Western politics beware! The Tahrir meme has a long way still to spread

The Arab Spring really does indicate a sea-change in the relationship of the demos to the rulers: there is a new self-understanding by citizens of ourselves as the source of legitimacy. Governments in the West have yet to understand how precarious this makes their own positions

Cat Tully
6 June 2012
One year on: continued demonstrations on Tunisian streets, the military reluctant to hand over power in Egypt, unravelling civil war settlement in Libya, and a violent stalemate within Syria. After all the talk about Facebook and Twitter revolutions, the political movements termed the Arab Spring are looking like many other political movements after all. Now that the hysteria over the use of social media has died down, we can see that the political upheaval followed a fairly standard pattern in terms of the drivers of revolutionary activity - traditional social, governance and economic concerns among a broad spectrum of the population. But the comfortable easing-back into the traditional dynamics of international politics and shuttle diplomacy between opposing factions shows that Western governments are sleepwalking through this time of profound democratic change, not heeding the fundamental lessons that the Arab Spring has to teach about democracy in the 21st century

Firstly, the political sands have shifted, in a manner that is comparable to the 1960’s, and indeed the trade union movement before that. The Arab Spring showed that social media (i.e. online and SMS activity, plus citizen-derived content shared on traditional media channels) can enable a step-change in self-awareness within the population, of itself as the source of legitimacy of the demos – and a rejection of the political status quo. These three moments in time are points of tension where the existing governing elite have been critically unable to convince the wider population of its interest in governing for the good of all rather than the good of the few. What is new, is the speed at which this self-realisation can occur, facilitated in part by social media.

Secondly, the agents of political change are likely to come from outside of the traditional political arena. The leaders – or rather ‘key facilitators’ and ‘political entrepreneurs’ - of the Arab Spring acted in significantly different ways, most importantly by being mainly outside of the traditional mainstream or counter-revolutionary national political system. This was of course mainly due to necessity, given the regimes’ totalitarian systems. However the West’s falling voting statistics highlights an increasing majority who feel disenfranchised from the formal political process within democratic states. The awareness of citizens of the political legitimacy vested in themselves, together with their empowerment outside the traditional political system, is driving a slow yet fundamental revolution in the relationship between the citizen and the state. THIS is the true Social (media) Revolution. Yet Governments – including ours in the West - have failed to really understand this either domestically or in terms of our foreign policy.

Western media’s erroneous labelling of the events last year is highly problematic. Facebook had pretty low penetration (around 10% in Egypt). Twitter was hardly even used in Tunisia or Egypt (used most in Libya with 2% of the population mostly tweeting in English). But the numbers are meaningless, Fundamentally, the fetishisation of social media tools and platforms by the media as well as the Western policy world deradicalises the narrative and causality of the events. Referring to ‘FB’ or ‘Twitter revolutions’ is perceived to reflect an Orientalist view that the region was 'sleeping' and woken up by Western technology - which is disingenuous, apolitical, and ex post facto re-configuring a positive role for the West in a region where the West has historically supported the regimes that the activists were fighting against. Furthermore, by conflating these disparate events into one analogous, isolated, narrative around technology, we miss the opportunity to debate about what democracy is evolving into.

The great danger of focusing on the exceptionalist role of social media in the Arab spring means that we look at the tools rather than the people – and in particular the new ways in which political entrepreneurs were behaving. All the evidence indicates that far from being a spontaneous event catalysed by technology, the North African story is one of the agency of a disciplined civil resistance movement through the four phases of a political revolution 'arc': preparation, ignition, escalation and post-regime. Social media made a profound difference in the preparation phase through changing the political opportunity structures for revolution. It created a virtual (lower-risk) public space in a country with no freedom of expression/ association, where individuals and political leaders could do the business of politics: building local grievances into national issues, building coalitions, developing a national strategy, Counter-narratives could find exposure and traction, and political entrepreneurs consciously developed the capability to use the information system effectively.

The political agent at the heart of the story of the Arab spring is different to the leaders of previous political revolutions. They were not demagogues, working from formal opposition parties or movements, but rather they were organisers and innovators. Their skills were in joining up different forms of media, crossing boundaries, testing new forms of communication and coordination. These individuals were the nodes that connected different communities together (whether online and off-line between different neighbourhoods between different political persuasions etc). We can surely recognise these traits, see them being flexed and refined in our back-yards - Occupy, Riots ‘11, Greece, transition towns.

Our politicians and media are a long way from understanding the implications of this relationship between new types of political entrepreneurs and the wider citizens, embedded in local physical and virtual communities. So although politicians are supporting public diplomacy efforts (some more effectively and genuinely than others – like Hilary Clinton), it is still in a clunky way, focusing on the tools, not on the conversations or giving due value to the perspectives and innovations of people outside of government. One year on, we need to remember that the echoes of the Arab Spring are not the tragic events in Syria. The echoes of the Arab Spring will be the attempts over the next ten years to seriously transform democracy beyond the narrow formal political sphere. And now is the time for governments to react and reform, whilst the momentum is still in their hands.

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