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samedi 26 janvier 2013

Internet and the Arab Spring


For those interested in the Arab world and the events that shook it during the last two years, it is important to read the excellent book mentioned in this column (*). Its author, Yves Gonzalez-Quijano, academic, researcher (he teaches contemporary Arabic literature at the University Lumière-Lyon II, in France) and translator, has examined the relationship more complex than we think, between The Arab Spring and the world of digital technologies. As we know, the idea that the internet was at the origin of the revolutions, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, is almost the indisputable truth. And, as the author notes, “being recited in all possible forms, the beautiful story of the Arab revolution of social networks finally take root in the minds to the point of forgetting all prudence”. It is obvious that the Arab uprisings would not evolve in the same way without the influence of the Internet, the blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and the mobile phones. But the whole point of this stimulating book is to take the distance with common ideas and examine the actual impact of digital technologies on the Arab world and its identity and evolution whether political, religious or society.

The digital roots of the Arab Spring

Yves Gonzalez-Quijano first noted that politics and the opposition to the authoritarian regimes appeared on the internet long before the Arab Spring. In fact, his book is, among other things, an implicit tribute to the pioneers of the Arab cyber-activism. Bloggers, journalists, activists, human rights, dissidents, they all defied censorship and authoritarianism in the image of the deceased Zouhair Yahyaoui who, under the pseudonym “Ettounsi” (The Tunisian) was one of the first despiser of Ben Ali's regime in the early 2000s. This period was important and transitional since it has seen the “e-emergence” of internet bloggers, young Islamists and traditional political activists.  

Concerning cyber-activism, the 2000s were marked by repression, but also a vain agitation and anonymity. The repression was conducted by the authorities whom censored and persecuted activists. And even if these ones had trouble passing from the web-activism to concrete action on the ground, it remains that boiling was real. As examples, the author cites the campaign Yezzi Fock (2005) and the emergence of the collective Nawaat in Tunisia. He cites also the Kefaya (Enough) and April 6th 2008 movements in Egypt as well as the emergence of influential bloggers in Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. As for anonymity, it was the fact that the West had little interest in these movements. Worse, it has long tended to see in the Arab web-activism a source of threats. In fact, Yves Gonzalez-Quijano recalls that “before the Arab Spring, the web was perceived as a disturbing territory of international terrorism”. At this prevention was added “the belief that the Arab Internet had a very long way to go before it can contribute to change”. The author points also the paradox residing in the fear of an extremist Islam that can tame the electronic flows to trigger the 'war of civilizations'." That, while this (exaggerated) fear often was accompanied by “a willingly contemptuous judgment on the ability of the Arab societies to take advantage” of the web technology.

The controversial reverse of a beautiful story

A chapter of the book examines how and why the Internet and social networks have contributed to the success of the Arab uprisings, especially in Tunisia and Egypt. This decisive contribution certainly reinforces the camp of the “cyber-optimists”, meaning those who basically think that the Internet can do everything including revolutions. The author recalls in this respect the triple liberating impact of new technologies: “speaking and mobilization”, “coordination and organization”, and finally, “documentation and promotion”. In the case of the Arab Spring, this can be summarized by the following triptych: “Facebook to plan events, Twitter to coordinate and YouTube to tell the world”. Incidentally, Yves Gonzalez-Quijano examines some unusual facts of this story: why dictatorial regimes have accepted - even encouraged -, the development of technologies and digital resources that may ultimately destabilize them? “Open or close”, that is there, the author recalls, the famous “dictator's dilemma” set in 1993 by researcher Christofer Kedzie. Another issues are addressed in the book, as why these regimes haven’t “cut-off” Internet in the early days of the protests (knowing that this is what is doing today the Assad’s regime in Syria)?

But one of the major interests of the book is the chapter that follows. It is devoted to “the dark side of the force”, that is to say the disturbing aspects of the beautiful story of the web and the Arab Spring. For Yves Gonzalez-Quijano analyzing the effects of the cyber-policy pursued by the United States and its allies to influence the Arab world is not necessarily giving credit to any conspiracy theory. Yes, he says, many Arab cyber-activists have received - and still have - the support of the West and the risk for them is to loose all credibility. The author notes that “the euphoria of the fall of two old presidents (Ben Ali and Mubarak) allowed to pass on some controversial aspects” of the Arab spring, starting with the aids granted by the US diplomacy, other Western governments “to say nothing of the work of NGOs and other major computer companies”.

