Social media played a decisive role in the 2011 revolutions, allowing people to circumvent censorship and setting new forms of mobilization in motion. But the regimes quickly learned how to crush dissent by using the same weapons that had made it possible
Last update: 2022-04-22 10:04:55
The social media played an instrumental role in the 2011 revolutions, by circumventing censure and implementing new forms of mobilization. Very soon, however, it became evident that by themselves these tools are incapable of bringing about political change. Furthermore, the regimes the demonstrators revolted against learned to repress dissent using the very same weapons which were used to enable it. While resistance to despotism is not dead, it needs to reinvent itself.
When the Arab Spring uprisings erupted in 2011, they triggered a wave of hopes for a speedy and smooth transition to democratization and reform. These were coupled with, and inspired by, an equally unprecedented wave of techno-euphoria and high confidence in the strong potentials of social media as promoters of political change. Ten years after these uprisings began in Tunisia, igniting fiery protests in five other Arab countries, many of these hopes and dreams have dimmed. The outcomes in the so-called post-Arab Spring countries, with the unique exception of Tunisia, have been far from ideal, with an outbreak of civil war and a massive humanitarian crisis in Syria; statelessness and chaos in Libya; war and violence in Yemen; a forgotten and crushed uprising in Bahrain; and a return to military dictatorship in Egypt.
These reversals on the road to political reform and democratization have been accompanied and enabled by a surge in counter-revolutionary strategies on the part of repressive regimes, including “digital authoritarianism,” namely relentless efforts to crush dissent using the very same weapons which were used to enable it.
These developments compel us to revisit the potentials, and limitations, of the phenomenon of cyberactivism, or the reliance on social media to enact change. They also urge us to engage not only in an evaluation of their current dynamics, but also in a prediction of their future directions, in the midst of the ongoing digital tug of war between regimes and their opponents in this volatile region.
The Golden Moment of Cyberactivism
The moment of techno-euphoria at the inception of these new waves of sweeping revolt was reflected in definitions such as “Egypt’s Facebook Revolution,” “Tunisia’s Twitter Uprising” and “Syria’s YouTube Uprising,” which highlighted the significance of social media’s role as a key factor behind the protests’ initial success.
Social media helped pave the way for the process of democratic transition. They also acted as catalysts to speed up and amplify the calls for reform; platforms for self-expression; channels for communication, networking and organization; and bridge-builders between the young activists and their followers, at home and in the diaspora, as well as between the virtual world and the real world. These roles could be classified under three main categories, namely: paving the way for revolt; documenting the uprisings and government abuse; and mobilizing and coordinating anti-regime actions.
The first function—paving the way for revolt—was mainly performed by citizen journalists, like the bloggers in Egypt and Tunisia who broke the taboo on covering sensitive issues such as human rights violations and regimes’ corruption. The result was a spillover into the realm of mainstream media, compelling them to break their silence around these issues, and helping to create the environment needed for public resistance and protest.
The documentation function was demonstrated by the worldwide coverage of many of the iconic images of the Arab Spring movements, which were either directly captured and uploaded online by young activists, or picked up by satellite television channels which broadcast them to a wider audience. Had it not been for this work, the world would have been oblivious to the atrocities committed in a country like Syria at the hands of a ruling regime which denied access to foreign journalists and regional and international media outlets.
The mobilization function was evident in how Facebook was effectively utilized as a tool for networking and coordination. An example is the case of the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said,” which was instrumental in raising awareness about violations of human rights and police brutality and, therefore, one of the major catalysts behind the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Twitter also emerged as an excellent tool for on-the-ground organization and minute-by-minute coordination.
By performing all of these roles, for the first time cyberactivism helped to build a bridge between the virtual world and the real world. It transformed these safe spaces where citizens could vent their anger, frustration and resentment while avoiding a full-blown explosion of public protest against the regimes, into mobilization tools, deployed to aid revolt on a massive scale.
The Limitations of Cyberactivism
Despite the potentials of cyberactivism which clearly manifested themselves during the Arab Spring uprisings, its limits became evident when it came to the successful completion of democratic transition.
One of these limitations is that the effectiveness of the social media role depends largely on the surrounding political environment and its greater or lesser degree of unity and solidarity. In moments of broadly shared common goals, such as during the Egyptian revolution of 2011, when Egyptians across the board chanted the same slogans (“The people want to overthrow the regime” and “Mubarak must go”), social media can be very successful in cementing this unity and amplifying the voices of protest, by acting as catalysts, mobilizers and networking tools.
However, once this solidarity is replaced by deep divisions, severe polarization and dangerous fragmentation, as witnessed in many post-Arab Spring countries, including Egypt after the military takeover in June 2013, social media tend to widen the gap between the different groups and increase tensions and divisions. Every group uses its social media venues both as offensive weapons against its opponents and for self-defence. This intensifies the process of polarization, both online and offline, fostering virtual bubbles, echo chambers and shouting matches, instead of enlightened dialogues, effective alliances and constructive coalition-building.
