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February 20, 2011

Arab youth, social media and the tipping point

Isn’t it somehow absurd that social media usurped tyranny in the Maghreb and the Middle East and that Facebook toppled Hosni Mubarak in the ten days that shook the world. Isn’t the real cause youth unemployment and the economic crisis aided by media?

As the protests sweeping through the Maghreb and the Middle East continue unabated, CNN cites the following reasons behind them:

In Tunisia, protesters complained about high unemployment, corruption, rising prices and political repression; in Egypt the complaints were about police corruption and abuses, lack of free elections and economic issues, including high food prices, low wages and high unemployment; in Libya, high unemployment fueled the protests, as have anti-Gadhafi groups; in Bahrain they demand the introduction of a constitutional monarchy and complain about discrimination, unemployment and corruption; in Yemen, high unemployment is fuelling much of the anger among a growing young population steeped in poverty; in Jordan, the economy has been hit hard by the global economic downturn and rising commodity prices, and youth unemployment is high; in Iraq, the protesters are angry about corruption, the quality of basic services, a crumbling infrastructure and high unemployment; in Algeria it’s about escalating food prices, high rates of unemployment and housing issues; and in Syria, opponents of the al-Assad government claim massive human rights abuses and an emergency law.

The common thread in all these protests across the region is steeped in high proportions of youth unemployment and corrupt, repressive regimes. And it looks likely that all these street-level Arab revolts, each having a slightly different origin but all sharing the common denominator of youth aspirations and unemployment, are a result of economic hardships and the power of new media to disseminate these events.

It was economic want and inequality as much as political repression that incited the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions. The converging effects of population growth, climate change and energy depletion have transpired to set the backdrop for this looming and inevitable crisis.

Add to this hydrocarbon energy depletion: in its World Energy Outlook for 2010, the International Energy Agency argued that conventional oil production worldwide probably peaked in 2006, and is now declining.

Official world oil reserves had been overstated by up to one-third – implying that we are on the verge of a major “tipping point” in oil production. Perhaps as early as 2015, the contribution of Middle East oil to world energy consumption could become negligible.

This all makes perfect sense, but a report titled “Social Media and Free Expression in the Arab World” argues that several months before the unprecedented popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries of the region, “[people] were enabled by communication and citizen mobilisation via social media platforms – Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube — as well as mobile technology.”

Social media advocates seem to routinely and conveniently ignore the economics of the region and sternly point out that the “awakening of free expression that has now entered the body politic of Tunisia and Egypt and has helped break down the stranglehold of state-sponsored media and information monopolies in those countries.

“Indeed,” they say, “from Morocco to Bahrain, the Arab world has witnessed the rise of an independent vibrant social media and steadily increasing citizen engagement on the internet that is expected to attract 100 million Arab users by 2015. These social networks inform, mobilise, entertain, create communities, increase transparency, and seek to hold governments accountable. To peruse the Arab social media sites, blogs, online videos, and other digital platforms is to witness what is arguably the most dramatic and unprecedented improvement in freedom of expression, association, and access to information in contemporary Arab history.”

The Washington Post, in its article, “In the Middle East, this is not a Facebook revolution” contends that “the catchy notion” of a “Twitter Revolution” or a “Facebook Revolution” is being debated – and tweeted, of course – from Washington to Cairo and beyond.

While they argue that, “Few can deny that social media has enabled the most significant advance in freedom of expression and association in contemporary Arab history” and that, “during the protests, social media aggregated, disseminated and accelerated vital news and information,” the article concludes, “but in the end, Facebook and YouTube are tools – and tools alone cannot bring about the changes the world has witnessed in recent weeks…Deep-seated social ills – repression from the top and political and economic frustrations from below – are at the core of protests sweeping the Arab world, much as they have been in revolutions throughout history.

“So do not confuse tools with motivations. Thinking of this moment as a “Facebook Revolution” only demeans the challenges the protesters and populations are overcoming. Had Facebook or Twitter – or the internet itself – not been around, would the revolutions still have happened? With large segments of Arab populations unemployed, marginalised and feeling powerless to change their futures under authoritarian regimes that were increasingly out of touch, all the elements for upheaval were there; social media helped make the grievances all the more urgent and difficult to ignore.”

In 1452, with the aid of borrowed money, Gutenberg began his famous Bible project and printed two hundred copies. The printing press certainly initiated an “information revolution” on par with the internet today and printing could and did spread new ideas quickly and with greater impact. And there were revolutions as a result.

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