Generous funding, training, linking with other cyber-activists close to the West (including the organization Otpor, which had contributed to the fall of Milosevic), ambiguous role of large web companies like Google or Twitter: these are all disturbing elements that question the credibility of many Arab cyber-activists. Protesters “ready to revolt with immense courage against injustice” as the Egyptian blogger Wael Ghonim, but, and this explains perhaps the interest of the United States for them, not necessarily ready to challenge the economic relations between their country and the West. And this is not to say that many of these Arab web-activists have not always been very careful about some of their external support. In the book, we can carefully read the passages devoted to Jared Cohen who made in the mid-2000s, at the age of 23, a trip to the Middle East before drawing a book highlighting “the revolutionary effects of digital development” in the region. After that, Cohen worked for Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton, before leaving the State Department to join Google. His personal involvement in the events of 2009 in Iran then after in the Arab revolts highlights a part of the US influence in these events. Influence, recalls Yves Gonzalez-Quijano, against which Arab bloggers had yet warned. Among them, the Tunisian Sami Ben Gharbia, one of the founders of the Nawaat collective. Sami Ben Gharbia was the author in September 2010 of a manifesto that had a huge impact on the Arab-web. For him, the U.S. support for Arab cyber-activism is both carrying false promises of freedom while being responsible for a negative change in this type of challenge and commitment through “excessive politicization” and “loss of credibility”.

In general, it is clear from reading the book that the Arab world is an excellent study- case for what is to judge whether the contribution of the Internet in political transformations are relevant or not. The problem, is that the optimistic vision tends to always take precedence while there is a school of thought, the “cyber-pessimism”, which warns against exaggerating the benefits of the Internet. Researchers such as Evgeny Morozov and Gladwell Malcomm are categorical: “to overthrow a corrupted regime, free access to information is not necessary or even important”. Clearly, “the revolution will not be tweeted” nor the “clicktivism" (clicking on the computer rather than go to action) will change things.

New identities and resurgence of the Arab Nahda

Yves Gonzalez-Quijano’book highlights other impacts of the Internet on the Arab world. Thus, the web is directly related to the emergence of an Islam “à la carte” and the individualization of religious practices. It is also a field of expansion for the Arabic language. As the author notes, it “has climbed to the French, in seventh place in terms of users on the Web, with the highest growth rates between 2000 and 2011 (2500%) ahead of all other languages”. Arabic has achieved “the highest increase among all the languages ​​on Twitter”, pointing eighth on the micro-blogging platform which has become the preferred social network of Arab Gulf and Middle East. Also, this language is evolving, being simplified in terms of grammar and even experiencing a strange mutation with the emergence of the “Arabizi” which is writing Arabic into Latin characters and figures.

Political protest, social activism, reinventing ancient forms of writing, the resurgence of poetry and literature, the rising of identity issues, social relations, questioning the regime’s authority: the Arab world is changing all thanks to digital technology. This creates, says the author, a “new Arab identity” that “somehow extend a process started from the second half of the nineteenth century” namely the Nahda (Renaissance revival or recovery). Blogs, forums, Facebook groups, tweets, all this would, according to Yves Gonzalez-Quijano, lead to the ihya’ and the iqtibâs, that is to say, the revival and borrowing, two major trends of the Nahda during the nineteenth century. The hypothesis is attractive, but it deserves more research. Is the Internet a factor of sustainable progress and emancipation in the Arab world? Is it contributing to the modernization of thought, including the religious one? These questions must be asked because the Web, in this region of the world, as elsewhere, is also synonymous with acculturation or alienation not to mention the fact that it continues to promote the development and dissemination of the most reactionary thoughts.

(*) Yves Gonzalez-Quijano, Arabités numériques. Le Printemps du web arabe, Sindbad - Actes Sud, Paris, 187 pages, 18 euros. You can also consult the reseach-book of the author (Culture et politiques arabes) at the following address:

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