It was also proven that social media cannot boost civic engagement on their own, and they are not sufficient to fill the power vacuum in a society in the moments of transition following a revolution. Many of the countries which witnessed the Arab Spring uprisings suffered from the absence of an active, well-entrenched civil society, organized opposition movements, structured grassroots institutions and effective resistance mechanisms. The absence of a vibrant civil society, coupled with a semi-structured, loose, rather than centralized, organized and experienced leadership, led to a power vacuum which contributed to the democratic setbacks and current grievances now being seen in many post-Arab Spring countries.
One important impediment to filling this power vacuum has been the “digital divide,” referring to the gap between the technological haves and have-nots, which is especially significant in a region (with the unique exception of the Gulf area) with low rates of alphabetical literacy let alone digital literacy, socio-economic challenges and poor infrastructure. This meant that the phenomenon of cyberactivism, which was mostly initiated by young, upper-middle class, educated and technologically savvy activists, failed to reach wider and more diverse segments of the population.
While social media paved the way for political transition in the region by providing an overall environment which was more welcoming and conducive to change, it did not succeed in overcoming the deficiencies which instead barred the way to a peaceful transformation to democracy. After all, social media are not magical tools, and they cannot bring about reform and democratization all by themselves. Nor can they compensate for the absence of a truly vibrant civil society or provide radical and sustainable solutions to corruption, injustice, polarization and a well-entrenched deep state.
From the Kill Switch to Electronic Armies
While in the midst of the Arab Spring uprisings many activists, opponents and journalists resorted to online platforms to express their views outside the realm of state control and governmental intervention, it is true that many of these regimes have since learned to respond to this challenge, inventing new measures to crack down on their opponents, not just on the ground, but also online.
A quick comparison between the past and present reveals that authoritarian regimes in the Arab region have come a long way in the relatively novel realm of digital authoritarianism. When the Arab Spring uprisings erupted in 2011, many of these regimes were many steps behind the young, technologically savvy and well-coordinated cyberactivists. The governments were taken by surprise, and many of them panicked and initiated counterproductive actions, such as shutting down the Internet for a whole week, as in the case of Egypt, an action commonly referred to as “pulling down the kill switch.” This strategy backfired, as many Egyptians flooded the streets in ever larger numbers to provide solidarity and support to each other. At the same time they discovered new ways to communicate and get their message out to the rest of the world, such as the “Speak to Tweet” service, which enabled them to verbally communicate their message to Twitter over the phone, without the need for Internet connectivity.
Seeing what had happened in Egypt, the Syrian regime learned its lessons, and decided to shut down the Internet only on Thursday evenings and Fridays, when people were most likely to assemble and protest, to avoid not only the backlash which took place in Egypt, but also the huge economic losses which came with disabling the Internet and cell phone services for a whole week. Most importantly, the Syrian regime created the “Syrian Electronic Army,” a professional army of hackers whose mission was to target opponents’ websites, sabotage their accounts, and halt their online initiatives and activities.
When in summer 2013 a counterrevolution erupted in Egypt against Muhammad Morsi, the first democratically elected president in Egypt’s history, those who participated in the Tamarrud (Rebellion) movement also deployed social media tools to propagate their message and to rally support for their cause. Hence, our attention was drawn to the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary potentials of social media: after all, they are simply “tools” in the hands of different players.
A closer look at the digital learning curves of Arab regimes today provides clearer evidence as to how they are sharpening their tools to crack down on dissent. The regimes have mastered new tools and techniques, for example deploying “electronic armies” to engage in online counterattacks, through hacking, trolling, sabotaging and blocking accounts. This raises new questions about the effectiveness of dissent and the implications of this technology on political freedoms and freedom of information in Arab countries.
Arab Resistance Reinvents Itself
At the same time, recent developments in both the political and communication landscapes in the Arab region provide clear evidence that while resistance to dictatorship may have been impeded, muted or paused in a number of Arab countries, it certainly is not dead.
The flames of the Arab Spring uprisings, which have dimmed in most of the first wave Arab Spring countries, have been lit in other countries, through a second wave of protests. The protests which broke out in Algeria, Sudan and Lebanon in 2019 had a few similarities, despite the differences in contexts, agendas and motives. They were mostly characterized by persistent, frequent and organized protests, aimed at putting pressure on the regimes to listen to the people’s demands and respond to their calls for change and reform. At the same time they combined online activism with greater and more extended on-the-ground mobilization and organization, in a clear signal they had learned the lesson that it was not enough to rely on cyberactivism alone to achieve political goals.
The more limited protests which erupted in Egypt in September 2019 and, again, in September 2020, triggered mostly by economic grievances and worsening living conditions, signalled not only a shift to prioritizing on-the-ground protest, but also a shift in the location of protests to mostly rural areas and impoverished neighbourhoods, in contrast to the largely urban-centred protests of 2011.
