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Internet affects Middle East balance of power

posted 24 Feb 2011, 07:55 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 24 Feb 2011, 07:58 ]

The internet will figure prominently in the future of political activism in the Middle East experts say, after opposition activists and protesters in the Middle East utilised it to co-ordinate widespread anti-government demonstrations in recent weeks.

LONDON, UK, ENGLAND (FEBRUARY 21, 2011)  REUTERS - As protests spread across the Middle East, the number of Facebook pages, YouTube clips and Twitter feeds multiplied. But is the internet an agent of change or just a catalyst of anti-government feeling caused by decades of repression?

In recent weeks, uprisings in Tunisia and then Egypt stunned the world when they toppled their long-ruling regimes. A bloody uprising continues in Libya, and unrest continues in Bahrain and Yemen.

But people protested in the Middle East long before the advent of the internet. Waves of popular protests ran through the region in the 1940s and early 1950s. They mobilised similar numbers of people using different forms of communication.

And the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere in the region are also linked to deeper economic, political and social stresses - like large young populations, an increase in the level of education, changes in economic policy and unemployment.

But as Charlie Beckett, director of the London think tank Polis, points out, social media and the internet played a part in amplifying the activists' messages, accelerating the speed at which they spread and improving their organisation.

"Social media doesn't create revolutions. Poverty and anger and dictators create revolutions," said Charlie Beckett, Director of Polis.

"But in these cases we saw how social media acted in organising people, promoting the message and acting as a way of attacking those in authority. And as a way of communicating to the outside world that people here were angry and active and they wanted things to happen."

"So I think that social media has been remarkably effective in a very short space of time," he added.

Internally, the protest organisers throughout the Middle East used the internet to communicate before protests broke out, and exchange information and tactics. Apart from its ease of access, it is also hard for the state to control.

Once the uprisings had started, the organisers used the internet to share information and reassure would-be protesters that they would not be acting in isolation.

Beckett suggests that protesters in different countries also used the internet to learn how to carve out their own uprisings.

"People are learning from each other. People in Libya are looking at what happened in Egypt. People in Egypt said they looked at what people did in Tunisia with Facebook and email and all the rest. So they're learning lessons about campaigning, about activism and democracy, and the tools that they can use online. They're copying each other, they're adapting it and making it really effective for their particular cultures," said Beckett.

But is a Facebook group enough to bring people out onto the streets?

Dr. Anne Alexander specialises in new media and political change in the Middle East. She was in Tahrir Square during the last days of the protests in early February.

She points out that it's difficult to turn popular support on sites like Facebook and Twitter into actual physical protests. Some protest organisers in Egypt gathered tens of thousands of supporters on the internet, but only a small number would actually turn up at the protests.

And social networking sites are not the exclusive domain of protesters either. Some critics have pointed out that they make it easier for governments to keep tabs on their people's movements and dissenting opinions. Governments can also intervene in social networks, attempting to shape debates by getting people to post or tweet the pro-government line.

As seen in Egypt and Libya, the governments also have the power to shut the internet down.

But as Anne Alexander explains, this option comes with serious consequences to the country's reputation and economy.

"Most of these governments aren't in a position to cut themselves off into some kind of bubble where they can literally control all the media sources that people can see in that country," said Dr. Alexander.

"Because they also need to be connected to the global economy. Because if they cut off the internet then every Egyptian company can't use its website. People can't use the internet to do business," she added.

There are no guarantees that the overthrow of old regimes will lead to the creation of new, democratic ones. But the fact remains that the internet makes it harder for government to control the supply of information that their people are exposed to.

The days when people in the Middle East only had access to information that was filtered by government censors and shown on state TV are over.

And according to Charlie Beckett, the break-down of the government's monopoly of information will in itself empower their people.

"And I think we may be entering into a phase where social media is in a sense a democratising tool," said Beckett.

"Even if it doesn't bring total freedom, even if it doesn't bring total democracy, I think it does offer a channel for people to feed up to, if you like, their governments, to make them more aware. And clever governments will respond to that in a democratic way," he added.

The recent wave of uprisings have shown that social media and the internet have had an integral role in changing the relationship between the citizen and the state in the Middle East. We have seen that the accessibility and speed of the internet can galvanise large-scale public protests. But it remains to be seen if the same forces that helped bring down governments can be used to create new ones.