Man vs. Machine in the Middle East

by Rachel Sternfeld

On December 17, 2010 a 26-year-old Tunisian, Muhammad Bouazizi, self-immolated. Protests began in his home city within hours and spread to Tunisia’s other cities in days. In the weeks and months that followed, similarly dissatisfied individuals organized and participated in small demonstrations and massive uprising across the Middle East and North Africa. Demonstrations forced aging presidents from office in Tunisia and Egypt; protesters in both countries returned to the streets and won additional leadership changes.

As of April 1, demonstrations continued across the region, from the beginning of events in Syria to protracted protests and state responses in Bahrain and Yemen. Colonel Gadhafi’s forces were retreating from armed rebels in Libya, backed by an UN-sanctioned and NATO-enforced no-fly zone. Simultaneously, millions from Morocco to Iraq anticipated political and economic reforms promised by presidents and kings seeking to stem public challenges to their continued rule.

Why now? Explanations that point to the sparks of momentous historical events as their root causes often leave us unsatisfied, yet the richer significance we gain when we examine underlying social, political and economic conditions cannot explain the precise timing of events. Focusing on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the cause of World War I ignores the tensions that were building in Europe for more than a decade before. Similarly, spotlighting the desperate act of a young Tunisian overlooks decades of increasing inequality in the Middle East that, combined with pervasive corruption, resulted in widespread frustration.

For this reason, as well as individual political predispositions, journalists and commentators offer middle-range causes for the protests in the Middle East. We largely dismissed the overtly political and American-centric explanations: President Obama’s and former Secretary of State Rice’s speeches in Cairo; U.S. involvement in Iraq; Wikileaks’ release of U.S. diplomatic cables. On the other hand, technological developments – satellite television, the Internet, and smart phones; a.k.a. al-Jazeera, Facebook, and Twitter – permeate the debate.

There is no doubt that protest organizers in Egypt and beyond deployed social media and other new media technologies as part of their overall strategies, or that al-Jazeera’s near constant coverage brought information to the average Arab. Evidence from Egypt, however, suggests that new media technologies were not the principle cause of the protests. Prior to January 2011 Egyptian youth sought to organize protests using new media, but despite large online support, attendance at events was disappointingly low. Additionally, organizers made a point of keeping details of the routes for their January 25th protest offline to reduce the likelihood that the government would discover the plans. Moreover, some Egyptian youth leaders reportedly travelled to Serbia and received training in various methods of nonviolent protest from Otpor, a group important to the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic.

The rapid spread of events from Tunisia to other Arab countries is not unprecedented. The 1848 French Revolution sparked demonstrations in Berlin, Prague and other European cities only weeks after Parisians won political change from the barricades. Similarly, during the Civil Rights Movement, a wave of sit-ins spread across the southern United States just a week after four African-American students occupied the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro. The quick diffusion of events in 1848 preceded the invention of the radio; both these events, of course, predate satellite television, the Internet and smart phones.

Thus, while difficult to quantify, it is the bravery of the individuals – men and women, young and old, rich and poor – who risked arrest, injury and death to demand representation and respect from governments known for their corruption and brutality that we should prioritize when explaining these events. The actions of American politicians and the power of technology pale in comparison.

Rachel Sternfeld is a fourth year graduate student in the Government Department. Her work focuses on the role of media under authoritarian governments in the Arab world. Her previous work compared repression of journalists and bloggers in Egypt (M.A. in government from UT-Austin, 2009) and ex- plored the role of blogging in post-Saddam Iraq (MSc from SOAS at the University of London, 2006).