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The Sociology Elders on The Social Movements in Tunisia and Egypt

First, Manuel Castells (roughly translated from Italian, via Stephanie Wojcik) correctly notes that revolutions with people in the streets come first, the significance of Al-Jazeera, then social media catch on:

“The protests that overthrew the dictator Tunisian Ali Ben once again demonstrate the power of spontaneous social movements in the era of digital communications.

The process, which in less than a month has killed a stable and robust since 1987, has evolved family: a dramatic blows up the indignation so far withheld for fear, leading to demonstrations that the police suppressed, and immediately images of repression and protest messages spread on social networks.

So the movement is amplified until the independent media – in this case Al Jazeera – inform and re-transmit the images and messages published by the demonstrators on YouTube and other sites. As the protests spread, turn on the sms messages on Twitter and Facebook, to build a communication system and no central organization and a leader that works very effectively, sweeping censorship and repression.

Even if governments now know this and seek to censor the Internet, by deleting the information from Facebook pages, and blocking of the activists, when the network power is unleashed it is difficult to contain it. The link between young people and the culture of the Internet is at the root of the new people’s power: in Tunisia, as in many Muslim countries, half the population is under 25 years. That’s why we can speak of wiki-revolution.

A rebellion that was born through a collective drive but lacks a central strategy, which feeds only on the indignation of thousands of young people willing to risk their lives. Wikileaks has in fact shown the American dispatches on the regime’s corruption, but the Tunisians did not need to know Assange the deep corruption of their government and the family of the President.

(…)

As the rebellion spread, satellite TV, that the public preferred the bad propaganda official, began broadcasting special reports.

To do so were particularly Al Jazeera in Arabic as well as the BBC, France 24, Al Hiwar and other channels, capturing the attention of the Arab world. Al Jazeera has collected the information disseminated on the Internet by the people using them as sources and organized groups on Facebook, then retransmitting free news on mobile phones. Thus was born a new system of mass communication built like a mix between an interactive television, internet, radio and mobile communication systems. The communication of the future is already used by the revolutions of the present.”

And importantly:

“Obviously communication technologies did not give birth to the insurgency. The rebellion was born from the poverty and social exclusion that afflict much of the population in this fake democracy, where the information obscured the arrests and torture of thousands of people, in the transformation of an entire country into an estate for the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families, with the consent of the United States, European countries and the Arab dictatorships.

But without these new ways to communicate, the revolution of Tunisia would not have had these characteristics: the spontaneity, the absence of leaders, the leadership of students and professionals, with opposition politicians and trade unions that provided support once the  process had started.”

So, first, real life hardship and oppression, then, social media, not the other way around.

Next, Immanuel Wallerstein sees in the current Tunisian uprising, the Second Arab revolt (the first one being the 1916 failed rebellion):

“Now, who are winners and losers? We shall not know for at least six months, perhaps longer, who will actually come to power in Tunisia, in Egypt, indeed everywhere in the Arab world. Spontaneous uprisings create a situation like that in Russia in 1917 when, in Lenin’s famous phrase, “power lay in the street,” and therefore an organized, determined force could seize it, which the Bolsheviks did.

The actual political situation in each Arab state is different. There is no Arab state today that has a strong organized, secular, radical party like the Bolsheviks, ready to try to take power. There are various bourgeois liberal movements that would like to play a major role, but few of them seem to have an important base. The most organized movements are the Islamist ones. But these movements are not of a single color. Their versions of an Islamic state range from those relatively tolerant of other groups, such as exists today in Turkey, to a harsh version of Shar’ia law (as the Taliban enforced in Afghanistan) to in-between varieties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The outcomes in terms of the internal regimes are uncertain and evolving. And therefore who wins internally is extremely unsure.

But what about the outside powers, who are heavily involved in attempting to control the situation? The principal outside actor is the United States. A second one is Iran. All the others – Turkey, France, Great Britain, Russia, China – are less important but nonetheless relevant.

The great loser of the second Arab Revolt is clearly the United States. One can see it by the incredible vacillation of the U.S. government in the present moment. The United States (like every other major power in the world) places one criterion before all others – regimes friendly to it. Washington wants to be on the side of the winner, provided the winner is not hostile. What to do then in a situation like that of Egypt, which presently is a virtual client-state of the United States? The United States is reduced to calling publicly for more “democracy,” no violence, and negotiations. Behind the scenes, they seem to have told the Egyptian army not to embarrass the United States by shooting too many people. But can Mubarak survive without shooting a lot of people?

The second Arab Revolt is occurring amidst a worldwide chaotic situation in which three features are dominant – a declining standard of living for at least two-thirds of the world’s populations; outrageous increases in the current income of relatively small upper strata; and a serious decline in the effective power of the so-called superpower, the United States. The second Arab Revolt, however it turns out, will further erode U.S. power, especially in the Arab world, precisely because the one sure base for political popularity in these countries today is opposition to the intrusion of the United States in their affairs. Even those who normally want and depend on U.S. involvement are finding it politically dangerous to continue to do so.

The biggest outside winner is Iran. The Iranian regime is no doubt viewed with considerable suspicion, partly because it is non-Arab and partly because it is Shi’a. It is however U.S. policy that gave Iran its greatest present – the ouster of Saddam Hussein from power. Saddam had been Iran’s fiercest and most effective enemy. The Iranian leaders probably say a daily blessing to George W. Bush for this wonderful present. They have built on this windfall by an intelligent policy wherein they have shown themselves ready to support non-Shi’ite movements such as Hamas, provided only that they are strongly opposed to Israel and to U.S. intrusion in the region.

A smaller winner has been Turkey. Turkey was long anathema to popular forces in the Arab world for the double reason that it was the heir to the Ottoman Empire and that it was closely allied with the United States. The popularly elected current regime, an Islamist movement that does not seek to impose shar’ia law on the entire population but simply droit de cité for Islamic observance, has moved in the direction of supporting the second Arab Revolt, even at the risk of compromising its previously good relations with Israel and the United States.

And of course the biggest winner of the second Arab Revolt will, over time, be the Arab peoples.”

Well, the jury is still out on that one, especially on the issue of women’s rights especially if Islamists gain power, especially in Tunisia where the secularism of the state made living conditions for women relatively good relative to the rest of the Arab world.

Note: This is an archived article by SocProf the author of this article