Should we support internet activists in the Middle East?

 I spoke yesterday at the Open Society Institute about the political impact of new media in the Middle East.  Thanks to everyone who showed up, and the great questions and discussions which followed. In many ways it was a pessimistic talk, which pushed back against expectations that new media technologies like blogs, Facebook or Twitter ...

 I spoke yesterday at the Open Society Institute about the political impact of new media in the Middle East.  Thanks to everyone who showed up, and the great questions and discussions which followed. In many ways it was a pessimistic talk, which pushed back against expectations that new media technologies like blogs, Facebook or Twitter were going to radically change politics in the short or medium term.  Over the longer term, there is a more real transformative potential, especially for the individuals who use the technologies.  But analysts need to not be confused by the bright sparkling lights of fancy new technology or assume that it will have effects independently of the real lines of power and politics. 

Episodes like the failure of the April 6 Facebook strike in Egypt shouldn't really surprise anyone who takes even a cursory look at the structures of power and the limitations of political opposition in that country. But if that's the case, then what should outsiders -- whether the U.S. government, individuals or  NGOs -- really be doing to support such internet activism?  What are the ethics of encouraging risky activism in authoritarian countries where the costs of such actions can be extremely high -- particularly when those doing the encouraging have neither the ability nor the intention of protecting the activists from the consequences?  

Much of my talk would be familiar to regular readers, and I don't want to really repeat it here.  The very short version: politics come first, and that technology alone can have only a very limited impact in the face of authoritarian states.  Where internet activists have had a significant impact in Arab countries, it has usually been tied to distinct political opportunities – such as the Kwuaiti royal transition or elections --- or else led by people who were activists first and used technology as a tool.  New media did help activists in Egypt, Bahrain and elsewhere to punch well above their weight for a while... but eventually the regimes caught up and the real balance of power showed. 

 I spoke yesterday at the Open Society Institute about the political impact of new media in the Middle East.  Thanks to everyone who showed up, and the great questions and discussions which followed. In many ways it was a pessimistic talk, which pushed back against expectations that new media technologies like blogs, Facebook or Twitter were going to radically change politics in the short or medium term.  Over the longer term, there is a more real transformative potential, especially for the individuals who use the technologies.  But analysts need to not be confused by the bright sparkling lights of fancy new technology or assume that it will have effects independently of the real lines of power and politics. 

Episodes like the failure of the April 6 Facebook strike in Egypt shouldn’t really surprise anyone who takes even a cursory look at the structures of power and the limitations of political opposition in that country. But if that’s the case, then what should outsiders — whether the U.S. government, individuals or  NGOs — really be doing to support such internet activism?  What are the ethics of encouraging risky activism in authoritarian countries where the costs of such actions can be extremely high — particularly when those doing the encouraging have neither the ability nor the intention of protecting the activists from the consequences?  

Much of my talk would be familiar to regular readers, and I don’t want to really repeat it here.  The very short version: politics come first, and that technology alone can have only a very limited impact in the face of authoritarian states.  Where internet activists have had a significant impact in Arab countries, it has usually been tied to distinct political opportunities – such as the Kwuaiti royal transition or elections — or else led by people who were activists first and used technology as a tool.  New media did help activists in Egypt, Bahrain and elsewhere to punch well above their weight for a while… but eventually the regimes caught up and the real balance of power showed. 

 I argued that the real impact of political blogging is still likely to lie in the longer term impact on the indivduals themselves, as they develop new political competencies and expectations and relationships.  The impact of the new media technologies will likely be best measured in terms of the emergence of such new kinds of citizens and networks over the next decades, not in terms of institutional political changes over months or years.  The rise of young Muslim Brotherhood bloggers through the ranks of the organization may well change that organization over the years.  Veterans of the Kefaya movement may over time figure out how to create lasting, popular political movements (with or without using new media).   

