support and protection from their own societies.

  2. this is quite the interesting post, i must admit that the Rami Khoury post was received very well within the Lebanese Blogosphere, which is very abundant, because we realise that the efforts we do are very local but they reach out and create changes even if in a few people’s lives. we take pride in our achievements and activism, and work really hard to maintain and grow.

    The reason U.S backed activism doesn’t work (besides that its hypocrisy) is that it is insensitive to the social atmosphere, no matter how much they try to merge it with the local needs of any Arab Country, it will wont be received as intended, especially from a foreigner, they also have the tendency to feel imposed, leading to unintended outcomes; people feel more comfortable merging with other people of the same background, atmosphere and share the same understanding of their social structure and development. That is why local activism is more than welcome in any country, because its by the people for the people just like true democracy.

    • Thanks for your comment Racha. I read a few posts from Lebanese bloggers and tweeters as well, and recognize their viewpoints; at the same time, Lebanon is not Egypt is not Morocco, if you know what I mean.

      Your second point is well taken, though I think that can be said for any outsider, not just the US. Outside imposition (as opposed to support) of a project will rarely be well received, and indeed tends to ignore the local environment.

  3. Digital activism is real indeed. As real as digital marketing, digital love and digital shoes. I’m not kidding. Digital shoes are special : Never before in history were we able to materialize shoes from an image on a screen.

    On the other hand, the fact that *everything* is becoming digital, questions the singularity of its digitalness. Is it really significant that Activism be Digital?

    People like Evgeny Morozov just tend to ask too much from digital activism. He says people engagement is low : when you have 20 000 people on a protest facebook page, you get at most 100 people on the streets. But then I would ask him, how would you do to get 100 people in the street before the Internet?

  4. Great post, Jillian. I completely agree with the fact that the double-standard when it comes to supporting peace and justice in the region doesn’t leave much room for trusting these US-backed (or Europe-backed, we could say too) initiatives. It seems, like Nasser says, it’s US that needs Arab activists and benefits from their energy.

    I’m also hopeful when it comes to the possibilities digital media has opened for activism, but overestimating the power of technology and communication to face brutal repressive regimes doesn’t seem very realistic either. Every now and then someone seems to come up with the idea that social media will change the world and will tackle oppression… normally people who don’t live within these repressive regimes and idealize the changes the Internet has brought.

  5. Some may find what US is doing hypocrisy, i believe they are pragmatic, they keep all channels open, with all parties, they don’t put all eggs in one basket, so i agree with conclusion here, they are Not reliable allies to anybody, they’re ready to change positions as soon as the power moves from one side to another… And when try to change the power themselves, it becomes tragedic change…

  6. That is why local activism is more than welcome in any country, because its by the people for the people just like true democracy.

  7. Thanks. Very good post.

    Regards,
    Jayesh

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