Moreover, heightened levels of repression in post-Arab Spring countries triggered an increase in the phenomenon of journalists, activists and opponents fleeing their home countries and living in exile, out of fear for their own safety and that of their families. This new phenomenon of Arab opposition in exile, which has been on the rise in recent years, also opened new doors for resisting Arab authoritarian regimes. Unsurprisingly, one of the primary tools deployed by members of the Arab opposition in exile has been cyberactivism. By taking advantage of the borderless nature of cyberspace, which enables them to create effective bridges of communication with both their home countries and the global community, they have thus amplified their voices and widened their outreach.
Therefore, it is the very role of citizen journalists and their activism that has to be revisited. This is especially true in the case of the activists in the diaspora, who played an important role in instigating the Arab Spring movements in their own countries by raising awareness about key issues, as well as boosting mobilization, expanding networking, and securing material and moral support. A good example is the active role of the Syrian opposition in the diaspora, which as already said effectively utilizes social media to raise awareness about the atrocities and tragedies of the political and humanitarian crisis in Syria, while also raising funds to support Syrian refugees everywhere. But the phenomenon is on the rise everywhere, with the continuous exchange of useful knowledge and helpful advice among the opponents of various dictatorial Arab regimes in the diaspora via cyberspace.
A generalized increase is being seen in the activism and visibility of individual opposition figures in the diaspora. An example is the Egyptian whistle-blower Mohamed Ali who gained wide popularity on social media platforms after exposing sensitive information documenting corruption at the highest level of government in Egypt, through his Asrār Mohamed ‘Alī (Mohamed Ali’s Secrets) page, which has been hacked and sabotaged several times. Similarly, the young Saudi activist and outspoken dissident Omar Abdul Aziz also gained significant prominence on social media through his tweets and vlogs, subjecting him not just to attacks on his social media accounts, which have also been hacked and blocked several times, but also threats to his personal safety and that of his family back home.
These examples provide evidence that the tide of cyberactivism, with all its strengths and weaknesses, potentials and limitations, cannot just be confined to the Arab Spring moment of 2011. Indeed, it continues to grow, expand and reinvent itself in a region where more than 70 per cent of the population are under the age of 30. This vibrant, energetic, change-oriented and technologically savvy population will most likely continue to rely on the newest modes of communication to pursue their relentless struggles for liberation, self-expression and self-determination, albeit at different paces and with different tools.
Challenges, Paradoxes and Trajectories of the Ongoing Cyberwars
In the tug of war between authoritarian regimes and the people who opt to expose their wrongdoings—whether they are activists, opponents, citizen journalists or professional journalists—the authoritarian approach in dealing with opposition is escalating, and could sadly be described as the new normal in this region.
In evaluating these dynamics, an in-depth investigation into the newly emerging trends and changes is needed to answer a number of pressing questions: How effective are the tools and techniques deployed by the regimes to silence their opponents online, such as trolling, hacking, blocking and sabotaging? What are the most significant tools and techniques deployed by the opponents of these regimes online, both at home and in the diaspora, to defy their regimes? How effective are these techniques? What are the similarities and differences between the various Arab governments, and between their opponents, in the realm of the “cyberwars”? To answer these questions, myriad factors need to be explored, ranging from the actors’ levels of technological savviness to the outreach of the mediated messages, while overlapping areas of research inquiry, including interaction between the Arab and transnational public spheres or diasporic anti-authoritarian movements, remain largely understudied to date.
In addition to all this, the Coronavirus pandemic has produced changes: with the pretext of protecting the public from false information, the Arab regimes have launched a large-scale repression of those opponents who have dared to challenge the states’ official narrative of the health emergency. Furthermore, many of these regimes have adopted new contact-tracing and surveillance apps which, with the excuse of safeguarding citizens’ health and well-being, give them new opportunities to secure their control over society.
Nevertheless, every new wave of governmental repression, both online and offline, is likely to fuel an equally strong wave of resistance in the opposite direction. In the end, Arab activism, including cyberactivism, may have been halted, obstructed and challenged, but it is certainly not dead. This is evident in the second wave of Arab revolts in 2019 and 2020, Arab resistance and activism in the diaspora, and the bravery and courage of journalists and cyberactivists who have paid a high price to make their voices heard, including losing their jobs, their freedom, or even their lives, to ensure that the dimmed flames of the Arab world’s unfinished revolutions do not go out.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation
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To cite this article
Sahar Khamis, “Between Digital Euphoria and Cyber-Authoritarianism. Technology’s Two Faces”, Oasis, year 16, n. 31, pp. 94-102.
Sahar Khamis, “Between Digital Euphoria and Cyber-Authoritarianism. Technology’s Two Faces”, Oasis [online], published on December 2020, URL: /en/between-digital-euphoria-and-cyber-authoritarianism