 A word about Facebook, since it comes up often and gets lots of media attention.  From a political scientist’s perspective, the failure of the “Facebookiyin” to organize significant strikes on April 6 this year should have surprised no-one.  I have a hard time thinking of a communications technology more poorly suited for organizing high-risk political collective action than Facebook.  Joining a group is perhaps the lowest-cost political activity imaginable, involving none of the commitment and dedication necessary to go out to a protest – to say nothing of engaging in the hard work of organizing required for real political activity.  For all their faults, the bloggers of Kefaya were already committed and often experienced political activists ready to pay a certain degree of costs for their activities.  But people who joined Facebook groups? Not so much. Marginally raising the costs of participation, as authoritarian governments can easily do by selectively repressing a few members or beating up some protestors  Its public nature makes it easy for the authorities to identify leaders to repress, or for provocateurs or spies to join up and see what’s in the works.   And finally, Facebook – with its brief Twittery status updates and forum-ish discussion threads – offers less of the ‘public sphere’ potential of blogs.  

 At any rate… here’s the question which I posed several times last night:   should we in the West support these internet activists, if we are not prepared to protect them from the consequences of their actions?  This is an issue which has haunted me for years, as I’ve seen a succession of friends and acquaintances assaulted, arrested, harrassed, even tortured for their political activism.  Abd al-Monem Mahmoud, the Muslim Brotherhood blogger, arguably owes his arrest and ongoing legal problems at least in part to the prominence I gave him in an article I wrote for the Guardian (raising his profile in the West enough to make him worth going after by the regime’s guys).  He never complained – indeed, he told me that he knew the risks and appreciated the help and the publicity – and neither have any of the other dozens of such activists I’ve talked to over the years. 

  But that does not alleviate the ethical problem in my view. Neither the United States as a government nor civil society-based supporters of the activists have been able to do much to help them when they run afoul of the authorities.  And the more that they are encouraged to develop political strategies, the more likely they are to run into such problems.  We often have a habit of issuing bad checks to these people, egging them on and encouraging them to take risky actions but then failing to effectively protect them.  If the Facebook groups had actually managed to get people out into the streets earlier this month, what were their fans in the West prepared to do when the police started beating them up and getting them fired from their jobs or expelled from school?  Not much.  If citizen journalists expose corruption in a local government office, who is going to protect them when they are sued for libel or beaten up for their efforts… keeping in mind that they enjoy no legal protections whatsoever as ‘citizen journalists’. 

Take the recent article in World Policy Journal by my friend Mona Eltahawy.  Meant as a celebration of the new generation of internet-based activists, Tahawy’s article sketches a future scenario in which various bloggers emerge as political leaders of their country.  She sketches out a scenario, for instance, in which the Muslim Brotherhood blogger Ibrahim el-Houdaiby (also a friend of mine) returns from his job in Abu Dhabi to take a teaching position at the American University of Cairo and then emerges as the center of  a new political trend demanding effective political reform. In her story, he ends up as Prime Minister.  Thrilling… and, for Houdaybi, the equivalent of painting a bullseye on his forehead.  What could be more threatening to the current Egyptian political leadership than such a scenario, and what would be more likely to prompt them to single out Houdaybi for rough treatment?

 This is not to say that I think that we in the West should back away from promoting political reforms and democratization.  Far from it. Indeed, I’ve argued repeatedly that the United States should insist on the meaningful guarantee of human rights ‘bill of rights’ freedoms such as  freedoms of speech and association and opinion.  I favor human rights and political freedoms conditionality on aid packages to Egypt, Jordan, and any other country which receives U.S. support – and I would make the consequences high (increments of 10% perhaps) and the trigger low (the torture of an unknown blogger should count as much as the harassment of Ayman Nour), and keep the conditions completely unmuddied by unrelated issues (like the policing of the Gaza border).   But the point should be to create the kind of legal and political environments in which internet activists – and all citizens – can operate without fearing the worst consequences, rather than encouraging them to take such risks without any protection.

 But I throw this out for discussion.  What do we owe the activists who we encourage?  What is the best way of paying that debt? 

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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