For more than 30 years, the subject of political reform in most of the Middle East was largely a part of covert debates. In little more than 30 days, however, it has forcibly entered the realm of the overt.
The reigning ‘leaderless’ political movements are being designated as unparalleled in the history of uprisings. A fair share of credit for initiating and sustaining these movements in a region that has limited opportunities to express people’s opinions must undoubtedly go to ‘new media’ too.
In a debate that has two schools of thought — one suggesting that ‘Internet is making a revolution’ and the other proclaiming that ‘Revolution cannot be tweeted’ — the last word is far from written.
Wael Ghonim and his Facebook page — ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ — did drive home some truth about the mass mobilisation in Egypt. The power behind the changed minds, in his view, was the social networking sites, an important evolving arm of new media.
But, long before Egypt’s bid to use new media as an instrument of regime change, there were several developments in the Gulf — especially Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia — where new media tools served as catalysts for liberalised political and social milieu.
Technology has made not just news, but also views, increasingly difficult to restrain. Television, weblogs, Facebook, mobile text messaging and tweets, among others have both evoked and satisfied popular thirst for alternative opinions. It appears that the official establishments are caught in their own trap — they do not wish to allow the media a free rein; yet they are unable to absolutely check the flow of information via new media channels.
This reality has fuelled the aspirations of social and political reformers, thus having a noticeable impact on the official foundations. In its own humble way, new media has become a channel of expression that acts as a safety valve, allowing pent up frustration to ease. In the process, people have managed socio-political gains, however limited they may be, without adverse consequences for the governments. In fact, such has been the impact of new media that even some leaders have recently taken to online interaction.
Though television, particularly Al Jazeera, was the first medium to instil a spirit of seeking change, weblogs took forward the activism process considerably. A computer, an Internet connection and a desire to express opinions developed a new culture through which political rights and civil liberties were demanded.
For example, blogs were an important avenue to communicate and coordinate rallies favouring election law reform in Kuwait in 2006. Bloggers ran a ‘virtual’ campaign that spilled on to the streets as the ‘orange’ revolution.
Saudi Arabia has the most active bloggers, which is reflected in diverse socio-political views. Interestingly, the freedom conferred by anonymity encouraged Saudi women to embrace the Internet. Since more than half of Saudi blogs are reportedly written by women, gender issues are regularly addressed.
The growing use of new media tools to advance reforms is a natural consequence of the fast rising number of technology-driven device users. According to 2010 reports, mobile penetration rates in the Gulf continue to grow in double digits, while the average Internet penetration rate is 36 per cent — twice the prevailing Arab world rate.
In a reflection of the popularity of the latest rage, Facebook, statistics reveal that there were more than 21 million users in the Arab world at the beginning of 2011, which is about 80 per cent more than the 12 million a year ago. Of this, the Gulf countries dominate the top five Arab Facebook users in terms of the percentage of population.
Even more significantly, youth between the ages of 15 and 29 years are the main users in the Gulf, accounting for 75 per cent of the users. With many, especially women, using nicknames and posting comic images or drawings on their pages instead of photographs, some dub Facebook as ‘Faceless’, thereby making them more popular.
The growth in Internet subscriptions is expected to increase across the region in response to plummeting charges, improved services, and expanding service-provider competition. The recent political events are also bound to contribute positively to the momentum.
Thus, new media has partially addressed one of the several ‘deficits’ — information — associated with the region. In highlighting issues that — until a decade ago — were taboo in the public domain, it has been more of a boon than bane, both to the people and their governments. It will indeed be interesting to watch how the developments in the last decade’s interplay of expanding flow of information and technology will be used to further or limit social and political freedom during the coming decade.