Social Media: The Only Contributing Factor in the Arab Spring?

by Joseph Bock

The world is enamored with the political transformations taking place in Tunisia and Egypt. What has happened there is inspirational to all who are interested in the promotion of democracy through non-violence, though the struggles ahead are bound to be difficult.

There is fascination with the role played by social media in these two largely nonviolent struggles. We must recognize, however, that the role of social media is one of a number of factors operative in pro-democracy struggles. It is tempting to ascribe a dominant influence to new Information and Communications Technologies, but I am reminded of an example of synergistic factors presented by Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline. He points out how the first commercially viable plane, the DC-3, was introduced in 1935, thirty years after Orville and Wilber Wright proved that powered flight was possible. McDonnell-Douglas, the corporation that made the DC-3, pulled five technologies together. According to Senge, they were “the variable pitch propeller, retractable landing gear, a type of light weight molded body construction called ‘monocque,’ a radial air-cooled engine, and wing flaps. To succeed, the DC-3 needed all five; four were not enough” (1990, 6).

Beirut, Lebanon: Demonstrators climb the statue in Martyr’s Square and call for the end of the Al-Assad regime in a peaceful show of support for the Syrian people. Photo by Christopher McNaboe.

What are the factors that were combined in Tunisia and Egypt? Much more needs to be researched about how these remarkable processes unfolded, but here are some ingredients that appear to have been in play: careful cultivation of positive relations with the police and military, or members of the uniformed services (skillful uniformed relations); an understanding of and training in nonviolent strategy among a core group (strategic organizing); and, last but not least, the use of social media, involving text messages about events, digital mapping, visualization, and inductive reasoning in seeing patterns and anticipating problems, yielding an early warning capacity that facilitated early response to incipient, localized violence (communication and intervention).

Skillful Uniformed Relations

A critical aspect of the success of pro-democracy movements in both Tunisia and Egypt involved a disciplined approach to the police and military. Deliberate, strategic efforts were taken to prevent a demonization of protesters by the police or military. The strategy was to create an atmosphere in which those in the uniformed services were at once unable to legitimately shoot at the crowds while at the same time unable to demonize the crowds. Being treated kindly by protesters meant that the police and army could not stomach hitting their own people. In such circumstances, violence prevention techniques using early warning and early response are a critical component to preventing violent conflagrations. Organizers need to stay informed about incipient violence so they can extinguish it before it gets out of hand. Otherwise, the moral high ground maintained by the protestor, on the one hand, and the social psychology of restraint held by the uniformed services, on the other, evaporates.

Strategic Organizing

The European spring, involving Eastern Europe’s transition to democracy, used longstanding tenets of effective non-violent political transformation, incorporating strategies used by Mahatma Gandhi in British India; Abdul Ghaffar Khan (who created the world’s first non-violent army, inspired by a fusion of satyagraha and Islamic teachings) in the North West Frontier Province of what is now Pakistan; and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States. One pro-democracy initiative in Serbia is particularly noteworthy in that members of the youth movement which succeeded in overthrowing Slobodan Milosevic were involved in providing guidance to their counterparts in the Arab world, in an inspirational demonstration of global solidarity.

We know that in the case of Egypt a group of Egyptian expatriates living in Qatar formed the Academy of Change and worked alongside the Serbians and Tunisians in providing guidance and training to the Egyptian youth movement. Academy of Change translated documents on nonviolent change from English to Arabic.

Strategies for non-violent change demand a discipline not unlike that which underpins command and control mechanisms in the military. People need to be prepared to receive violence without giving it. They need to refrain from what is in some instances a natural human response to aggression of becoming aggressive. Some would say that a collective spiritual underpinning is required so that humans have the grace to do what is inhuman — namely, to be kind to those who have caused pain. And pain there will be, precisely because the strategy is not one of passivity (as some detractors of passivism mistakenly claim). Rather, it is one of tactful assertiveness, increasing tension, while strategically steering away from an outbreak of massive violence.

A market in Egypt, summer 2011. Photo by Brian Naves

Informed Intervention

There is no question that an advantage which young people involved in both the European spring and the Arab spring have had over the initial pioneers of non-violent political transformation is modern Information and Communications Technology. Cell phones have made communication in the heat of tension much more extensive and timely. Even more recently, the co-mingling of digital mapping and the aggregation of events data from text messages, micro-blogs, and other Internet-based services provides greater precision as to what is happening where. Ushahidi is one such platform for data aggregation that is being used. It was developed by a group of journalists in Kenya trying to keep track of violence following what was viewed by many as a corrupt election process in 2008.

There are, of course, many other factors that are impacting political transformation in the Arab world. Political transformation is messy. We must acknowledge the idiosyncratic influences of charismatic individuals, the courage of those with official authority who stepped out of their comfort zones, and the fortunate timing of these largely non-violent movements. At the same time, the combination of skillful uniformed relations, strategic organizing, and informed intervention offer us hope.

It is important to keep in mind that technology is useful but has its limitations. We need to understand what combinations of factors lead to successful non-violent political transformation. It took 30 years after the discovery of flight before flying became widespread. Gandhi, Ghaffar Khan, and King showed us how to use strategic non-violence in the 1900s (indeed, writers like Walter Wink argue that Jesus Christ taught us how some 2000 years ago), and numerous movements throughout the world — such as in Latin America — have had success. The use of social media is another factor adding to what we know already about how to succeed in strategic non-violence. In that sense, social media can help us make strategic non-violence more “commercially viable,” in the sense of its widespread, successful use.

Joe Bock directs the Master’s in Science for Global Health program at the Eck Institute for Global Health at the University of Notre Dame. He is the liaison to Catholic Relief Services for Notre Dame and an editorial adviser to Development in Practice, founded by Oxfam GB. He received his Ph.D. in International Relations from the School of International Service of American University and an MSW and BSW from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Dr. Bock has twelve years of humanitarian relief and development experience with Catholic Relief Services and the American Refugee Committee. He was a Fellow with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Executive Director of the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship at Haverford College and the Secure World Foundation, and a member of the Working Group on Reconciliation of Caritas Internationalis. He served six years in the Missouri House of Representatives, with various leadership positions. Dr. Bock has taught at four prestigious universities and published numerous works. He is currently completing a manuscript based on his consulting work with The Asia Foundation in Sri Lanka.

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