By the time Britain granted Egypt nominal independence in 1922, all sections of society were celebrating their own part in achieving liberation. Pamphleteers and the burgeoning popular press had all played a part in bringing them together to campaign change. This sense of a single people uniting against their oppressor is the one which is sustaining the sweep towards democracy in the Arab world today, and I certainly have a qualified optimism about this. Arab people are uniting to fight for the fundamentals – jobs, housing, human rights. In other words: a vibrant economy and a democratic future. Their intention is to use the tools of the modern world to prosper.
It is fitting, therefore, that huge advances in the worldwide media have inspired, mobilised and in some ways won the largely peaceful revolutions we’ve seen so far. The Egyptian uprising is already being called the Facebook Revolution because it was, in essence, organized by hundreds of thousands of internet friends. They didn’t just place a ‘Like’ next to calls for action either – they went out on the street and joined the crowds. Social networking sites were used to bring people together in a manner which would have been unimaginable at the beginning of the 20th Century. These sites are today used to provide images and moving testaments what it is really like to be at the centre of a population inspired to political action.
While overseas revolutions were, by definition, once distant, abstract affairs, we can now all get an idea of what they really mean by simply turning on our laptops and smart phones. We must not underestimate the importance of 24 hour news channels in all this either. They’re relatively new, certainly in historical terms, but they’ve had a huge influence. One wonders how far the revolutions would have got if broadcasters had not moved their journalists and equipment in so quickly.
It’s certainly no coincidence that now deposed dictators like Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt put huge efforts into suppressing both new and old media. This ranged from reporters and cameramen being attacked - and at times even kidnapped - and bureaus ransacked, to Internet Service Providers being shut down. Such repression patently didn’t work, however, and the media will now play a huge part in creating democratic institutions in both Egypt and Tunisia. As the spirit of revolution spreads to other parts of the Arab world, those in charge of the mass global media will be only too aware of the huge influence they have.
There will be enormous problems in the years ahead in all the Arab states. Just as British influence continued to dominate Egypt’s political and economic life long after the nominally successful 1919 Revolution, so we have to fear the legacy of autocrats like Mubarak and Ben Ali. There will be numerous attempts to re-impose autocracies dominated self-styled leaders of the people. However, the biggest historical change highlighted by revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia is that these people are nowadays hugely well informed, questioning and technologically savvy.
This should be our greatest cause for optimism as we consider the future of the Arab world.