Civil society and #NetFreedom: What the aid community may make of the Mideast uprisings

Many Egyptians used mobile phones to broadcast the demonstrations at Tahrir Square. Photo by: Dan / CC BY-NC

So far, 2011 has witnessed a region-wide awakening of civil society throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

It all seemed to start with Tunisia in December 2010, when a series of demonstrations led to the end of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 23 years in power. On the day following Ben Ali’s ousting, an editorial in the Washington Post asserted: “The ‘Jasmine Revolution,’ as Tunisians are calling it, should serve as a stark warning to Arab leaders - beginning with Egypt’s 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak - that their refusal to allow more economic and political opportunity is dangerous and untenable.” 

Since then, protests have taken place in Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Pakistan, Yemen and other countries. In January, the protests in Egypt reached a boiling point, and the world watched in amazement as what seemed one of the most stable regimes in the Middle East was deposed.

In Tunisia, the revolution took 28 days – in Egypt, 18.

Well, sort of… The truth is, both of these revolutions have been brewing for some time. In Tunisia, they were preceded by a spontaneous campaign against government repression in May 2010. Similarly, in Egypt, momentum started to build in June 2010, when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians collaborated and shared content online to protest the death of Khalid Said, allegedly at the hand of police. 

Details aside, the speed at which the status quo has been challenged (and in some cases changed) has been staggering – a fact which has led many to credit social media for the revolutions. Opinions on the matter vary (check out Evgeny Morozov’s thoughts and the Foreign Affairs overview of the debate). But in the end, the Internet (and social media) provided citizens with a way to connect with each other, organize events, and share information.

But the Internet is not responsible for the revolutions – people are. The Internet is, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, the public space of the 21st century.” Social media is the telephone/telegram/printing press of this generation.

Matthew Alexander, co-founder of Red Tierras, witnessed the power of the Internet first-hand over a decade ago - not in the Middle East, but on continent halfway around the world.

“When I was a human rights observer in Chiapas, Mexico, in 2000,” he said, “I remember witnessing the power of the Internet in protecting human rights. For the first time in centuries, oppressed indigenous communities were able to defend their rights by galvanizing support across the world. And now, with Egypt, we see how much that potential has grown over the last decade. From Chiapas to Cairo, the Internet has proven to be an invaluable ally for human rights.”

For over a decade, the potential of the Internet has been visible to development professionals working on the ground. More than 10 years ago, indigenous communities in Mexico empowered themselves. In 2011, citizens made their grievances heard all over the Middle East and North Africa. In Tunisia, the revolution started in the poor communities, and exploded when it reached wealthier communities that organized themselves with cell phones and Facebook. In Egypt, virtually the opposite occurred. And today, our eyes are on Libya.

What does this mean for civil society programs?

The short answer is: No one is entirely sure. It has been quite difficult to get official feedback on this question, since the situation is still fluid and no one is quite sure how things may develop in the next few months. Despite the hesitation of officials to speak on this just yet, I have been noticing a few signs that programs in the Middle East are proceeding with caution:

  • A number of development projects in the Gulf (through international organizations and nonprofits) are on hold, as new government officials take office.

  • Travel approvals for people working on development contracts have been slower than usual.

Unfortunately, the specific projects and names cannot be disclosed, since many of these decisions are still forthcoming – but I would be interested to know if others working in the region share this sense.

The events of the past few months have galvanized support for digital activism, and have, in some ways, legitimized the years of effort and money that international development donors and NGOs have spent on strengthening civil society – especially in the Middle East. Yet while professionals working in development aid may be happy to see that their work may have contributed to the role of the Internet in these revolutions, autocratic regimes around the world are likely having the opposite response.

Robert Lacey, author of “The Kingdom,” told the U.S. National Public Radio: It’s one of the big questions ahead for Saudi Arabia - how this authoritarian regime will live with the freedom and chaos that the Internet represents.”

And he is absolutely correct. How authoritarian regimes will live with the freedom and chaos of the Internet is a critical question – especially for those of us working to strengthen civil society in closed societies. In fact, I would argue that it is the most critical question.

The answer could shed light on the path different regimes will choose to take in relation to their people. Will they shut down communications to maintain the status quo, or will they adjust their ways to work with the changing landscape and demands of their people? Clues may be found in the way authoritarian regimes deal with civil society programs – will they continue, or be shut down and boxed out?

As governments throughout the region grapple with the rising voice of civil society, we are seeing some unprecedented attempts to engage citizens through these new communication tools. Katherine Maher, ICT program officer at the U.S. National Democratic Institute, is watching the use of the tools intently.

“Perhaps the most interesting trend that has emerged from the region - beyond, of course, the thrilling demands for freedom and debate - is the attempted application of technology tools as mediating devices, in both transitional and legacy governments,” she said. “In Egypt, the ‘We are All Khalid Said’ group attempted the use of Google Moderator to prioritize reform objectives. In Saudi, activists have launched a site for citizens to address complaints to ministries. In Sudan, the government announced plans to set up a pro-government Facebook group. And in Bahrain, officials have actively engaged in dialogue on Twitter on protest and reform. It remains to be seen how effective these tools might be, but its certainly unprecedented (to the best of my knowledge), and quite exciting to watch.” 

It seems that now, the question on the minds of many development professionals is not, will we feel the impact, but where, when and how.

Camille Eiss, policy director for the Truman National Security Project, notes: “How the United States acts to help realize the demands — and universal rights — of this new band of voices in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and throughout the region is just as consequential as current crisis management.”

I couldn’t agree more. While there is much uncertainty around the future of development programs and funding in the Middle East, the way the rest of the world, and especially the United States, responds will send a signal of our intent.

Charlie Wilson once said, of our involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s and ’90s: “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we @#$%ed up the end game.” 

Let’s make sure we get this one right.

About the author

  • Biopic

    Evagelia, Emily Tavoulareas

    Evagelia Emily Tavoulareas is a contributor to Devex and Ashoka’s Changemakers. She works at the intersection of digital media, international development and social entrepreneurship. Evagelia is a digital communications strategist with a focus on content creation, partnership-building, and community management in the online space.