Why social media made but couldn’t save the Arab Spring


Five years ago this week, massive protests toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, marking the height of the Arab Spring. Empowered by access to social media sites like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, protesters organized across the Middle East, starting in December 2010 in Tunisia, and gathered together to speak out against oppression, inspiring hope for a better, more democratic future, Jessi Hempel writes for Wired:

Activists were able to organize and mobilize in 2011 partly because authoritarian governments didn’t yet understand very much about how to use social media. They didn’t see the potential, says NYU professor of politics Joshua Tucker, a principle investigator at the Social Media and Political Participation Lab at New York University. “There are a lot of reasons the people in power were slow to pick up on this,” he adds. “One of the things about not have a free press is it is harder to learn what was going on in the world.”

These governments have also become adept at using those same channels to spread misinformation. “You can now create a narrative saying a democracy activist was a traitor and a pedophile,” says Anne Applebaum, an author who directs a program on radical political and economic change at the Legatum Institute in London [and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy]. “The possibility of creating an alternative narrative is one people didn’t consider, and it turns out people in authoritarian regimes are quite good at it.”

Tunisia, in the words of Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, is “widely regarded as the Arab Spring’s success story,” marked by the passage of a new constitution and a peaceful transfer of power through elections in 2014, and a Nobel Peace Prize awarded in 2015 to the civil-society groups that helped bring all of it about, The Atlantic notes:

But even there, Cook notes, the “transition hasn’t been smooth.” In the audio slideshow that follows, Cook gives a brief tour of the region and what happened to the Arab Spring, country by country, over the past five years.

Democracy remains a rare commodity in the Middle East as the promise of the Arab Spring has given way to authoritarian retrenchment, democratic breakdown, and civil war, notes Harvard Associate Professor Tarek Masoud [above]. Countries that once seemed promising terrain for democracy now feature clashes between citizens and governments, military domination, and the imprisonment of activists and journalists, he and his co-authors note in their new book, The Arab Spring: Pathways of Repression and Reform,

Other fledgling democracies or other societies hoping for democracy can learn lessons from the trajectory of the Arab Spring, or the successes and failures from Tunisia and from other countries, Masoud suggests:

I think there are two big lessons that we can learn from the Arab Spring about prospects for democracy in developing countries around the world.

The first is that the more revolutionary your revolution is, the less likely it is to lead to democracy. So, the more that you try to change, and the more that you try to exclude the old regime and the elites of the previous order from participating in politics, the more likely you are not to get to democracy, but some situation of conflict or maybe even civil war.

And one thing I think that we’ve known for a long time from studying democratization in Latin America and East Asia, and other parts of the world, it’s that democracy is more likely when all parties have a seat at the table. And I think that in the current Middle East, one of the things that we need to remember is that when we try to exclude old elites from participation in politics, when we try to say things like, “the old elite should not have any role in the new democratic order,” then all you’re doing is really setting up those old elites to try to play the spoiler and try to bring down democracy.

The second thing that I think the Arab Spring reinforces is the importance of the state.  You know, those of us who have studied the Arab world, we look at the Arab state as a bad thing, right? An entity that oppresses its citizens. Or we just take it for granted; we don’t think about it at all. And I think what we learn from what happened in Syria, what’s happened in Iraq, what’s happened in Yemen or in Libya, is just how important having a state is, if you want to get to democracy.

Because, after all, when there is no state, when there is no common power to keep everybody in line, then the result is – political philosophers have known for centuries – is chaos, is the kind of Hobbesian state of nature. And that is why we observe in Yemen, today, a civil war, or a civil war in Libya. So the importance of actually having a functioning state that can maintain order just can’t be exaggerated.

Read Masoud’s essay – Has the Door Closed on Arab Democracy? – in the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy.

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