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When Arabs Tweet

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Friday, July 23, 2010

From time to time, the Palestine Center distributes articles it believes will enhance understanding of the Palestinian political reality. The following article by Rami G. Khouri was published in The New York Times on 22 July 2010. To view this article online, please go to http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/23/opinion/23iht-edkhouri.html?_r=3&scp=1&sq=rami+khouri&st=cse

"When Arabs Tweet"

By Rami G. Khouri

I was intrigued to see several recent calls for bids by the U.S. Agency for International Development for programs that would, among other things, train young Arabs how to better use the Internet and other digital technologies for political activism, advocacy, greater transparency and accountability, and other such democratic practices.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has repeatedly stressed Washington’s commitment to such programs as part of President Barack Obama’s call for greater engagement between the United States and Islamic societies.

Two important questions come to mind, which I hope the U.S. government is pondering seriously. The first is about the actual impact on the political culture of young Arabs and Iranians who use the new media. The second is about the most appropriate way for the United States, or any other foreign party, to promote this sector.

We are witnessing a continuing social revolution in how youth throughout the Middle East use Web sites, cellphones, chat systems, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other rapidly evolving new media.

Millions of young people communicate with each other digitally, express their views and identities, and sometimes mobilize for causes as disparate as promoting a new movie, arranging a dance party, sharing photos or bemoaning a tired old dictator. In some countries like Iran and Egypt, we are told, tens of thousands of bloggers are at work expressing their independent views and challenging the established order.

But what do young people actually do, or aim to achieve, with the new media? Are the new digital and social media a credible tool for challenging established political orders and bringing about political change in our region?

My impression is that these new media today play a role identical to that played by Al Jazeera satellite television when it first appeared in the mid-1990s — they provide important new means by which ordinary citizens can both receive information and express their views, regardless of government controls on both, but in terms of their impact they seem more like a stress reliever than a mechanism for political change.

Watching Arab pundits criticize Arab governments, Israel or the United States — common fare on Arab satellite television — is great vicarious satisfaction for ordinary men and women who live in political cultures that deny them serious opportunities for free speech.

Blogging, reading politically racy Web sites, or passing around provocative text messages by cellphone is equally satisfying for many youth. Such activities, though, essentially shift the individual from the realm of participant to the realm of spectator, and transform what would otherwise be an act of political activism — mobilizing, demonstrating or voting — into an act of passive, harmless personal entertainment.

We must face the fact that all the new media and hundreds of thousands of young bloggers from Morocco to Iran have not triggered a single significant or lasting change in Arab or Iranian political culture. Not a single one. Zero.

This is partly because the modern Middle Eastern security state is firmly in control of the key levers of power — guns and money, mainly — and has learned to live with the digital open flow of information, as long as this does not translate into actual political action that seeks to change policies or ruling elites.

How should interested foreign parties engage in such an environment?

The first thing is to rid themselves of some nagging blatant contradictions that largely nullify their credibility, and, in fact, make them look pretty silly.

One cannot take seriously the United States or any other Western government that funds political activism by young Arabs while it simultaneously provides funds and guns that help cement the power of the very same Arab governments the young social and political activists target for change.

Feeding both the jailer and the prisoner is not a sustainable or sensible policy. I would not be surprised if some wise-guy young Arab soon sends a tweet to Hilary Clinton saying, “you’re either with us, or you’re with the security state.”

This is an awkward and untenable position for any foreign government that wants to promote political activism and pluralism in the Middle East. It damages Western government credibility, leads to no significant changes in our political cultures, and often discredits the local activists who become tarred with the charge of being Western lackeys.

The antidote is simple, but humbling: lower the contradictions in Western policies towards Middle Eastern governments and activists, and grasp more accurately the fact that young people use the digital media mainly for entertainment and vicarious, escapist self-expression.

Like I said, the United States and other Western governments should apply more honesty and intellectual rigor to their assault of our digital world than they did in their military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.

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